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Environment

Volume 82: debated on Wednesday 10 July 1985

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Regional Water Authorities

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received regarding the proposed privatisation of the regional water authorities.

Why does the Minister persist in putting the public's health at risk by water privatisation? Does he not realise that water is an essential commodity which cannot be substituted? What will happen to investment in the water authorities, especially with respect to replacing sewerage and recreation centres? Does this mean that the water supply will be in the hands of the City of London and foreign investment? Why does the hon. Gentleman persist in this folly, especially as the public are outraged by this privatistion?

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that if he continues with this programme the public will rise up and give him a black eye? That is no trivial matter.

I am aware that water is essential to human life. The House would do well to remember that 25 per cent. of the British people are already provided with fresh water by the private water companies. Hon. Members should understand that many great benefits will accrue to the water industry and, above all, to customers if we can bring a measure of privatisation to the water industry. The Government intend persevering in their examination to ascertain whether they can bring some free enterprise to the industry.

Order. Long supplementary questions lead to long ministerial replies, which cannot help Question Time.

Is my hon. Friend aware that private water companies are celebrating this year their 100th anniversary of supplying wholesome water to the people? Will my hon. Friend consider, during discussions on privatisation, the possibility of using the legislation covering the water companies as a model for the privatisation of the authorities?

There could be no better example of the success of the private water companies than the successful private water company of which my hon. Friend is a director. During our examination of privatisation we shall certainly consider the lessons that we can learn from the successful private companies.

How many water authorities have been exempted from the EEC requirement which came into effect this month on the amount of nitrates allowable in drinking water?

Although that matter does not arise directly from this question, I can point out that I had a meeting yesterday with the Government's Chief Medical Adviser on the subject. I shall be announcing the decision on derogations shortly.

If a decision is taken on that matter, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that it is desirable not only that costs should be kept as low as possible but that there should be no great variation of water prices throughout Britain? That would be most undesirable as regards past investment in the industry and what is available now. Such a variation might widen the gap between those areas that are fortunate in fostering investment and those that are not.

I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's advice. I remind the House that among the advantages of privatisation will be the possibility that those who at present work for water authorities and, not least, those who are customers of the water authorities will become shareholders.

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that water is far too important a commodity, to use his own words, to leave to the "whims" of the free market? If he will not reflect on that, I am bound to say that the Labour party in power will return it to public control. If the private sector is so good, will the Minister kindly explain why the private firm that supplies Eastbourne charges more than the public sector?

It used to be believed, even by some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that the ratchet-effect of Socialism was such that any threat to renationalise that which we denationalised should be taken seriously. I say to the House and to the engaging Labour party spokesman on water that a threat to renationalise that which we may denationalise is no threat.

Is not the present position unsatisfactory, in that those who supply water are not properly accountable as virtually all water authorities, with some notable exceptions, meet in private? Why would a privatised system be more accountable than the present system, which is hardly accountable to consumers? What protection will there be to ensure a pure water supply?

It is because the present organisation of the water industry, though greatly improved since 1979, is not yet perfect that we are examining the possibility of a measure of privatisation. I should have thought that the Liberal party, which claims to be the party of participation, would have welcomed the opportunity for more and more customers and more and more employees to become owners of the business. It is characteristic of the Liberal party — that band of visionary missionaries with neither vision nor mission — that it should make a wet observation of that kind.

Derelict Dormant Land

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many acres of publicly owned derelict dormant land now appear on the register of vacant land; and how that compares with the figures for each of the last three years.

At the end of June 1985 the land registers showed 113,000 acres of unused or underused land owned by local authorities and other public bodies in England. Figures for the last three years are:

  • 1982 95,000 acres
  • 1983 109,000 acres
  • 1984 114,000 acres
Those figures conceal the fact that over 21,000 acres have been removed since the registers started because the land has been sold or brought back into use.

In view of the immense amount of land stuck on the registers, which I believe is only the tip of the iceberg, will my right hon. Friend consider privatising public land, raising the necessary finance through the issue of industrial revenue bonds, and amending planning laws so that a national, wasting asset may be put to excellent use?

My hon. Friend's proposals are interesting. We wish to persuade local authorities to use the land, because the public hoarding of land when nothing is planned for it and nothing is happening to it is unacceptable. I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's proposals.

Is the Minister aware that a great deal of public and private land from which the negative value has been removed by public money from the Merseyside development corporation is still standing idle because private developers will not go on it?

Merseyside development corporation is undertaking some of the best developments on Merseyside, as I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise. Members on both sides of the House will agree that it is a disgrace when public authorities—local authorities or nationalised industries—own land and are doing nothing with it, and that that land should be sold and developed.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the pressure on housing land in the south. Is it not a scandal that those authorities are still holding on to land which in many cases is derelict? Has the time not come to give up persuasion and to set a time limit on how long those authorities may hang on to what is a valuable and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) said, wasting asset?

A third of the land is in the inner cities, and the Government are not sitting idly by. We have already issued four directions, and in June my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he was thinking of giving warnings that he would issue instructions on a further 50 sites covering some 388 acres. We are moving energetically.

Is not one of the biggest single obstacles to bringing derelict land back into use, particularly in inner cities, the Government's failure to remove the restrictions on the expenditure of derelict land grant? Have not hundreds of projects submitted by local authorities been held up by the Government's restrictions? Could such schemes not bring commerce, industry and housing, and private investment to match public expenditure, if only the Government would increase the permitted expenditure?

We have substantially increased expenditure on derelict land grants since we came into office. It has increased again this year to about £75 million a year. I agree with everything that the right hon. Gentleman said, and I hope that there will be an increase next year.

Office Development

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his policy towards the control of office development in the light of the report on office rents and rates 1973 to 1985, published in May by Debenham, Tewson and Chinnocks, a copy of which has been sent to him.

The Parliamentary under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. William Waldegrave)

I have read the report with interest.

That was a pathetic answer. Does not an hon. Member who has tabled a question deserve an answer from a Minister? Should the Minister not have taken into consideration the comments by Mr. Peter Evans, the head of research at Debenham, Tewson and Chinnocks, who said that office accommodation is cheaper now than for a long time, and that one cannot claim that the rates burden is causing rent rises because the relationship between the two is not proved, rents not having risen in real terms over the past few years? How does the Minister justify that statement?

I read the report with interest, because it says:

"As found in both the association's report and our survey, commercial rates in the inner London boroughs have risen by one of the lowest margins in the last 10 years and this can be attributed directly to the Government's rate capping controls."
For that and other reasons, I read the report carefully.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Debenham, Tewson and Chinnocks annual report is crammed with statistics and does not make good bedtime reading? Only one sentence in it could affect and influence the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes)—that which said that many office accommodation owners are moving out of the London area, and perhaps into the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Will not economic measures influence such moves, with offices then going to the provinces?

The move to constituencies such as that of the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) might be the kind of phenomenon that the report shows, because it shows that because of the rates office accommodation has been tending to move out of areas such as Lambeth and Southwark.

South-East (Housing Demand)

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made concerning the supply and demand for houses in the south-east of England.

While my Department does not attempt to forecast housing supply and demand, it publishes much information on recent trends. The London and south-east regional planning conference—SERPLAN—is preparing an assessment of future housing requirements in the region.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the proposals to meet the alleged shortfall is that proposed by Consortiums Developments Ltd. to build a new town of 5,000 houses in my constituency between West Horndon and Bulphan? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that that proposal has led to universal and substantial all-party opposition from the Essex county council, from the London borough of Thurrock and from the villages of Bulphan and West Horndon and the local Members of Parliament? Will he take that into account when he makes his decision?

I am aware of the proposal to which my hon. Friend draws attention. The matter will be dealt with in accordance with normal planning procedures. There is a planning application before the Thurrock borough council, and it will be for it to take a view in the first instance.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in inner London there are many badly housed or homeless people who are too poor to compete effectively in the private housing market and that his policies of cutting back on the public sector are denying many of them the chance of decent homes in their lifetimes?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it has been Government policy that the demand for new homes should primarily be met by the private sector and that the number of houses built by the private sector has increased substantially. The Government recognise that there will always be a proportion of the population unable to afford the full cost of private sector housing. For them, the housing associations and local authorities will provide a way to be housed. But it is up to the local authorities to make the best use of their resources and not, for instance, have up to 25,000 houses and flats empty for more than a year. If they can deal with that, they may be able to help some of the homeless.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no proof of the size of demand for new houses in central Berkshire to justify the foisting of an excessive number of houses on to the area completely against the wishes of the people, the local planning authority and local business?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's forcefully expressed views on this, which I know are reflected in those of a great many of those whom he represents. The Government will be making their view public on this shortly.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, according to his Department's figures, there is enough land available with planning permission to continue building houses at the present rate in Essex until 1990? Is he aware, further, that the proposals by Consortium Developments to use green belt land is opposed by the leading Labour group on Thurrock borough council and that, furthermore, Thurrock borough council is considering plans to use derelict land which is available in Thurrock and can build a further 5,000 to 6,000 houses on it and that therefore Consortium Developments' planning application to misuse green belt land should be firmly rejected by his Department?

I am sure the hon. Lady recognises that if Consortium Developments appealed against a refusal of permission or a failure to give permission within the specified time, that appeal would have to come to my Department and that it would be wrong for me to express any view on the merits of the proposal to which she referred.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the south-east many people are extremely alarmed about the pressure on land for house building? That being so, will he assure the House that he will respect the integrity of the county plans, which are an important protection for my constituents?

Yes, indeed. The county structure plans are one of the mechanisms whereby it is possible to regulate the development of housing in areas which are already under pressure. My hon. Friend will know that the Government have made it abundantly clear again and again that they do not wish to see development on the green belt, where the protection should be permanent, and that they do not want to see good agricultural land taken. At the same time, it has to be said that there is a demand for housing in the south-east, as there is in other parts of the country. It is our policy to make sure that sufficient suitable land comes forward for that purpose to meet the demand.

Given that incomes in my constituency average about £5,000 and that the average price in the private sector is £39,000 for a flat and £48,000 for a terraced house, will the right hon. Gentleman give some thought — given that he accepts the demand for low-cost homes for sale in docklands, especially from young married couples — to introducing new schemes and methods of finance so that people can live where they work and come from and not be forced to move from the area when the demand is there, the land is there and the supply could be there as well?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and he knows of the various low-cost home ownership schemes promoted by the Government. He also knows that in his constituency the London Docklands development corporation has been among the foremost in making use of those schemes so that his constituents can occupy homes close to where they have always lived on land which for many years has lain derelict. I hope that the hon. Gentleman approves of that.

Despite comments from some of my hon. Friends, does my right hon. Friend accept that in parts of east London and south-west Essex there is considerable unmet demand for houses to buy? That must be taken into account when he considers these policies, because many young people are being driven from where they wish to live.

I certainly take most careful note of what my hon. Friend said. It reflects my impression, as I also have a constituency in that area.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in Greater London the average price of a pre-1919 terraced house is now almost £50,000, which is twice the national average and well beyond the means of many needy first-time buyers? Is he further aware that that extremely high price is a reflection of the 1,000 per cent. increase in the south-east in land prices since the Government took office? Does he agree that we have, not a housing policy, but a speculators' bonanza? Will he now engage in an exercise of positive planning to identify private land, along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald), which can be used for private housing, without raping the green belt for private profit?

The Government certainly want to see the maximum possible use of inner city land that is available for housing for that purpose. However, one of the best ways in which inner city authorities, particularly those in London, can meet the needs of the families to whom the hon. Gentleman referred is to bring into use by homesteading or other ways the many thousands of empty houses and flats that they have on their books. It is a scandal that so many should be allowed to remain empty for so long, and that homeless families must then be put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

Liverpool (Rates)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to meet Liverpool city council leaders to discuss the council's recent decision about rates.

Will the Secretary of State at least meet elected Members of Parliament to discuss this critical position and consider meeting council leaders? Meantime, will he ask the district auditor to withdraw the letter that has been sent to councillors who are defending jobs, services and rates in Liverpool? The right hon. Gentleman knows that the previous Tory-Liberal coalition left Liverpool city council in a mess, because he saw that for himself. Is it not a disgrace that councillors could be banned from office or gaoled for carrying out their pledges to their citizens?

The district auditor is completely independent of central Government, which has been the case since the office was first established 150 years ago. I therefore have no power to control him in the performance of his duties. However, it is a complete fallacy to imagine that the problems which now beset Liverpool city council are all the making of its predecessors. The present councillors were given time last year to put their house in order, but they failed utterly to do anything about it. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I shall be ready to meet Members of Parliament from Liverpool who would like to discuss the matter.

Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the people of Liverpool that they are heavily dependent on the charity of taxpayers in other areas, and that many of those hard-working people resent their money being poured down the bottomless hole which the leaders of Liverpool city council seem determined to create?

The Government certainly think it right to give substantial help to Merseyside in general and Liverpool in particular. We look to Liverpool city council to do more to help itself. Why does collecting the refuse in Liverpool cost the council double the number of rounds as, and 25 per cent. more staff than, in Birmingham, which is twice the size of Liverpool? That is an example of the woeful inefficiency of Liverpool city council.

Will the Secretary of State repudiate what his hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) said? The people of Liverpool or elsewhere do not receive charity from anyone. [Interruption.] Although many of the problems were caused by the previous administration in Liverpool, the basic problem is that the rate support grant was cut drastically by the Government over several years, and this year the housing investment programme for Liverpool was cut. On that basis, is it not clear that a reversal of policy is needed? As the Government are already intending to go in that direction, why not start now?

If the Liverpool city council was prepared to tailor its budget so that it could live within its target, it could have rate support grant this year of £118 million. If it succeeded in living within its target, it could manage its services with a very modest rate rise.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the disastrous policies of the current Liverpool city council serve only to make things worse in that sad city by deterring any potential employer from moving there? Will he say why people in south Derbyshire should have to fork out a ton of money to keep that council afloat on the Mersey when the money could be far better spent on our own ratepayers and taxpayers?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that members of the Liverpool city council will recognise, from what has been said from the Conservative Benches, that Parliament's patience is running very short. It is high time that they set about putting their house in order instead of continually standing with their hands outstretched, asking for more money.

Is it not the case that, by budgeting for £100 million above the income that the council will receive this year, the trouble has been brought on the heads of the councillors because they have practised policies of self-immolation? Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance the he will not send a commissioner to Liverpool—he would be seen as the Prime Minister's henchman — but will instead allow the law to run its natural course? Will he also give assurances to council employees, who are worried about what will happen to them when the money runs out?

The employees of the council, including the members of NALGO and of the teachers' unions, have already made their anxieties extremely plain to the ruling majority on the Liverpool city council. The law will take its course as the district auditors' proceedings go through the normal process. I have no power whatever to send in commissioners. I hope that the Liverpool city council will take the steps that still remain within its powers to set its affairs in order.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the people of Mossley Hill do not need a Tory Member of Parliament when they have the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton)?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the people of Liverpool are trying to put their affairs in order? They have 17 priority housing areas. He has seen the housing problems on Merseyside, and will see them again during his visit next Friday. He refuses to acknowledge the real needs of the people of Merseyside and prefers instead to dissipate taxpayers' money on international garden festivals and Tate galleries for the north, which, while desirable, are not first priorities for the people of Liverpool.

The hon. Gentleman has been less than fair to those who successfully carried through Britain's first international garden festival. Nothing did more to lift the spirits of the people of Liverpool than that festival last year. They demanded that it should be opened again this year, and it has been. That in no way excuses the failure of the Liverpool city council to use the time that it was given last year to put its house in order, to seek to get more efficient services and better value for money, and so live within its income. It is because the council has failed to do that that it is now facing very serious problems.

Will the Minister accept some responsibility, as the Minister responsible for Merseyside—as was his predecessor — for the fact that hard drug-taking among young people has increased fourfold, while at the same time Government policies have created a situation in which the leader of Liverpool city council, a JP and retired schoolmaster who has never broken the law in his life, is being turned into a law-breaker by the Government because he wants to defend services for the elderly, the disabled and the children in Liverpool?

The hon. Gentleman is seriously misrepresenting the situation. If Councillor Hamilton or any other councillor of Liverpool city council chooses to go outside the law and vote for a budget or rate which may or may not be illegal, that is a matter for the courts. That is their decision. It is in no sense a decision of the Government, and I repudiate wholly what he has said.

Council Housing Stock

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will institute a survey in all major cities of council housing stock to discover how much money necessary repairs will cost.

My Department has already launched such an inquiry. On 11 April of this year my Department wrote to all local housing authorities in England asking them for information on the condition of their housing stock, and the expenditure they estimate is needed to put it in good condition. Local authorities' returns are now being processed and I hope initial results will be available by the end of this month.

Is it not a fact that Sheffield launched such a survey, the results of which show that hundreds of millions of pounds are needed at a time when the trail of destruction of cuts by the Government is not only allowing the infrastructure to degenerate on a grand scale but is causing the superstructure to degenerate? When will the hon. Gentleman realise that, as a result of those cuts and the ensuing rate capping, it is impossible to provide services for people in the way that councils have been doing for years because the Government are cutting out the money that is needed to repair council houses, for which the waiting lists grow longer every week?

On the first point, my Department is indeed analysing the results of the survey that Sheffield council has done. As I said, we hope that the results will be available by the end of the month. With regard to reductions in public expenditure investment in housing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, between 1974 and 1979 public sector investment in housing fell by 45 per cent., after allowing for inflation, and since we came to power it has fallen by 26 per cent. on the same basis, so I reject his criticism.

Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with the Halifax building society about the approval of repair schemes for pre-cast reinforced concrete houses in major cities or elsewhere? If so, can he tell the House what types of houses and what methods of repair may now be eligible for mortgages from the Halifax as a result of what seems to be an excellent initiative by the society?

I was delighted to learn that the Halifax building society has agreed that PRC houses repaired under the NHBC schemes will automaticaly be accepted by the society for a mortgage. It has done this in advance of formal approval by the NHBC. I very much welcome that initiative, which I think will be greatly welcomed by many owners. I hope that it will not be too long before other building societies follow in its wake.

Does the Minister recognise that the massive problems of dampness and condensation, which affect so many flats in constituencies like mine, result directly from the fact that many tenants simply cannot afford adequate heating in their own homes, particularly when they have to contend with wickedly expensive and inefficient heating systems put in during the 1960s? What steps are the Government planning to help local authorities to tackle those problems?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited his constituency and met a number of the tenants in some of the more difficult estates in Greenwich. If Greenwich borough council wishes to spend part of its HIP on improving the heating systems in local authority stock, the Government would not question its priority. We shall be discussing at a later stage with Greenwich and other local authorities which have difficulty what can be done through the newly established unit on urban housing renewal, which my Department launched a few weeks ago.

*Having carried out this survey, will my hon. Friend also take the opportunity to examine the length of time for which council houses remain void in the Middlesbrough area in particular, and the outstanding rents that are owed in that area? If the two things were brought together, after 50 years of almost continuous rule by the Labour authority in Middlesbrough, the situation would improve for council house and other tenants in that region.

I agree with my hon. Friend that if houses are left unlet there is a loss of income. Likewise, if rents are not collected, the local authority is also out of pocket. This may inhibit the level of service that it can provide to tenants and ratepayers. I hope that Middlesbrough will respond to the prodding of my hon. Friend and reduce the number of vacant properties and outstanding debts.

Has the Minister seen the Royal Institute of British Architects' survey on local authority housing entitled "Decaying Britain", which shows that £10,000 million is needed to deal with the backlog of repairs and maintenance? Is the Minister aware that selling council houses will not raise that amount of money? Where will it come from? Will the Government cough up? Can the people who live in that housing be assured that these problems will be resolved?

As of a few days ago, I understood that the policy, supported by a number of the hon. Friends of the hon. Gentleman, was to sell council houses. I am surprised to learn that this policy does not have the support of the hon. Gentleman. On the figure of £10 billion that he mentioned, I have seen a range of figures, from £10 billion up to £20 billion, from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. When we have the results of the survey to which I referred we shall have a much clearer picture of how much money is needed to catch up with the backlog of repairs to local authority stock.

*The question was in fact asked by Mr. Holt. see Official Report, 11 July 1985, c. 1291.

My hon. Friend realises that repairs and maintenance are a serious matter for any city. The citizens who occupy council tenancies in Southampton are very angry with the Labour-controlled council because its repairs fund is underspent by £600,000, due mainly to a series of mistakes and omissions. Whatever may be the council's excuse, this is deplorable when one realises how much of the housing stock of some cities is in need of repair.

I hope that the electors of Southampton will wreak their vengeance on a local authority which has failed to spend the resources that have been made available to it. It is worth reminding the House that expenditure this year on renovating public sector housing stock is running at over £1 billion. That is an increase on the 1979 figure.

Does the Under-Secretary of State really need an inquiry to point out to him that the major social problem in many of our inner cities is the repair of houses, when people are constantly complaining about the condition of their houses? When the report is published there will be only one recommendation: that local authorities need money to help them to repair their housing stock.

I referred not to an inquiry but, to a survey. We require up-to-date, accurate information about what is needed to put local authority housing stock into a better condition. My Department has asked for this information to be made available in time for the public expenditure round. When we have the information we shall be better placed to make decisions and solve the problems to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred.

Is the Secretary of State confessing to the House and to the millions of people who live in substandard and inadequate accommodation that the Government do not understand the problems and do not have the information? If, when the survey is completed, the overwhelmimg evidence that is already available from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Royal Institute of British Architects and others is confirmed, will the Government provide the extra resources that are needed to help the millions of families who are living in squalor, dampness and freezing conditions?

The problems to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred have not arisen only during the last four or five years. They are due to years of neglect and bad management of local authority stock. The Government are trying to obtain an up-to-date and accurate assessment of the resources that are needed. When we have that information we shall be better placed to negotiate the resources that are needed.

Halvergate Marshes

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress has been made by the Government to save the Halvergate marshes.

One hundred and eighteen applications have been received under the Broads experimental scheme, covering nearly 95 per cent. of the estimated total eligible grazing marshes. The scheme will run for three years and all the applicants have agreed not to plough or destroy their marshland and to manage it in sympathy with conservation objectives. In return, they will receive an annual payment of £50 per acre. This take-up is very encouraging and should do much to ensure that this landscape is preserved.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I am very pleased that the Halvergate scheme is proceeding so well. At the same time, I urge him to continue to seek a balance between agriculture and conservation, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Halvergate marshes.

This experimental scheme is an outstanding example of co-operation between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Countryside Commission. It may provide useful lessons for the development by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, of his environmentally sensitive areas scheme.

Is not £50 an acre quite a lot of money to pay people for not doing what they ought not to have done anyway? Is this not an argument for the listing of sites of special scientific interest, just as buildings are listed?

The problem in the Halvergate area is that there are very few SSSIs. We are involved there with general landscape matters. The interesting point is that the £50 per acre scheme is cheaper than the management agreements for which payments were being made, so it can be argued that the scheme is good value for money.

Has my hon. Friend calculated by how much it would be necessary to reduce cereal prices to remove the financial inducement to plough areas such as the marshes?

That would be a difficult calculation to make. The cereal problem is not the only factor. Pressure from the dairy industry meant that there were fewer dairy followers to go to grazing in the Broads, which meant that there was a further incentive to plough. It is a little more complicated than my hon. Friend believes.

Will the Minister pursue the request of his hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), because the figures would be interesting? Further to the Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord), who is PPS to the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will he give the House a categorical assurance that no farmers in Halvergate are applying for grants to drain parts of that wetland?

On the fundamental point, there is no disagreement between us. The Government have been among the leaders of those seeking more realistic cereal prices in the European Community. It would be rash of me to assure the hon. Gentleman — as I once assured the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) — that no field in this area will ever be ploughed. However, we hope that the great majority of the area is now safe.

Capital Spending

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received since 19 June from the Association of County Councils on capital spending.

None, Sir. But I met all the associations on 20 May to discuss the review of the capital control system and the chairman of the ACC wrote to me after that meeting.

Bearing in mind the association's concern about the capital control system and the Audit Commission's condemnation of it, will my right hon. Friend comment on the strength of that feeling and assure us that he will give careful consideration to a recommendation that he either has received or is about to receive from the joint working party of the Department of the Environment and ACC officials?

The report that Ministers have received certainly confirms the need for a change in the system. It also identifies a number of options, which we have been discussing with the local authority associations. We seek two objectives. The first is to get better control of the totals of capital spending by local authorities, and the second, which is no less important, is to give local authorities greater certainty so that they can plan their expenditure more efficiently.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the present system of capital spending controls is causing absolute chaos for local authorities at all levels, because they do not have the opportunity to plan ahead? Is he aware that capital spending must be planned on as long a term as possible, yet some authorities are working on plans covering less than six months? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that he should consider introducing a proper system of capital spending controls? One cannot criticise controls of some sort, but they must be on a longer-term basis.

I do not agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I hope that he took some comfort from my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Watson) on 26 June, when I said that we did not propose to take any action at present where we noticed that there was the prospect of an overspend on local authority capital spending this year. I know that the statement was widely welcomed by local authorities.

Housing (Elderly Persons)

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many housing units built for the elderly were completed by local housing authorities in the years 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1984.

The latest figures of completions of local authority dwellings for the elderly are 10,300, 7,600, 7,600 and 8,500 in 1981 to 1984, respectively. Complete figures are not available for 1980.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that is a terrible record and that the Government and particularly the Secretary of State ought to be ashamed of themselves? The Government regularly trip out the claim that they look after the elderly, yet in my constituency and, no doubt, throughout the country, elderly people are living in two-bedroomed houses or three-bedroomed houses which could be allocated to young married couples. Because the Government have cut back on finance, properties for the elderly are not being built. What does the Minister intend to do about that?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that local authority renovations in 1984 added 5,200 to the figures which I have just given and that the number of housing association schemes has risen from 1,800 to 2,500. The figures indicate a rising trend, which I hope he welcomes.

Do not the figures announced by the Minister this afternoon represent a good record for pensioners? Do not the figures illustrate vividly that pensioners, in terms of pensions and living accommodation, are far better off under the Conservatives?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his robust defence of Government policy. It is worth remembering that a growing number of pensioners are owner-occupiers and have a substantial equity in their own homes. They do not look to the local authority for accommodation in their retirement, but are happy to buy leaseholds on suitable accommodation provided by the private sector — a fact overlooked by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes).

Housing Investment

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list those local housing authorities which have expressed approval of current Government policy in respect of housing investment.

Does the Minister accept that if there were a list it would be incredibly short? Is he aware that the majority of housing authorities which have to face staff decay and the reality of need, even if Conservative, would be exceedingly critical of present policy? Has the Minister seen the pertinent comments by the retiring ombudsman about improvements, or does he think that everyone other than Ministers is out of step?

The common experience of mankind is that all those who receive allocations would like more. The House should understand that.

Given the appalling record of mismanagement by many Labour-controlled local authorities, instead of listening to their whingeing about not having the funds and not being able to cope, why does my hon. Friend not require them to hand over much of their housing to skilfully managed private sector companies, which would have three advantages: first, they would not be politically motivated, secondly, they would be using private not public funds, and, thirdly they might actually know what they were doing?

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the importance of improving the management of our public sector housing stock. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State last month launched the urban housing renewal unit, which is devoted to a much closer partnership between the public and private sectors in trying to find solutions to our housing problems.

Since 100,000 homeless families report to local authorities every year, since millions of families are badly housed and in need of council accommodation and since 400,000 construction workers are on the dole, costing the British Exchequer £2,400 million a year, would it not make social, compassionate and economic sense to put those people to work building more houses?

It is unworthy of Opposition Members to claim a monopoly of compassion. I am looking forward to visiting the Brent, East and Brent, South constituencies on Monday week, when, in the company of the right hon. and hon. Members who represent those constituencies, I shall examine the severe problems of homelessness in that area. A real contribution to solving the problem of homelessness could be made if some of the 25,300 local authority-owned dwellings which have been empty for more than a year were brought back into use.

If my hon. Friend wants a cheap way of improving housing imvestment, will he immediately sell off the historic buildings in which his Department keeps sculptures, which are surrounded by neat little lawns with expensive little notices telling us that we are not allowed to walk on them, so that the buildings can be restored as homes for people by people who care about old buildings?

I am not sure that I entirely understand my hon. and learned Friend's suggestion but as it comes from him I shall examine it most carefully.

If the Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State are so concerned about the homeless, why is the Department refusing to have a British element in the 1987 International Year for the Homeless? Secondly, does the hon. Gentleman agree that an element of Government policy should be investment in housing, including repairs, new build and renewal, at a rate that is at least equal to that of deterioration?

I shall discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development, who represents the sponsoring Department, the first issue raised in the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State told the House earlier this afternoon that £1 billion a year from housing investment programme allocations is being spent on the repair of our local authority housing stock. In addition, another £1 billion a year is being spent from the housing revenue account.

Southwark Borough Council

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many meetings there have been between officials of his Department and senior officers of Southwark borough council since the beginning of 1985; and what were the reasons for such meetings.

There have been two such meetings this year: a discussion about the redevelopment of the Bonamy estate and one about the disposal of land on the borough's land register. However, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction is arranging to meet the elected representatives of Southwark, together with their officials, in the near future to discuss the unwarranted delays being experienced by tenants seeking to exercise their right to buy from the council.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I hope that when the meeting takes place my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction will tell the officials of Southwark borough council of the frustration, anger and disappointment that so many of my constituents feel because of the lack of progress with their right-to-buy applications? Will he say what he intends to do about the incompetence and intransigence of Southwark borough council in dealing with the applications?

I understand my hon. Friend's indignation. He has been in regular contact with my Department about the frustrations of the tenants in his constituency. My Department has formally warned the council under section 23 of the Housing Act 1980 that we are contemplating intervention. Before we take that step we wish to discuss the issue with councillors and officials in the near future. Southwark borough council indulges in meaningless procedural requirements, which delays the opportunity for tenants to buy their homes.

Will the Minister think again about the powers of the ombudsman? It appears that Southwark and many other authorities are guilty regularly of what is found to be maladministration. There will be no effective remedy until the ombudsman is given power to impose a solution when a local authority is not going about its affairs properly.

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have no doubt that the Government Departments that are responsible for these matters will take account of what he has said and consider whether there is any remedy for the injustice that he has described.

Business Rates

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what responses he has received to his letter of 8 March asking for details of the effects of business rates on the location of employment.

I have received six replies from organisations I consulted. A number of other bodies have also volunteered their interest.

Will the Minister accept the conclusions of the Cambridge report entitled "The Effects of Rates on the Location of Employment"? The report was commissioned by the Government at a cost of £50,000. It concludes that there is no evidence that rates or rate increases have an effect on employment. It states also that rating does not have an effect on the location of employment in local authority areas. Will the Minister accept the report in full?

The dossier which the CBI sent to me does not support what the hon. Gentleman says. If he believes what he says, let him make a speech in Birmingham, where the rates have gone up by 42p this year, or in Newcastle, where they have gone up by 54p. Let him try to persuade the business men in those two great industrial cities that rates are not important.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a department store in Darlington has a rates bill this year of over £250,000, that many smaller businesses have to pay rates of over £100 a week and that high rates in the north are not only driving businesses away from the region but are dissuading them from coming to the north?

My hon. Friend is right — and hon. Members on both sides of the House know from experience that he is right—in saying that high rates by high-spending authorities affect areas adversely. That is true both in jobs and in the domestic area.

Why is the Minister refusing to accept the conclusions of the independent study which his Department established? Does he appreciate, since he referred to Birmingham, that that city had the fastest rate of job loss when the Conservatives were in control there and that the rates fell? Is he aware that the report not only said that there was no relationship between rates and unemployment but that it went on to say that higher levels of spending in Labour areas led to higher levels of employment? As there is now clear evidence that Labour policies by Labour-controlled authorities are working to bring down unemployment, when will the Minister change his policies, which have led to massive cuts in services and jobs and have in no way helped the businesses which he claims to represent?

The hon. Gentleman lives in an unreal world. After the big increase in Birmingham, Ericsons told the leader of Birmingham city council:

"Your decision to increase your prices, the rates, by 43 per cent. has, at a stroke, reversed our attitude towards our planned further expansion in Birmingham."
That is the real world. High rates affect business decisions and employment.