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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 31 January 1979

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Untitled Debate

Yesterday there were complaints in the House about the small number of questions that we were able to reach. I propose to call fewer supplementary questions today, but it will also be a great help if questions and answers are brief.

Environment

Sports Scholarships

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will bring forward proposals to provide sports scholarships on the same basis as awards for academic higher education?

I entirely agree that sporting excellence deserves encouragement just as much as academic or artistic excellence. Within the limits of the funds available, I believe that my scheme for special centres of sporting excellence has the great advantage of offering opportunities to potential top-class sportsmen whatever their academic abilities. I am also pleased that several local authorities are considering granting sports scholarships, and I believe this should be encouraged.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and ask him to use his good offices to thank the Sports Aid Foundation for the good work that it is doing. Will he take special measures to seek a meeting with the local authority associations with the object of providing scholarships for young people who have the potential to provide Britain with the finest sportsmen in the world?

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has drawn attention to the magnificent work of the Sports Aid Foundation which, within one year, has assisted 350 competitors in 37 different sports. The local authority associations sit on the advisory committee under my chairmanship, and I shall take advantage of that suggestion to raise this matter with them at an early opportunity.

As one of the Members of this honourable House who attend the House of Commons gymnasium—the Minister himself is an irregular attender, though I am delighted that he attends sometimes—may I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it would do this country a great deal of good if we could exploit the fantastic potential to which his hon. Friend has referred by making much more more money available for sports through sports scholarships?

I entirely agree with that. I do my best, as do my right hon. Friends, to make Government money increasingly available to the Sports Council. By and large, whenever we have sporting success there is a great psychological uplift around the country.

House Building (Starts And Completions)

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the level of new house building and if he will make a statement.

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest figures for housing starts and completions in the public and private sectors.

In November 1978—the latest month for which figures are available—there were 6,900 public sector starts and 13,200 in the private sector in Great Britain. There were 11,400 completions by the public sector and 12,900 by the private sector. I hope that the improved level of private sector starts will continue; but those for public sector starts are disappointing even bearing in mind the greater emphasis that many local authorities are now placing on gradual renewal and rehabilitation rather than demolition and new build.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Is it correct that 45,000 fewer new houses per year have been started during the lifetime of this Government than under the previous Conservative Government? If the record of the last Tory Administration had been maintained there would now be 200,000 more families living in new homes. How does the right hon. Gentleman square that with his February 1974 election pledge to reverse the serious housing fall? Will the right hon. Gentleman have a word with Transport House to repudiate the disgraceful party political broadcast earlier this month which said that no Government had built more houses than the present one?

We have had this kind of exchange before. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the boom that was achieved in 1972–73 under the previous Tory Administration collapsed in 1974. It collapsed not, if I may say so, because of anything that we did. It had collapsed when we took over. What we have tried to do since is to maintain a reasonable, continuing and balanced new build programme between the public and private sectors. We had substantially succeeded, until the fall-out in public sector building as a result of changes in local political management in the past year.

Now that the combination of Treasury controls on house building and the indifference of Tory local authorities to their housing responsibilities have succeeded in reducing the public sector starts to the disastrous level of 1973, what action does my right hon. Friend intend to take to reverse the trend?

The actions that I can take are inevitably limited by the fact that housing is a locally provided service. Unless I were to envisage some major constitutional change in the relationship between central and local government, there are, clearly, limits to what I can do. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that I am giving every possible encouragement to local authorities to build. Where it is possible to switch from non-building authorities to those that are prepared to build I am willing to do it, and have done so.

How does the Secretary of State justify the broadcast referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley)? Did he write it? Did he approve every word?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the under-spending by Tory local authorities is a major factor in the decline in public sector building, the system of cash limits has resulted in a certain reduction in the activities of local authorities? Is he satisfied that this is purely a matter of teething troubles, and are there any steps that he can take to ensure that the effect of the system is diminished?

Cash limits, certainly in the first year after their introduction, may well have had some braking effect on the house building programme. But, as my hon. Friend will recall, we have greatly eased the situation, first, by agreeing about three-year programmes for housing allocation and, secondly, by allowing a carry-forward of 10 per cent. from one year to the next and an anticipation for the following year of the same amount. There is, therefore, considerable flexibility in the system.

So that we may keep the matter in proper perspective, does the Secretary of State agree that as well as the reasons that he has given for the hiccup caused through the change in the base of financing, local authorities have under-spent by only about 5 per cent. of the allocation under the housing investment programme? Does he agree that that is not a startling figure? If we are talking party politics, is it not true that Labour authorities such as Manchester and Sheffield were among those that did not spend their full allocation?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the 1977–78 figures rather than the latest ones. I agree that a 5 per cent. underspend is not necessarily disastrous. But the figures that are emerging concern the crucial element, which is the number of approvals given. They determine the number of starts and completions in subsequent years. The number of approvals has fallen off uite sharply, and I am worried about it.

Canals And Waterways

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to enable voluntary workers to restart clearance work on British Waterways Board canals.

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the effects of the industrial situation on the inland waterways.

I regret that long-standing difficulties over pay have led to non-co-operation by the staff of the British Waterways Board, and this has prevented the Board from making a physical start on the Fraenkel maintenance programme, and has also affected routine maintenance. This inevitably results in closures of sections of canal in the interests of public safety, and has also compelled the Board to withdraw permission for voluntary bodies to work on projects where the staff will not supervise the work.

I recognise that the Board is currently faced with particular difficulties in attempting to maintain the inland waterways in a proper condition. The Board has my full support, and I am doing all I can to find a speedy solution to its present difficulties.

Since the withdrawal by British Waterways Board employees of their co-operation stems from a dispute that is now over three years old, is it not time that the Government took much more urgent action to try to end the dispute? What opportunities have the employees been offered for arbitration?

I thank the hon. Member for his measured supplementary question. We have sought various ways of easing the situation. I confess that I had considerable hope a few weeks ago that we might get an urgent consideration of the dispute under schedule 11 to the Employment Protection Act. However, the tight drafting of the terms of reference of that schedule precluded that solution. I am therefore looking most urgently for an alternative.

Is the Minister aware of the seriousness of the situation for the canal network? Does he agree that unless this matter is resolved fairly soon there will be considerable damage to the canal system and possible danger to those who live alongside it? Since the Central Arbitration Committee has rejected the opportunity to look at this case, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman met the NALGO representatives and discussed the case with them?

I should be very willing to meet officers of NALGO. I have had opportunities to discuss these matters with them previously, and I hope to have the opportunity of resuming contact with them shortly. I have very much in mind the safety aspect. I am aware of the safety problem to which the Fraenkel committee drew attention. I have made an allocation of substantial resources. It is now a question of getting the money spent.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the expansion of leisure and sporting facilities which is possible on the waterways can be promoted by voluntary agencies and groups of voluntary workers? Will my right hon. Friend indicate in which specific ways he feels his Department might be able to assist in the funding of clearance projects?

I am willing to look at further encouragement to voluntary work, but the existing level of voluntary work has had to be curtailed because, in the absence of BWB supervisory staffs, it cannot be properly supervised. At present they are not prepared to supervise it, but I assure the House that I shall do my utmost to bring that state of affairs to an end as soon as I can.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in addition to the conditions described in the Fraenkel report, further and expensive damage is being a caused to canals and to boats by the lowering of levels, which has been necessary as a result of the industrial action? Will he bear that in mind when thinking in terms of any settlement of the dispute?

Yes, I shall bear that in mind. I am sure that the BWB management will have it in mind in considering the priority allocations of the substantial sums being made available.

Rates

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what he expects to be the average increase in rates in 1979–80.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his revised estimate of the average increase in rates, following the Government's announcement of increased pay for the low paid and other changes in pay policy.

As I told the House when I announced the RSG settlement last November, the settlement was compatible with a national average for domestic rate increases in single figures. The actual level of increase will, however, depend on the level of expenditure authorities decide to undertake, the provision they make for inflation and the extent to which they are prepared to draw from balances.

As to the announced changes in pay policy, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 16 January that the cash limits on rate support grant will be increased to take account of the Government's initiative on the low paid. That will not, therefore, significantly affect the level of domestic rate increases.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some Tory-controlled county councils are now inflicting demands for increases of as much as 25 per cent. on their unfortunate ratepayers, and that some of those are the authorities that have been underspending, and even cutting back on housing maintenance and repairs and on personal social services? Does my right hon. Friend foresee the need for these authorities to apply for supplementary increases later in the year, as some of them have been threatening?

I ask my hon. Friend on this occasion to be a little more merciful to county councils than perhaps we have felt appropriate in the past. I do so for one special and particular reason. We have shifted the needs element payment this year to shire districts for the first time. That means that the shire counties will be obliged to some extent to increase their precept, but that should be followed by matching decreases in the rate calls of the shire districts that will benefit.

As the Prime Minister said that if the wages of local authority manual workers went up by 15 per cent., rates could be expected to rise by as much as 27 per cent., is the Secretary of State prepared to take any steps to ensure that average rate increases are kept to single figures?

I am not prepared to do what I understand was the proposal of the Opposition Front Bench some time ago and say in an authoritarian way that local government must limit total expenses. I still counsel the House, however, not to jump to conclusions because of the recommendations by borough treasurers and finance committees. I am not aware that any—but, if any, certainly not more than a handful—rates have been struck throughout the country.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the nasty situation that is building up, which appears to be a repeat of the 1974 rate revolt but which this time may be more serious than before? Is he also aware that very few counties and districts in rural areas will be able to keep their rate increases below 20 per cent.? Is he, therefore, prepared to announce today that any settlement in the public sector that is above the 8·8 per cent. already stated by the Prime Minister will be met out of central funds?

I am not prepared to say that, and it is too early for the hon. Gentleman to say with such emphasis that his expectation will turn out to be correct. In any event, I reiterate that this year a proportion of the increase should be matched by a reduction of rates in the shire districts, which for the first time are benefiting from the payments of the needs element.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the high rate increases in many inner city areas, including the London borough of Lambeth, are a direct result of councils attempting to implement the Government's inner city programmes, with policies of better housing, amenities and more jobs? Will he take steps to make special funds available so that the expectations that he has rightly raised, both in his White Paper and since, can be met in the inner city areas without an undue burden on local ratepayers?

I am deeply aware of the financial problems of the inner cities. But in terms of both the special allocations that we have made to the inner cities, including the Lambeth partnership area, with regard to urban grant, and the way in which the rate support grant has operated in favour of inner city areas, particularly the settlement for London with its emphasis on inner London, I believe that this will be helpful, if not completely satisfactory, to the inner city boroughs affected.

Is the Secretary of State aware that today he is playing the role of an ostrich, firmly burying his head in the sand and ignoring the reality around him? Is he persisting in telling the House that, with the current pressure on local authority wages, he expects rate increases to remain in single figures, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister recently said that if average wage settlements went up to 10 per cent.—which is the new average level for the low-paid—rates would go up on average by 18 per cent.? Will he now seriously consider calling together the local authority associations to renegotiate the settlement this year and, if necessary, to discussing the possibility of cutting services?

I do not intend to call the local authorities together to renegotiate the rate support grant, and certainly not to invite them to cut back on their services. I shall continue to invite them to negotiate realistically and sensibly to achieve a settlement that is compatible with the maintenance of public expenditure and a reasonable level of rate increases.

Is the Minister aware that one of the reasons why rates are likely to rise more than expected is the increase in minimum lending rate to 12½ per cent., which has resulted in local authorities paying more in interest charges across a whole range of their services? Incidentally, that policy was pushed by friends of the Tory Party in the City. Will the Minister also take into account that when the wage settlements for local authority employees are finalised, which will be above the amount already suggested by the Prime Minister last week, there will be offsets such as family income supplement, offsets for those paying increased taxes and in terms of rent and rate rebates?

On my hon. Friend's second point, I shall consider what the offsets may be. As he will realise, it is difficult to predict this on an across-the-board basis when measures for assistance to particular families are involved. I can give him considerable reassurance on his first point. We have always excluded interest rates from our calculations for rate support grant. At the time of the increase order, which we shall make in six months' time, we shall take full account of changes in interest rates. There is that help to local authorities.

Homes (Insulation)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to introduce a new scheme under the Homes Insulation Act.

18.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied that retirement pensioners are able effectively to make use of his Department's homes insulation scheme.

I am keeping the operation of the present scheme under review, but have no plans to extend or change its basic provisions immediately. I shall, however, shortly amend the present scheme in order to list those loft insulation products which will be acceptable for grant purposes. I am satisfied that pensioners are able effectively to make use of the scheme.

My right hon. Friend's answer will convince my hon. Friend who asked whether this question was a plant. Nobody would have been more surprised than I had the answer been "Yes". However, will my right hon. Friend note that many people are disbarred from participating in the scheme because they have already made a start on insulation or have inadequate insulation? This rules out those who want to remedy unsatisfactory insulation or to improve existing insulation. Will the Minister amend the scheme so that those people, especially the elderly, can qualify for help?

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but, as was well argued when the Bill was introduced, our objective is to apply expenditure where it is most needed first and thereby enable uninsulated lofts to be insulated. Partly insulated lofts, although unsatisfactory by modern standards, are at least better than uninsulated lofts. When the scheme has been in operation for some time we shall be in a better position to review additions or variants.

How many pensioners have benefited from the scheme, and what percentage is that of the total? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the difficulties of many pensioners on low incomes who are unable to find the total cost of the work before they receive any grant? Can he ensure that they get the grant, perhaps on the basis of an acceptable estimate?

On the first point, we do not have such returns from the local authorities, and I am not sure whether we shall require that statistical breakdown. On the second point, that is a possibility. If such problems are emerging, I should like to receive information about them. So far I have had no evidence of this. Fears have been expressed, but that is different. I shall be prepared to consider an administrative variant to overcome the initial cost problem. We are looking at various ways in which this can be done should there be a need for such an eventuality. But I should first like to have evidence.

I invite the Minister and the Secretary of State to visit the two prototype houses that have been constructed by Salford council on completely new principles. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the designers estimate that the total heating cost will be only £30 per year? On the coldest day this year—and that is saying something—the temperature inside these houses was 70 deg. This scheme may go a long way to avoid the cold, wet, damp and fungus that are afflicting many households today.

I am aware of the Salford project and, from what I have read of it. I am very impressed. The authority is to be highly commended for what it has attempted. As I have been unable to visit the scheme, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is going there shortly at the invitation of the Salford city council. I welcome this kind of work. A great deal of it is being carried out under the auspices of the Building Research Establishment, under the direct umbrella of the Department. But whatever may be the prospects of applying these techniques to new fields, the main problem is with the existing stock. The solution that the Salford project offers cannot help directly, but it will help in the future.

Will the Minister consider some of my constituents, who have been unable to apply for a grant because Camden borough council failed to appoint a relevant officer before the winter started and took no action on his excellent circulars?

I should like to have further information about that. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is a matter entirely for the elected councils. We have provided the powers through Parliament and the resources by way of Government. If I may have the information, I can make inquiries.

Caravan Sites Act 1968

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will now review the working of the Caravan Sites Act 1968.

A review of the working of part II of the Act was undertaken by Sir John Cripps, and we are already acting upon many of his recommendations.

Do the Cripps proposals go to the heart of what is happening? For example, will the Minister look again at the situation in Oxford, where, because of the rigidity of the Act, the county council feels that it cannot close one site where conditions are appalling without designating another site, which may very quickly turn out to be equally appalling? Is this a sensible way of tackling the problem?

Part of the problem is that there are about 8,500 gipsy families and only 2,000 sites for them. I appreciate that the county councils have difficulties with district councils when they come to carry out their duties under the 1968 Act. We are bringing in a Bill which will give those councils a 100 per cent. grant for the provision of new sites, and I hope that they will make the best possible use of it.

My hon. Friend's promise of a Bill will be greatly welcomed, particularly in Peterborough. When is the Bill likely to come before the House?

The Bill has been published and I hope that it will have its Second Reading in another place within the next couple of weeks.

Is the Minister aware of the gravity of this problem, particularly in the fruit-growing counties? Does he appreciate the great difficulty in which the private citizen finds himself with regard to planning permission for individual caravans, or two or three caravans on a farm, whereas the district and county authorities have a free hand? There seems to be one law for the councils and another for the individual.

As I said, we hope to assist the county councils in their problems with the districts by repealing section 8 of the 1968 Act. One of the problems which the gipsies face, and which the towns now face, is that many of the gipsies who went to work in areas such as the hon. Gentleman's during the summer do not now do so, but concentrate on the towns.

Council Houses (Sale)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for extending home ownership, by accelerating the sale of council houses and flats to their tenants; and if he will make a statement.

20.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will review the policy of his Department concerning the sale of council houses to sitting tenants.

I have no proposals for accelerating the sale of council houses. Existing policies for sales have been reviewed, and I hope to be able to consult the local authority associations very soon about proposed changes.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity of confirming that it is the Government's policy to extend home ownership in whatever way they can assist in that task? What opinion does the right hon. Gentleman have of the decision of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, announced earlier this week, to sell 53,000 council houses on a sliding scale, giving a better advantage to those who have been tenants for the longest time?

It is certainly no news to the House that we are very much in favour of extending home ownership. What has divided the House on this issue—it is the only difference that I can think of—is that we believe that we can extend home ownership principally by encouraging people in the private or public rented sectors to purchase houses in the private sector—either new build or existing houses. We have made many arrangements to assist in this, including the special facility for first-time purchases.

The hon. Gentleman and his party take the view that the most important approach to the extension of home ownership is to encourage authorities to sell local authority houses, regardless of the need for rented accommodation. I do not believe that that is the right policy to pursue, particularly if it is pursued in an ill-considered way.

My approach has always been that one must judge the situation district by district and area by area. I cannot answer for Northern Ireland, but I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be only too pleased to do so at the right time.

Since a large number of council tenants would like to buy the houses which they at present rent, and since this would make good economic sense, will the right hon. Gentleman introduce legislation to make it easier for these people to fulfil their ambition?

There is at present, and has been since 1970, a general consent whereby local authorities which have the responsibility of providing rented housing, and a broader responsibility for the housing need in their areas, have the permission to sell houses where they think and judge it right to do so. Therefore, I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The facilities are there. Indeed, they are quite generous, and many tenants are able to take advantage of them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some areas, for example, Southampton where council houses have been sold on an extensive scale and no new houses have been built to replace them, many families with children find it completely impossible to transfer from a council flat to a council house? As a result, these children will be condemned for many years to come to live in unsuitable conditions.

My hon. Friend has put the point very fairly. If one were seriously looking at the situation of an individual authority, and if one were judging a sensible policy about sale, one would want to take account of whether that authority was building at the same time. What is particularly deplorable is the situation where there is a clear need for rented accommodation and a council is not building and is at the same time selling off its existing stock. This is particularly deplorable where sales of houses with gardens are taking place in authority areas where, overwhelmingly, local rented accommodation is in high-rise flats.

If the Secretary of State believes that the sale of council houses should be dealt with on a district by district basis, subject to local conditions, why is he turning down those local authorities that wish to sell at a 30 per cent. discount and apply to him for permission to do so?

Because I do not believe that—[Interruption.] I have not changed the level of discounts, and I can see some advantage in them, provided they are linked to the right of a local authority to buy back over a period of years at the price at which it sells. But given the lack of considered approach by many councils at the present time—I fear that there is altogether too strong a political element in their judgment—I should not want to encourage them simply to offer houses on conditions which would amount to a loss to the ratepayer and taxpayer.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservative Opposition's policy on this matter represents a disgraceful attempt to buy votes by giving the opportunity to a lucky few to purchase public assets at a discount? Does he accept that hon. Members with the experience of the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi), and others, must be aware that the cost to the public, the taxpayer, the ratepayer and those in need of homes must vastly outweigh any short-term advantage to the lucky few? Will he condemn this in rather more specific terms than he has done?

I have made it clear that I condemn an indiscriminate approach to council house sales. I have said that, I believe, on every occasion that I have come to the Dispatch Box. But I do not intend to engage in a kind of Dutch auction with the Opposition, and I do not believe that it is in the long-term interests of our people that either political party should follow that route.

Inner City Areas (Development)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he proposes to review the authorities receiving help under the Government's special inner urban areas programmes.

I have no plans at present to alter the nature or scope of our inner cities policy, other than to increase the level of resources for the urban programme, as indicated in the White Paper on public expenditure, Cmnd. 7439.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the list is now of no practical importance, because the sad truth is that whatever small benefit might have been available to towns under the inner urban area programme, the economic consequences of industrial disruption and strikes will fall with especial severity on the large towns and cities, particularly on the rates? Does he accept that any small benefits have been cancelled out by the present developments?

Many aspects of our national life have been affected by recent disruption. That will undoubtedly have its effect during the course of this year. I emphasise that we are dealing with inner city policy. If we are being serious about it, we are dealing with policies that will have their effect over the next five to 10 years. In spite of all the financial pressures, I am glad to say that we have been able to make a remarkable increase in the whole urban aid programme. We were spending only £30 million a year on the urban aid programme in 1976–77. In the White Paper that has recently been published I was able to indicate that that spending will increase to £170 million in 1982–83.

What, in my right hon. Friend's opinion, is the effect of the sharp drop in the availability of building society funds for the financing of home improvements in inner urban areas, despite the fact that the level of public spending for that purpose has been maintained?

I shall be interested to have my hon. Friend's constituency experience. In general, the building societies have been able to make larger loan allocations in the inner cities.

The arrangements for support lending by which the societies lend to those nominated for home purchase by the local authorities have led to an agreement that £400 million will be allocated for the forthcoming year.

The right hon. Gentleman has announced an increase in the urban programme. Have there been compensating reductions in other programmes that are associated with the increase in the urban programme? If so, where have the cuts been made? For example, have they been made in the housing programme?

No. I gave the figure for a rising programme extending to 1982–83. There are changes in the composition of individual programmes. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are talking about a modest increase in the growth of public expenditure as a whole. I shall consider his argument.

Does my right hon. Friend remember visiting Paddington in the autumn of 1978, just before we did not have a general election? Does he recall the reaction of my constituents, who were pleased to know what he was doing for many other parts of London but disappointed when he turned to me and said that the scheme did not apply in my constituency? Does he accept that conditions in substantial parts of my constituency are every bit as bad as those in other parts of London? Is he aware that some of my constituents feel that he is ignoring them, in the same way as he has been ignoring my letters asking him to receive a deputation on this issue?

I fear that it is difficult to meet all the proper demands that my hon. Friends put upon me. I do not dispute that there are serious problems in the constituency represented by my hon. Friend. My problem within the inner city programme has been to weigh the extent of the problems and to try to determine priorities. I regret that so far I have not been able to include my hon. Friend's borough in that programme.

Local Authorities (Grants To Industry)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment which local authorities have made grants to attract industry, using the provisions of the Inner Urban Areas Act.

This information is not yet available. But designated authorities will be asked to let my Department know the level of expenditure and income under the Act and possible other relevant information at the end of this financial year and for subsequent years.

Is the Minister aware that while his Department is encouraging grants and loans to industry through the Inner Urban Areas Act and encouraging industry to come back to London, the regional policies of the Department of Industry are pulling in exactly the opposite direction and continue unabated, as does the Government's policy for the dispersal of civil servants? What will the right hon. Gentleman do to ensure that everybody in the boat rows in the same direction?

The hon. Gentleman is being somewhat unfair to the Department of Industry. It is not for me to answer in detail for it. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will table an appropriate question. Considerable changes have been announced since the introduction of the inner city initiative in the operation of IDC policy and in industrial development by the Department of Industry. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman checks on the statements that have been issued and are now operative in all the inner city areas that are otherwise outside assisted area status. I refer especially to London and Birmingham.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his Department has a responsibility for planning? Does he agree that it is pointless for Ministers to say that they support local authorities that are trying to attract industry back to London when, at the same time, they approve menacing planning schemes? For example, the planning department of the London borough of Ealing has allowed masses of warehouses to be built on land where industry could have been sited. That is a matter that my right hon. Friend should examine.

Except in certain respects where reserve powers apply, Ministers with planning responsibilities are not responsible for the detailed operation of planning procedures. That responsibility has been given by Parliament to local planning departments.

Warehousing policy in certain parts of London near Heathrow airport has been going on for a good many years, and it is not directly connected, to say the least, with inner city policy.

Partnership Committees (Staff)

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many civil servants are involved in membership and servicing of committees in connection with the partnership authorities.

There are 16 civil servants working full-time on servicing the seven inner city partnerships. Taking into account all Government Departments and their regional organisations, about another 85 civil servants are involved partially in the work of the partnerships and the 15 programme authorities.

Will the right hon. Gentleman compare that number with the number of voluntary workers and interest groups that are involved in the partnerships? Does he agree that to make them a success it is important that the full co-operation of the local community should be sought and involved?

I shall not take up the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question and make comparisons. It would not be possible to obtain the statistics, even if they were relevant. The importance of local co-operation was given great force in the White Paper on inner city policy. I assure the House that in every one of the partnerships and programme authorities there has been a considerable effort to draw in community and voluntary activity. In all instances, considerable portions of the enlarged urban aid programme to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has referred have been directed to assist an expansion of community work.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the work of the civil servants and that of the voluntary agencies would be better known if the partnership committees were open to the public, especially where local authorities on the partnership committees make representations to the Secretary of State that that should be so? Is it not significant that these local authorities are all Labour controlled? It may be that they are calling on the Government to carry out Labour Party policy that was passed in 1974, namely, that there should be more open government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at least in this respect, it is about time we implemented that policy? What are the Government afraid of?

There was not an announced inner city policy in 1974. There is no lack of information between the local authorities, both county and district, the other authorities involved in the partnerships and the community organisations. There are, rightly, variations in the way in which consultation is undertaken in the various partnerships and programme authorities. I do not accept that the opening up of what are, in effect, steering groups would provide a solution to communication. Other means must be found.

Public Buildings (Lifts)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement concerning the building standards for the size of lifts in public buildings.

The size of lifts is not controlled in regulations, but there is a British Standard 2655 of 1971 which specifies loads and dimensions of lifts for various uses.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the head of the casualty department at Preston Royal infirmary told me that a number of lifts at that hospital and others were too small to take stretchers? He feared that lives would be endangered. Does my right hon. Friend not think that action should be taken to ensure a minimum size for lifts?

That is a different matter from that raised in my hon. Friend's original question. It will be difficult to find a solution if that problem arises on any scale in Preston in existing buildings. As regards the future, I make two points. I take note of the general proposition on guidance. More importantly, the number of high-rise, or even medium-rise, blocks of flats now being built by local authorities is down to less than 2 per cent., compared with 23 or 24 per cent. of the building programme a few years ago.

Will the Minister look at the problem of direct labour maintenance of lifts, which is an unmitigated disaster?

I have no doubt that the hon. Member will send me information. I understand that the vast majority of lifts in these high-rise blocks of flats are serviced by maintenance contractors.

Local Government (Staffordshire)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any plans to transfer powers from Staffordshire county council to Tamworth and Lichfield district councils as part of his scheme for organic change in local government.

The Government's proposals for transferring powers from counties to districts are contained in the White Paper on organic change in local government published last week. Under these proposals, districts with a population below 100,000 will not be eligible for any transfers, and on that basis the powers of Tamworth borough council and Lichfield district councils will remain unchanged. In common with all districts in England, however, they will become responsible for all but a narrow range of planning decisions.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, while his White Paper is right in principle, it is none the less a considerable disappointment and anti-climax? Many of us had hoped he would be doing far more to repair the damage of the Tories' 1972 reorganisation. Will my right hon. Friend admit, even at this late stage, that many of the old county boroughs operated perfectly well with populations of 60,000 and 70,000? Why cannot he respond to the wishes of the Labour Party in Lichfield and Tamworth, and elsewhere, and transfer powers from counties?

I am afraid that we have to look at this realistically. My hon. Friend knows that my disposition is in favour of looking to smaller local government units rather than larger ones. If we were to go far below the cut-off level of 100,000 we would have units of administration dealing with personal social services and traffic management which would not easily cater for the kind of services, with their specialities, which are needed today.

Roads (Gritting)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, in the light of the discussions he has had with local authorities in the United Kingdom, what information he now has on the reasons why local authorities were unable to grit the roads prior to the major snow falls which first fell on 27 December.

The first snow warnings were received in some areas on the 28 December and in others on the 29 and 30. The reports I am now receiving from the local authorities show that they either commenced operations immediately or did so within a few hours of the warnings. Salting and gritting operations suffered seriously in some cases from gale force winds and rain together with very low temperatures at night. The vastly reduced volume of road traffic resulting from the bank holiday was also an important factor in aggravating the situation.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In how many areas was gritting not possible because the unions refused to do standby duty?

I have no information of that happening at all over the bank holiday, which was the immediate crisis to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is true that this has happened occasionally since the action by the public service employees, but it is not right to apply that situation to the Christmas and new year period.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Liverpool has experienced its worst period ever for the removal of snow and ice from the roads, due to the fact that the controlling Liberal Party, together with the Conservatives, refused to turn out the workers to make certain that roads were gritted properly and the snow cleared, which was always done under a Labour authority?

My hon. Friend is right that in certain parts of the country Conservative authorities changed the standby arrangement, which gave great offence to the men and aggravated the situation that existed.

Building Construction (Research)

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the role of the Building Research Establishment in helping to prevent building failures; and what resources have been allocated for this purpose in the current financial year.

Much of BRE's research on materials, components, structures and fire is concerned with preventing building failures and defects. I cannot give a reliable assessment of the resources involved, since in many cases the work is part of a wider project dealing with other related issues, such as improving performance or giving better value for money.

Is it not unsatisfactory that the vital Doomwatch section of the BRE is minute and short of resources? In view of disasters such as Ronan Point and high alumina cement and the bad state of many new council flats, should not this matter be given the highest priority?

I would not say that the problem over the integrity division to which the hon. Gentleman refers has lasted as long as he suggested, when he refers back to the Ronan Point disaster. I accept that this is an important priority element in BRE work. Our problem has been to overcome shortages of staff and to achieve recruitment up to establishment. It has been difficult to recruit staff. We are continuing our efforts.

Will the Minister confirm that those figures show that local authorities have had to pay over £200 million to meet necessary repairs due to building defects and incompetent builders? Will he undertake to publish that list of local authorities in the Official Report?

I should not like, without checking, to confirm the figure that my hon. Friend has mentioned. There is, undoubtedly, a considerable area of justifiable concern about faults which have developed partly as a result of design and partly as a result of contract management during the industrialised building era. We should not exaggerate the matter and suggest that it applies to everything that went on in the 1950s and the 1960s, but it is certainly a significant element. We shall need to pay close attention to rectifying these matters in the future.

Coast Erosion (Yorkshire)

19.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what consideration he is giving to the prevention of coast erosion on the East Coast of Yorkshire by use of colliery waste and power station fly ash; and if he will make a statement.

Following the recommendations of a working party set up by the Department in 1974, the local authorities concerned are now considering how best to dispose of the region's colliery spoil and fuel ash. However, we are advised that it is unlikely that these substances, on their own, can provide adequate protection against erosion of the coast. They are unable to withstand the constant battering from the waves. In the case of colliery waste, there are also strong environmental objections arising from the despoilation of the beaches and the discolouration of the water. Experience of tipping colliery waste on to the Durham beaches has shown this.

I welcome that encouraging reply. Is my hon. Friend aware that the National Coal Board is proposing to put colliery waste on 200 acres of good agricultural land in my area? In the Selby district, the Central Electricity Generating Board is taking 150 acres to dump fly ash from Drax power station. Is he also aware that we are losing 30 acres of good land each year at Spurn Point, and that, shortly, it will become an island?

Would it not be sound economic sense to use Government money now to prevent this further loss of good agricultural land rather than reclaim it after it has been degraded by industry or lost by erosion?

I met some of my hon. Friends constituents who took the trouble to travel to Hull when I was visiting the Yorkshire coast to study the problem of erosion. It is difficult for me to comment on the planning matters to which he refers. These matters are in the hands of the county council and may come to my right hon. Friend in his quasi-judicial role.

What is my hon. Friend doing to encourage the use of pulverised fuel ash to produce building materials?

My Department and the Property Services Agency have done a great deal to encourage its use. Much of it is used already in the manufacture of lightweight concrete blocks, and so on. There is an increasing use of it, and at the moment we are examining its further use. Government Departments use it a great deal, and perhaps local authorities could use it more.

When my hon. Friend visited Spurn Point in East Yorkshire, he saw maps of the changes in that peninsula since the middle ages. Is he aware that if gales and the other elements burst Spurn Point, there could be a potent effect upon Hull as a port? It would be silted up, and the channels would be in an unholy mess.

We shall discuss this with the harbour authority, though the representations that we received came from the coastal districts of Withernsea, Holderness, and so on. If the harbour authority and the Hull city council wish, we shall discuss the problems with them. Flooding itself is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but we work together closely on these matters.

Does the Minister appreciate that his hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) has a very good point about the spoliation of agricultural land? Is not the right thing to do with fly ash which cannot be used to put it back in the mines where it came from and thus stop subsidence?

That is done wherever possible. The National Coal Board has done a great deal in using extinct pits to pack away waste from present pits and Central Electricity Generating Board waste.

Is it true that the nationalised industries are not subject to normal planning procedures and that this is a big part of the problem?

No, it is not true. They submit planning applications initially to local planning authorities. With opencast coal applications, of course, the decisions are made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, and not by my Department.

Questions To Ministers

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of your exhortation at the beginning of Question Time that you hoped to get through more questions today than was possible yesterday, may I draw your attention to the fact that we managed to reach only question No. 20 and that some hon. Members who did not choose to table questions were called on more than one occasion?

We have had 23 questions answered today, because a number were bracketed together. When only one hon. Member rises, there is a better chance of hon. Members being called.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We could have done even better if replies from the Treasury Bench had not been so rambling. There was a time when Ministers would reply "Yes, Sir", "No, Sir," or "Not without notice". Can nothing be done to improve the state of the Treasury Bench, short of Dissolution?

I do not disagree that answers today were long. I do not disagree with that at all.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not it a fact that we get through so few questions on many occasions because of the Government's reluctance to give answers?