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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 4: debated on Wednesday 6 May 1981

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Environment

Water And Sewerage Charges

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he has made in considering alternative methods of charging for water and sewerage.

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether, in view of the special burden of the large increase in water rates on low-income families, he will now consider alternative methods of charging for water.

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received for the inclusion of water rates in the rebate scheme.

With permission, I will answer this - question and questions 8 and 10 together.

The National Water Council has concluded that the best way to alleviate the present sense of unfairness about the charging system is to extend optional metering to domestic households. Where this option does not exist at present the council recommends that water authorities should draw up a timetable for its introduction in the next few years.

The council also concluded that, despite the representation which both it and the Government had received, the present legislation does not allow means-related rebates for water services and it reaffirms its belief that assistance to consumers should remain with the social security system.

Many people will look upon that answer as disappointing, because it costs £60 to instal a meter and a large amount of money to service it. Does my hon. Friend agree that water rates are the unfairest burden of an unfair rating system, that the water authorities are not sufficiently accountable democratically and that the Government are committed to doing away with the present abhorrent rating system? Will he, as a start, consider the possibility of transferring the water rates to general taxation where the cost will amount to less than 1 per cent. of VAT? That would prove far more reflective of people's use of water, because those who bought most would use most. At the same time the water authorities would be put under a better system of democratic control.

Order. Question Time must not be used to argue a case. It is unfair to other hon. Members.

The Government share my hon. Friend's concern to see water rates reduced. As a result of our action in the spring, water charges estimated for the following year were reduced by £87 million in consumer terms. We are also seeking to implement a fairer system of charging based on voluntary metering. A transfer to general taxation would be inconsistent with the Government's policy of seeking to make regional water authorities more accountable. It would indicate less efficiency, and there would be a significant increase in value added tax.

Order. I propose to call first those hon. Members who have tabled questions 8 and 10.

I thought that it was customary to notify hon. Members if their questions were being linked with others.

As the increased water rate imposes a heavy burden on widows, pensioners and those on low incomes just above the supplementary benefit level, will the Minister reconsider his decision and include water rates within the rate rebate scheme, which would at least help poorer people?

It has been the Government's policy to see that water, like other energies, is charged for according to consumption. The difficulties of those who are unable to meet the charges should be alleviated through the supplementary benefit scheme. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety.

I apologise for failing to notify the hon. Gentleman of the bracketing of the questions.

As many people, rightly or wrongly, believe that a metering system would be fairer than the present system, does my hon. Friend agree that the real cost is not that of the water itself, but that of getting the water from its source to the home? It therefore matters little, if charges are levied through a metering system, whether a household uses 10 gallons or 1,000 gallons of water a day.

My hon. Friend is right. That is why we favour optional metering, which provides a choice. In many cases that might not be a desirable solution. My hon. Friend is also right in saying that the cost of what comes out of the tap is less than the cost of the capital works involved.

Although metering might be the long-term answer, surely the Government can do something about people who, like myself, have to pay a water rate for a building that has no water or sewerage system, but only water coming off the roof into the drains. It is nonsense that one has to pay the full rate for that service. Cannot some legislation be arranged to prevent that?

I accept that the hon. Gentleman has a point about the disposal of surface water only, but he will appreciate that the water authority that operates in his area, as in others, has to pay for the disposal of foul water, from whatever source.

Does my hon. Friend accept the argument of the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) that elderly people, particularly those living on their own, find the present method of charging for water grossly unfair? Since the best that my hon. Friend seems able to do is to offer voluntary metering, will he consider making a grant to elderly people who wish to install meters?

The best and fairest solution seems to be to change from the basic rateable value system to payment by other means. Gas, electricity and water should be paid for on the basis of consumption, and the benefits available under the social security system should be used for redress.

As there is a combined charge for water and the disposal of sewage, does the Minister suggest that sewage disposal should be metered? Is it not crazy that many of my constituents pay twice as much for their water and sewage disposal as for their general rate because the rebate applies to one and not the other?

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that some water authorities propose, by some means, to measure sewage and effluent discharges from houses. There are ways in which that can be done, although not in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. We must ensure that the consumption of water and the disposal of foul water is charged for realistically, but I appreciate the difficulty.

Will my hon. Friend consider using new technology for metering? Is he aware of new systems that would make metering much cheaper? Will he also consider establishing a water consumers' council? If we are to be chained to the present system, should not the consumer have a voice in what happens?

My hon. Friend will recall that the majority of the members of water authorities are from elected bodies. The Government believe that the needs of the consumer are met in that way. However, I note my hon. Friend's suggestion. I accept that there are many aspects of the problem. The Water Research Centre is examining the new technoloy.

When the Minister considers how water authorities should bill consumers, will he reflect on the outcome of the recent diktat by the Secretary of State? Will he also reflect on the words of the chairman of the Thames water authority when he complained that the Secretary of State had insisted that more risks should be taken and that standards of service were no longer sacrosanct? Will he condemn the policy that forces authorities to jeopardise the health of consumers as the price for fiddling the books?

I repudiate the suggestion that to reduce consumer charges from a 19 per cent. increase to a 13 per cent. increase is fiddling the books. It is a genuine attempt by the Government to ensure that consumers get a fair deal and value for money. We shall continue to pursue that policy.

Council House Sales

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many council houses have been sold since the passing of the Housing Act 1980; what is the average discount given to those who have purchased them; and what percentage of the total are flats.

Figures are collected quarterly. In the second half of 1980, 34,100 local authority dwellings in England were sold at an average discount of 40 per cent. It is estimated that nearly 2½ per cent. of the dwellings sold were flats. Figures for the first quarter of 1981 are not yet available.

Do not the figures reveal that few flats are being sold? Does the Secretary of State accept that only the best council houses are being sold at give-away discounts? Is he aware that that is creating ghetto housing, since the worst houses are being left in the public sector?

The figures show nothing of the sort. They show that up to now completions for the sale of flats under the right-to-buy policy have not taken place. Under the earlier enactment of that policy few councils sold flats. I understand that many right-to-buy applications are for flats. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about our policy of selling council houses, he should accept that it is a popular policy with people who want to buy their homes. The real criticism should be made of Labour-controlled authorities which are trying to frustrate the Government's mandate.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Parliament has given tenants the right to buy and that it is intolerable and undemocratic for local authorities to seek to frustrate that right? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any local authority tenant has the right to apply to buy his council home? Will he ensure that tenants' rights within the law are upheld?

Tenants' rights within the law will certainly be upheld. Any council tenant can apply, and a large proportion of them have the right to buy. That right to buy was enshrined in the mandate under which the Government came to power.

Is not the Secretary of State forcing tenants to buy by raising rents? Secondly—and I ask the Minister to answer—does he intend to impose an additional rent increase beyond the current £3·25 by a further removal of subsidy?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that each year the Government reach conclusions about the public expenditure balance. The Government will continue to do that, just as the previous Government did. Today is not the right time to discuss the relative balance between one factor and another. The hon. Gentleman is aware that the policy of selling council houses has nothing to do with future levels of rent increases. The Labour Party is always calling for improved standards of maintenance for council houses, without realising that rent payments have to be made to cover the costs.

In support of my right hon. Friend's earlier statement, may I ask whether he is aware that in the London borough of Havering the majority of tenants applying for purchase live in flats? Does he agree that that is evidence that the premise behind the original question is false?

I agree. The first indications are that there has been a significant increase in the number of applications to buy flats, which were not previously available for sale.

Council House Rents

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received on the Government's statement on council rents increases for 1981–82.

Some 570 letters on the subject of council house rent increases have been received since my right hon. Friend made his housing statement on 15 December.

Why has the Secretary of State been so strangely and untypically quiet recently, particularly about rent increases? Could it be that, although county councils have no direct responsibility for rents, he believes that what is said on the subject might rub off and have an effect on the county council elections tomorrow? Will the Minister come clean and be honest and admit that the vast increases in rents, which many people in the Northern region will find difficult to meet, are due entirely to Government policy?

The hon. Gentleman must realise that the previous Government's policy was to increase rents in line with earnings and that they failed to discharge that policy. In four out of their five years the increase in rents was below the increase in earnings. As a result, the relationship between earnings and rents is now one of the lowest on record. In 1980–81 rents were 6·5 per cent. of earnings. If the hon. Gentleman is exercised by the number of letters that we have received—about 570—he should know that we have received nearly 10 times that number from council tenants wishing to buy their council homes. That suggests that council tenants are less concerned about the level of rents than about being frustrated by Labour councils in their right to buy.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that at least 45 per cent. of council tenants do not have to meet any rent increases in full, and that 25 per cent. do not have to meet any increase at all?

My hon. Friend is correct. About 46 per cent. of local authority tenants receive help with their rents. Of those, more than 1¼ million will have to pay no increase in rent because they receive supplementary benefit. More than 1 million tenants will have about 60 per cent. of any increase met because they receive rent rebates. The Government extended the rent rebate system in the Housing Act 1980. More recently, we increased the maximum ceiling for rent rebates in London to £35 a week and to £30 a week outside London. That provides real protection for people on low incomes.

On the subject of council house rents, will the Minister reflect on an answer that he gave during the previous Environment Question Time, on 1 April, when he said that last year Manchester provided £37 million for its housing revenue account from the rates? As a Manchester ratepayer, I know that that figure is wrong by £10 million. The figure is £27 million. Will the Minister take this opportunity to correct that error?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall look into the matter, but the figures that I gave were closely checked by my Department. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the burden of rates in Manchester over many years has had a serious effect on small and medium-sized businesses in that city.

Local Authorities (Planning Departments)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will advise local authorities to review their staffing establishment in their planning departments.

I am constantly reminding local authorities of the need to review their staffing levels and make reductions in all departments, including planning, if the Government's expenditure targets are to be met. The net effect of the changes that we have introduced to make the planning system more efficient should be a reduction in the overall numbers of staff required.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that ratepayers, particularly in large cities, will welcome any reduction in the extent and scope of planning procedures? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that private firms are being used sufficiently by local authorities in their planning procedures?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are many opportunities in the public sector, including local government, to use the private sector on a larger scale. I agree that the extent to which local government keeps down rates will have a direct beneficial effect on investment and job creation. One cannot help noticing that Labour authorities are largely bent on increasing rate levels to unjustifiable levels.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that East year about 8,000 houses in the principal towns and cities were demolished because of planning approval, and that at the same time, according to the second land utilisation study, about 60,000 acres of good agricultural lard were destroyed because of urban sprawl resulting from planning decisions? Is my right hon. Friend happy about that arrangement?

My hon. Friend raises two important issues. There is, unavoidably, a certain amount of demolition of old and inadequate housing, particularly in urban areas. There is no way to escape the irreducible minimal destruction that takes place. Wherever possible, we want property to be restored. That is happening with the new freedom that local government has to apportion its housing allocations more to renovation and improvement than to the new build that characterised earlier programmes.

On the second question, I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern about land in the countryside that could be protected if better use were made of urban land. He is aware of the initiatives that have been taken by the Government to put mechanics on the statute book, for the first time, to enable much publicly owned land to be driven into the market place, where more profitable use can be made of it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, although some of us share his apprehension about what has happened, we hold his Department partly responsible because when a clearance order for demolition is submitted it must always have his Department's permission? Can the Secretary of State assure the House that when planning matters are being considered every effort will be made to ensure the complete impartiality of those who are employed as servants and agents of councils?

I have no doubt that this country enjoys as impartial a Civil Service and local government service as it is possible to find anywhere in the world. I would defend that statement against all arguments. However, we all realise that the demolition of large parts of our inner cities went too far. With hindsight, we should probably have pursued other policies. I believe that we are right to have moved the emphasis away from demolition to rehabilitation.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the number of planning staff that are required to monitor our elaborate building regulations? Can he say what measures are being considered by his Department to simplify the regulations?

My hon. Friend will be aware of the announcements that we made about the simplification of the planning system and the new regime that we propose to introduce for building regulation procedures. I have not sought to give specific directions to local government about the ways in which it should seek to economise on staff. I have given general directions. I think that it is right for individual authorities to pursue their own staff economies as their local priorities demand. I have no doubt that there is still room for considerable economies.

Will the Secretary of State advise his hon. Friend that good agricultural land is consumed and developed, not because of the existence of hundreds or thousands of planners, but because of the demand that exists because agricultural land may be cheaper than inner urban land? The planning legislation is grossly inadequate to afford proper protection for good quality land in many areas.

I do not agree that planning procedures are inadequate to protect land. A rigid system of planning constraint exists, particularly for green belt land—and rightly so—and it is administered by my Department. However, another phenomenon causes even greater concern, namely, that it is easier to use agricultural land because it has few constraints or past dereliction associated with it. Too often we have gone for the easy option of agricultural despoliation, as opposed to reclamation in inner cities, where large acreages of publicly owned land have not been used because of the apparent difficulties of using it. I want to reverse that policy.

Allerdale District Council

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will undertake a review of the housing investment programme allocations for Allerdale district council.

No, Sir. Allerdale district council was given a fair share of the housing resources available for 1981–82.

Is the Minister aware that the HIP allocations to Allerdale have been cut since 1979, when they were £5·6 million, to just over £3 million this year? Is he further aware that that has destroyed the new start of the Allerdale district council's construction programme, cut to shreds its improvement programme and greatly damaged the possibility of Allerdale being able to provide for the 2,170 people who desperately need accommodation?

We understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Allerdale's allocation for 1981–82 is generous in the difficult circumstances of the year. Its percentage share of the regional total has increased significantly, and it could be topped up with right-to-buy receipts.

New Towns (Defective Houses)

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to receive a report from the National Building Agency on claims made by new town authorities under section 10 of the New Towns (Amendment) Act 1976, in respect of design defects in houses transferred to them; and when he anticipates he will be in a position to come to a settlement on this issue.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) on 27 April.

Does the Minister recognise that as councils cannot remedy all the defects in new town houses, which are causing great inconvenience and hardship to many residents, his reference of the matter to the National Building Agency means that those defects will have to go unremedied for several years? Does he accept responsibility for that? As he is so anxious to save public money, will he say how much this study, which is merely a delaying action, will cost?

I have told the hon. Gentleman ad nauseam that we are discussing this matter with the Association of District Councils. I have said over and again in the House that we have made it clear that if authorities proceed with urgent repair work it will not prejudice their claims for assistance.

Is the Minister aware that it is costing Sedgefield district council about £15 million to do all these repairs, and that such money is not available to a district council? Is he further aware that there is a widespread belief in all the district councils concerned that he is dragging his feet? When will he draw these negotiations to a close?

The hon. Member doubtless chooses to forget that these defects did not occur during the past two years. He also chooses to forget that my Labour predecessor delayed making a decision because no Government could accept at face value all the claims without an investigation of the public interest.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the reference to the National Building Agency is welcomed by the majority of Members who represent new towns? Does he realise that, at the end of the day, when the transfer takes place, there may be some unforeseen defects in the properties—for example, the problems with cladding that have occurred after 10 years with the tower blocks? Will there be some safeguards to deal with any unexpected defects?

We shall consider my hon. Friend's point. However, it is right to say that the houses were handed over by the Government to local authorities at an advantageous price.

Is not the saga of the frustrated section 10 claims a disgrace and a scandal? Should not the Minister shoulder a major share of the blame for the delays caused by his continual attempts to restrict the criteria for claims? How does he expect new town councils to deal fairly with inherited problems when they have been dealt with so unfairly in the HIP and rate support allocations?

With limited exceptions, the criteria for judging claims were those laid down by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett).

Does the Minister realise that it is almost two years since he and I discussed this matter in an Adjournment debate? Does he recall that during that debate he conceded that Peterlee new town in my constituency was the worst affected new town in Britain? Is that not evidence of a scandalous dragging of feet? Does he also recall telling the Easington district council that it would be reimbursed and could get on with its work? Is it not true that it has not yet received a penny? Is not the answer to set a target date for the report, so that some resources can be made available to the new towns?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that I have already said that the National Building Agency report will be available next May. We shall take a decision as soon as possible thereafter.

Council House Sales (Sheffield)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to ensure that the Sheffield metropolitan district council no longer obstructs and threatens council house tenants who wish to purchase their homes and carries out the steps and requirements of recent legislation designed to promote the sale of council houses.

I refer my hon. Friend to the statement I made in the House on 15 April. The Department wrote to Sheffield on the same day to give formal warning that my right hon. Friend is contemplating using his powers of intervention and seeking by 13 May the latest information on progress by the authority. If it then appears to my right hon. Friend that Sheffield's tenants have, or may have, difficulty in exercising the right to buy effectively and expeditiously, a notice of intervention will be served on the council.

I welcome the statement made on 15 April. Has my hon. Friend had time to study the dossier given to him by Conservative councillors outlining the appointment of people to dissuade tenants from buying their houses and also dealing with the difficult issue of the intimidation of those who want to buy their council homes? What reaction has he received from Sheffield?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not yet received a definitive reply from the city of Sheffield. We have been assured that it will be sent to us by the due date. The papers referred to by my hon. Friend have been studied. As I have said, if a local authority can recruit staff to dissuade people from exercising their right to buy, it must have sufficient staff to help people obtain their legal rights.

Does the Minister remember that I recently sent him a petition with 20,000 signatures about council house rents? Does he remember saying that he had nothing to do with the matter and that local councillors raised rents? Did he think that we would accept that? Does he recall that the council has repeatedly pointed out to him that it has 27,000 people on the housing list, that the list is developing, and that he has cut down its staff while expecting it to have sufficient staff to sell council houses? Cannot the council legitimately complain that it costs money to obtain staff? Does he accept that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) has no contact whatsoever with council house tenants and just does not understand the issue?

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) is as closely associated with his electorate as the hon. Gentleman is with his. Because of my hon. Friend's representations, we are aware that almost 4,000 tenants in Sheffield have applied to buy their homes. The latest figures available from the local authority show that at the beginning of April precisely five houses had been referred for valuation, no offer notices had been served and no completions had taken place. That is why a letter has been sent to the Sheffield city council saying that the Sectretary of State will intervene if satisfactory replies are not received by 13 May.

Council House Sales

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of the total income from council house sales in 1980–81 that councils will be able to devote to new house building.

It is for individual local authorities to decide what proportion of their accumulated unspent housing and non-housing capital receipts at 1 April 1981 they devote to new house building in 1981–82.

Does the Minister realise that his response is misleading? Is he aware that if we allow for a 40 per cent. average discount—as the Secretary of State mentioned earlier—for the 50 per cent. of the takings which are trousered by the Government, and take into account that 60 per cent. of council tenants seek a council mortgage to buy their properties, that means that less than 10 per cent. of the total proper valuation of the houses sold is available to councils to spend on new house building and rehabilitation?

That does not match up with my figures for receipts of certain local authorities from the sales of council dwellings last year. Six authorities had more than £2 million each from the sale of council dwellings during the first nine months of last year. They are all Conservative authorities. That shows vividly that the Labour authorities which failed to sell during the last financial year have suffered a self-imposed cut in their housing programmes.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the colleagues of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) were to encourage their tenants to buy council houses, rather than try to obstruct them in doing so, they would have more money available for new house building?

My hon. Friend is right. It is not only the question of the sale of houses to sitting tenants, but the possibility of selling land which scores 100 per cent. if a local authority wishes to increase its capital receipts. There are considerable examples of large areas of valuable land throughout Britain in local authority ownership which could be sold. That fact has been exposed by the land register that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is compiling.

Does the Minister seriously believe that sufficient funds are coming in from the sale of council houses to compensate for the loss of homes caused by public expenditure cuts? Has he had time today to read the report of the Catholic Housing Aid Society about the state of Liverpool's housing stock? Does he believe that the money collected in receipts in Liverpool alone will be sufficient to compensate for the loss of money available to local authorities?

I hope that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) will make every effort to ensure that in Liverpool and elsewhere the sale of council houses progresses as rapidly—[Interruption.]—as possible.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) really must try to restrain himself. It is discourteous and unfair to other hon. Members if he continues to talk as I heard him talk.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) merely said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton)—

When an hon. Member has been called, any sedentary interruptions are out of order. We have allowed a great many to pass, but it is unfair when they are constant.

Will the Minister come clean and tell the House to what extent he challenges the assumptions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson)? Does he disagree that only one-third of council house sales will be funded by other than local authority mortgages? Does he disagree that the average discount will be 40 per cent.? If he does not disagree with those assumptions, how can he dispute the figure put forward by my hon. Friend that only 10 per cent. of the proceeds of council house sales will be available for investment?

If the hon. Gentleman reads the written answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson), he will note that there is a detailed breakdown of the assumption for housing capital receipts for the financial year 1981–82. It is a breakdown of £413 million. That was based on the assumption that about 120,000 sales would be completed in that financial year. By 31 December 1980 120,000 right-to-buy applications had been received. If local authorities do not complete those sales, the responsibility will be that of the authorities.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been in the House since 9 o'clock this morning, but it was not until 10 minutes to 3 o'clock, when I arrived in the Chamber, that I was notified that my question, No. 10, would be coupled with No. 1. I have not had the opportunity of speaking to question No. 10.

If the Department of the Environment did not notify the hon. Gentleman in time, I shall allow his question to be called at the end of Question Time.

Planning Applications

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied that local planning authorities generally are adopting positive attitudes in determining planning applications, with particular reference to the location of new housing sites.

I am satisfied that many authorities are adopting a positive approach but there is still much scope for improvement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is strong evidence that certain local planning authorities have been far too negative in exercising development control procedures? Does he agree that, once it is accepted that a particular development should be on a particular site, planners could be much more positive in meeting applicants and making decisions on vehicle access points or the width of pavements? This assumes even greater importance when the planning applications relate to houses or housing estates.

My hon. Friend has great knowledge of the working practices of individual authorities when dealing with these issues. It is impossible to give a general answer to his question because working practices are so different. However, I am concerned about the general issues that he has raised with me. I hope that he will accept my assurance that I shall consider what he has had to say sympathetically.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the least positive attitudes in planning concerns the change of use for buildings for industrial purposes? Does he recall that this was the subject of circular 22/80 from his Department? What is really infuriating is that this negative attitude appears to be taken by the inspectors appointed by my right hon. Friend's Department. Will he bring to their attention the need, at a time of high unemployment, to give the maximum assistance to change of use for industrial and commercial premises?

I hope that my hon. Friend will be kind enough to let me have any examples where he feels that the inspectorate is not complying with the circular that I issued. It is my intention that my inspectors should uphold the policies set out in the circular.

New Towns (Housing Assets)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has yet determined the financial terms for the transfer of housing assets in second generation new towns; and if he will make a statement on the issues so far unresolved.

My right hon. Friend is considering the position in the light of the Association of District Council's reaction to the proposals we put forward. Our intention is that transfer should not place a major burden on the receiving authority and it is largely a question of deciding how this should be done in the light of the new housing subsidy system.

I thank my hon. Friend for the constructive remarks and positive attitude that he displayed this morning on repairs and staff. Does he accept that news of his proposals has not, for instance, reached the Redditch district council? There is great concern about the terms and time of transfer. Will he take this opportunity of confirming that he would approve of an agency agreement in the absence of any agreement on terms of transfer being reached in the near future?

Negotiations take place between the Government and the Association of District Councils. I cannot say what communications the association has had with individuals, although one member of Redditch council is a member of the committee that negotiated with me. I can only assume that the association has not yet put a view to individual authorities. I have already said to my hon. Friend that we would not oppose agency agreements as a transitional stage.

What guarantee can the Minister give that the same disgraceful delay will not take place over the settlement of the financial arrangements for second generation new towns as has taken place over the settlement for the transfer of houses in first generation new towns, to which we have already referred during Question Time in respect of section 10 grants?

There are two reasons why this will not happen. First, we anticipate that the overwhelming bulk of the stock will be in good condition when it is transferred. Secondly, we firmly believe that if the association had accepted the offer that I made to it several months ago the issue could well have been settled.

Empty Domestic Properties (Inner London)

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the latest estimate of the number of empty domestic properties owned by local authorities in inner London.

The latest estimates of the number of empty council dwellings owned by local authorities in inner London are contained in the authorities' HIP returns for 1981–82 and they show the position as at 1 April 1980. A copy of each authority's HIP return is in the Library.

Is my hon. Friend aware that I have not had the chance to go to the Library to look up the figures? However, I am aware that they run to several thousands. Is he aware that the Labour Party's GLC manifesto calls for a massive programme of new building? Is not that a hollow policy when there are thousands of empty properties controlled by Labour councils in inner London?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will, wish to spend the early hours of the morning reading the HIP returns. It might help him if I remind him that Lambeth had 3,100 empty properties, that Islington had 2,800, that Southwark had 2,700 and that Hackney had 2,300.

Has the Minister any powers under existing legislation to compel the Wandsworth borough council to rent the many council homes that it has been holding empty for many months in a futile attempt to sell them?

Wandsworth has had a remarkably good housing record and I see no reason to join in criticism of it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the unfortunate event of a change of control of the GLC in the near future, one possible slight benefit might be that the leader of Lambeth council, who has such a great knowledge of managing empty properties, will be in an excellent position to do something similar within the GLC because of his party's rates policy, which will lead only to more empty properties in London?

If the leader of Lambeth council does to the GLC what he has done in Lambeth, Heaven help the ratepayers of London.

Will the Minister accept that many of the vacancies result from the lengthy delays on the part of many local authorities of all political persuasions in reletting empty properties? Will he acknowledge that this causes great resentment among those on waiting lists? Will he take steps to try to encourage local authorities to cut through their bureaucratic processes? Finally, will he accept that we might get a better use of the existing housing stock if tenants are given a greater element of choice so that they are able to live in properties in which they wish to reside rather than have local government officers telling them what they should have?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that quite recently the housing services advisory unit produced a report called "Reducing the Number of Empty Dwellings''. It is a constructive document dealing with how the number of vacant properties could be reduced. Of course, local authorities could follow the excellent homesteading scheme that was introduced by the GLC.

The Minister has given us the figures of empty domestic proerties in Labour-controlled Lambeth and Islington. What is the number of such properties that are owned by the Tory GLC?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I advert to the answer to question 16?.

Order. I hope that the hon. Member has a point of order that I can rule on.

I hope so, but it remains to be seen. How can the House be protected from deceptive answers? The Under-Secretary of State must have known that 6,000 houses were empty.

Rate Support Grant

17.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment by what percentage he estimates that the shift of rate support grant from district to county councils will increase the total grant paid to county councils in England in 1981–82 compared with 1980–81.

Block grant is paid to each authority individually. In 1980–81 most of the previous grant nominally paid to districts was passed on to counties through the precept. When this is taken into account, there has been a shift of an estimated 0·47 percentage points from districts to counties in shire areas and 1·08 percentage points in metropolitan areas.

Is not the shift in Government grant in favour of the county councils, which is equivalent to county rates of as much as 78p in the pound in Lancashire and Northumberland and 80p in the pound in Cumbria, deliberately designed to coincide with the county council elections and to disguise bad financial management by outgoing Tory county councils?

The hon. Member will be aware that the Labour Government took £350 million from the provinces to concentrate it in London. I have readjusted that balance this year, as I believe it to be fair in the light of the new measured needs of individual authorities. The hon. Member will be interested to learn that Humberside was a grant loser and has still managed to reduce its rate levels in a way that Conservative authorities have proved is possible.

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been called to the decision by the valuation court in the matter between Westminster council and Imperial College, London, whereby the rateable value of Imperial College has been substantially increased? Has he realised the serious implications of that for all universities and colleges of higher education?

That is a most important matter. I shall take an early opportunity to consider those implications with my other colleagues, who will be as interested as I in the outcome.

Why is the right hon. Gentleman deliberately concealing the information which he has locked away in his Department about the number of Conservative-controlled county councils which have budgeted to overspend on his spending targets and which could be liable to his penalties? Is not he conducting that discreditable cover-up to prevent the voters in the county elections learning that, because of those prospective penalties, a vote for the Conservatives tomorrow means higher rates, because there will be a claw-back through those penalties, worse services and more redundancies than have so far been brought about by all the Tory councils?

Obviously the right hon. Gentleman has woken up to the fact that there are some elections tomorrow. He must be aware that Labour parties that are trying to take over the control of councils are already planning supplementary rates to finance inflationary policies which have done so much damage to the areas already controlled by the Labour Party. He must already be aware that I have not sought to conceal figures. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) must be aware that I would have been able to provide more information about the level of expenditure in local government in the present budgeted year but for the fact that when I examined the detailed figures in the last few days I found that some authorities had still not sent in their returns. I discovered which authorities were involved. The principal authorities were Labour-controlled Leeds and Hackney. I asked whether the returns of those authorities had come in and discovered that they had come in that day. The outstanding authority that came to my mind at that time was Bolsover.

As the right hon. Gentleman now admits that he has the returns from every Conservative-controlled county council, will he tell us about the budgets of those councils? How many have overspent his 5·6 per cent. target, and how many will be subject to his penalties? Do not voters tomorrow have the right to the information which he is suppressing?

The voters tomorrow will know all too well that the increases in rates this year in Labour authorities have been at twice the rate of those in Conservative authorities. The one thing about which voters tomorrow can be sure is that if they want their rates to increase they should vote Labour.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no faster way to ensure the destruction of the industrial economy than to put up the rate burden to a degree which industry cannot afford.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

Sporting Activities (Gleneagles Agreement)

18.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what arrangements are made for consultation between Her Majesty's Government, the Sports Council, the Central Council for Physical Recreation and the governing bodies of various sports when sporting events are planned that might contravene the Gleneagles agreement.

Responsibility for arranging sporting events lies with the independent governing bodies and/or their member clubs. All are familiar with the terms of the 1977 Commonwealth statement and know that the Government will always offer advice on its relevance in particular circumstances. There is no formal consultative machinery.

Is it not time that the Minister realised that merely going through the motions of quoting the Gleneagles agreement is beginning to be regarded as a wink and a nod to go ahead? Is it not time for more attention to be paid to the political and economic ill effects upon this country of those sporting links, let alone the possible loss of the Commonwealth Games—or are free Christmas holidays in sunny South Africa now regarded as being more important?

I do not know what was the point of the hon. Gentleman's final remark. The governing bodies and the clubs know the position relative to our duty under the Commonwealth statement. Since the Government came to power we have reaffirmed the position and made it clear where we stand. There is nothing more to be done except for the governing bodies to take advice.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that it might be better for everyone concerned and that it might also save the taxpayer money if those bodies were closed down altogether?

My hon. Friend has misunderstood. One cannot close down the Football Association and the Rugby Union. That is not the way sport works in this country.

I appreciate that the Minister has written to the Welsh Rugby Union criticising the possibility of the Welsh Academicals going to South Africa. Will he contact the Ministers in the Welsh Office, who do not appear to have been informed of this, as they have allowed representatives of the South African rugby organisation to meet in the Welsh Office?

The hon. Gentleman is misinformed. I have been in touch with the president of the Welsh Rugby Union and he knows the Government's views about the Welsh Academicals.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the widespread satisfaction that the Irish Rugby Football Union has refused to be bullied by the Irish Government and is continuing with its policy of sending a team to South Africa this weekend? Is he further aware that in this instance Ireland is united—the 26 counties of the South and the six counties of the North?

My hon. Friend is entitled to his opinion, but it is not one which I share.

House Building

19.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are the latest house building figures, starts and completions; and if he will make a statement.

The seasonally adjusted figures for England for the three months December 1980 to February 1981 show that there were 32,500 housing starts and 48,900 completions. The number of starts showed a 14 per cent. increase on the figure for the previous three months.

There is bound to be an increase on the worst figures which we have had during the past 50 years. [HON. MEMBERS: "Question".] Is the Minister aware that those scandalous figures are set against a background of 300,000 building workers in the Tory dole queue, about 600 million bricks in stock and brickworks closing down amongst the 7,000 firms which went bankrupt last year, and at least 1¼ million families looking for a roof over their heads? What a way to run a Department and a country. Do not those figures show that the Government are more concerned about inciting people to buy nuclear shelters than about providing families with roofs over their heads?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the private sector house building figures are more important than the public sector figures? Will he confirm that there is a 25 per cent. increase in the number of private houses started this year?

The House will be pleased to note the forecasts of the house building industry, to the effect that house building in the private sector will rise by 20 per cent. this year and is likely to rise by a further 20 per cent. in the following year. The House will understand that the figures for new construction in local authorities may be disappointingly low, but that is because local authorities are now spending more money on renovating their existing stock.

Will the right hon. Gentleman draw aside the veil over the information that the Under-Secretary of State refused to give about vacant council properties in London and reveal to the House that the Tory-controlled GLC has 6,000 vacant properties? As the right hon. Gentleman is ready to accept forecasts about private building, will he tell the House whether council house starts in England in 1981 will be as many as 15,000 or whether the number will be the worst for 60 years?

The right hon. Gentleman will have heard clearly what I said. House builders have only forecast their figures. Individual local authorities make their own judgments and will make their own forecasts. If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned to see a larger council house building programme, I would welcome his support in persuading those Labour authorities that are denying themselves the resources by not selling houses to speed up the process.

I promised to call the Minister to answer question 10, standing the in the name of the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), at the end of Question Time.

Water And Sewerage Charges

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received for the inclusion of water rates in the rebate scheme.

The National Water Council has concluded that the best way to alleviate the present sense of unfairness about the charging system is to extend optional metering to domestic households. Where this option does not exist at present the council recommends that water authorities should draw up a timetable for its introduction in the next few years.

The council also concluded that, despite the representation which both it and the Government had received, the present legislation does not allow means related rebates for water services, and it reaffirms its belief that assistance to consumers should remain with the social security system.

Finally, I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) for not advising him of the bracketing of his question.

Will the Minister accept that his answer will disappoint my constituents, particularly the lower-paid workers? Is he aware that if the change to metering will cost the tenants money, the lower-paid will not be able to afford it? Will the hon. Gentleman therefore consider replacing the water authorities with a democratically elected body?

We have no intention of abolishing the water authorities. The majority of the members of the authorities, including the Yorkshire water authority, are drawn from elected bodies. Any problems that the lower-paid may have over the cost of changing to metering are best left to the social security system. The change to metering will be a slow process, but the choice will be offered.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) said earlier that he had not been notified that his question was to be grouped with other questions. You will recall that much the same happened to me recently when my question was No. 9 on the Order Paper. Hon. Members frequently have other matters to attend to before coming to the Chamber for Question Time. Are the Government being inefficient and incompetent, or are they following a deliberate policy? Such problems did not arise under the previous Government. Should not Departments notify hon. Members whenever questions are to be taken together?

It is in everyone's interests for hon. Members to be notified when this happens. Normally, they are, but human errors do occur and sometimes the notice does not arrive.

I repeat that it was an error by my Department, for which I have apologised. It was not deliberate, and we shall do better in future.