Councillors (Financial Interests)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will publish in the Official Report the guidelines used for granting dispensation to members of local authorities to speak and vote on issues in which they may have an indirect financial interest.
The guidelines used for deciding applications for dispensations have been published in appendix II of DOE circular 105 of 1973, copies of which are in the Library of the House.
In view of the Secretary of State's U-turn over councillors who are parents with children at local schools, will the Minister give us an assurance that before any further similar decisions are imposed on councillors he will first make a statement to the House?
There is no question of any U-turn on this matter. This is the standard procedure that has been followed by successive Governments. My right hon. Friend took no decision. It is for councillors themselves to determine whether they have a pecuniary interest and, if they have, to make application for a dispensation. However, in view of the wide interest in the matter it was thought right to issue a general dispensation.
Is the Minister aware that that is not generally known and that there is great confusion and anger among councillors? Will he make it absolutely clear that any councillor with children at school, or who may have children at school, will have the right to vote on these issues? Will he say that from the Dispatch Box and not refer us to something in the Library?
:The question referred to the publication of the general rules. They have been published and copies are available in the Library. I am happy to confirm what the right hon. Gentleman said. In addition, every local authority has been or is being advised of this matter and I hope that my statement today will help clarify any further misunderstanding there might be.
Does not the Minister agree that it is high time we had a full review of the provisions relating to the disqualification of councillors who have an interest as council tenants or as parents? Does he not agree also that to disqualify councillors on that sort of ground from exercising the functions for which they were elected is to pervert the intentions of the provisions relating to pecuniary interest?
This matter was reviewed both by the Redcliffe-Maud committee and by the Royal Commission which inquired into the standards of conduct in public life as recently as 1977. Both bodies considered that there was no need for any change in the basic provisions that exist under the Act.
Urban Development Corporations
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment who are to be appointed as the chairmen of the two new urban development corporations and what will be the cost of their first year of operation.
:I hope to announce my intentions about chairmen soon. The costs of the first year of operation of the two UDCs will depend upon the range of powers afforded to them, and their exact areas and patterns of land acquisition. Decisions have yet to be taken on these.
Does the Secretary of State agree that any local authority that behaved in this way and went ahead with a plan without even pricing it would be branded by him as financially irresponsible? Will the Secretary of State also say whether the chairmen of these two urban development corporations are likely to be taken from a business or a political background?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until I make an announcement about the chairmen of the UDCs. The powers to establish UDCs will be examined in great detail when the legislation is considered on the Floor of the House and in Standing Committee. I think that it is right that these particular issues should be raised in that context.
Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to the principle of whether many, or indeed any, members of these UDCs should be members or nominees of the boroughs or local authorities in question?
I have considered that matter and I believe that it would be right for certain members to be drawn from local authorities but that it would be wrong for such people to be nominees.
Is the Secretary of State aware that, because the chairman of the proposed London urban development corporation will displace many of the functions of the local authority over at least half of my constituency, he has been called a Tory gauleiter? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, when the Government are thinking about reducing central government, he is increasing it to that extent in any area?
Because I think that we shall be able to do a better job for the people whom the hon. Gentleman represents than hitherto.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the future of the national anti-waste programme.
:The Government are considering the future of the national anti-waste programme. In the meantime, the staff of the national anti-waste programme unit are carrying on with normal activities.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of the success of the glass and textile recycling schemes, the encouraging signs in industries such as the aluminium industry and the response from British housewives? Is it not about time that we got behind this programme, instead of letting it drift, as happened under the previous Government, to show that the Conservative Government are concerned about the prevention of waste?
I very much share my hon. Friend's view, and I am now initiating a series of discussions, both inside my Department and, I hope, outside with those objectives very much in mind.
:Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied with the efforts of local authorities with regard to the collection of waste paper, bearing in mind the volume of imports of waste paper from the Continent?
The difficulty is that in many areas there is no economic payoff with regard to the recycling of waste paper. That makes it very difficult to encourage local authorities to take it on as an additional burden upon their ratepayers. I do not want to appear to be dismissive or negative. Like all of my predecessors, I am concerned to help in any way, either by research projects, the dissemination of information or by encouragement, within the confines of what we can afford, to pursue the objective of using waste most effectively and of protecting the environment to the greatest possible extent.
British Paraplegic Sports Society
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if, following the provisions of the Gleneagles agreement, he will request the British Paraplegic Sports Society to abandon its sporting links with South Africa.
:The British Paraplegic Sports Society, as a constituent member of the British Sports Association for the Disabled, can be in no doubt of the Government's position on sporting contacts with South Africa. The Sports Council sent governing bodies of sport a copy of the Commonwealth statement on sport soon after this was made in 1977.
Does the Minister accept that the ban operated by the British Paraplegic Sports Society on my constituent, Mrs. Maggie Jones, barring her from international sport as a consequence of her opposition to apartheid, is despicable and quite incompatible with the spirit of the Gleneagles agreement? While I accept that the hon. Gentleman has no more responsibility for that society than he has for the Rugby Union, can I ask him to make it clear that he expects the society to comply with the spirit of that agreement?
The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in pressing the claims of his constituent. However, I have no powers to intervene. The society is a charitable organisation which is independent of Government, and it is not right for me to interfere in its internal affairs.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that the proper position for a Government who believe in the freedom of the individual is either to introduce legislation to prevent certain actions or to offer no advice at all?
My hon. Friend must realise that, with regard to South Africa, we are bound by the Gleneagles agreement. The Government have made their position quite clear, and until that agreement is renegotiated, that remains the position.
:Will the Minister state clearly how many of his colleagues have supported his principled stand on the general issue? Might he not perhaps welcome the support of some of his Front Bench colleagues in his rather lonely stand on this matter?
My right hon. Friend and the Government are bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility, and entirely support my position.
General Development Order
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on whether he intends to introduce a town and country planning general development amendment order.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for introducing a new general development order.
We shall be publishing a consultation paper shortly containing details of our proposals for amending the general development order.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he give an assurance that the GDO as proposed by the Government will reduce the number of private dwellings in need of minimal adaptations that are required to go through the cumbersome and time-consuming planning process?
:I think that I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We shall obviously be mindful of those who are anxious that we exclude certain areas. For example, just as when the previous Government introduced their suggestions, we shall not allow houses to be split into two without planning permission, because that could have considerable consequences in our inner cities.
When considering the protection to be granted under the new GDO, will my hon. Friend take into account the problems of areas such as the national parks—those of Exmoor are especially current—and the conservation areas, so that there is both conservation and development?
Our consultation paper is taking rather longer than we had hoped, exactly for the reason stated by my hon. Friend. We hope to exempt the areas to which he has just referred.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that if the GDO is the same as the one introduced by the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) in the previous Parliament, it will be widely welcomed, provided that it excludes areas of outstanding natural beauty and conservation areas?
I am sure that there would be a consensus of opinion with regard to what my hon. Friend has said. However, I add the proviso that, rather than seek to emulate the previous Government, we want to bring forward something that is far better.
Royal High School, Edinburgh
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many staff in his Department are engaged on work in connection with the conversion work at the former Royal high school in Edinburgh; and what is the cost to the taxpayer of the security services provided within the grounds of the buildings.
:At present three officials have significant tasks arising from the conversion scheme at the former Royal high school. The estimated cost of the security arrangements in 1980–81 is £59,000.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the figure he has just given conflicts with an answer that I was given to a written question on 21 January, wherein it was stated that the cost was £71,500? As that figure is a continuing one, is it not time that we found a suitable tenant for this building, at a profit to the nation, or sold it on behalf of the public purse, thus reducing the need for cutting public expenditure?
:The figure that I gave my hon. Friend today was the estimated cost for 1980–81. Since May of last year we have already spent £45,000 on maintenance and security. As my hon. Friend will know, we have offered the use of the building to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
:Will the Minister have the honesty to admit that that public money could have been put to better use had the Government gone along with the expressed wishes of the majority of the people of Scotland who voted in the referendum for the setting up of a Scottish Assembly?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that £3·75 million has already been spent on this project, and there is clear evidence to show that it is not wanted by the majority of people.
Homes Insulation Act 1978
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give priority to introducing a special scheme for the elderly and disabled under the term of the Homes Insulation Act 1978.
On 1 November last, we introduced changes to the homes insulation scheme and to its administration to help pensioners and others with low incomes. We shall be watching progress.
Does the Minister accept that the need to watch progress has become somewhat more acute as a consequence of the Government's failure to arrest the rising price of domestic fuels? Is not the need for such a scheme an absolute necessity?
I should point out that the increases will not affect bills for this winter.
Will my hon. Friend be involved in consultations with his colleagues in preparing the new scheme to help the elderly with their heating bills? In that context, is it not absolutely essential, in terms of economics and savings, to have a major scheme to help the elderly insulate their homes?
As my hon. Friend will know, we have made quite a few changes in the scheme which ought to help the elderly. In particular, we have given freedom to local authorities to decide their own priorities. We have asked them to pay particular attention to pensioner applicants, and we have also said that they need not require the applicant to produce receipted accounts. That ought to help pensioners and others on low incomes.
:Does the Minister accept that under the existing scheme these people must still find about 50 per cent. of the cost? Will he persuade his colleagues in the DHSS to instruct supplementary benefit offices to be prepared, in exceptional cases, to meet the householders' proportion of the cost, or at least to increase the fuel allowances, so that there is no cost to them?
I am sure that my colleagues at the DHSS are well aware of the hon. Gentleman's point. I ought, perhaps, to make it clear that the average grant paid between September 1978 and June 1979 was £38 and that the Contractor's cost of insulating the loft of an average three-bed roomed house is about £70. Up to now, it has not proved necessary to raise the maximum grant of £50.
Is there not a strong case for making the scheme more flexible—along the lines of the argument that we put forward at the time that we opposed the proposals outlined and enforced by the previous Government—so that those who have spent their own money on some form of insulation are not penalised?
There are two points that I would make to my hon. Friend. First, we are trying to be as flexible as we can, but we cannot pay grant once work has commenced. Secondly, it is not possible to follow the line that he is suggesting because the major priority must be to ensure that uninsulated homes are insulated before we consider increasing the amount of insulation that is already installed.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proportion of housing association tenants will be given the right to buy when the proposals contained in the Housing Bill are implemented.
:About one-third of housing association tenants will have the right to buy, provided that the criteria set out in the Bill are met. In addition, we intend to bring forward amendments to the Housing Bill that will enable charitable, co-operative and co-ownership associations to sell to their members if they wish.
:I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, particularly on behalf of co-owners. However, I should like to ask whether there will be a pre-emption requirement to sell back to the Housing Corporation within a five-year period or, because they have paid the full mortgage payments throughout their tenure, will co-owners be allowed to get away without having to sell back?
:As my hon. Friend knows, co-ownership associations are self-governing bodies. The basis of their financing is different from that of the housing associations which have been in receipt of housing association grant. It will be for the members of those associations to make their own arrangements as to whether and how sales are made.
Building Regulations And Control
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the progress of his consultations with local authorities over the relaxation of building regulations.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received following his invitation on 10 December 1979, to interested parties to put forward suggestions for changes in the building regulations and control system; and what time he proposes to allow for consideration of suggestions received, further consultation and implementation of any changes.
Consultation on possible changes to the building control system has progressed well. Over 120 responses have now been received. After the end of January, my right hon. Friend will consider all the views submitted and will decide upon the next step.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that, in considering any proposed changes as he has described, the matter of safety will remain uppermost in his mind? Will he assure the House that there will be no relaxation of safety standards?
Whatever simplifications my hon. Friend finally decides to recommend to the building regulations—I hope that they are substantial—will he assure the House that he will also be seeking to have a uniform set applicable to the whole of the United Kingdom, rather than the present four different and comprehensive sets?
My right hon. Friend's speech was intended to apply to England and Wales, including inner London. The responsibility for the items in Scotland and Northern Ireland rests with the appropriate Secretaries of State.
:Will the Minister give more strength to local authorities in cases where people engage builders who do an inferior job that costs £1,400 or more and then disappear so that no retribution can take place?
I am got sure whether there is anything helpful that I can say to the hon. Gentleman. If builders are engaged who do not do a proper job it is more the fault of those who should have ensured that they picked the right builder in the first place. It is also for the appropriate local authority to make certain that, at least, plans that are submitted are in accordance with the regulations.
:Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government see the issue of building control as comingwithin the wider context of the testing of building materials generally, in the light of the recent decision of the Agrement Board? Similarly, will the Government also take decisions on the future of the building research stations, which are inextricably linked to that decision?
We shall certainly take into account the important points that my hon. Friend has raised.
:Will the Minister assure the House that any changes he introduces will not reduce the protection that is available to the house purchaser—such as my constituent, Mrs. Anns, and others, who were able to bring proceedings against the local borough council to recover the full loss of investment arising from defective housing that had been approved by the borough architect? Will the Minister assure the House that any changes will strengthen the position of the house buyer rather than weaken it?
The case of Anns v Mertonis engraved upon the hearts of many. The only assurance that I can give to the hon. Gentleman at this stage is that we have carefully noted the point that he makes. I cannot see this Government introducing any proposals that will reduce the security and safety of householders.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend would be kindenough to look into the problem of a constituent of mine? He discovered that the staircase in his private house was defective and dangerous. He pulled it out and was in the process of putting another one in, which was adjudged by everybody to be a safer one, when a local official said that it did not meet the necessary specifications. He was required to indulge in structural work at great expense, which he could not afford. Does not that sort of nonsense put government, in general, into disrespect? Will my hon. Friend take some action to sort out this ridiculous situation?
I am not unaware of my hon. Friend's constituent's problem. Indeed, it is a problem that I encountered with a twisting staircase in my own home. The solution that I adopted was not to put in a new staircase.
Inner City Policy
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the future of the inner city programme authorities.
My statement on inner city policy in September last year said that we proposed to continue the partnership and programme authority arrangements in simplified form but that we should be keeping under review the basis of selection of authorities and other aspects of the programme.
Does the Minister accept that the continuation of the schemes is vital to programme and partnership areas? It is certainly vital to my constituency. Will he consider extending the principle and, where possible, increasing the amount of money available for existing partnership areas?
:I am looking carefully into the question of the benefit that we are getting from the particular mix of schemes which has resulted from the present urban programme. Certainly, I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have assured the House before, of my commitment to the concept of an urban programme. However, I must be sure that local people and the taxpayers who fund a substantial part of the programme are getting real value for money.
Before my right hon. Friend commits more money to the inner city partnerships will he call for an audit of the empty properties in the London boroughs that are involved in the inner city partnerships?
I cannot say that I believe that the performance of every inner London borough is of the standard that we should like. However, it is a matter for the local authorities to deal with. They are independent authorities and if there are empty houses in their areas it should be a matter for the local ratepayers, tenants and media to draw to everybody's attention.
:Does the Minister realise how important the scheme has been, particularly in my constituency of Blackburn, at a time when other Government aid has been reduced? Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to discuss with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry the extension of the programmes to the provision of industrial units, given the cutback in the provision of advance factories that has been made by his right hon. Friend?
:The inner city urban programme is capable of being used as a contributor towards advance factory development, in terms of the derelict land clearance schemes and various other aids. It would be wrong for me to indicate that we have increases in public expenditure in mind. The priorities must be reviewed to ensure that money is being used as effectively as possible within the programmes.
Will the Secretary of State say what liaison will take place between his Department, the inner city partnership schemes and the proposed development corporations. Is he aware that I strongly support the case made by my hen. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) that more money should be spent in areas such as Liverpool, particularly in my constituency?
:The hon. Gentleman would have to reconcile that suggestion with the additional taxes or interest charges that would follow. They would do much more harm to the economy of Merseyside than any benefit that would flow from the public money that he is seeking. I ask the hon. Gentleman to understand that the Government have to strike a balance. As to the relationship between my Department, the present partnership arrangements, the urban development corporation and other Government Departments, all matters that affect the policy are considered within the Government and collective decisions are taken. Therefore, a real degree of co-ordination is ensured. In addition, Ministers from other Departments attend many of the partnership committee meetings.
While I recognise the problems of the inner cities, may I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that it is not simply a question of providing money for them? Is he aware that in some instances there is considerable evidence that the money is not wisely spent? Before commiting more funds to the schemes will he look into the matter carefully?
I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's point of view. Indeed, I have suggested to local authorities with which we are engaged in the partnership process that we should set up a review team in the partnership programmes. That team could consist not only of people from local authorities but from a wider base, particularly an industrial base.
On the subject of vacant properties within partnership areas, about which the Secretary of State has been critical, will he comment on the practice of the Birmingham council of holding properties vacant so that it may sell them in the future?
Local authorities are free to make decisions, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) often reminds us. I am sure that he would not wish to erode local government freedom, in contradiction to all the policy statements he makes.
Council Houses (Sale)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what evidence he has received as to the average time it is taking in England to complete the sale of a council house; and if he will make a statement.
I have no evidence as to the average time taken by local authorities to complete council house sales. I am aware that in certain areas, including my hon. Friend's constituency, there have been substantial delays in processing applications. I am considering what more I can do to help before the Housing Bill becomes law, and I hope to make an announcement shortly.
Can my right hon. Friend say whether he will shortly be in a position to help certain council house tenants in my constituency whose properties were valued in 1978–79, and who, through no fault of their own, have still not been able to complete the purchase of their houses?
I am very much aware of the problems in my hon. Friend's constituency, and in other areas. I ask him to bear with me. I hope to make a statement shortly.
:Does the Secretary of State accept that the sale of houses involves surveying each house, valuing it, selling it, and arranging a mortgage for it? How can that he done without taking on a vast number of extra officials, or paying solicitors to do the job, both of which involve public expenditure?
Of course there is a public expenditure cost. Since the gain to the people concerned is immeasurably greater I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that I am prepared to countenance this small public expenditure for the massive benefit to the tenants that will follow.
Will the Secretary of State, in his review of the matter, consider encouraging local authorities to make more use of estate agents when selling oil council houses?
I would encourage local authorities to make more use not only of estate agents but of all other private sector concerns, particularly solicitors. I go even further. I would encourage local government to adopt the opportunities of greater flexibility and economy that the use of private sector services could undoubtedly make available to them.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in Southampton approximately 500 people wishing to purchase their council houses have been gazumped? Because of delays in completing contracts, partly due to the local authority, and partly due to his Department, those people, who have already spent considerable sums on arranging mortgages and so on, are now being asked to pay up to £3,000 above the originally agreed contract price. What does the Secretary of State intend to do about that?
I can give the hon. Gentleman two answers. I am going to make a statement shortly on the general problem. The hon. Gentleman is drawing the attention of the House to the phenomenon of the changes in house prices that took place between the time when people originally applied to buy their houses and when the valuations took place. I am the first to regret the increases which, as the hon. Gentleman will remember, took place largely under the previous Labour Government.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what rise took place in house prices for each of the last four quarters.
Seasonally adjusted, the rise in average house prices in the United Kingdom in four quarters beginning October 1978 was 7 per cent., 5½ per cent., 6½ per cent. and 6½ per cent. respectively. The fourth quarter 1979 figure will be available on 4 February.
Bearing in mind the increase in house prices, will the Minister comment on the plight of council house tenants in Labour-controlled district councils who will have to wait upon the enactment of our legislation before they are able either to buy their council houses or gain the maximum discounts available?
:I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope that, in view of the fact that the House has now given its assent to the Second Reading of the Housing Bill by a substantial majority, those councils which are not now selling council houses will consider doing so. Otherwise, as my hon. Friend said, Labour authorities will be ensuring that tenants who buy in their area will have to pay substantially more as a result of their not having sold earlier.
Does the Minister recall the promise given by his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that mortgages would be pegged at 9½ per cent., given the election of a Conservative Government? Will he say when it is likely that the present mortgage level of 15 per cent. will be reduced? Will he also explain how people who are prospective and present owner-occupiers have any chance of finding the massive mortgage repayments which they are expected to pay?
The hon. Gentleman referred to prospective owner-occupiers. Any measure that would result in an artificial reduction in the mortgage interest rate, by cutting the rate which is being paid to investors, would only ensure that there is less money available for the building societies to lend.
Bearing in mind these massive increases in house prices, and the increases in solicitors' and estate agents' costs, will the hon. Gentleman put pressure on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise the exemption limit for stamp duty in his Budget?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor. No doubt he will pursue the matter with him.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his visit to London Docklands on 14 January.
I found it most useful to meet leaders of the Docklands boroughs to discuss with them the problems of the area and the progress that has been made towards redeveloping it. What I saw confirmed my view that a powerful single-minded development agency is needed to build on the work that is already underway in the public sector, and to attract more private investment in housing, industry and commerce.
:Having seen the area for himself, would my right hon. Friend not agree that neglect of London's Docklands is one of the major scandals of our postwar era? As he has said, is not the setting up of the proposed development corporation the only effective way of ending the inter-borough bickering and the planning obstruction which has plagued this area for far too long? Having set up the corporation, will he ensure that adequate resources are available to it to restore and revive this decaying part of our capital city?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I agree that the establishment of such an agency is necessary. I find it encouraging that this view is now shared widely among informed opinion on the matter in the country. I shall do my best, in the context of public expenditure restrains on the Government, to provide the additional resources which I have no doubt are needed in the area.
:Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I am particularly grateful to him for visiting my constituency on 14 January but am sorry that he could not spend longer that 20 minutes there? Was that long enough for him to discover that there is so much activity in the designated Dockland area of my constituency that there will be literally nothing for an urban development corporation to do?
:The hon. Gentleman has spent more time there than I have, although, judging from what he says it is difficult to know what he has been doing. It is apparent that there are vast opportunities in that area. I hope, if the House gives a Second Reading to the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, that all hon. Members will realise that the Government's sole purpose is to bring more resources and a unified central purpose to bear on a problem of crucial concern to the large numbers of people who live there, and who are suffering from the deprivation in that area.
Is the Secretary of State aware that council members and myself were glad to meet him on the ground in my constituency? Will he now state what can be done specifically by the urban development corporation in the part of the constituency that he saw which is not already being done by the borough council?
Yes. It can reconcile the conflicting attitudes of the various authorities. It can obtain the release of land which is being held up and which has been under-used for a long period, and it can bring resources to bear that are not currently available.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he has made with his proposals for streamlining planning procedures.
The Local Government, Planning and Land(No. 2) Bill will end the duplication of planning functions. There is to be a code of practice, with time limits, on consultations about planning applications. There will be proposals for amending the general development order and for improving the efficiency of the appeals system. We are considering publishing performance indicators both for handling planning applications and appeals.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that that news will be welcomed by the many people who have had to pay more than they otherwise would have done for their new houses as a result of planning delays in the existing system and particularly delays involved in the split between district and county councils over planning?
We are conscious, not merely of the cost involved in the slow operation of the planning system but of the loss of employment that may result from industrial projects being held up. We are taking a number of measures that we hope will collectively help significantly to improve the operation of the system.
:Will the Minister confirm that planning for trunk roads is not within the province of his Department but belongs to the Department of Transport? Does he agree that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), has no right to make ex-cathedra pronouncements about the time that will elapse before a trunk road is built after the conclusion of the public inquiry? Will he confirm that that is a matter solely for the Department of Transport?
The planning of trunk roads is a matter for the Department of Transport. I have no knowledge of the other matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the appeals procedure is cumbersome and costly for the appellant? Does he have any proposals to enable the inspectorate to give more immediate decisions?
We hope shortly to introduce—probably within the next two months—a system of almost immediate decision-making by inspectors in appropriate cases, where that has been agreed with the parties concerned. It will be a significant contribution to improving the speed and operation of the planning system.
Building Societies Association
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will meet the chairman of the Building Societies Association.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when last he met the chairman of the Building Societies Association.
I met the chairman of the Building Societies Association on 18 January and we shall meet again as appropriate. My Department has close and frequent contact with BSA representatives.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the record 15 per cent. interest charge, which is the result of this Government's wilful and misguided monetary policy, is causing severe hardship to home owners and particularly to first-time buyers? Furthermore, statements that the rate might go up to 17 per cent. are causing fear and concern. Will he make clear to building societies that the Government will not countenance an interest rate as high as 17 per cent.? Will he also give some hope that the mortgage rate will be reduced shortly?
I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the high interest rates that prevail in the British economy. The Government are determined to do the one thing that will bring those interest rates down—reduce levels of public expenditure. Since the hon. Gentleman has shown that he shares our concern, I invite him to join us in the Lobby in support of that policy.
After all due concern is expressed about the high level of mortgage interest rates, does my right hon. Friend agree that far and away the greatest difficulty presented to young first-time buyers remains finding the appropriate deposit? Will he confirm that, when circumstances permit, it remains the Government's policy to try to assist in that direction, bearing in mind the good deal being offered to sitting tenants of council houses?
:My hon. Friend will remember that we referred to the desirability of such a scheme in our manifesto, but we made it absolutely clear that it had to follow improvements in the overall economic climate in this country. Nothing can change that relative priority.
:In discussions with the chairman of the Building Societies Association, did the right hon. Gentleman hold out any hope that MLR would come down, and that, as a result, mortgage interest rates would decrease? Does he recall that in the election the Conservatives promised owner-occupiers that they would get a better deal from this Government?
I have not the slightest doubt that they will. Owner-occupiers will get a better deal if we can improve the economic climate and bring down the rates of inflation and interest. The Government are engaged in that battle, and the House will have an opportunity to discuss these matters. I also hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in our decisions.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome the fact the BSA is in favour of the limit for tax relief on mortgages being extended beyond £25,000?
The Government had to consider that proposal. In all the circumstances, we felt it wrong to move beyond the measures that we have already announced.
:Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have treated with total contempt many of the house buyers who voted for them last May?
The house buyers who voted Conservative last May voted for a stable economy and the measures that are necessary to bring that about. When we come to account to them for our stewardship they will have to judge whether we have taken appropriate measures to bring that about or whether they would have done better with a party that cries for more public expenditure and which would, therefore, have forced up interest rates. The Labour Opposition have tried to renege on all the things that they were forced to do in government.
Ingol Distributor Road
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to give his decision following the inspector's report after the public inquiry held in Preston into the proposed Ingol distributor road.
The inspector's report is currently being considered. I hope that a decision on this can soon be given.
:Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is considerable anxiety among the people of the Ashton part of Preston about the results of the inquiry? Will he undertake to expedite the decision?
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a further statement concerning his plans for an urban development corporation for London Docklands.
:I intend to make a further statement about an urban development corporation for London Docklands in the debate on the Second Reading of the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of his objectives in the urban development corporation is to bring about the investment of private capital? Many millions of pounds of private capital have already been committed to housing and shops in the Beckton development area. Will the right hon. Gentleman now confirm either the Docklands strategic plan or that part of it relating to Beckton? Unless he does, he is frustrating his own immediate objectives.
:The hon. Gentleman must be fully aware that Newham has not given formal notice of its intention to adopt that plan, and the initiative remains with the local authority. There is no evidence—and I constantly ask hon. Members for it—that I am holding up anything at all in the London Docklands.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will reconsider his decision to allow the siting of a jobcentre at 55–57 High Street, Biggleswade.
While no one doubts the importance of the jobcentre, does my hon. Friend agree that the flexibility of choice over a site is far greater for the DOE than for the small traders who have to find a place in this, the only shopping centre? Why does he overrule the judgment of the town council and the chamber of trade? What justification can there be for that imposition? Is my hon. Friend aware that it probably costs the public a good deal more than any other solution and provides scant proof of the Government's intention to support small businesses? Will my hon. Friend please consider the proposals again?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the development of Crown land is in a special position. My right hon. Friend's only concern is to look at the planning merits of the proposed development. To that effect, a visit was made to the site. It is our information that there are empty premises in that town. With regard to the need, siting, and public expenditure implications, those are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.
Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has now received about the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977; whether he is satisfied with the working of the Act; and if he will make a statement.
:The local authority associations and the voluntary organisations concerned have been asked for their views on the operation of the Act, but I have not yet received all their replies. I expect to do so shortly, and we shall complete the review as soon as practicable thereafter.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the practical difficulties that many local authorities are having in implementing the Act, not least the problem of queue-jumping? May I stress that neither I nor the local authorities in my constituency are against the principles of the Act, and we should not like to see them changed? I am pleased to see that the Minister is having consultations, but will he press strongly for improvements to be made in the Act as soon as possible?
:The hon. Gentleman poses one of the central dilemmas. We have to implement the principles of the legislation and give proper statutory protection to the homeless on a basis that is fair to all, including those who have been waiting for some time for local authority accommodation. It is one of the central issues to which we shall be addressing ourselves.
From the replies so far received, can the Minister say what is said about the possible effect of the Housing Bill on the working of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act and on homeless persons generally?
The right hon. Gentleman is referring to shorthold. However, that will make no difference to the operation of the legislation. If someone becomes homeless after the Housing Bill is enacted, the position of local authorities as regards interpreting their responsibilities under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act will remain unchanged.
I think that the Minister has misunderstood me. He was kind availability of accommodation. The Bill That will all help to solve the problem of homelessness.
That was the gist of the hon. Gentleman's argument a moment ago. What have local authorities had to say about that? Will the amount of homelessness be increased? Will it not result in increased pressure on the resources of local authorities under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act?
The right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. There is no question of the Housing Bill increasing homelessness. The provisions in the Bill relating to shorthold, resident landlords and assured tenancies will increase the availability of accommodation. The Bill will also give council tenants the statutory right to sublet and take in lodgers. That will all help to solve the problem of homelessness.
Council Houses (Sales)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many inquiries he has received from the public concerning his legislative proposals relating to the sale of council houses since he took office.
About 2,000 letters.
:Is my right hon. Friend aware that I receive many letters every week, and that I have done so since the general election of last year, from council house tenants in my constituency? Does he accept that he will have to consider the possibility that some local authorities—I hope that they will not include the Scunthorpe borough council—will try to defy the law if the Bill is enacted, as I hope that it will be, later this year?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend as he has drawn the attention of the House to an important point. As I have said, I have received about 2,000 letters concerning the sale of council houses. About 90 per cent. of them indicate broad support for our policy. Indeed, the policy is well accepted and popular. Resentment and opposition to that policy comes only from the entrenched bigotry of the Labour Party.
:Has the Secretary of State had any representations from tenants who are in substantial rent arrears who wish to know whether they have the right to purchase their dwellings? Will the Secretary of State confirm that a tenant who is in substantial rent arrears has a right to purchase his dwelling under the proposed legislation? What powers do local authorities have to refuse a mortgage under that legislation if they have considerable evidence that the tenant will find it impossible to meet mortgage repayments?
If the tenant is in rent arrears, he will not have the right to purchase. I go further. I advise such a tenant not to purchase. If he is incapable of keeping up with his rent payments it would be an act of ill-considered judgment to take on the responsibilities of home purchase. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the overwhelming majority of council tenants are not in arrears with rent payments. Those people will have the right to purchase, unless the Labour Party gets its way.
Is the Secretary of State aware that it is not only socialist councils that are blocking the Bill? In my local authority, Liberals have not permitted that authority to proceed with the Bill.
I can well believe that. There are certain Liberals who do not yet know that the Lib-Lab pact is over?
Why does the Secretary of State adopt this jackboot attitude towards local authorities and councils, forcing them to carry out his policies? Why does he not apply the same jackboot attitude to private landlords? Is it because they are the sort of people who contribute to Tory Party funds? If it is fair for local authorities to sell off houses why is it not fair for private tenants to have the right to buy their houses?
:The answer is simple. The State has contributed to the cost of council houses through the revenues that it collects from the taxpayer. Therefore, the Government are entitled to make judgments about what they do with the taxpayers' assets. If I were a Labour Party Member I would concern myself with the penetration of extremists in the party before I started to talk about jackboot attitudes.
Building Societies Association
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to meet the chairman of the Building Societies Association.
I refer my hon. Friend to my reply earlier today to the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Aspinwall).
When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of the Building Societies Association will he convey to him my constituents'gratitude—and no doubt that of many others—for the flexible and compassionate way in which the member societies have dealt with applications in cases of hardship that have been brought about by the increase in mortgage interest rates? We inherited that situation. Is he aware that we are grateful for the fact that the building societies have dealt with that problem by freezing capital payments and allowing interest-only payments until our economy is under control?
:The BSA has acted with the utmost responsibility and care. It has done so under various Governments. The BSA is there to help purchasers and to protect the savings of those who invest in them. I do not believe that anyone would do anything but pay tribute to it.
When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the BSA will he draw attention to the recent pamphlet issued by the Bow Group? It is there suggested that building societies should become limited companies, responsible to market forces and to shareholders. Might not that be better than persisting with the present situation in which a cartel in interest rates is operated? That cartel is not to the advantage of lenders or borrowers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it makes building societies peculiarly susceptible to the advice, and sometimes even the threats, of any Government?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the building societies have produced their own interim report concerning the provision of finance for the building society movement. I also have asked for a report to be made available to me. Many issues are raised. My hon. Friend has mentioned one publication that has also widened the debate. I do not accept that it works quite as my hon. Friend has said. I intend to ensure that there is a wide debate in the light of all the reports that have recently come to public attention or that will shortly do so.
Electricity Converter Station (Sellindge)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he will be in a position to announce a decision following the public inquiry in respect of the siting of the Central Electricity Generating Board proposed converter station adjoining the village of Sellindge.
As the inspectors' report of the inquiry is not yet available, it is too early to say. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that the case will be dealt with as quickly as possible.
In spite of that assurance is my hon. Friend aware that there is a feeling within the village of Sellindge that the Secretary of State has already made up his mind? Is my hon. Friend aware that a secret report came out during the course of the inquiries? Will he make representations and make certain that the inspectors and the public are given access to correspondence between the Secretary of State for Energy and the Minister of Transport and the CEGB in July and August?
My hon. Friend and I have been in correspondence. The document that has been mentioned was inaccurate, but I understand that it has been corrected. Approval for an electricity link with France was given in principle in August 1978. However, no Government decision has been taken about any site in Britain for the proposed converter station. I am happy to confirm my previous words with him in writing.
Sporting Bodies (Taxation)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has had any recent discussions with the principal sporting bodies in the United Kingdom concerning taxation matters.
I have had no such recent discussion. I had correspondence recently with the chairmen of the British Olympic Association and of the Central Council of Physical Recreation about one specific aspect of the taxation of sport.I was pleased to learn that the Sports Council had instituted a general inquiry into the whole subject, and look forward to receiving its report when it is ready.
:Considering the attitude of the Minister when he was a member of the Opposition, would it not be appropriate if he was to make a stand now in favour of these tax reductions that are called for by the sports organisations?
When I receive the report I shall consider it and I shall inform the Chancellor of the Exchequer of its contents.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his policy on the future development of municipal enterprise.
I have no plans to develop municipal enterprise.
Now that the right hon. Member has turned his back completely on the tradition of Chamberlain, is he not prepared to encourage municipal enterprise? Why has he put legislation before the House which indicates that he thinks that central Government know more than local authorities about the running of their direct labour organisations?
:If Chamberlain had seen as much of municipal enterprise as I have, he might have had a rather different view from the one the hon. Member puts forward.
:Has my right hon. Friend seen the splendid example of municipal enterprise in the proposal for the in-house architects' department of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea to form itself into a private consultancy? Is my right hon. Friend aware that this will bring financial benefits to the ratepayers and the council, and will ensure job security for those architects?
I have certainly seen the suggestion that the architects employed by that authority should have the opportunity to set themselves up as a free enterprise company. This is a very interesting initiative and one which should be considered on a much wider scale.
In view of the Secretary of State's concern about the development of municipal enterprise, what advice is he prepared to give to the mayor and leader of his own local council at Henley, who resigned this week, and to the five Conservative councillors from Henley who have called a special meeting of the council to consider the development of the £3·5 million new office block being financed by the majority Conservative group on the local council?
It is difficult for me to comment about individual decisions of individual authorities. If I dare to trespass over the dividing lines which beset every Secretary of State, I should point out that I was concerned when the local authority in South Oxfordshire decided to move forward over the building of a new headquarters. I was not Secretary of State at the time. As the hon. Mem- ber will remember, the council moved in that direction with the support of the Liberal vote.I cannot comment on anything that has happened in that authority since I became Secretary of State. I can only report the facts, on which the House may care to make a judgment. There was much widespread debate. The local Conservative Party called an emergency meeting at which, by an overwhelming majority, it was decided to advise councillors not to proceed with the decision to build a new headquarters. That matter is totally within the decision of the local councillors. Some Conservative councillors have now called an emergency meeting of the council and it will be for the council—asa result of that meeting—to decide what to do. I wish to make one other point—[Interruption]
Order. We really have been patient with the right hon. Gentleman. I think that he should finish answering the question.
I had only one more point to make Mr. Speaker. In my opinion, in this case we can rely on the good sense of the Conservative Party.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I refer to the last question answered by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The fact is that hon. Members, including myself, are often refused permission to put down questions on the grounds that responsibility for the Conservative Party is not a matter for Ministers. Indeed, recently I tried to put down a question to the Prime Minister about the document called "The Right Approach"—it is rather tattered and shabby now—but I was refused permission to do so. Today the Secretary of State for the Environment discussed the internal matters of the Conservative Party—at least in his Henley constituency. It seems as if he has set a precedent. Will you let us know in due time, Mr. Speaker, whether questions relating to Conservative Party policy can now be tabled in the House since the Secretary of State for the Environment seems to want to answer them with such alacrity.
:I think that it is within the memory of the House that the Secretary of State for the Environment, having heard his constituency mentioned, reacted in the same way as any other right hon. or hon. Member would have reacted in similar circumstances. He wanted to put the record right—in that case at any rate. It is not to be taken as a precedent that the internal affairs of either of the major parties, or indeed of any of the other parties, is a responsibility—
:Order. The hon. Gentleman can see that. I am on my feet. I am about to conclude. Nobody here is personally responsible to this House for the internal affairs of any of the parties.
:Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I really do need your guidance. I had understood that when a Minister is a Minister he cannot divorce himself from that fact or, indeed, adopt another entity. Are we to understand now that when the Minister answers from the Dispatch Box in his ministerial capacity he can divide himself in half?
The matter is quite simple. I recall that when I had the honour to be Secretary of State for Wales, if anyone mentioned Cardiff, West I was on my feet in a second. That is what happened today.