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Greater London Council (Money) Bill (By Order)

Volume 972: debated on Thursday 25 October 1979

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Order for consideration, as amended, read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

I intend to be brief.

This money Bill follows the familiar pattern to which we have become accustomed over the years and is broadly noncontroversial. I have no wish to restrict or inhibit debate upon it. I should like to impress upon the House the importance to the Greater London Council of the Bill's making progress tonight. A money Bill usually receives its Royal Assent prior to the Summer Recess but this year, because of the general election, the usual timetable was delayed. Therefore there is an urgent need for the various financial provisions in the Bill which are referred to in more detail in the schedules.

Last year's money Act expired on 30 September this year. Any rejection or further delay of the Bill tonight would mean that the Greater London Council would have no power to meet expediture on capital account on any of the wide range of important services mentioned in the Bill or to lend money to the various persons and public bodies referred to in the schedule.

Rather than go into any great detail on the provisions of the Bill, the House might find it more convenient to dispose quickly of this money Bill and then move on to our main debate on the general powers Bill, which is to follow and about which some hon. Members wish to raise constituency points. If that is the wish of the House I shall resume my seat at this stage and allow the debate to proceed in that way.

I shall address my remarks primarily to the money Bill and try to relate them to the statement issued on 14 September by the Secretary of State for the Environment when he said that he wanted to see the inner cities once again full of hustle and bustle on a human scale.

The trouble is that the Secretary of State and the Government on the one hand, and the Conservative-controlled Greater London Council on the other, do not come anywhere near to living up to the Secretary of State's own typically extravagant words. The various actions of the Government will ensure that the steady progress that we were making in inner London generally—I want to mention Islington in particular—will not merely be halted but wrecked.

The Bill illustrates very well the approach of the Government's County Hall lap-dogs, lying at their feet, with scarcely a peep of protest as they see the wreckage beginning to pile up.

The GLC's own memorandum to the Bill makes it clear that the council has tailored its capital estimates closely to the Government's apparent requirements. Its budget is broadly in line with housing investment, transport policies and locally-determined sector allocations. There is no attempt to fight the case for London and to argue for a better deal. We find that in real terms the total spending is £27 million less than in the 1978 money Act. I do not know—perhaps the Minister will be able to help—what rate of inflation is allowed for in the year which the Bill will cover. However, anything less than 20 per cent. will be totally unrealistic.

The Bill deals with the provision of housing. I want to address most of my brief remarks to that point. This is an area of activity where the hypocrisy of the GLC at present reaches perhaps its giddiest heights. Its current approach has very little to do with providing houses—but it has everything to do with how to get out of the task and how to rat on its housing responsibilities.

I ask the House to look at the position in Islington, my own borough, where week after week families come to see me at my advice bureau and describe their wretched housing conditions. They must do so despite a massive effort by the Labour-controlled borough council between 1972 and 1978 in which 6,600 new homes and 3,500 rehabilitated homes were completed. That is a proud but costly record, but a very worthwhile one. I do not think anyone can say that that is not needed when there are 7,000 substandard homes in the borough, a desperate need to modernise old estates, a considerable shortage of homes, 10,000-plus on the waiting list, and new applications rolling in at the rate of about 100 a week. We may then see what the GLC's current contribution is, as represented not least in what it is prepared to spend on housing provision.

Further, the GLC deliberately held property empty while planning to sell it off. I am not against the sale of council houses in areas of surplus, but this is an area of desperate housing need. I wonder what I should tell the families who come to me each week. I must say that if the Government and the GLC follow this policy, and if the borough council, as seems to be the case, is to be compelled to follow suit, the prospect of these families having a council home will have receded further into the distance. The pool of council homes will be steadily reduced in what will be nothing more or less than an unprincipled give-away of public assets.

Then there is the question of the transfer of GLC estates to the borough. Only this week the Islington borough council rejected the GLC proposals—this is where we come right back to money—because the cost to Islington rent and rate payers, on the basis of the GLC proposals, would be about £600,000 in the first year, increasing in following years. There is the problem that GLC rents are far higher than those charged by the borough council. The borough rents must either be brought into line by being raised unacceptably or there must be a cutback in GLC rents, with a substantial loss to the borough.

The borough council has not taken a hard line against the transferring principle. I am glad about that, as I should prefer to see housing management brought nearer. The GLC housing management is in so many cases much too remote.

On this issue County Hall is trying to take the borough for a ride. That is just not on. While the haggling over this goes on, the GLC's northern district housing office is allowed to run at an inadequate staff level and its service to tenants seems to be deteriorating considerably, especially in terms of repairs and maintenance.

The sale of council houses and transfers to the boroughs will affect mobility and the position of people wanting to move from one borough to another. That will affect employment. The sales will inevitably cause a blockage. The transfer to the boroughs will also cause a blockage unless the arrangements prove effective. I want to see the arrangements monitored closely.

I should like to touch briefly on certain issues, the first of which is the construction and improvement of metropolitan roads. If, as I suspect, that means that more money is to be earmarked to allow huge juggernauts to roll through the centre of my constituency, I warn the GLC and the Government that they are heading for major resistance. Indeed, it is about time that I had a reply from the Minister of Transport, with whom on 4 September I raised the matter of the Archway inquiry and the possible reopening of that inquiry. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will draw his right hon. Friend's attention to that matter.

Public health is also mentioned in the schedule. Why, in view of its concern about this area of public health, has the Tory GLC not seen fit to issue any real protest about the crucial issue of the devastation of the National Health Service in inner London? Any protest that has been made has been decidedly muted. There is an appalling situation in Islington with the closure of the Royal Northern hospital's accident and emergency department. The effects of that closure could lead to the outright closure of this hospital, which is a valuable asset to the borough.

Where does the GLC stand in relation to the report of the Royal Commission on the National Health Service, which showed that the service in inner London is under-financed, under-staffed and badly organised? I understand that there is talk at County Hall of taking over as a regional health authority. That may affect some future money Bill. However, under the present management, I should have no confidence in that arrangement. We should be out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I turn now to loans to help regenerate industry and employment. I am certainly not opposing that proposition, but it is rank hypocrisy, when the Islington borough council has tried to tread the same path of aid to employment, to find a rate support grant package recommended by the London Boroughs Association that would give Islington a relatively worse settlement than any other London borough on top of the radical overall cut in RSG that the central Government intend to impose with devastating effects in an area which is recognised as one of the most needy in the country. The partnership allocation for this year has already been hacked away. No one is fooled by the prospects for next year, which, in that respect, are grim.

The Secretary of State, in his statement in September, talked about the main programmes providing major resources for the inner cities, but we all know that the Department of Industry is cutting help to industry generally. The Department of Employment has told the Manpower Services Commission that on top of this year's cut it must provide up to £150 million of cuts in its annual spending over the next three years. Therefore, it is clear that those in inner city areas will not escape from those consequences, including the disabled, who face a bleak employment prospect. Yet we have the GLC making its annual statutory whimper and at the same time talking about the need to aid inner city employment.

The Labour Government, the previous Labour GLC and the Labour-controlled inner London boroughs, made some headway, albeit too slowly, in curing many of London's problems. Even so, the question for too many Londoners is not when did civilisation begin, but when will it begin? I do not think that people will need to put their clocks back this autumn. The Government are clearly doing it for them—perhaps their one act, of gleeful interventionism.

Far from the hustle and bustle mentioned by the Secretary of State, inner London is heading for unparalleled economic and social vandalism imposed by an uncaring and doctrinaire Government at Westminster, aided and abetted wherever possible by their poodles across the river at County Hall. This puny Bill serves only to underline that situation by its omissions and inadequacy.

7.15 p.m.

First, I should like to echo and support all the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, Central (Mr. Grant). Our two constituencies share the same problems and often the same streets. We certainly suffer particularly from the threat of juggernauts passing through those streets. It is high time that the GLC, in its strategic London planning capacity, took more account of the needs of such areas.

I have risen to speak in this debate to dwell particularly on the subject of housing, but only briefly, and housing management.

I recollect three or four years ago speaking from the other side of the House and treating it to an account of the sufferings that many of my constituents who are tenants of the GLC underwent as a result of what could only be described as absolutely incompetent housing management by the GLC. One of the incidents that I used to illustrate this contention related to a block in my constituency called Stranraer Way. I described how the sewage came bubbling up through the kitchen sinks months and indeed years after the fault had been noticed and reported to the GLC. It is no surprise to me—and it should not be any surprise to anyone who is familiar with the GLC—to know that in some of those maisonettes the sewage is still bubbling up through the sinks three years after it was first revealed in this House. It must now be two to three months since I last wrote to the GLC housing department on that matter. I can say that for a long period of time there was no response to the subject, and certainly the matter has still not been put right.

That is just one example of the kind of thing which any Member of Parliament and any GLC councillor trying to look after the interests of his constituents has to put up with if he has a large amount of GLC accommodation in his area. I could go on till 9 o'clock with incidents of that kind.

It so happens that even the GLC finally decided that the incompetence of its northern district office was so bad that it should investigate it. Those of us involved have recently had a copy of the report of that investigation—and an appalling story it tells of what can only be called simple administrative incompetence. They are things which anybody who knows how to run an office ought to be able to get right: letters not answered; repairs notified but not seen to; repairs done but botched with the result that they have to be done again, the cost of them being badly done and done again and so on being pushed on to the tenants on each occasion. I imagine that report came as some surprise to many members of the GLC in the depth of administrative incompetence which it revealed, but it did not come as any surprise to me.

There is in my constituency a block called Grimthorpe House—and it is well called that. Probably half the tenants in Grimthorpe House have been to me on one occasion or another complaining of the condition in which the place is kept.

In April I asked that the GLC should go from one end of it to the other working out what needed to be done and seeing if it could be put right. It took many months for me even to get a reply to the letter. That was no surprise at all, because that is standard practice for the GLC housing department. The job of going through from one end to the other has not happened. I should not have expected that in six months. Indeed, I should not really expect it to happen in the coming year. But, since it does not happen, I insist on stating the fact on the Floor of the House of Commons when the GLC is asking us to approve many millions of pounds for its support.

Recently the borough of Islington environmental health department has had to use its legal powers against the GLC to do work which the GLC failed to carry out and to send the bill to the GLC as statute permits it to do. We have had the Islington health department serving legal orders on the GLC, telling it to do things.

There was a sewage overflow—I have great trouble with the GLC over sewage in Islington—outside a block of flats in Copenhagen Street. It was put right, but it was not all cleaned up. It was reported, but nothing happened. It was reported again and nothing happened. It was further reported several times and nothing happened. Ultimately I had to get on to the borough authority, which has the right to order the GLC to do it, or to do the work in default, and the authority did the job in default.

The GLC welcomes people to County Hall. It asks them to come and see the largest and best local authority in the world. It is shameful that the GLC cannot even clear up the sewage before it is instructed to do so on legal orders from a borough authority in London.

I could cite other similar cases of garbage piled up on the stairs and in the drying rooms of Newland Court. It went on for weeks and weeks, and again the borough authority had to use its legal powers either to do it in default or to instruct the GLC to do it. I could go on until 9 o'clock with similar examples.

I could mention cases of faults in standard household equipment, such as the lavatory cistern of Mr. Wicks in Campion House. It was reported as being faulty. The GLC did nothing. Ultimately someone was sent to put it right. He did not; he broke the lavatory cistern. Previously it was working badly; now it was not working at all. That did not surprise me. The family had to wait for three months for something to be done. During that time, including Christmas of last year, they had to flush the lavatory with a bucket. It happened within five miles of this majestic House of Commons, in the area of the greatest and certainly the largest local authority in the world.

Eventually the GLC mended the cistern. Anyone acquainted with plumbing matters will know that there is not much that can be done wrongly in putting in a new cistern, but the GLC, with its ingenuity, discovered something. It is possible to leave a hole in the cistern. It is supposed to be plugged with a little plastic thing which can be bought for 5p in any plumber's shop. The GLC, having found the hole, left it open. When the cistern overflows, as it does frequently in that block, the water not only goes out of the overflow pipe and down the wall outside, making things damp and unsightly; it also goes on to the lavatory floor.

I shall stop there with my examples of these atrocities arising from administrative incompetence, but that sort of experience is regular, week in and week out. It is the experience of myself and of GLC councillors. I am sure that it is the experience of every MP and of every GLC councillor in London with a lot of GLC accommodation in his area.

Some people say that the GLC cannot be efficient at housing management because it is too big. I do not agree. The GLC is not inefficient because it is big. It is inefficient because it is inefficient. One person does not supervise his immediate subordinate, that person does not supervise his subordinate, and so it goes on. Everyone is permitted to get away with making a botch of things, without any proper hierarchical control. Consequently, when recently I had an on-site meeting with the district officer in my area to look into a certain matter, it was no surprise to me that he turned up 35 minutes late for a meeting with the Member of Parliament. How late he turns up when he has meetings with tenants' associations, God alone knows. I despair. I do not know what can be the solution to this kind of thing.

I should like to see one of the London evening papers, the Evening Standard or the Evening News, offering an award, with perhaps a modest prize of about £20, to the GLC tenant bringing forward the worst horror story of administrative incompetence in the previous three months. Only constant public exposure of these inefficiencies is likely to have any effect on the GLC. I hereby invite the London evening newspapers to consider that proposal and to join in the almost hopeless task of trying to make GLC housing management a little better than it is now.

With the leave of the House, may I reply briefly to the two speeches that have been made in the debate?

I say to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) that those of us who have attended these GLC debates over the years are very familiar with the saga of sewage and garbage with which he has regaled us tonight. I am sure that he will be the first to concede that his speech has been made by him with equal vehemence against the Labour predecessors at the GLC.

There is nothing new, therefore, in what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I am sure that many of us are disturbed to hear that things are just as bad today in Islington as they were when he first raised these kinds of issue on the Floor of the House. His remarks will be noted by the GLC and I am sure that it will follow them up. Indeed, I am sure that he will take steps to ensure that that is done. At least his views are on the record, and they will serve a useful purpose in that respect.

I should like also to reply briefy to the speech of the hon. Member for Islington, Central (Mr. Grant). I have heard Sir Horace Cutler called many things over the years but I have never heard him described as anyone's poodle. Those who know him would regard it as a very unfair and inaccurate description of the leader of the Greater London Council.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the provision for housing in the money Bill. Admittedly, it shows a decrease of about £9 million as compared with the previous Act, but, as the schedule shows, the GLC is still spending £133,800,000 on the acquisition of property, the erection of dwellings and other purposes. That is a substantial sum by any standard. The reduction to which I have referred relates specifically to the decision taken by the GLC to concentrate its housing resources on areas such as inner London and Thamesmead. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would not necessarily quarrel with that, in the sense that it should be of some assistance to his area. Admittedly, it implies that the GLC is not now pursuing the development policy of its predecessors in the outer London boroughs. There are undoubtedly varying views in the House on that matter.

I have always taken the view that it makes much greater sense to revive and regenerate the inner parts of our city before looking, as the previous GLC did with such greedy eyes, on the outer London areas, where development of the kind that was envisaged, and to some extent carried out, by the previous administration has eaten up some areas of the green belt and has been undesirable in many ways. It is much more preferable for the housing development to be concentrated in inner London. The present GLC administration is doing that.

The planned expenditure of £57 million in the money Bill on roads and public transport represents an increase of about £10 million over the 1978 measure. That represents an increase of about £6 million in real terms. Against the background of the present financial difficulties of the country, I should have thought that that was a significant increase for the GLC to make.

The money is being spent primarily—as the hon. Member for Islington, Central said—on road construction and the provision of new rolling stock for the London Transport Underground service. Anyone who uses that service will know that at the moment there is great variation between the new lines, with their modern rolling stock and equipment, and some of the older, more neglected lines. It must be a welcome development that those older, neglected lines will be brought up to a higher standard.

7.30 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the problem of juggernauts, with which we are all familiar. Every constituency in Greater London is plagued by these monsters, but I do not think that the corollary of that is to argue against new road development. The problem of juggernauts can be dealt with in various ways, such as imposing width and other restrictions that have been contemplated from time to time. Most residents in London who see our traffic grinding to a halt on so many occasions will welcome the fact that the GLC is grappling with the problem and proposing to spend this additional money.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have the good fortune to live in his constituency. He says that all London Members know about the problem, but in his constituency they do not have a clue about the problem in my constituency of Islington, Central, which must be one of the worst affected—if not the worst affected—in London by this particular problem.

I would not quarrel with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that I am sure that Islington has a greater problem in this respect than Bromley has. However, there are parts of my constituency where juggernauts are a great problem, though perhaps not in the road in which the hon. Member for Islington, Central lives. I know that that is a very quiet and unspoilt area. There are other parts of the borough where juggernauts present a problem. The hon. Member can look at my mailbag as proof of that.

I was about to say that for the GLC simply to hold up its hands in despair and say that because of juggernauts it can and will do nothing about the problem would be a total abdication of its responsibilities. Therefore, I believe that most reasonable people will welcome the fact that this adidtional money is to be spent. I do not think that the question of juggernauts really relates to this money Bill. On that note, I hope that the House will allow the Bill to proceed and allow the GLC to have its money.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, considered accordingly; to be read the Third time.