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Environment

Volume 983: debated on Wednesday 30 April 1980

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House Purchase (Interest Rates)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will undertake a study of the problems facing prospective owner-occupiers who find themselves unable to purchase due to high prices and interest rates.

The best way to help prospective home buyers is to take the steps necessary to reduce inflation and interest rates and the Government's fiscal and monetary control policies will achieve this. It is also essential to ease the constraints faced by house builders in, for example, the planning and land supply fields. Steps are being taken to meet this objective. In addition, the Government are encouraging local authorities to implement a wide-ranging programme to promote low-cost home ownership.

The Secretary of State might think that that is an adequate answer, but is he aware that I do not? If owner-occupation is the cornerstone of the present Government's policies on housing, is it not up to the Government to inquire why house building starts are at their lowest ebb since the 1920s? Is he aware that increasing numbers of prospective owner-occupiers are being priced out of the chance of buying, and are having to turn to local authorities and housing associations to seek accommodation which is not available because of cuts in the housing investment programme?

We do not need an inquiry to establish that public expenditure demands are taking too much money and causing interest rates to be too high. Until we redress that balance we shall never restore the growth in the economy on which prospective house purchase depends.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I accept the strategy of his answer? However, is there not a problem with local planning authorities and local government in general in relation to the release of land and the easing of planning permission for those projects that private builders wish to pursue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right. The repeal of the Community Land Act will contribute to a solution of this problem. Our land registers and our determination to speed up planning processes are part of our strategy.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is an acute housing crisis? Is he aware that many people who wish to buy are unable to do so because of property price inflation and the record mortgage interest rate? Is it not a tragedy that so many people who would stand a chance of being re-housed by local authorities are now the victims of the Secretary of State's actions, under which council house building has come to a virtual stop?

The hon Gentleman was not in the House when his Government ran down the level of council building to such extraordinary levels. I dare say that he was prepared to defend the record of that Government when he stood at the last election. Of course, I am aware of the crisis in house building, which was precipitated by the appalling economic circumstances which we inherited.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if house prices are rising by 18 or 20 per cent. a year and mortgage interest is at 15 per cent., with tax relief, that is a good bargain for owner-occupiers?

My hon. Friend will also remember that house prices rose by 30 per cent. in the year before we took office. I understand that they are not now rising at all.

Is it not a fact that the overwhelming majority of the 1 million families on council house waiting lists cannot afford to buy in any circumstances, and even less so with higher prices and interest rates? What will happen to such people? Are not they in an impossible position in view of the virtual ending of council house building which is coming, and the sale of existing council houses?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have borne in mind the difficulties of council house building—which declined to such an extent under the last Government—against the background of the programme which he supported in the Lobby time and time again. The overall position is, broadly, as the House knows, that unless we restore the economy to strength and real growth we shall not achieve the growth in real disposable income on which home ownership depends on an increasing scale.

Olympic Games

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment which sporting bodies have expressed support for Government policy of non-participation in the Olympic Games.

The governing bodies of hockey, equestrianism, and yachting have so far expressed support for a boycott. The Joint Shooting Committee which voted in March to keep its options open, will not send a team unless circumstances change. The swimming body has decided to delay a decision until 16 May.

Is the Minister aware that many American athletes wish that their Olympic Committee had had the guts of the British Olympic Committee and stood up to the Government who are using sports men and women as political pawns in a presidential election campaign? Is not the Minister ashamed to be a member of a Government led by a so-called Iron Lady who allows herself to be used as Jimmy Carter's poodle?

What a disgraceful supplementary question and one not untypical of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan). I hope that he will realise what is actually happen- ing in Afghanistan and understand that the invasion by the Russians is the reason why many Western Governments have taken a firm position and advised their national Olympic Committees not to go to Moscow. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues will take the advice that has been given to them.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in a free country such as ours there is a little local difficulty in raising the money for the Olympics? Will my hon. Friend give guidance to those firms which respond to the Olympic appeal to the effect that the best thing they can do is send one-third of what they would normally give? The Lake Placid games, which have now taken place, cost one-third of the total of the Olympic budget.

The Government have given clear advice to the nation about the Moscow Olympics and I hope that those considering subscribing to the appeal will bear in mind what we have said. In the early part of the year we accepted, and welcomed, subscriptions to the Olympic appeal for the Winter Games at Lake Placid. We give absolutely no encouragement—indeed we offer the maximum discouragement—to subscribers to the appeals for the Moscow Games.

Will the Minister bring us up to date on the Government's progress in setting up an alternative, or shadow Olympic Games?

The Government have clearly expressed their wish to assist governing bodies who so desire them, to stage high quality competitions in August or September or at a time to suit them—but not alternative Olympics, of course. It is up to those governing bodies to approach us and we shall give them assistance, if they want it.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the time has probably come for the Government to impose economic sanctions on those sporting bodies intending to send representatives to Moscow by recommending to the Sports Council that it withdraws grant for the coming year to such bodies?

I note what my hon. Friend says, but it is not the intention of the Government to take further steps other than to continue with persuasion and advice against going to Moscow.

Is it not absolutely scandalous that the Government should seek to advise British industry not to give money to British athletes, who have freely exercised their democratic right to take a decision that the Government do not like? Does not that put the Government in the Russian mould? The Government are saying " Unless you do what we wish we shall impose economic sanctions on you ". Will the Minister tell us why Mr. Sebastian Coe should not run round a track in Russia yet British business men are being encouraged to build power stations and chemical stations in Russia? Where is the logic in that?

I would have thought that after four months the right hon. Gentleman would have begun to understand the basic principles of our position. That position is absolutely right, bearing in mind the astonishing happenings in Afghanistan. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is following those events closely. I sometimes wonder whether he is going to Moscow and whether he is prepared to condone what the Russians are doing in Afghanistan.

Council Dwellings (Inner London)

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest estimates of the number of council-owned dwellings standing empty in inner London boroughs.

Local authority estimates, in housing investment programme submissions, are that there were about 21,000 vacant dwellings owned by inner London boroughs at 1 April 1979. Figures for individual boroughs are available in the Library.

Will the Secretary of State consider taking powers to prevent Socialist-controlled councils such as Camden and Lambeth from decanting their populations to such towns as Stevenage at a time when many of the houses in their own boroughs are unoccupied and while there are no plans to put people into them?

I believe that we have now got the balance wrong between the new town policy and the inner city policy. That is one of the reasons for our decision, stated in the public expenditure review announced by the Government.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many of those houses are being kept empty with a view to their being sold? Will he say how many of these houses have been kept empty pending a decision by his Department on a loan to a housing association? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that two wrongs do not make a right?

Since the vast majority of those houses are, of course, in Labour-controlled boroughs it might be relatively easier for the hon. Gentleman to find out the answer to that question than it would be for me.

Is not one of the most shameful records that of the London borough of Islington? Will my right hon. Friend take firm action to ensure that no further approvals are given for new dwellings in that borough until the thousands of empty properties now in council control there have been modernised and refurbished?

I am about to publish the vacant properties survey which has been undertaken for my Department by OPCS. The House will then be able to make an informed judgment. I say at once that I am prepared to do all that I can to bring influence to bear—but not to take powers—to persuade local authorities to use these properties effectively by the proper management of their estates.

Does not the Secretary of State accept that an additional reason for these houses being empty is that boroughs have been denied the money with which to improve their properties, and that that is the fault of the right hon. Gentleman?

That is a devastating condemnation of the policies of the Labour Administration, under which the decisions to keep such properties empty would have been taken.

So that the Secretary of State may have the opportunity to redeem the appalling answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann), may I ask him to recall that some months ago I told him that the city of Birmingham—under Conservative control—was holding 643 houses empty so that they could eventually be sold? Has the Secretary of State——

Order. I think that I can anticipate the hon. Gentleman's point of order. I hope that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is about to relate his remarks to the inner London boroughs.

I was referring, Mr. Speaker, to a parallel case in which a borough in the city of Birmingham was holding 643 houses open and unoccupied in order to sell them. If London boroughs were doing that would the Secretary of State condemn them?

In Birmingham, at least, they have an argument for doing that. The inner London boroughs, I do not doubt, have no excuse whatever.

Young Families (Housing)

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the total effect of his policies on local young families seeking housing accommodation in rural areas.

Apart from local authority programmes, our policies to increase the availability of private rented accommodation and to encourage low-cost home ownership schemes will benefit the rural areas.

What hope is there for the young family on low wages in rural areas where outside demand for retirement homes and holiday accommodation pushes up the price of housing? What will be the position of those young people who cannot afford a mortgage, even at a lower interest rate than the present rate, when local authorities are obliged to sell their housing stock without any prospect of building other houses to replace those that have been sold?

The hon. Member should look at our programme for encouraging low-cost home ownership, including shared ownership. That provides a good means whereby people on low incomes can reach a stage which will eventually phase into home ownership.

Does not my hon. Friend admit that one of the problems in rural areas is that there are empty houses available which are not let because owners are afraid that they may not be able to regain possession should they need a property, for example, for farm workers, who need to be on the spot? Would it not be reasonable to go further than the present Housing Bill and allow the Housing Acts to be permissive if a local authority believes that in its area the Housing Acts cut down the number of properties available to let?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be aware that the vacant property survey, to which my right hon. Friend referred, addresses itself to the extent to which properties were being held vacant as a result of the operation of the Rent Acts. I think that the House will await with great interest the results of the survey which are to be published shortly.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, because of Government policy over the sale of council houses, many areas are seriously affected—by way of long waiting lists—because local authorities are having difficulties in selling houses? Some of those properties are empty for as long as a year. Does the Secretary of State recall standing at the Despatch Box and telling off Nottingham city council which owns properties that have been standing empty for over a year? That council has now run into debt.

The burden of the hon. Gentleman's question, as I heard it, was that he was complaining about delays in selling council houses. I assure him that it is our intention to make the administrative process as expeditious as possible.

Durham Beaches (Cleaning)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will reconsider his decision not to make further financial assistance available to help in the cleaning of the Durham beaches.

Neither this nor any previous Administration have made any financial assistance available for this purpose, nor can the Government contribute any funds towards it at the present time.

Is the Minister aware that he has been badly briefed, because he has given incorrect information? Is he further aware that the pilot project is only half completed and that it would be silly and a waste of public money to leave it as it is? Does he appreciate that all the local authorities there and the National Coal Board have made substantial contributions to it in both time and money? As this is one of the scars that has been imposed on the northern landscape by its contribution to the industrial well-being of this country in the past, is there not the strongest case for having the, whole of this project funded by the Exchequer? Finally, in view of the Minister's very disappointing reply, will he agree to accept a deputation from the local authorities, the National Coal Board and myself to discuss the matter?

I shall see any deputation that wants to come to see me. This pilot scheme was funded by the National Coal Board on the basis that it would help the working study to come to conclusions. There was never any obligation on the Government to find £23 million to solve this problem.

Is the Minister aware that some of these Durham beaches fall within the EEC designation of former shipbuilding areas? Will he assure the House that his right hon. Friend has not blocked such an EEC scheme at the Council of Ministers?

Of course I can give that assurance. I am aware of the importance of these beaches. But this matter has been going on for 80 years. The National Coal Board inherited these rights. I am afraid that there is nothing more that I can say.

Water Services Charges

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the difficulties of people on low incomes paying their water services charges.

We have had a considerable number of representations both from hon. Members and members of the public. One of the principal representations is to consider introducing a rebate scheme for water services.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the public fury at the rate of increases of these water charges? Is it not totally illogical not to have a rebate scheme for water charges, particularly for the elderly, when a large part of those water charges is composed of sewerage charges which used to appear under the domestic rates, where they could qualify for a rebate scheme? Will he give urgent consideration to bringing in a scheme to help the elderly and those on low incomes?

I assure my hon. Friend that I am well aware of the concern. Knowing the constituency that he represents and the scale of the increase in that water authority, I well understand the representations that he is receiving. It is true that, before 1974, it was possible to get a rebate. Since then it has not been possible to get a rebate for sewerage services. Successive Governments have held the view that this is in the nature of a public utility and that the charges should not, therefore, be assisted in that way, but that help for low income families should come through supplementary benefit and other assistance that is possible. That is the position that the Government have supported.

Will the Minister have another look at the structure and representation of the regional water authorities, which seem less amenable to representation from the community than other comparable organisations? If there were more direct representations in the community, some of these problems would be resolved.

I am very concerned at the widespread feeling of a lack of accountability of water authorities. Those representations come through clearly to me. The majority on every water authority consists of councillors from local authorities in the area. It is disappointing that a feeling of accountability does not seem to exist. In many cases, people seem to be unaware of who their representative on the water authority is.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Medway borough council, which has not increased the rate for four years, now sees its residents confronted with a 30 per cent. increase in the water rate? Has my right hon. Friend jurisdiction to investigate the serious local assertions that are being made about inefficiency in the accounting of the Southern Water Authority?

There is a question on the Order Paper on this specific point. Part of the problem of the Southern Water Authority was that it believed the previous Labour Government in their assertion about a 5 per cent. pay policy. My hon. Friend will recall that the increase last year was only 3 per cent. Of course, the authority found itself considerably disadvantaged as a result. I shall have further comments to make about the authority.

I just heard the Minister say something about the previous Labour Government. Has not all this arisen because the previous Tory Government initiated this so-called programme? Are not all the troubles and problems that we have now—not 30 per cent., but 300 per cent.—due to the fact that the previous Tory Government were responsible for bringing in this change?

The hon. Gentleman is suffering from his favourite form of selective amnesia. He may have overlooked the fact that the Labour Party, which he more or less supported in that period, was in government for five years.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the increases in the Southern Water Authority have been 135 per cent. since the time that it was set up? He must be able to monitor charges and to examine the management of the Southern Water Authority. Can he describe to the House the processes that he will be taking to make sure that these vast increases do not occur every year?

I have instituted a series of meetings—the first to be held by a Minister—with separate water authorities. The first authority that I saw was the Southern Water Authority in the shape of the chairman and the chief executive. I discussed with them my concern over the level of manpower and the increase that it had shown in recent years. I have received an undertaking that it will be reducing its manpower. I shall take a very close interest in the activities of the water authorities—something which Ministers in the previous Labour Government unfortunately failed to do.

Is the Minister aware that, exactly as we forecast when he and his right hon. Friend introduced measures for the reorganisation of local government, the Health Service and the water service, the people of this country are now paying for four or five bureaucracies when previously there was only one—the local authority? That was the main reason why the previous Labour Government introduced a White Paper proposing changes, which the previous Tory Opposition refused to support. As he must know, this industry is capital-intensive. Is he further aware that interest charges arising from the Government's economic policy are five times more responsible than wages for these water increases?

That intervention is a classic example of what was wrong with the Labour Government. People cannot pay their water rates bills with White Papers. The inability of the previous Labour Government to tackle the problems which they felt arose out of the Water Act is their own condemnation. We are now taking positive action on this matter. As evidence of that and in view of the concern about the level of interest charges, my right hon. and hon. Friends may have noticed that among the first references to the new Monopolies and Mergers Commission, announced yesterday, is the Severn-Trent Water Authority. We shall then examine further water authorities and their efficiency.

Rate Increases

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest estimate of average rate increases to be imposed by local authorities for 1980–81.

Returns now received from all rating authorities show an average domestic rate increase for England and Wales of 27 per cent., and an average non-domestic rate increase of 23 per cent.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is he aware that certain " big-spender" Labour authorities are saying that it is Government policy, and not their financial incontinence, which has led to the huge, above average rises that they have announced? Will he comment on that? Is he also aware that all too many of those huge rate rises imposed by the Labour-controlled authorities are not being spent on better essential services, but are being used for excess bureaucracy and waste?

Any analysis of the levels of rates fixed by individual authorities shows that the overwhelming proportion of the high levels are fixed under Labour-controlled authorities and the overwhelming majority of low levels are fixed under Conservative-controlled local authorities.

Will the Secretary of State be honest for once, and admit that a large proportion of the 27 per cent. increase is a result of the inflation created by the policies of himself and other Ministers?

The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that the bulk of local authority expenditure is made up of wage costs—about 70 per cent. on current account. He will be well aware that the bulk of the increases this year are not simply ongoing awards but are results of the Clegg implementations, which were broadly established by the Government which he supported.

Is the Minister aware that the argument of the district councils and the Association of County Councils is that they are worried about Government interference with their rights? At the same time they are asking for control over public expenditure by local authorities. Surely, the Government are taking the right steps.

I have no doubt that—as Conservative local government has proved—it is possible to constrain the levels of public expenditure at a local level. The difficulty that local government faces across the country is that Labour Members are constantly encouraging Labour-controlled authorities to increase expenditure.

What is the Secretary of State's estimate of the number of Tory-controlled authorities with low levels of rate expenditure which will have to issue a supplementary rate in the autumn?

That is a matter entirely for the individual local authorities, but I understand that there are Labour-councillors canvassing for election who are prepared to countenance supplementary rate increases if they gain control of local authorities.

Southern Wafer Authority

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes next to meet the chairman of the Southern Water Authority.

I met him on 5 March in the first of my programme of separate meetings with the chairman and chief executive of every English water authority. I have not yet fixed the date of our next meeting.

Is the Minister aware that every Member of Parliament in the South of England has received many letters from constituents complaining about the large increases imposed this year by the Southern Water Authority? Will he consider introducing legislation to repeal the Water Act 1973 and return control of water and sewerage to the local authorities where, at least, there will be some degree of accountability? Further, will he examine the whole question of assessment of charges for water?

I shudder to think what might be the impact on water bills if the responsibility for water and sewerage fell into the hands of some of the present Labour councillors. While the increase in charges by the Southern Water Authority is pretty serious, it is as nothing compared with some of the rate increases under Labour-controlled authorities. We are tackling this real issue as positively as one can. We have set tight cash limits on capital expenditure, and we have set up clear performance indicators. We are now attaching performance aims to every water authority for the next year. I shall be taking the closest personal interest in the performance of each local authority.

While my right hon. Friend is having these discussions with the water authorities, will he give a thought to delaying the implementation of section 30 of the Water Act, due to come into effect on 1 April next year, in view of the likely increase in charges that the implementation of that section will have?

It is a matter for argument as to how significant that would be. I hope that any changes can be phased over a significant period. As it is the intention to end discrimination between classes of consumers, I do not think it would be right to cancel that proposal.

Housing Corporation

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to meet the new chairman of the Housing Corporation.

I hope to meet Mr. Cubitt soon, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction expects to do so regularly.

Is the Minister aware that the appointment of Mr. Hugh Cubitt will be warmly welcomed? When he meets him will he stress that the corporation should give encouragement to voluntary bodies engaged in trying to set up new housing associations, and that he should not listen too much to the salaried officials, and the large bureaucracies that follow them, which seem to have dominated housing association thinking in recent years?

I think that my hon. Friend is aware, perhaps better than most, of the initial strengths of the voluntary housing movements which were based on exactly the motivations and concepts which he now puts forward. It will be for Mr. Cubitt to review the organisation over which he has responsibility. I am sure that he will bear in mind the important points that my hon. Friend has made.

When the Secretary of State meets Mr. Cubitt, will he ask him to campaign as vigorously as the previous chairman of the Housing Corporation would have campaigned against the cuts in housing association expenditure that have been imposed by the Secretary of State and which will bring housing association building for general needs virtually to an end?

I am sure that Mr. Cubitt will bear in mind that, if expenditure is higher, interest rates will be higher and fewer houses will be built.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm again that his plan to draft an amendment to the Housing Bill to allow tenants and co-owners of housing association properties to become owners will be warmly welcomed? When he meets the new chairman of the Housing Corporation will he discuss with him, on the assumption that the legislation is enacted, how long it will be before such schemes can commence?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we are proceeding along the lines that he indicates, and it is our intention to introduce the provisions of the legislation, if it is approved by Parliament, at the earliest possible legal moment.

Council House Sales

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the speed of council house sales in urban areas.

I am satisfied with the progress with sales in the areas where councils are selling, and I share the strong dissatisfaction of tenants about the lack of sales in the areas where councils are not selling.

Is the Minister aware that council house tenants in many urban areas are in despair at the abysmal failure of their Labour-controlled councils to carry out essential repair and maintenance to their houses? In those circumstances, is it not sheer madness that those councils should be obstructing the sale of council houses? Is he aware that any bomb that he would like to put under these councils to make them get on with the sale of council houses will be warmly welcomed by all council tenants?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that this bomb is likely to be detonated by this House in the next few months.

The Herculean labours of Standing Committee F are about to come to a conclusion, and it will not be very much longer before the council tenants in those authorities to which he refers will have the opportunity to buy, which they have been denied for far too long.

Will the Minister differentiate between the sales of council houses in urban and rural areas? Will he endorse the view of the Minister of Agriculture, and make it clear that he, too, is not in favour of the sale of council houses in rural areas?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there are provisions in the Bill which provide a right of pre-emption in certain circumstances, and a right of resale to people in the locality in certain circumstances in rural areas. We made it clear during the election campaign that the right to buy should apply as of right in rural and urban areas equally.

Is the Minister aware that in many urban areas, council tenants who indicated that they wished to purchase are now returning their contracts, because they cannot afford to do so, as was evidenced recently in the city of Chichester where no fewer than 60 contracts have been returned?

I am glad to say that, against that, in the first nine months of this Government, about 30,000 council tenants have been able to buy their homes.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the excuse put forward by certain Labour-controlled authorities as the reason why they cannot sell council houses—even if they want to do so—is that they do not have the valuation or legal staff to deal with the matter? Will he further confirm that such services will be put out to private practice surveyors and valuers, and also to private law firms?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The process of selling can be assisted if local authorities use outside professional staff. There is no evidence from about a quarter of a million council tenants who have bought their homes that there is any insuperable administrative difficulty in doing so.

Sheltered Housing

12.

asked the Secretary of Stale for the Environment how many local authorities impose charges for the services of a warden in sheltered housing units.

My Department does not collect this information.

Is not the Minister aware that some authorities and housing associations are using his Government's legislation to introduce these charges? For example, Macclesfield is to charge £4 a week to old people for this service, and the Anchor Housing Association is to charge £8.10 a week. Will he step in and take some action to stop this exploitation of elderly people, who are already finding it difficult to make ends meet because of his Government's policy, and who will get no help to meet these extra charges?

This in no way arises from decisions taken by the Government. Authorities such as Warrington are making these charges. The basic reason for the increases is that costs of warden services have increased due to wages and conditions of service agreements. This, and not Government cuts, is the cause.

Is the Minister aware that in the North-West there is a large demand for sheltered housing accommodation for sale? When he considers schemes such as that put forward by South Ribble, will he give special consideration to the cost of the warden's accommodation?

We always give extremely careful consideration to any special schemes put to us.

Low-Cost Home Ownership

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what response he has had from local authorities to his policy of encouraging low-cost home ownership outlined in his letter accompanying the housing investment programme allocations.

It is too early in the financial year to give a firm indication but the initial response from a number of authorities has been positive and constructive.

I am pleased to hear about the positive response that the Minister is receiving. Following his statement last week that local authorities can use a portion of capital receipts to supplement HIP allocations, does he not find it a curious anomaly that many Labour local authorities complain about their HIP allocations yet refuse to sell publicly-owned assets which would enable them to supplement those same allocations?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is open to local authorities—in accordance with the detailed description which I set out in the speech to the Institute of Housing, a copy of which is in the Library—to supplement their capital allocations by the process of realising capital assets.

Is the Minister aware that he has a policy for high-cost home ownership and not low-cost home ownership, and that his announcements on shared ownership and on homesteading are merely gimmicks and palliatives which he is introducing because he has no proper housing policy, and because his Government have stopped council building for the next two years?

It is not the view of the 70 or so authorities, and all the new towns which will be doing starter homes or building-for-sale schemes this year, or of the 100 or so housing associations which will be planning shared ownership schemes, that those efforts are palliatives or gimmicks.

Local Authorities (Home Loan Lending)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate he has made of the level of local authority home loan lending likely in the financial year 1980–81.

Under the one-block system local authorities now have complete freedom to decide on their own priorities within their housing investment programme allocation, and the proportion of that allocation they use for the private sector mortgage lending.

Why, if the Minister makes a virtue of public expenditure cuts, does he not tell the British people the consequences of the public expendi- ture cuts that he has introduced? Surely he knows that his cuts in housing investment programmes mean a virtual end to local authority home lending, which is an attack on owner-occupation and proves that the Government do not want to support owner-occupation but merely want to attack the public rented sector so as to favour the landlord-owned sector.

I do not think that that is the view that will be taken of our policies. Perhaps the hon. Member will have in mind, when he makes his rather exaggerated statements, that under the previous Government the amount of local authority lending for home purchase fell from £1,096 million a year to £226 million a year—in other words, it was reduced to nearly a quarter of what it was when they were in their first year of office.

Will the Minister agree that one of the best ways to alleviate and to decrease the soullessness and apathy in the vast council estates is to get local authorities to lend money for people to buy some of the high-rise fiats and not just their houses?

As my hon. Friend knows, perhaps better than most, there are certain local authorities which cannot get people to occupy the high-rise flats on any terms whatever. If they can initiate policies to bring those homes into use, no one will be more pleased than me.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Liverpool is now in such a parlous financial state, due to Government policy, that it is unable to help people who want to buy local authority homes, and that it is having to cut back on its whole housing programme, including maintenance and rehabilitation? Is it not an absolute scandal that the Government have placed the local authorities in very difficult circumstances in relation to housing?

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to try to make judgments about the individual authorities in the Liverpool area. But every time one looks into the options facing a local authority one finds that there is a far greater range of options than those suggested by the hon. Member. I believe that the authority he mentioned could have done many things to alleviate its problems.

Is not my right hon. Friend aware that one of the most serious problems for a young couple wishing to borrow from a local authority—or, indeed, to buy in the private sector—is the raising of the down-payment? I have often thought—and I am sure that my right hon. Friend must also think along these lines—that if the local authority could only allocate some percentage of its lending to youngsters, to enable them at least to find the down-payment, this would mean a complete flow not only from council to private ownership but from council tenancies to council ownership.

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have given local authorities far greater freedom and discretion to use their capital allocations for lending to young couples or to any other people wishing to buy their own homes. What we cannot do at this moment is to increase the levels of public expenditure by providing additional resources for grants because, simply within the context of public expenditure, such resources are not available. As we made clear in our manifesto, this will be one of the things that we shall want to consider when the resources are available.

What does the right hon. Gentleman think will be the effect on local authority home loan lending of the power that he is taking under the Housing Bill to force interest rates of local authorities to the highest possible level—higher even than the top building society rate?

I think that it will mean that local authorities will lose less on the loans they make and therefore be able to make more loans.

Caravan Sites (Designation)

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to bring forward provision for the designation of caravan sites on a district, as opposed to a county basis.

We are prepared to consider a provision for the designation of districts whenever a suitable legislative opportunity occurs.

I welcome the answer, but is the Minister aware that councils such as the South Derbyshire district council, in my own constituency, which has been generous and hospitable and has provided adequate provision for gipsies, is extremely disappointed at the delay and is still hoping that designation of district councils will be inserted at some stage into the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill or, if this is not possible, that this designation should be given priority early in the next Session?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I know that she has taken a great interest, through correspondence with me, in this very sensitive subject. But, now that there seems to be a general agreement within local authorities that designation is desirable on a district level, when a suitable legislative opportunity occurs we shall take it.

Does the Minister recognise that it is unfair to those authorities which have designated sites for gipsies then to be told to take on further gipsies, while other authorities are still refusing to provide the sites that the gipsies require? Ought we not now to recognise that there are not enough sites to cater for all the gipsies in the country? These people have a right to be catered for. In those circumstances, has not the time arrived when compulsion should be brought to bear on those authorities which are not meeting this need?

I am perfectly well aware, as are many hon. Members, that we are very short of gipsy sites. The initiative must come from the local authorities. They know their own local conditions. If they take the initiative, we can react, but it must come from them. I am certainly not in favour of compulsion.

Will the Minister accept that local authorities such as mine, which have provided designated sites, will find it quite unacceptable that they will not be given designation powers, despite the fact that the travelling populace come to Peterborough area in considerable numbers? Is he aware that, combined with the over-lavish expenditure of public finance for the provision of further sites by the Government, the policy is unacceptable?

I recognise the problem that many hon. Members have to face. However, until districts are designated, it must be left to counties. If there are sufficient sites, they will be designated.

As the social problems and population densities of different district councils vary greatly between county authorities, is there not a case—as a result of the difficulties of designation—for allowing greater legislative flexibility in the size of sites?

That may well be the right approach. However, at the moment we have no vehicle for such legislation. We shall take the opportunity when it arises.

Coastline Erosion (South Shields)

17.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied that there are sufficient legislative provisions to prevent the erosion of the coastline by the removal of sand, in view of current activities in the South Shields constituency.

Has the Minister seen the report on beaches in South Shields, prepared by the Hydraulic Research Station, in which it is stated that removal of sand, and damage to coastal defences might not be unconnected? Is he convinced that the legislation contains sufficient financial provision to allow the local authority to purchase the beach from the owner, and thus stop the removal of sand?

I am aware of that report and of the view of the Hydraulic Research Station. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is a matter for the Coast Protection Authority. It has the power needed to make a prohibition order, which can be confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Indeed, 28 such orders are applicable round the coast of the United Kingdom.

Wildlife And Countryside Legislation

18.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what consultation he proposes to have regarding wildlife and countryside legislation.

Consultations on the proposed Wildlife and Countryside Bill have continued since last summer. I intend to publish soon the paper to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State referred in his reply to my lion. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) on 27 February. This will describe my revised proposals.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of those who live in rural areas are worried that various pests, such as foxes, are likely to be scheduled as vulnerable species in the proposed legislation? Will he assure us that that is not so?

I think that I can help my hon. Friend. The proposals will ensure that the definition of " vulnerable species " will be left to the opinion of the Nature Conservancy Council. I do riot believe that foxes would come within that definition.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that what we need is not further consultation but an early introduction of the promised Bill? Does not he accept that the Bill is more in the national interest than the current measures which are almost as damaging and disreputable as the right hon. Gentleman's replies from the Dispatch Box this after noon?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to suggest that the Government should introduce a major piece of legislation at this stage in the Session. I accept that the Bill is important. I intend to introduce the measure as soon as parliamentary time permits.

Rates (Value For Money)

20.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for ensuring that ratepayers can assess the performance of their district and county councils in getting value for money.

I am seeking powers in the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill to ensure that local authorities publish more information about their performance in a form that will help the public to make more informed judgments. I have recently arranged for the publication, for the first time, of individual authorities' total manpower figures, and also summaries of the time taken to determine planning applications.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those who live in authorities such as Suffolk county council—which has always gone in for good housekeeping—find it galling that other county councils spend huge sums of money per head of the population yet still complain that they have not got enough? Should it not be possible for people to see clearly, when comparing one authority with another, which are the good authorities—largely Conservative-controlled—and which are the wasteful ones?

If more meaningful information and the power to make comparisons were available, it would help to make local authorities accountable and would provide better information to the electorate. I hope that our proposals will be helpful in that respect.

Is the Minister aware that Bolsover district council has recently dealt with this matter? It is clear that the Government are largely responsible for a rent increase—as a result of subsidies and so on—and consequently, Bolsover district council has set out where the money goes. Does not he accept that nearly 60 per cent. goes in interest charges?

I must admit that I have not examined the affairs of Bolsover district council in detail. As a generality—I should be interested to see how Bolsover district council fits into it—the level of rate increases in Labour-controlled authorities is high. I imagine that, like other Labour-controlled authorities, Bolsover has made increases that are well above the average.

Lead In Water

21.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what advice he has given to local authorities and water boards about the amount of lead in water.

The Department has recently issued advice to the water industry on detailed identification of problem areas, and on monitoring the effect of water treatment.

Has the Minister read the Lawther report, which pointed to severe water contamination in certain areas? Does not he accept that water tanks which are lined with lead, and lead water pipes, may need to be replaced? What does he intend to do about that? Is he prepared to give grants towards replacement? Has he had discussions with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services about the advice that should be given to expectant mothers in areas that have a high lead content in the water, as such advice is necessary both for the expectant mother and for the mother who needs to use water in preparing a baby's feed?

The hon. Lady will be aware that an extensive survey took place, which covered many parts of the United Kingdom. We have taken due notice of those areas where the incidence of lead was high, but not unacceptably high. The hon. Lady is right. My colleagues and I are considering the Lawther report. Part of the report—recommendation 13—states that action should be taken. The Department is considering as quickly as possible what action should be taken.

Is the Minister aware that certain Scottish water authorities are adding lime to the water since that lines the pipes and thereby eases the problem? Is something similar being done in areas of England and Wales that have the same problem?

The problem is particularly acute in Scotland. The remedies being applied in Scotland have been reported to us. The Department is in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Tameside

22.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will increase the housing investment programme for Tameside.

We do not propose to make increases in the housing investment programme allocations of any authorities, since the resources available for this purpose in 1980–81 have all been distributed.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the resources of the housing investment programme have been cut by 50 per cent. and that that will mean disaster for home improvements, home loans and repairs, and for those young people who are seeking accommodation? Is he further aware that, together with an increased mortgage rate, that spells a very difficult future?

If Tameside takes advantage of the opportunity to sell council houses in 1980–81 it will be able to increase its expenditure. As it is, the reduction is not 50 per cent. but 26·5 per cent.

Consultative Council On Local Government Finance

24.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when last he chaired the consultative council on local government finance.

At that meeting, will my right hon. Friend discuss the relatively unsatisfactory staffing levels—disclosed in the latest quarterly survey—with leaders of the local authority associations?

I have already been in touch with the local authority associations in order to try to get a fuller representation of the number of local authorities making returns. I have published recently the bulk of those returns. In the autumn, I shall expect local authorities to publish their quarterly returns in far greater detail, showing each total broken down into the various categories of employees on a regular quarterly basis. Of course, if the subject is raised at the consultative council, I shall discuss it.

Will my right hon. Friend say whether he has had discussions with the consultative council on the topic of abolishing domestic rates and replacing them with a fairer form of local taxation?

I have not had specific discussions on this subject with the con- sultative council, but it will be aware of the Government's interest in pursuing such policies in the longer term.

Has the Secretary of State received protests from a considerable number of Conservative councils about his proposals for rates? Will he consider the unfairness of the proposals that affect the rate support grant given to Essex and other counties which are suffering problems of expansion?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that these factors are taken into account every year in the calculations of the rate support grant. Incomparably the largest protest of which I am aware comes from those living in authority areas where the Labour Party has increased the rates on an extraordinary scale. The House will wish to bear in mind that there are no Conservative authorities among the 20 authorities with the largest rate increases, and that among the 20 authorities with the lowest rate increases there are no Labour authorities.

At a previous meeting of the consultative council the Secretary of State promised an early publication of the formula on which his punitive powers are to be based. Now that he has all the rate returns, can we be assured that the punitive legislation will be explained in detail before it is debated on Report on the Floor of the House?

The Government's views about the use of the transitional powers will have to be explained in detail to the House before they are used. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will explain at the same time the role that he played in precipitating the vast rate increases that we have seen in Labour authorities.