asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement as to how his policies will affect employment in the building and construction industry in the North-East.
Employment in building and construction will depend on the industry's response to the various measures I am taking to facilitate development.
Does not the Secretary of State realise that unemployment in the building and construction industry already accounts for 17 per cent. of the unemployment in the North-East and that in a recent survey 43 per cent. of the workers wanted to leave the industry because of insecurity? Will he now bring in a crash programme of building and construction work in areas of high unemployment? Would he like to start with the 400 unmade roads in my constituency?
Unmade roads are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. A crash programme of the kind that the hon. Gentleman envisages would lead to increases in public expenditure which would actu- ally exacerbate the very problems to which he has drawn the attention of the House.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the detrimental effect that local authority direct labour organisations have had on the building industry in the North-East this year?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I am aware of that, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services is responsible for taking through the House legislation to control and regulate the activities of direct labour organisations.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he proposes to take to reduce the level of lead pollution in the environment.
New regulations on the maximum lead content of food will come into force on 12 April; the maximum permitted level of lead in petrol will be reduced to 0·40 grams per litre on 1 January 1981; and the water industry, with Government encouragement, is pressing ahead with a programme to deal with problems of lead in water where they occur.The Government will be considering the need for further action in the light of the report of the working party, chaired by Professor Lawther, which will be published on Friday.
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that interesting reply. Has he considered removing lead from petrol altogether, in line with action taken by at least two other countries? Is he aware of the growing concern among the parents of children living near motorways about the likely effects that the lead content of petrol will have on their children, both mentally and physically?
We are naturally aware of the concern and that is why we have supported the work of the working party which was set up by the previous Government. I think that the hon. Lady will agree that it is sensible to consider the important report which will be published on Friday. We shall then all be better informed and be able to comment on the type of question that she has asked.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there is a tremendous amount of concern about this matter, often coming from extemely well-informed people, especially with regard to the effects of lead pollution on children living near motorways? Will he constantly attempt to get across to the public what the Government are thinking, doing and feeling about this very important matter?
I hope that my hon. Friend will encourage as many people as possible to read the report of the working party, when it is published. It covers the aspects of lead in petrol and in the air, and other sources of lead in the environment which are also very important.
Will the Minister agree that the report of the Department of Transport working party last June, which is likely to be reinforced by the Lawther report to be published on Friday, suggests that the alternatives facing the country now are either to reduce the lead content to ·15 or to remove it altogether? Will the Government therefore consider publishing a green paper setting out the respective merits of those alternative courses so that Parliament and the country at large can have an intelligent and informed debate and reach a consensus on which of those two courses would be the most sensible?
Clearly we would be very interested to hear the responses of all interested parties to the report of Professor Lawther's working party. I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says.
Association Of Metropolitan Authorities
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when next he expects to meet the chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.
On 15 April, when I chair the next meeting of the consultative council on local government finance.
Is it true that Sir Godfrey Taylor has withdrawn his officers from the grants working group because he is totally opposed to the block grant system which the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward and that the other local authority associations are similarly totally opposed to it? How can he operate such a system in the face of complete opposition by all the local authority associations?
I understand that the Association of Metropolitan Authorities meets tomorrow to discuss its latest reply to the conversations that we have had with it over a period of time. The fact is that, especially on the recalculation of methods for needs assessment, there is a broad measure of agreement between myself and the local authority associations.
When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of the AMA will he discuss with him the report in The Guardian yesterday which said that the entire urban aid programme may be wound up? Will he also tell the House what intentions he has for ensuring that the partnership committees, such as those meeting in Liverpool on Friday, will rethink their priorities so that schemes such as those of voluntary organisations might also be considered?
I do not think that I shall spend a lot of time on the first suggestion with the representatives of local government, as there is no foundation in this story and, therefore, it would not be worth discussing.As to the question about support for the voluntary organisations, I realise that there is a part to be played by them. I am having to consider very carefully within my Department the balance between the various claims that are put forward. I am anxious that the urban programme should be used for specific areas where there is to be a one-off and conspicuous effect, rather than accumulating a range of ongoing commitments, which prejudices one's ability to make new initiatives in following years.
With regard to the meeting of the consultative council, will my right hon. Friend confirm that whilst the original proposals from the local authority associations were entirely unacceptable, he has not closed his mind to any future proposals that may come from the associations, and that, if such proposals were to come forward, they would be considered in depth by the Government?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because it enables me to repeat to the House what my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in Standing Committee D yesterday. The Government's view is quite clear. It is that we should proceed with the principle of block grant. If the local authority associations wish to come forward with amendments to the face of the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, which would enable their anxieties about specific areas of concern to be dealt with, of course we shall look at them. But the Government feel that it is important now to establish that the principle of block grant is a priority of the Government.
Will the Secretary of State answers the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) a moment ago? Has Sir Godfrey Taylor withdrawn officials of the AMA from one of the working groups set up by the right hon. Gentleman because Sir Godfrey and the AMA disagree with the policy that the Government are now espousing?
No, the AMA is considering to what extent it should involve itself in the details. The meetings at which a withdrawal would have to take place have not happened. What is happening is that the AMA is considering what it should do to co-operate on the details of the scheme with the Government. It is important to understand that the Government are well in a position to proceed without detailed consultation with local government. [HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] However, I believe, as I have said to local authority associations, that the detailed workings will be a great deal better if local authorities co-operate in the examination of these details.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many Civil Service posts have been left unfilled in his Department since May 1979; and what are the numbers, salary entitlements and grades of those left vacant.
This information could not be made available in the form requested without disproportionate effort. But between 1 May 1979 and 1 March this year the total number of staff employed in my Department fell by 3,505 or by 6·7 per cent. The number of vacancies in posts remaining on the Department's complement is constantly changing.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the very great damage that he is doing by his constant implication that those who work in the public services are somehow a drag on society? Does he recognise the personal tragedy to hundreds of boys and girls, young men and young women, in the Northern area who stayed at school, obtained extra qualifications, and who are now being forced to join the dole queue? Does not he understand that we cannot sack people and do without people in the public services without doing damage to the very services that the most vulnerable in the community require?
The right hon. Member will be fully aware that I have not sacked anyone. All that I have done is not to replace quite as many people as have, of their own free will, or in terms of voluntary retirement, left my Department. However, if the right hon. Member believes that the solution to the country's problems is to enhance the scale of the public sector, he will have to explain to those young school leavers the benefits of living with interest rates of the sort that have become all too familar recently.
Among his activities, will my right hon. Friend consider the joint manpower watch figures that he published only this week and the very disappointing figures of the reduction in manpower in local government, in both Conservative-controlled and other counties? What further steps can he or we take to encourage a better use of manpower at local level?
There is a question about this subject later on the Order Paper. I did not want to anticipate that. However, I believe that the publication of figures for almost every local authority—the very few exceptions being authorities which have not submitted their figures—enables the debate about the number of people employed in local government to be extended on a very significant and sophisticated scale. I shall want those figures to be increased in sophistication later in the year, when I shall request local authorities to publish their manpower figures broken down department by department.I think that what has happened conspicuously as a result of the initiative on Monday of this week is that now local authorities which thought that they were doing well are able to see just how well they have been doing as compared with other authorities broadly similar to themselves.
How many of those unfilled posts are among the legal staff of the right hon. Gentleman's Department? Will he fill those posts to prevent him from making ultra vires decisions, as he appears to have done under the New Towns Act in regard to Stevenage and the disposal of new town assets?
I shall certainly find out how many are in the legal department, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will realise at once that the quality of advice is nothing to do with the quantity of advice.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is to be congratulated on effecting this reduction in manpower? This is the answer to those who are saying that savings are being made only at the sharp end of services. However, is he also aware that many of us on the Conservative Benches hope that similar progress can be made in each year of the present Government?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that that is right. There is another general conclusion, that if I had announced that there would be 3,500 fewer employees when I first took over the Department, it would have been described by Opposition Members in the horrendous terms with which we are familiar. The fact that there are now 3,500 fewer people would, I dare say, not have come to the attention of the House if I had not answered this question today.
Regional Water Authorities
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he considers that the regional water authorities are sufficiently accountable to the ratepayer.
A majority of the members of each water authority are locally elected councillors who are responsible for representing the interests of the ratepayers.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. However, in view of the Government's stated policy not only of reducing Government waste but simplifying bureaucracy, how does he justify the continuance and extension of separate billing of the water rate?
If I were quite frank with my hon. Friend, I think that, to quote a phrase used before, I could say that, without difficulty, I could confine my enthusiasm for direct billing within the bounds of decorum. But the fact is that this process had been carried out substantially through a large number of water authorities before we came to office. I do not think it is quite practicable to change this proposal. It is a fact that it will show savings for the water authorities, but I would not claim that there are net savings overall for the public purse.
Is the Minister aware that in Leeds direct billing has just been introduced and the ratepayers see an increase of over 100 per cent. in their water rate? This is causing genuine worry and anxiety. Will he consider, in particular, taking the water authorities back from direct billing? Secondly, will he consider extending rate relief for water rates? Thirdly, will he consider insisting that water authorities offer, publicly and straightforwardlly, a fortnightly or monthly system of payment, instead of frightening people, old people in particular, who simply cannot meet twice-yearly bills?
I should like to have details, if the hon. Gentleman would care to give them to me, of the particular percentage to which he has referred, because it is certainly very different from the average for the area. There must be very particular problems in that area. I understand the concern about the charges for the water industry. I have instituted, and I am now in the middle of, a series of meetings—I understand that such meetings have never been held before—between the Minister responsible and the chairman and chief executive of each water authority, to consider with them how the water authorities are being run, and to consider more effective ways in which they might operate in the future.
Is not the degree of local option in such vexed issues as the fluoridation of water supplies much less now than it used to be? Should not a greater degree of control be restored to the elected representatives of the people?
As my hon. and learned Friend will be aware, that is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I shall be grateful if he directs his remarks and questions to my right hon. Friend.
Is the Minister aware that there were regular meetings between Ministers and the chairmen of water authorities throughout the lifetime of the previous Labour Government?
No action was taken.
Action was taken. Is the Minister further aware that, as a result of those meetings, water authorities were asked to defer the implementation of direct charges? Will he confirm that it is not now possible to cancel them altogether and that they have to continue because they follow automatically from the Act of Parliament which the previous Conservative Government introduced, which has proved to be disastrous?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question must rank as one of the most confused questions asked during this Session. If he took such exception to the measure introduced by the previous Conservative Government he had plenty of opportunity to change it. I understand that the meetings that were held previously were held collectively with all the chairmen present. If one wants to get to the heart of the matter, it is necessary to deal with each authority separately and to talk about the separate problems of the in- dividual areas. I do not think that such meetings have ever been held before.
Get it right.
I will get it right. Is it not a fact that the previous Labour Government introduced a White Paper, in which were proposed the necessary changes, which was opposed by the then Conservative Opposition?
I do not know how many bites of the cherry the right hon. Gentleman proposes to take, but that is not correct either.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the implementation of his agreement to use his Department as the co-ordinating body for the dissemination of information in the event of offshore oil pollution.
Information about oil pollution incidents at sea is part of the responsibility of the marine pollution control unit reporting to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. A contingency plan is being drawn up, however, for the coordination by the Department of the Environment of the local authorities' response to a very major incident threatening the coast and this will include co-ordination of information for local authorities.
May I thank my hon. Friend for his prompt response to our recent problems on the South Coast? However, does not his answer confirm that the Department of Trade and my hon. Friend's Department are responsible in part, with the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food also being involved? Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he appreciates that these problems are aggravated by delay in dealing with them, that there is need for firm control and that somebody should be in overall charge especially in the early stages of the pollution problem?
I hoped that I had assured my hon. Friend that the Department of the Environment had a co-ordinating role. I understand his anxieties. The main problems are speed and communication. My Department and the Department of Trade are giving these matters careful consideration, bearing in mind the recent incident.
Will the Minister assure us that his Department and the Secretary of State for Scotland co-ordinate with the Department of Trade? With reference to the recent incident on the Forth, will he indicate whether the Ministry of Defence is also involved?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all Government Departments regard this as a matter of considerable urgency. Regular meetings take place and I have no criticism of the contact between Departments.
Is the Minister aware that this matter, which he says is of considerable urgency, has been going on for a considerable time and that local authorities are still not satisfied about co-ordination and speed? What are the means at his disposal for finding the oil slicks?
It is difficult to pinpoint the basis of the complaints. I can say that wherever there have been incidents the Departments concerned have dealt with them all successfully.
As oil pollution does not know where the Scottish-English border is, will my hon. Friend confirm that he has arrangements to ensure—together with his hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and in the Scottish Office—that the fishery grounds will be carefully protected?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In the past few days we have had a discussion of the sort that he has intimated. Such action is vital to deal with oil pollution disasters.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that is one of the most confused answers that we have had in this Pariament? After all that, where does the departmental buck stop?
I think that the House is deeply concerned about this issue, and the buck would quickly stop somewhere. I have the feeling that the Department of the Environment would be at the fore-front and that before the buck reached my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State it would stop with me.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the heavy cost to local ratepayers along the South Coast as a result of oil pollution on the beaches? What assurance can he give them that they will not be faced with more bills later in the year?
We have maintained the policies of previous Governments. We have always made it clear to local authorities that finance should not be any bar to dealing with these incidents. Over and above a certain figure my Department would help any local authority that was embarrassed.
Home Insulation Scheme
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will ensure that a specific allocation of resources is made available through the Homes Insulation Act for the elderly and disabled in the coming year.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will ensure that a specific allocation of resources is made available through the Homes Insulation Act for the elderly and disabled in the coming year.
We have been giving very careful consideration how best to give extra help to elderly people on low incomes, whether they are disabled or not, under the Homes Insulation Act and an announcement may be expected very shortly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he ensure that the elderly receive their full share? Will he consider ways in which voluntary organisations that help the elderly to do this work—most of them cannot carry it out themselves—might receive additional financial assistance, encouragement and support not only from his Department but from local authorities?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he will be aware, we made important changes in the operation of the homes insulation scheme last November, when we made it possible for payments to be made directly to contractors without elderly people on low incomes having first to obtain receipts. We also extended the scheme to council tenants. We have asked local authorities to give additional help to pensioners. I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said about voluntary organisations and try to ensure that they get all possible assistance and information about the scheme.
Does the Minister agree that old people's homes are often among the oldest of housing and most in need of insulation, and that old people often do not see the value of such insulation, or perhaps do not have the financial balance to allow them to take advantage of the grant? Will he ensure that old people are given 100 per cent. grants for insulation in the announcement that he has indicated is about to be made, and that there will be adequate publicity to ensure that they take them up?
In the autumn of 1979 we had additional publicity given to the scheme. That is much in our minds. As for additional help I must ask the hon. Gentleman to await the announcement.
Does my hon. Friend intend to improve the Act by reintroducing some of the amendments that were proposed by the previous Conservative Opposition, who opposed the measure introduced by the previous Labour Government?
It is because of the amendments that the previous Conservative Opposition introduced that we are able to make special provision under the scheme for the elderly. That will assist us to make changes following the announcements.
As there is abundant evidence that some local authorities use moneys allocated for the disabled and the aged for other purposes, will the hon. Gentleman recognise when he has completed his reconsideration that a specific grant is of crucial importance?
The announcement to which I have referred will represent specific allocation for the elderly and those on low incomes.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the average domestic rate increase in (a) inner London, (b) all London authorities, (c) metropolitan districts; (d) non-metropolitan districts in England; and (e) non-metropolitan districts in Wales.
The latest estimates for domestic rate increases next year are:—
|All London authorities||30|
|Non-Metropolitan districts in England||25|
|Non-Metropolitan districts in Wales||31|
Is my right hon. Friend aware that some 35,000 small businesses are considering leaving inner London? Is he further aware that one of the main reasons cited is the excessive increase in rate demands? Does he not agree that the predominantly Labour-controlled local authorities should consider bringing their rate increases more in line with their Conservative counterparts?
I saw those figures. I am not surprised that small businesses are concerned about the impact of rate increases in inner London. We are seeking to revive the economies of inner city areas. Councils are responsible for moderating their rate demands. The actions of those that do not make any such attempt will be counter-productive in any effort to make an inner city policy work. One conspicuous fact that shines out all too clearly from this year's rate increases is that the higher levels of rate increase have come from Labour-controlled authorities. The lower levels of increase have come from Conservative-controlled authorities. I hope that that point will be taken on board by electors at the district council elections.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that any attempt to penalise inner London, by means of the various methods concocted in the Bill, will be resisted? Is he further aware that those methods are completely unjustified, because the problems facing inner London are much more serious than those found in some other parts of the country?
The proposals in the Bill merely seek to determine whether certain authorities should get a larger amount of grant at the expense of other authorities, which may have been more prudent in their expenditure and which may receive less. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to discuss penalties, I should point out that there is no question about who has penalised the inhabitants of certain inner London boroughs. Certain councils—as the manpower watch figures will show—have imposed penalties by means of very high rate increases.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the rate in Lambeth is rising by 50 per cent. this year, while that in Wandsworth is rising by 18 per cent? Is he further aware that Lambeth is increasing its staff, while Wandsworth has lowered its staff numbers? Will he reflect on the fact that Wandsworth's rate base is increasing, while that of Lambeth is dropping?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that that is the inevitable consequence of what is happening. People cannot endure the rate increases that have been imposed in certain inner London boroughs. In the case he quoted, I think that rate increases of nearly 100 per cent. have taken place in the past two years. The adjoining Conservative-controlled borough of Wandsworth has made rate increases of, I think, 19 per cent. during the past two years.
Does not the Minister recall that elsewhere on Tuesdays and Thursdays he has said that he cannot publish the formula by which next year's rate support grant will be distributed, because the information on rates for next year is not yet available? Is it not true that he said that yesterday evening? How does that relate to the categoric information that he has given today on the same subject?
That must rank as the second most confused question today. The right hon. Gentleman has asked about next year's rate support grant settlement. That will be made next November and will accordingly be announced. Work is, therefore, only in the preparatory stages. The right hon. Gentleman is getting very muddled. In view of the encouragement that he has given to Labour-controlled authorities to increase their expenditure, the House will be interested to know whether the right hon. Gentleman regards the figures that I announced in my original answer as satisfactory or disappointing.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the statistics that he quoted—
I am not reading, I am referring to the question. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the borough of Macclesfield is included in the statistics that he quoted for the non-metropolitan district councils? Is he further aware that that borough increased its rate by ½p in the pound, having held the rate virtually steady for the past three years? Does not he accept that Macclesfield could do that because it sold its assets and reduced its staff by 4·5 per cent? Mr. Deputy Speaker, will my hon. Friend—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sure that until then the hon. Gentleman's speech will have gone down well in Macclesfield.
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I was living in the past, because you were not with us yesterday at Question Time. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will issue guidelines to all councils to ensure that they take up the example that has been given by certain well-managed and efficient Conservative-controlled district councils?
I am pleased with the efforts of the Macclesfield council and of many other Conservative-controlled councils that have frozen their rates for this year, or reduced them. We shall not issue guidelines. We regard that as a question for individual local authorities, their councillors and electorate to decide. We give responsibility to them. We hope to provide them with the information on which to make properly informed decisions.
Putting aside the ritual abuse beneath which the right hon. Gentleman always takes refuge when under pressure, does he have sufficient information about rate intentions to publish the formula upon which the transitional arrangements will be based? If he has that information, will he pubilsh it? If he does not, what is the force and strength of the original answer to the question?
That question is a lot more coherent than the previous one from the right hon. Gentleman. He has now got his dates right. The answer is "No". We do not yet have sufficient information. We have received about 80 per cent. of the returns. The figures read out were based on the latest estimates and those in turn are based on about 80 per cent. of the returns. We shall make the final adjustments in the rate support grant when we have the final figures in May or June. It is done every year at about that time. If the right hon. Gentleman had understood the previous system a little better he would have known that perfectly well.
Housing Mobility Scheme
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many households he expects will be rehoused each year under the new housing mobility scheme.
It is not possible to make an estimate at this stage. However, both the scheme within counties and that between counties, together with the various provisions of the Housing Bill to which I referred in Standing Committee F on 6 March should materially help to improve mobility.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the new scheme being set up under his auspices is widely regarded as a major step towards increasing social mobility? What response has he received from individual local authorities and business organisations?
As my hon. Friend is aware, the scheme was the subject of unanimous proposals by the local authority associations—the AMA, ADC and the LBA. We are working with them to set up a working group to develop the scheme within counties and that between counties.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that under this Administration new housing has become so mobile that it has almost disappeared? Is he further aware that the number of housing starts this year is likely to be the lowest since the war? Does he not accept that that is nothing less than a recipe for increased misery and tension in society?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that one of the most important contributions that we can make towards mobility is that of producing a substantial expansion of home ownership. This Government will achieve that.
Unused And Vacant Land
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list the local authorities which will be required to publish registers of unused or vacant land.
I am hoping soon to finalise consideration of this matter after informal consultation with certain authorities which I am now conducting. I shall then make an announcement.
Will my right hon. Friend set a time limit for the publication of a preliminary survey on waste and vacant land in each local authority area? Does he not agree that such a survey would give information to local people and allow them to apply pressure in order to bring land on to the market?
I do not think that there will be any need for that. It is totally within the powers of each local authority to do it now. However, I intend to publish areas which, if Parliament approves the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill, will have registers of public sector land so that we can, on an experimental basis, find out the potential for bringing that land forward for development and more productive use.
In the pursuit of open government, should not all local authorities be required to publish registers of vacant and underused land?
Perhaps the House will feel that it is right to go to that stage after we have had an experimental period of the sort to which I referred. However, I stress—and this is the heart of the matter—that it is totally within the power of local authorities to make such decisions and publish the registers now.
Local Authorities (Income And Expenditure)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now confirm that it is now not his intention to seek statutory powers for the purpose of limiting in any way either the total non-capital expenditure of local authorities or the total amount they raise from local rating.
I do not know how that answer fits in with all the confusion, but my question is posed in two ways. Is the Minister saying "yes" to both parts of the question? Will he confirm clearly that it is not the Government's intention to introduce any statutory powers relating to wage bargaining and the number of people employed by local authorities?
I do not know how that question arose as a supplementary to the previous one, but the answer, once again, is "Yes".
Will my right hon. Friend help the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) by telling him how much money could be saved in public expenditure if Labour local authorities kept their rate increases in the forthcoming year down to the same level as those of Conservative-controlled authorities?
The total level of local authority expenditure is £22,000 million. I do not have the exact details of the figures available, but it is clear that by the much higher levels of average expenditure leading to rate increases this year, Labour authorities will substantially increase the burden on ratepayers in their areas.
Camden Council (Bloomsbury Housing)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give the reasons for his refusal to allocate funds to Camden council, in addition to that council's housing investment programme allocation, to pay for the rehabilitation of blocks of flats in Bloomsbury which fell into disrepair when they were owned by his Department.
Camden council's housing investment programme allocation represents its assessed overall needs within the total public expenditure available.
I declare a personal interest. Will the Minister confirm that it will be the continuing policy of his Department, when it sells Property Services Agency property, to leave the responsibility for bringing rundown property up to scratch to those to whom it was sold?
It was expected that the properties would be demolished. The price that Camden council paid for them reflected their condition. If Camden council buys more houses than it can efficiently manage, more properties will remain rundown and empty, as they do in many other parts of inner London which are controlled by Labour authorities.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to alter the existing statutory arrangements under which council authorities are both the authorities responsible for refuse disposal and the planning authority.
As part of the measures my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services announced on 23 November, I shall seek powers to make county councils in England the planning authority for waste disposal planning applications. This will not affect the arrangements whereby local authorities acquire deemed planning permission for their own development.
Is the Minister aware that his answer is highly unsatisfactory? Will he not accept that it is a disgrace that waste disposal authorities have the right to give themselves planning permission for a waste disposal tip on anyone's doorstep, without the citizen concerned having a statutory right of appeal to anyone?
The hon. Member will be aware that the procedures by which local authorities acquire planning permission for their own developments are well established. Where this contravenes the structure plan, the Secretary of State can call it in for his decision. It would not be reasonable to expect local authorities to apply to another tier of government for permission of this kind.
What consideration has the Minister given to the possibility of applying to the EEC environmental fund for assistance with the rehabilitation of the older industrial areas?
I know of no application of that kind, but I shall certainly look at the position and write to my hon. Friend.
Local Government Staff
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the latest estimate of local government staff numbers in England and Wales.
The latest figures, taken from the December 1979 return of the joint manpower watch, are 1,724,768 full-time employees and 936,536 part-time employees, making a total of 2,661,304 or 2,090,769 full-time equivalents.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that those figures demonstrate that over the past 12 months the only real growth area in some Labour-controlled councils has been in the increase in staff? Will he advise those local authorities how they might achieve savings, with consequent benefits to the ratepayers?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that there have been staff increases in too many authorities. I have no doubt that the publication of these figures will come as a profound shock to large numbers of authorities and their councillors of all political parties throughout the country. Because we have, for the first time, a basis of fact against which judgment can be made, I hope now that when local authorities next discuss running their authorities under tight control, they will be able to do so in comparison with other authorities similiar to themselves.
Will the Secretary of State agree that efficiency of local government would be better served without the dispute involving NALGO? Will he further agree that that association has acted responsibly, whereas the employers have acted totally irresponsibly? Will he talk to employers and press upon them the need to reach an early and amicable conclusion?
I am sure that that was an extremely good question. It had only one deficiency—I did not hear a word of it.
I shall repeat my question. Will the Secretary of State agree that efficiency in local Government would be improved if we did not have an industrial dispute involving local government officers? That dispute is not necessary. It has been caused by the irresponsible, reprehensible and dishonourable actions of local authority employers who have failed to honour a commitment on the joint pay study.
I would have thought that the hon. Member would have felt as I do—that the local authorities should be left to make these decisions for themselves, rather than have the Secretary of State do it for them.
Will my right hon. Friend agree that there are certain circumstances which should be qualified? For example, Buckinghamshire has a greatly increased child population. Consequently the local authority needs to employ more teachers.
I have no doubt that each local authority will want to qualify its own figures. But the mere fact that there is an increase in demand in one area does not mean that there could not be compensating economies in other areas.
Will the Secretary of State accept that by virtue of—[Interruption.]—I note, Mr. Speaker, that Parliament is being turned into "Comic Cuts" judging by the apparel of some hon. Members who have just come in. Will the Minister accept that, by virtue of the last question, many Conservative-controlled authorities have actually increased services? Will the right hon. Member now stop his ceaseless attack on local authority services, many of which are vital and many of which represent first-class value for money? Is he aware that there are many thousands of dedicated local Government employees who do their best to provide decent services?
Of course there are many thousands of local authority employees who do their best—and often succeed—to provide a first-class service. The question is whether it is necessary to employ all of them in the public sector. That is the matter to be decided by local authorities in the context of what the country can afford. The fact is that the country can no longer afford the present levels of staffing that we have in some authorities.
Housing Revenue Accounts (Rate Poundage)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will be issuing guidelines to local authorities regarding a maximum rate poundage that they can levy towards funding their housing revenue accounts.
Will not the Minister agree that, unless some aid or relief from rate poundage is given to the 50 per cent. of council house tenants who have to pay the full rent, the £2·10p increase means that these people will be the hardest hit section of the community as a result of the Government's public expenditure cuts?
That is not the only source for meeting the defict on the HRA. I believe that local authorities will want to look carefully at their overall administration and running costs in view of the figures on manpower that my right hon. Friend has published.
Why should every housing authority now not plan to reach a situation where the housing revenue account, given one year with another, is basically in balance?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, that is one of the reasons why we thought it right to abolish the no-profit rule in the legislation before Parliament.
Development Commission (Report)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to complete his consideration of the report of the review group in the Development Commission and its associated organisation, the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas.
We hope to complete our consideration very shortly.
In view of the effective and meaningful contribution that the Development Commission and CoSIRA play in sustaining economic activity in rural areas, will my right hon. Friend give a guarantee that these two organisations will be maintained in principle and that their budget for the current financial year will not be less than last year?
I am well aware of the support for the work of the Development Commission and CoSIRA. While it is not yet possible to announce the outcome of full consideration of the detailed review, although it will be done shortly, I can confirm today that the basic role of the Development Commission and CoSIRA is recognised and the Government intend that their basic role should be continued.
Did the Minister notice the reply I received recently from his hon. Friend, which indicated that the Development Commission and CoSIRA are extremely effective in cost terms in the creation of jobs? Will he bear that point in mind in determining the size of the grant that he makes available, in view of rising unemployment, particularly in rural areas?
It is for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has adduced that we propose that the basic role of the Development Commission and CoSIRA should continue. I am able to confirm that today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that public money is not the only source of help for the rural areas. We have encouraged the Development Commission and CoSIRA to attract private sector funds. I am pleased to say that they have been extremely successful in enlarging their resources without further call on the public taxpayer.
Has my right hon. Friend studied the extent to which the activities of the Development Commission have enabled county councils to get back their investment on money they have spent buying land for industrial development that has then come to fruition in partnership with the Development Commission?
There are a number of ways in which assets can be realised. We are anxious both for local authorities and for the Development Commission and CoSIRA, wherever possible, to recycle their assets by selling off successful developments to the private sector thereby ensuring that public money can be used as effectively as possible.
Will the right hon. Gentleman's Department continue to encourage the work of the Co-operative Development Agency in rural areas. Is he aware that it draws, not on public finance but private finance and on individuals in small co-operatives, as well as working with both organisations mentioned in the question?
That is not a matter for my Department. It comes within the responsibility of the Department of Industry.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is now in a position to name the local authorities which have exceeded his guideline on rate increases and against which he intends to take punitive action.
It is still too early to say whether the transitional arrangements will be needed, and if so where the threshold should be set.
Is the Secretary of State aware that his indecision in this area is causing a great deal of unease particularly among Labour-controlled authorities? Will he inform the House and local authorities, as a matter of urgency, what action he proposes to take?
I would have thought that the action should be taken by the Labour authorities which must have taken the matter into account when they set their level of rate increases.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that while Labour local councillors in Leicester and elsewhere might regard Government action to hold down the rates as punitive, that is not how ratepayers regard the issue?
I have made it clear that the Government expect local authorities to play their part in containing the levels of inflation and to keep their expenditure under total control. If one looks at the level of rate increases now coming through, one finds that among the list of the 10 lowest there are no Labour authorities and that among the 10 highest there are no Conservative authorities.
Will the right hon. Gentleman consider absolving from any clawback arrangement those local authorities that may be forced to impose a supplementary rate increase following the House of Lords decision on the Education (No. 2) Bill? These authorities are mandated to provide services for the electorate. That is what they are doing but the Government are penalising them.
There is a wide range of flexibility in the hands of local authorities over choosing where to seek economies. It is for them to decide.
Council House Sales
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with the outer London boroughs on questions arising from the policy of selling council homes to sitting tenants.
I have not had any recent general discussions with councillors of outer London boroughs on sales of council houses.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Where there are unnecessary bureacratic delays, when a preliminary valuation has been agreed or when remedial works are being carried out to improve a property prior to purchase, will the Minister see whether his Department can assist to get through those unnecessary delays?
We have recently made an amendment to the general consent under which council tenants in the process of buying will not be penalised in terms of the increased valuation of their property if there are delays for administrative reasons or because of problems with improvements.
Will the Minister admit to the House that the sale of council houses is bound to reduce substantially the estimated 120,000 re-lets upon which the housing policy review was based in assessing the need for council houses? Will he admit that the assessed need for council houses, after allowing for re-lets, was over 100,000 and that his policy will produce 35,000? Will he acknowledge that he has been refusing to answer questions that I have tabled about the evidence and that his policy is based on uninformed—
Order. That question is almost as long as the hon. Gentleman's point of order yesterday.
Order. The hon. Gentleman has asked his question.
Two more words.
No. The hon. Gentleman must be fair to the House.
As the hon. Member knows, the right to buy has been put to the electorate and to the House. Both have been found by a large majority to be in favour of it.
When the legislation enabling council house tenants to escape from the bondage of those local authorities that refuse to sell council houses becomes law, will my hon. Friend undertake a massive publicity campaign with advertisements so that every local authority and every tenant is aware of the enfranchisement that this Government will have effected?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we intend to make known to all council tenants that the right to buy has been provided by this Government.
Does the Minister realise that this policy, combined with the failure to build council houses has led to a situation in West London where people have no hope of transferring from a GLC tenancy to another tenancy in the near future?
I am glad to say that this is not the view of Conservative-controlled boroughs in London, all of which are selling at 50 per cent. discounts.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he intends to take with those local government authorities whose rates assessments are higher than the guideline limit he has fixed.
We shall decide whether to implement the transitional arrangements, and if so, what scale of penalties to apply, when final information on rating decisions is available.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the stringent sanctions taken by the Government are hurting tremendously the poorest families and children? Will he make certain that many local authorities that are determined to maintain social and individual standards are not punished?
I can think of nothing that contributes so much to the burden of poorer people, to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, than the level of rates that Labour authorities are imposing on them.
Will my right hon Friend remember, in considering this problem, that one of the reasons why inner city authorities load the burden on to the rates is that so many of their ratepayers get rate rebates? Is he aware that the small businesses which are thereby attacked are disfranchised?
I am sure that those factors can play a part. The House will remember that another reason is that the Labour Party consistently encourages high levels of public expenditure, nationally and locally.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those local authorities which have imposed moderate rate increases, as he has called them—such as Wandsworth council—have done so at the expense of an increasing number of badly housed people, at the expense of the elderly, the disabled and others in the community who need help? What action does he propose to take in regard to those authorities?
The hon. Gentleman will know from recent by-elections in his area that the local people do not agree with him.
Can my right hon. Friend say what advice he gave to the Cheshire county council on his recent visit to Cheshire, and to county hall in particular, about the fact that it has increased the rate ahead of the Government guidelines, thus offsetting the good management of the borough councils within Cheshire?
The advice that I gave on that occasion was private, and I think it appropriate that it should remain private. However, these matters are essentially for the local people to decide and not for this House.