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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 973: debated on Wednesday 14 November 1979

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Environment

Council Houses (Sale)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what percentage of local authority tenants he estimates will have incomes adequate to enable them to exercise the proposed rights to purchase local authority housing, without imposing financial liabilities on members of the tenant's household, other than the tenant's wife or husband.

It is not possible to give a reliable estimate on the information available.

I refer the Minister to the series of written questions which he and his hon. Friends answered on Friday, which showed that the average income of two-thirds of local authority tenants was below £4,000 a year. The average price of local authority houses and flats is more than £10,500. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, at best, only one-third of local authority tenants could conceivably benefit from the proposal to sell council houses, whatever the discount?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that about 250,000 council tenants have already been able to buy their homes and flats. We are not in the business of chasing numbers, but we wish to give tenants the opportunity to buy their homes. That was our commitment at the election, and that is what we shall do.

Does the Minister agree that the shared purchase scheme proposals will help to overcome the problems referred to by Opposition Members?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The scheme will help low-income buyers to gain access to home ownership, which otherwise they would not have.

Has the Minister sent a reply to the letter that he received from the National Council of Building Material Producers? It wrote to him warning that the diversion of scarce building society funds for council house sales could significantly affect the level of private house building by raising mortgage rates to sky-high levels and creating a famine. Why are the Government clobbering the private home owner?

The right hon. Gentleman should be aware from the consultation paper that we see no reason why council tenants should not have the same right of access to building society mortgages as everyone else. It is for the building societies to decide whether they will give an applicant a mortgage in the normal way.

Does my hon. Friend agree that where an elderly widow living in a local authority property is unable, because of certain circumstances, to buy that property the right should be given to her next of kin?

We are making provision in proposed legislation whereby a sitting tenant who has other members of the household living with him may undertake a joint purchase. That will be valuable in the circumstances to which my hon. Friend refers.

Does the Minister accept that by that policy low-income families currently in council accommodation will face the prospect of decent accommodation receding ever-further from them?

It is evident that those who wish to buy are doing so with a view to staying.

Rating System

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether his review of the present rating system will take into account the problems of commercial and industrial ratepayers, particularly those of small shopkeepers.

Yes, Sir, and in addition we hope to bring forward legislation in this Session to extend domestic rate relief to a wider range of mixed business and domestic properties, and to extend the right to pay rates by instalments to non-domestic ratepayers.

I thank the Minister for that assurance. As the Government have done away with the revaluation ordered by the previous Labour Government, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether, in the review, he will replace the rating system for not only the domestic ratepayer but ratepayers of industrial and commercial premises? Some small shopkeepers are facing problems, and there will be anomalies that will become greater if the revaluation is not to take place.

I understand the concern felt by commercial ratepayers, especially the small shopkeeper, over the substantial increases in rates in recent years. We have made clear our intention to seek the abolition of the domestic rate. I have no further comment at this stage on the wider matters which the hon. Member has raised.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the cancellation of the revaluation of rating for non-domestic premises—such as commercial and industrial premises—has not only attacked the rating base for the income of local authorities but has created a good deal of uncertainty about local authority policies towards those premises?

My hon. Friend will be aware that even if the revaluation had gone ahead it would not have been implemented before 1982. There will be no immediate change. I understand the concern that is being expressed. We are considering introducing, in legislation shortly to be brought before the House, a partial revaluation power to deal with the uncertainty to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Will the Minister give an assurance that his consideration of domestic and commercial rating will encompass the need to use some basis other than rateable value for the charging of water rates? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the present system is totally inequitable in both the domestic and commercial sectors?

If the rating system is abolished, that will have consequences for the present method of charging for water. That is one of the factors that we shall take into account in our review.

Council Houses (Condensation)

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, if he is considering any fresh initiatives to combat condensation in new council house dwellings.

We will consider the need to take further action, in the light of advice from the joint working party on heating and energy conservation in public sector housing, as soon as we have the results of the current Building Research Establishment survey of complaints about condensation.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that far more research is needed at national level into this serious problem, and that more money should be made available to individual local authorities to deal with this difficulty? Will he bear in mind, too, that this is a serious problem in Newport and is causing great distress to tenants, especially those in new properties?

I appreciate that it is a real problem. If the hon. Gentleman will send me specific details concerning Newport, I shall have them examined. I am due to receive a report on the new survey towards the end of the year. In the light of the information that came from the six local authorities involved in the survey, I hope that we can gain a wider appreciation of the many real problems that are emerging.

Is Leicester one of the six local authorities to which the hon. Gentleman has referred? Is he aware of the valiant efforts that the city's housing department is making to combat the blight of condensation? Will he do what he can to assist?

The answer to the first part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question is "No". Leicester is not one of the six local authorities involved. As I said to the hon. and learned Gentleman on an earlier occasion when environment questions were being dealt with at Question Time, my officials will be pleased to examine the problems to which he referred on the Braunstone estate. We feel that it is wiser to wait until the city council tell us that its remedial works are sufficiently far advanced.

Beckton District Plan

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make an official visit to Beckton in order to view progress made in implementing the Beckton district plan.

The Beckton district plan has not yet been formally adopted, and I would not therefore wish to comment on its merits at this stage. I have no plans at the moment to visit Beckton.

Will the Secretary of State give serious reconsideration to his refusal to visit part of the Docklands area in my constituency? Is he aware that the fact that he has viewed the area from a helicopter before announcing his plans for an urban development corporation has received bad publicity in the area? Before he makes further pronouncements on the plans, will he visit the area personally in the status of one of Her Majesty's Ministers?

I believe it right to allow the Beckton plan to be considered and finalised, if that is the wish of the local authority. The hon. Gentleman will know that the urban development corporation has been called for as loudly by his right hon. and hon. Friends as it has by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give us a good reason why he should not visit the area? It is not far from this place. It would not take him long to make a visit. It would do him some good, and it might help to regain some of the good faith which, unfortunately, the electorate had in the Tory Party at the time of the general election.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the question is about the Beckton district plan. It would be inappropriate for the Secretary of State, in his quasi-judicial position, to visit local authorities while they are in the process of considering their local plans.

Is the Secretary of State aware that throughout Docklands a great deal of proposed industrial development is being held up because of the uncertainty that is being created by his announcement.

Order. The question is directed to Beckton and not to the whole of Docklands.

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. May I inform you, Mr. Speaker, that the Beckton district plan is wholly within the London Docklands area?

Is the Secretary of State aware that within Beckton and other areas in the London Docklands area a great deal of uncertainty is being caused and much development held up because of the fear that when his proposals are put into operation the new corporation will want to start from scratch and draw up a new plan? Will he make it clear that work should go ahead and that there is no reason to assume that the corporation will want to start from the beginning again?

Will the right hon. Gentleman give me an example of one project that is being held up?

I shall be delighted to send the right hon. Gentleman all the examples given to me by the councils when I, unlike him, visited the area to see for myself.

If the councils will give me such examples, we shall be able to have a real debate.

Council House Building

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many units of council housing he expects will be started in 1980; how this compares with the average number of starts over the last five years; and if he is satisfied with the progress made.

The average of new house building starts by local authorities in England over the five years 1974 to 1978 was 92,000. The level of house building in 1980, and the progress made, will depend upon the decisions made by each local authority.

Does the Minister accept that that answer is totally evasive? Does he agree that when the figures are revealed they will represent an absolute disgrace? Is he aware that many thou-stands of families have no bath and no hot water and have to go through somebody else's living room to get to the lavatory? Is he also aware that thousands of families do not enjoy normal marital relations because they have no privacy? Families are living in the most dreadful conditions, yet the Minister will announce a deplorable lack of starts next year. He is willing to be complacent and do nothing about that.

The lack of starts is a reflection of the fact that we inherited the lowest house building programme for 30 years when we took office. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make such criticisms, he should address himself to the performance of the local authority in his constituency. In the last two years of the previous Labour Government Haringey underspent by £4·4 million.

Instead of worrying too much about the absolute level of council housing, will my hon. Friend address himself to the problems of London boroughs such as Islington, Haringey, Lambeth and Camden, with their thousands of council properties that remain empty? It seems that no pro gress is being made to deal with that situation.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is imperative that local authorities make the best use that they can of their existing housing stocks. I deplore the fact that there are some high levels of vacancies in certain London authorities.

When considering next year's starts, will the Minister distinguish between Conservative and Labour—controlled local authorities? If he does that he will note that the tardiness in new housing starts comes mainly from Conservative-controlled local authorities, such as Wandsworth in my constituency.

The underspend is similar between authorities of different political complexions.

Would it not be more cost-effective to divert scarce resources into improvement and renovation rather than apply them to the building of council houses?

As my hon. Friend will know, one of the most unfortunate developments during the past five years has been the serious decline in the improvement programme. As a result of the new provisions that we look forward to bringing to the House on improvement and repairs, we hope to be able to reverse that trend.

I revert to the original question. Is it not correct that the figures published in the recent public expenditure White Paper are based on an assumption that there will be about 45,000 to 50,000 housing starts by local authorities? If that is correct, does not the hon. Gentleman consider that disgraceful as an intended policy?

One of the important changes that we shall be making, which will, I hope, help to reduce the appalling levels of underspend that took place when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the previous Labour Government, will be to alter the present system of housing investment programme allocations so that local authorities have a single block, which will enable them, I hope, to make the best use of the allocations.

Urban Areas (Private Assistance)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to relax planning, fire and building regulations so as to help bring more private investment into redeveloping rundown urban areas.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to relax planning, fire and building regulations so as to encourage more investment to private enterprise in ailing urban areas.

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to relax planning, fire and building regulations so as to encourage private investment in city redevelopment.

As I said in the reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Thornton) on Monday 12 November 1979, I am hoping to publish proposals to reduce the scope of planning controls shortly. We are also taking a fundamental look at our system of building control, though we intend to maintain standards of health and safety. Fire regulations are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Is the Minister aware that the Liverpool city planning department has served compulsory purchase orders on two flourishing firms in the inner city? The premises are soon to be demolished and replaced by public housing at a time when 1,500 acres of public land are vacant within the inner city boundaries. Will the Minister curb the powers of local authorities to serve compulsory purchase orders? Will he tell them that their job is to help small businesses and not to destroy them?

I have constantly drawn to the attention of local authorities my suggestions that they should help to encourage small businesses. I am pleased to inform the House that the authorities in Liverpool are co-operating with me in examining, on a site by site basis, the 1,000 acres of substantial sites of derelict land within the area of the city.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rigid zoning policies have often been the enemy of small inno vative private enterprises in inner city areas? Does he foresee the removal of some of those obstacles under his new proposal?

This matter requires looking at. We need policies of greater flexibility.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his encouraging answer, but may I emphasise that in my constituency one small business is prevented from starting up because of the rigidity of the planning norms?

I do not have details of the small business to which my hon. Friend refers, but he will be aware that it has a right of appeal to the Secretary of State.

Is the Secretary of State willing to accept that areas such as Merseyside and Liverpool will get investment only through public investment? Does he accept that the urban development corporation that he has announced for Merseyside is seen as a ray of hope if it means that resources will be put through that corporation and that it is not simply window-dressing?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the urban development corporation. It supports the view I put forward that my proposals have been called for as loudly from the Opposition Benches as from my own. I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is an indication of the Government's commitment to the reclamation of two conspicuously derelict areas.

In view of the continuing high level of loss of life through fire, will my right hon. Friend persuade his colleagues to resist any suggestions made by my hon. Friends to relax fire precautions?

I very much hope that I made it clear in my original answer that we have no intention to prejudice safety.

Does the Secretary of State accept that his last remark will be welcomed by many hon. Members who consider that fire regulations are of the utmost importance? Is he aware of the serious fire risk that exists, particularly in houses of multi-occupation and houses for single people, and in hostels? Will he not reconsider the Government's attitude to the Private Member's Bill, to be introduced on Friday, of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean), which would help to correct matters?

I have made clear that this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I must say at once that the general question of fire regulations is not a matter of current debate.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of the fire regulations in county Bills, having gone through the House and, therefore, being in draft stage in other respects, are of a higher standard than those incorporated in the national building regulations? Has he any intention to harmonise the two?

Fire regulations must be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Will the Secretary of State heed the wise words of his hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and resist the siren calls from some of his less responsible hon. Friends who are trying to create administrative no-go areas in English cities? Will he discuss with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the inner city area fire at Woolworth's in Manchester which was a holocaust. Is there any credence in the rumours that the Secretary of State intends to transfer responsibility for the administration of building regulations to private insurance companies?

I know of no one in the House who needs less prompting from me than my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on such issues of pulic interest as safety matters. I have made this clear. I am engaged in wide-ranging consideration of building regulations. The regulations cover a whole range of subjects. We do not intend to make changes that will prejudice public safety.

On the generality of building regulations, I have made clear, and I have publicly announced, that I am looking at the way in which they are administered to see whether we can find a better and more effective method of dealing with them. If I had to give an indication to the House that might support the arguments put forward from the Opposition Benches, I would acknowledge that there can be varying practices in the administration of building regulations at the discretion of about 400 authorities. This may not be considered to be in the best interests of the standards themselves.

London Dockland

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to announce his detailed proposals for the establishment of an urban development corporation for London dockland.

The Local Government, Planning and Land Bill which will be introduced shortly will contain enabling proposals. Thereafter, I hope to make the necessary order to set up the development corporation as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend's initiative will be widely welcomed as probably the only way to restore life to the urban and political wastelands close to the heart of our great city? Will his strategy be to ensure that the urban development corporation should be not, a drain on public resources, but a magnet for private enterprise and private capital?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to the welcome that my proposals have received on a broad basis. On the second part of his question, these urban development corporations will have to recognise the partnership that is necessary between public and private resources in coping with dramatic opportunities. The prime objective must be to create a climate in which the maximum private commitment can follow public commitment initially.

Is it correct to draw the conclusion from the consultative document that the right hon. Gentleman issued that he proposes to set up urban development corporations without the public inquiry required for new town development corporations? If that is his purpose, it will deprive many individuals of their proper rights.

The lion. Gentleman will be aware that there is to be a parliamentary process and therefore a wide opportunity for consultation on the procedures that I have in mind.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the thousands of acres that have remained derelict in the Dock-lands area for many years are testimony of the inability of any London borough or of the Greater London Council to deal with the massive re-development that is necessary?

That is why the demand for the changes that I have announced has come from both sides of the House.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the bad impression that he caused when he met a deputation of Newham councillors recently? I am told that he started by saying that nothing they said would change his mind and his decision. Instead of flying over the area in a helicopter, will he reconsider his view, go down to Newham with the elected representatives, and actually see what they have done?

The hon. Gentleman criticises me for what I am supposed to have said to the Newham councillors, which I would contest. I should have thought that the whole basis on which the Labour Party operates is that it never opens its mind to anything that it ever hears on any subject.

Council Houses (Stockport)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many council houses have been built in the metropolitan borough of Stockport in each of the last five years; and what is the present waiting list.

The number of council houses completed in the metropolitan borough of Stockport in each of the last five years was:

197476
1975143
1976243
1977658
1978146
There are currently reported to be 4,534 people on the council's waiting list.

Is not the Minister aware that those statistics are a disgrace? The Government's housing strategy means that poorer working-class couples in Stockport face the prospect of the best housing stock being sold off, the worst being left in disrepair, and the Government's policy on interest rates putting private housing beyond their reach? The whole Government housing strategy, as those statistics show, is a cruel fraud on working class couples.

If the hon. Gentleman bothered to study the facts, he would realise that waiting lists are a most unreliable measure of housing need. He also ought to realise that, according to the information reaching my Department, the reductions in this year's programme caused no problems at all. I believe that Stockport is well capable of looking after its own affairs.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is precisely that political Dutch auction attitude that lies behind the question of the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) that has condemned a number of people to the council house waiting list for an interminable length of time? Surely the Government should be concentrating on need rather than on numbers.

I could not be in greater agreement with everything that my hon. Friend has said.

Peak District National Park

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will introduce legislation to enable the board of the Peak District national park to be democratically elected.

We have no plans for legislation on this matter. Two-thirds of the members are appointed by the democratically elected county councils concerned.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents who live in the Peak District national park think that the board is insensitive to their interests and tends to put the interests of visitors above theirs? Does he agree that there is a great deal of merit in allowing the people who live in the park directly to elect the board which would then be responsible to them?

We have no proposals to change the position. There is a particular difficulty with regard to the Peak park, in that six county and nine district councils are involved. However, I take very much to heart my hon. Friend's comment about the need to ensure that the interests of the people who live in the park are properly considered. We shall reinforce that point in representations to the planning board.

I accept what my right hon. Friend said about the difficulty of direct elections. Does he accept that there is a problem between the Peak park planning board and those who live and work in the park over the planning control authority? The board does a great deal of valuable work, but there is a problem in this respect. Will my right hon. Friend consider three measures that might help? First—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must be fair to the hon. Gentleman, and he must be fair to the House. I hope that he will not make his three points now. Perhaps he will contact his right hon. Friend later.

Will my right hon. Friend consider improving the appeals procedure in order to make it less cumbersome, increasing the representation of the district councils on the board and putting Ministry of Agriculture nominees on the board?

I do not think that it would be appropriate to have one appeals system for national parks and another for other parts of the country. We are anxious to improve the whole working of the appeals system so that the Peak park area can benefit as well. I believe that at present there are two farmers on the Peak park planning board. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food makes representations to us about appointments. I am afraid that I have forgotten my hon. Friend's third point.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the protection of the national heritage that is contained in our national parks requires a strengthening of national membership on national park committees, rather than a weakening of it? In that respect, can he tell us what arrangements have been made for the proper discussion in the House of proposals arising from topic paper No. 4 on the conservation of the country heritage?

This is a question of balance between the national interest and the proper preservation of the interests of those who live in national park areas. At the present time in the Peak park, 22 members are appointed by the count councils and only four come from the district councils. I think thtat a fair point can be made in that regard. We are open to representations on the documents that have been issued by the countryside review committee, and we shall consider any points that the right hon. Gentleman has to make.

Local Authorities (Expenditure)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he satisfied with the economies made by local government service since 3 May.

I am assured by the local authority associations that the vast majority of authorities are co-operating with my request for reductions in expenditure in 1979–80. I welcome this assurance.

Is the Secretary of State aware that local authority directors of social services have said that it is mere wishful thinking to believe that any more savings can be made from good housekeeping. Does not that sum up the Government's policy?

I am aware that whenever one undergoes rounds of public expenditure constraints everyone involved overstates his case.

In the interests of encouraging local authorities to effect further economies, will my right hon. Friend consider what advice he will give to local authorities to preclude the setting up of more quangos, one of which is being proposed by the West Midland county council?

I have made it clear that I think that one of the most effective ways of achieving the economies that I require is to keep a tight control over the number of people recruited to local government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the groups hardest hit by the Government's economies is that of young families with one wage-earner receiving a wage just above supplementary benefit level? That group will he hit hard by these economies, including the loss of free school meals, yet it has received no benefit from the cuts in income tax, and so on. Is not that group of young families among the hardest hit by the Government's policies?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to see what happens when the decisions are implemented, not when they are widely canvassed as options in advance. He should remember that we are looking for 1½ per cent. less spending this year than last year, and a further 1 per cent. less next year. That is hardly what one could call a ravaging of the Welfare State.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the campaign that is being indulged in by Lambeth council and others against the Government's cuts, and that taxpayers' and ratepayers' money is being used to produce newspapers in order to call people on to the streets to demonstrate against the policies of a recently elected Government? Would he care to comment on that?

I am aware of the campaign, headed by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), which has given rise to certain claims by a handful of authorities. So far as I understand it, they work on the assumption that the local authorities of all other hon. Members should suffer so that they, this handful, should have more.

Bearing in mind the Secretary of State's assertions that vast amounts of money will be saved by abolishing quangos, will he tell the House how much it will cost to set up the urban development corporations in London Docklands and the Liverpool dockland? Does he agree that it is irresponsible of local authorities to embark upon grandiose schemes when, at the same time, basic services are being cut? What action does the right hon. Gentleman intend to take against his own local authority, which is spending £5 million on new council offices at Crowmarsh in Oxfordshire?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is asking me to involve myself in every decision of every local authority. I have no more intention of doing that with my own local authority than I have with the hon. Gentleman's.

On previous Wednesdays the right hon. Gentleman has said that he intends to involve himself in individual decisions of individual local authorities to prevent those that are spending too much from doing so. Where do we stand? Are we to have his promise fulfilled, or is he running away?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I am interested in constraining the overall levels of expenditure, not in telling local government how it should achieve those levels.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is proposing a new system under which precise guidelines will be given to each local authority as to the acceptable expenditure for each of its various activities.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to deny categorically the contents of the report in the Financial Times on Monday 29 October, which suggested that he would introduce a unitary system of grants to local authorities, lay down how much they could spend on each of their services and set out how much they should raise by way of rates to finance them?

On Friday I shall be holding the statutory annual consultations with local government on all sorts of matters that are relevant to this year's and next year's financial provision and the structure of rate support grant. If the House will bear with me, I think that it is right not to anticipate that statement.

Although my right hon. Friend is quite rightly resisting the temptation to lay down precise guidelines, will he, nevertheless, encourage the local authority assocations to produce comparative figures of cost per unit, for whatever service is provided, so that the public can judge which authorities give value for money and which do not?

I have announced my intention to take powers in the Local Government Bill that is shortly to be introduced to achieve precisely that purpose.

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how he can produce such comparisons of input without showing the comparisons of output?

I believe that it will be possible to deal with a whole range of statistics on both sides of the equation. I shall have wide-ranging consultations, in which I am sure that all hon. Members will want to take part, on precisely which statistics are to be called for. One thing that I shall certainly call for is the publication of manpower figures for each authority so that everybody locally can understand whether his authority is taking on more people or constraining its manpower ceilings.

Houses (Internal Toilet Facilities)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of how long, at the current rate of demolition and improvement, it will be before homes without inside toilets and bathrooms in Great Britain are eliminated.

Between 1971 and 1976, the last date for which information is available, the number of dwellings in England lacking either a bathroom or an inside toilet fell from 2·1 million to 1·2 million. At the same rate of progress we would eliminate such deficiencies in our housing stock within the next 10 years, but this is dependent upon the decisions of many thousands of individual householders.

Will the Minister admit that Government policy has some effect on this issue? Will he let the House know whether he believes that recent policy changes have increased or reduced that time scale?

It is difficult to estimate. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that what we are trying to do is to increase the attack on substandard housing. Our consultation paper of 31 October outlined our proposals for changes in the grant system, which will enable us to direct resources to priority needs.

Is it not a fact that there is now a substantial surplus of accommodation, although there are local shortages? It is therefore essential to concentrate on this aspect rather than on the figures game of building council houses.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct. The overall picture is what is important. We should not allow ourselves to be diverted by selective statistical quotes.

Is it not time that the Minister and the rest of his colleagues stopped coming to the House of Commons to try to kid people about the attempt that they are making to improve and modernise homes? Is he aware that Bolsover district council has suffered a reduction of about £1 million as a result of the Tory Government's recent efforts to help? The result is that hundreds of my constituents who thought that their homes would be modernised when the Labour Government were in power now have to wait several years more.

Water Rating System

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has for reforming the water rating system.

I appreciate that there is a good deal of concern about how water charges are raised and about their impact on particular groups of consumers. I am considering with the National Water Council a number of aspects of the way in which the system works, but I am not yet in a position to announce any conclusion.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that the water rating system is even more unfair to householders than the domestic rating system, as water authorities do not benefit from the rate support grant? Will he consider the universal installation of water meters, which, at £10 per household, would result in a substantial reduction in water charges for the vast majority of house owners?

One must accept that there are unfairnesses in the way in which water charges are raised. At the same time, it is a relatively economic way of obtaining water funds. However, I should like details from my hon. Friend of his £10 meter, because the figures that I have are considerably in excess of that. Although there would obviously be attractions in moving to that system, the latest estimate that I have is that it would cost more than £1,000 million to move to universal water metering, and that charge would have to be recovered from consumers. This is a difficult issue, but we are studying it intensely.

Does the Minister accept that the policy advocated by his hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) would, if it were carried out, be the most retrograde step in public health policy in the last 100 years?

That is a concept which I should like further time to consider. If it is really suggested that there could be circumstances in which the demand for water took some account of the cost of its production that might have some impact on the overall demand and on what would otherwise be a continuing demand for reservoirs, with the resultant loss of good productive land.

Will my right hon. Friend consider that a greater degree of accountability by water authorities to himself or to some elected body might help in assessing what were the best rates, the best system of charging those rates and other actions by water authorities?

I have no proposals to change the present system, under which the majority of boards and water authorities are elected members of local authorities. I should not propose a change which would mean more national control.

Does the Minister's answer mean that he is changing the view and policy announced by the Under-Secretary of State earlier in the Session? Is he aware that the Opposition will reject any proposals to tax—which is what it would mean—the poorest and largest families in the country through the installation of water meters? It would be a most retrograde step. In addition to the cost of metering there would need to be a meter reader service, which would be a further financial imposition upon householders. Will the Minister therefore drop this crazy idea?

Obviously, the right hon. Gentleman's thoughts have not advanced beyond the penny-farthing stage in the context of the technology of what might be possible in water meter reading. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to consider that the sums that have been discussed in this context are not on a scale that would represent a massive imposition on the poor.

Gipsies

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consider changing his Department's policy on not moving on gipsies from Crown property.

Successive Governments have tolerated gipsies on Government land unless eviction has been essential. We are now reviewing this policy to clarify the extent to which it is still appropriate and whether it represents the best interests of the gipsies and of local communities.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware of the problems caused to my constituents at Watton farm by gipsy encampments? But for the help of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, they would still be there. As they have been moved twice, does my right hon. Friend agree that for unsuitable sites such as this one the policy might be changed more rapidly than his review would imply?

I am aware of the problems to which my hon. Friend refers. This is a difficult issue and will continue to be so until such time as adequate designated official sites are available for gipsies. Clearly, one seeks to operate a humane policy in these matters. Successive Governments have sought not to enforce movement unless it was considered essential.

Is the Minister aware that these so-called gipsies are nothing of the sort; that they are people who escape their proper obligations and, in the process, are a damned nuisance to nearby residents?

I think that, on reflection the hon. Member will accept that what he has said is not entirely true. There are genuine Romany families, for whom provision must be made. I accept that there is also a grey area of, perhaps, the Irish tinker community and others who might fit more fully into the hon. Gentleman's category. I should not wish to see all gipsies labelled with such accusations.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that Romany families should be welcomed, but I endorse the view of the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Jones) who talked about the nuisance which these gipsy families cause to genuine families in my constituency by the way in which they batten on to the community, pay no taxes, pay no rates and, in fact—

In addition to being a considerable nuisance and disadvantage to many of my hon. Friend's constituents, they do great damage to genuine Romany families who, in many areas, are often very much better behaved and much less anti-social in their behaviour. I recognise the genuine problem of this aspect of the itinerant community.

Does not the number of gipsy families greatly exceed the number that can be accommodated on authorised sites? I remind the House that these people are human beings. Many of them have no option but to put themselves where they are a nuisance to other people. Is not the answer for the Government to take action to see that those local authorities which are not providing sites do so? Is not this also in the interests of local authorities, such as my own, Harlow, which are providing sites?

The hon. Member will recognise that part of his comment was very much in line with my remark to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills). A statutory duty is laid upon local authorities, and it will be maintained.

Local Authorities (Expenditure)

18.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what response he has received to the White Paper on relaxing controls over local government.

I have received comments from the local authority associations, individual local authorities, the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and a number of other interested bodies and members of the public.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he allay some of the anxiety of metropolitan county councils that the proposals might remove the freedom of local government to finance capital expenditure by good housekeeping if they are able to do so? We should leave the responsibility for local government expenditure with local authorities if they are able to exercise it by good housekeeping and by the best means possible.

We have announced proposals to introduce ceilings on local government capital expenditure, but within those ceilings we have also announced changes that will give local government much greater flexibility as to how it uses its capital resources.

If controls on local authorities are to be relaxed, will that apply to the sale of council houses?

We have made it clear that we put our proposals to the electorate at the last election, and we have an overwhelming mandate to carry them into law.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a potential difficulty for councils facing a situation in which they must embark on large capital expenditure in order to meet an employment crisis, such as that in northeast Wales, but find that the new proposals seriously limit their freedom of manoeuvre?

That would depend entirely upon the ceilings that we set and the method by which we distribute the overall resources, together with other Government programmes.

What will the Secretary of State say to Conservative-controlled councils, such as North Norfolk and Guildford, which object as much as Labour-controlled authorities do to the dictatorial central controls by which the Government are to take over the sale of council houses regardless of how that will damage the ability of those councils to meet their local housing need?

I contest the assumption that this will damage the ability of authorities to meet their council house needs. I say to them what I have said to everyone else: the council house tenant is being offered one of the most generous opportunities that have ever been put before tenants. Nothing that the Opposition are able to do will stop us from carrying that to the statute book.

New International Airport

19.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if his Department has carried out a survey of the environmental impact of a two-runway international airport at any of the six sites short listed by the Advisory Committee on Airports Policy.

I understand that environmental implications are being taken into account by the study group on South-East airports, whose report, together with the views of the Advisory Committee on Airports Policy, is expected to be submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade shortly.

Has my right hon. Friend discovered any means of costing the environmental loss which the foundation of a new international airport would undoubtedly cause at any one of the six sites short listed, so that this can be compared with the other factors which are no doubt to be costed in the advisory committee's report?

I am unable to comment on what detailed work has been done on this matter, as we have not yet received the study group's report. However, this and other considerations will obviously become of great interest when the report is received and when any further action that may flow from it is considered.

Will the Minister abandon the idea of a third London airport, for environmental and other considerations, and accept that it would be much more sensible and much cheaper for a Government committed to public expenditure cuts to look at a regional alternative? Will the Minister consider Liverpool and Manchester in terms of taking the trade and business that would come to a third London airport, because Manchester can take 6 million passengers per year, and is taking only 2 million now?

While we obviously have a close interest in the environmental implications concerned, that question should more properly be directed to the Secretary of State for Trade.

Improvement Grants

20.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many improvement grants were paid in 1978–79; how many are likely to be paid in 1979–80; and if he will make a statement on current levels of grants.

It is estimated that about 59,000 grants were paid in 1978–79 for the conversion, improvement and repair of private dwellings in England. I am unable to offer an estimate of the number which will be paid in the current financial year, but in the first six months of 1979–80 an estimated 32,300 grants were paid. This compares with 28,500 in the same period in 1978–79. We are keeping the eligible expense limits for grants under review.

In view of the disappointing number of applications for grants, is the Minister prepared to review the upper limits in housing action and general improvement areas, as well as considering environmental grants for upgrading the areas around people's homes in housing action areas?

We are keeping all these matters under review. Less than a quarter of all improvement grant applications approved relate to total eligible expenditure at or near the maximum.

If my hon. Friend wishes to make a further onslaught on increasing the number of improvement grants, will he consider going back to the original scheme, under which small builders were able to get improvement grants and then sell the houses on the open market?

General Development Order

21.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he intends to submit to Parliament proposals to amend the general development order.

I am considering what extensions can be made to permitted development to reduce the number of planning applications that have to be considered. I hope to issue a consultation paper shortly.

I appreciate that the arguments are finely balanced on whether more minor development proposals ought to be taken out of the development control procedures. However, if my right hon. Friend decides against excluding more minor proposals, will he bring forward speedier and simpler procedures for dealing with such minor development proposals?

I appreciate the sense behind my hon. Friend's suggestion. However, these are matters which we shall have to consider in the light of the response to our consultation paper.

As the Government, on several occasions, have expressed the view—rightly, I believe—that non-conforming development in residential areas can be a good thing, will they look very carefully at the general development order and recognise the effect that small industrial extensions can have on neighbours?

Local Authorities (Cost-Effectiveness)

22.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has to encourage local authorities to compare their cost-efficiency in the provision of services with that of other local authorities.

I shall be seeking powers this Session to require local authorities to publish more information about the cost of their services in a form which will enable comparisons of performance to be made. My proposals are outlined in a consultation paper published on 24 October, a copy of which is in the Library.

Will the Secretary of State please make a statement at the earliest opportunity about the action that he intends to take against those local authorities which are giving or will be giving poor service to ratepayers? Will he make his views known to the councils' associations? Will he take action against London authorities, such as Lambeth, which intend to persist in working against the Government's policy?

It is my responsibility to set ceilings and overall targets. It is a matter for the local democratic processes to discuss the quality of services provided by individual authorities.

Will the Minister comment on how he views the presence of Lord Bellwin in his Department to assess the efficiency of local authorities? Will Lord Bellwin try to impose the values that he obtained at Staflex International—that is, complete closure, bankruptcy and thousands on the dole? Is that the aim?

I think that the hon. Member will recognise that Lord Bellwin has substantial experience in running a major authority. The Department aims to take advantage of the benefit of that experience. If the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was once a member had ever listened to experts, they might have governed rather more effectively.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many senior local government officers are becoming increasingly alarmed at the dictatorial determination of the Government to reduce them to mere agents of central Government?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should criticise this Government, when he spent six years in a Government who were trying to achieve precisely that. It is the elected representatives in local government who must have the last say about local priorities, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have appreciated that.

Housing Bill

23.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to publish the Housing Bill.

I expect to introduce the Bill before the House rises for the Christmas Recess.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that in the Bill there will be a further development of home improvements so as to increase substantially the housing stock in the private sector?

A number of proposals will be included in the legislation for that purpose.