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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 100: debated on Wednesday 25 June 1986

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Environment

House Building (Brent)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will publish in the Official Report a table showing the number of house building starts, both private and public, in the London borough of Brent during 1985; and if he will make a statement.

The London borough of Brent reported 455 starts during 1985, the highest number since 1977. Of these, 188 were private sector and 267 public sector.

Is the Minister seized of the depth of the crisis in Brent, where only six local authority houses were built last year and where 18,000 people are on the waiting list? Is he aware that there are 650 homeless families? Does he realise that at least 4,916 families are on the high priority transfer list from high rise blocks? Every Saturday morning I am torn to pieces by the family and human tragedies of people who cannot face the problem of not having a roof over their heads.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman heard my reply. Starts last year were the highest since 1977. There were 455 starts in 1985, as against 111 in 1979.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that there are some 600 families living in unattractive circumstances in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but there are 825 empty dwellings in Brent's ownership, of which 319 have been vacant for more than one year and 180 for more than two years. Brent should bring those properties back into use.

Is there any arrangement whereby some of those seeking homes could move into the 1,500 houses that have been vacant in Southwark for more than a year?

Brent is entitled to nominate people, through the London area mobility scheme. Last year it had a quota of 568 lettings, but took only 263 of them. There is an opportunity for Brent to attack its housing problem by making fuller use of London's mobility scheme.

House Prices

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what has been the percentage increase in average house prices in (a) Greater London and (b) the south-east of England in each of the three last years for which figures are available.

The rises in house prices in Greater London are estimated to have been 12 per cent. from 1982 to 1983, then 16 per cent. to 1984 and 14 per cent. to 1985. For the rest of the south-east, the estimates are 13 per cent., 13 per cent,. and 10 per cent.

Does the Minister realise that those figures compare with increases in average wages that are considerably below those levels— about 9 per cent., 7 per cent. and 8 per cent. for the same three years in Greater London? Does not that, coupled with unemployment that now puts 14 London constituencies in the top 50 for rising unemployment, mean that very few people can buy first homes in London? What will he do about it, and how soon will he provide the opportunity to purchase for those at the bottom end of the earnings scale or those who are not employed at all?

First, I invite the hon. Gentleman to join me in putting the maximum possible pressure on the boroughs involved to ensure not only that all the derelict land that they have is brought forward for housing but that they do not in any circumstances delay the planning process, which is one of the things that prevents proper new building taking place. I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said about the need to bring about more low-cost housing development. That is why we intend to do all that we possibly can to encourage shared ownership in the capital and the south-east.

Do not current house prices in the south-east make the £30,000 limit on mortgages for tax relief somewhat out of date?

Does the Minister recognise that his answer means that his Department should do what it can to encourage local authorities to build so that many people who are not in a position to buy are able to be rehoused by local authorities? Even if we take into consideration the number of empty properties — some of which are not being done up because of lack of cash—there remain hundreds of thousands who stand no chance of buying their own homes and who are in desperate need of local authority accommodation. Does the Minister associate himself with the insulting and offensive remarks that were made last week by the Minister for Information Technology? Are those his views?

I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's first question. The answer is very much in the hands of local authorities. The message of "build, build, build," helped throughout the 1960s and 1970s to bring about the problems that we have today. Build in haste, repair at leisure. There has been under-investment in housing repair. That is why we have so many empty houses in council ownership and why we have homelessness.

Green Belt

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he intends to make any changes to the Government's policies on the green belt.

No, Sir. The policy on development in the green belt remains as set out in my Department's circular 14/84.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his defence of the green belt. Can he confirm that where the local planning authority, the borough or district council, is opposed to the release of land from the green belt, such as in my own constituency, he will reinforce the stance of the council and not seek to release land against its wishes?

We must take into account the structure plans. Together with the green belt policy and the nature of any structure plans that are in existence, my role is to make an interpretation if appeals come to me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) is lucky to know where his green belt is. My constituents and the planners who look after their interests have been waiting for months for the publication of the South Hampshire structure plan. Can my right hon. Friend give me any idea when that plan is likely to see the light of day?

Water Authorities (Privatisation)

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is now in a position to state when he plans the conversion of the Thames water authority into a water supply public limited company; and if he will make a statement.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he has made with plans to privatise the water authorities.

The Government intend to introduce legislation to restructure the 10 water authorities in England and Wales as water service public limited companies. They will then be floated when market conditions and the circumstances of the individual companies allow.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he use the intervening period to make it crystal clear that the 25 per cent. of the population who already get their water from private companies are not suffering deprivation, sewerage trouble, high prices, and all the other nonsense that is put about by the Opposition parties and the trade unions?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He is right to draw attention to the position of the 28 statutory water companies, which supply about one quarter of the water in England and Wales, including large cities such as Newcastle and Bristol. The companies operate to the same tight legislative requirements as the water authorities on the purity of drinking water, and so on. They have an excellent record in maintaining standards of all kinds.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Thames water authority is ready, willing and, indeed, eager to become a public limited company and to do so on terms that will be favourable for both employees and customers? Can he confirm that the legislation that he will introduce will enable Thames to be privatised as soon as it wishes without necessarily having to wait until the other nine authorities are ready to go forward?

I agree with what my hon. Friend says about the Thames water authority. It is encouraging that there is competition from a number of water authorities to be first into the private sector. There is a reluctance also, I think, to be last into it. The order in which it will be right for the authorities to go into the private sector will depend on the state of readiness at the time.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the policy involves selling off the ownership and control of the River Thames from Teddington to Cirencester and Tewkesbury? Does he recall that in the debate on Monday his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction confirmed that the Government would welcome private overseas capital in a shareholding of that river? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House the maximum proportion that he envisages will be permitted to private capital? Is not the idea of the sale of the River Thames or any other river in the country to private ownership entirely against the views of the majority of people of this country?

I must correct the hon. Gentleman, in that Tewkesbury is in the Severn catchment area, although Cirencester is in the Thames catchment area. I must correct him also in another, more important, respect. I see no objection whatsoever to the import of capital into this country. Many of our industries rely on imported capital and many of our jobs rely on capital which we have exported overseas. I do not take the narrow, blinkered attitude that the hon. Gentleman takes to the free flow of capital in world markets.

Has not the Secretary of State just confirmed that the French could actually buy the North-West water authority and the Thames water authority, and that the British people could buy not only their energy but their water from the French? Does he really believe that the British people want that? Will he confirm that the so-called private water authorities are merely franchising companies which sell water which they get from the existing publicly owned water authorities and that not one of them is responsible for pollution or sewerage matters, in which there is no profit? If the water authorities are privatised, will the country not suffer as a result?

The hon. Gentleman knows that in many privatisations the Government have thought it appropriate to take a golden share to control the degree of foreign ownership. When the House considers the matter, we can discuss the pros and cons of such a policy on water. It is not something that can be taken away. It is not possible to close down the North-West water authority. I feel that the problem is nothing like as important as the Opposition seem to be majoring on.

It is true that private water companies do not perform the entire functions of the water cycle, but the functions that they do perform—I think the hon. Gentleman will accept this—are of a first-class standard.

Will my right hon. Friend have a word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and ensure that he knows what will happen to the chairman of British Rail if he does not change his mind about the sale of French water on all British Rail trains? It is impossible to get English water on British Rail trains, except for cleaning one's teeth on the night train, which the chairman of British Rail said that it is the only thing that it is good for.

My hon. Friend invites me to talk to my former self, which is a temptation I must now resist. I suggest that it might be advantageous if we could get Malvern water on SNCF.

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's reply to the question about the speed with which some water authorities will be privatised, will be tell the House how charges will he levied on domestic consumers when the water authorities are in the private sector? If there is to be a delay in metering or initiating other services, will he agree to the private sector using the rating system to collect charges from domestic consumers?

The private sector has been charging customers for water for centuries in those areas where water is still under private control. There have been remarkably few complaints or questions asked about that practice. I do not see why that should not continue.

First, I take this opportunity to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment to his important office. We are aware that behind his well-known eccentricities of view lies a fairly shrewed political brain. As he has referred to his tendency to talk to himself, I should advise him that many people in local government fervently hope that he will go on doing that, and leave them alone.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's proposals to privatise Britain's water resources, I remind him that even his own eccentricities cannot cover the fact that the Government are proposing to hand over water consumers to private enterprise monopolies without competition or choice. A rip-off of the taxpayers' assets is likely to be followed by a rip-off of water consumers. How can the right hon. Gentleman, of all people, possibly justify that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome to my sitting in this position. I can reciprocate by saying how pleased I am to find him sitting in his position, on the Opposition. and I hope that he will remain there for a very long time.

I am fascinated that in my new post I am to have the label "eccentric". I am used to having labels of one sort or another, so I say in gratitude to the hon. Gentleman that this one is much more acceptable than some I have had.

The hon. Gentleman has left out of account the fact that many companies have performed infinitely better in the private sector. I can compare this with British Telecom, where privatisation of what was nearly a natural monopoly has taken place. One cannot meet anyone who does not now remark how greatly improved telephone services are.

Local Authority Housing

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he next plans to meet representatives of the local authority associations to discuss ways of reducing the backlog of repair work identified in his Department's inquiry into the condition of the local authority housing stock in England.

I will be meeting representatives of the local authority associations to discuss various housing issues at the Housing Consultative Council meeting on 8 July.

Does the Secretary of State accept the Audit Commission's estimate that about £900 million is added each year to the council house repair bill? Does that not mean that, at the present rate of investment, it will take us about 90 years to bring all council housing up to an acceptable standard?

In view of the seriousness of the problem, what steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to ensure that local authorities display greater interest in co-operating with the private sector in the repair and rehabilitation of council estates?

I have barely received, let alone had time to study, the report. If that proves to be the case, it must be said that local authorities have for many years failed to keep their housing stock in good order.

It is extraordinary that, after decades of managing local authority housing, local councils have now come along with a capital problem, which appears to be great, because of their neglect to keep rents at a level which would enable them to keep their houses in good order. Further evidence of that is the fact that spending per house on repair and maintenance and on capital improvements was abysmally low when we came to power. Since 1980–81 spending per house has gone up by 21·5 per cent. in real terms. We now have figures of £2·5 billion a year on maintenance. £1·2 billion on capital and £1·4 billion on revenue expenditure, which are far better figures than when we first came to power. It is that which has gone wrong in the past. Not enough has been spent to maintain the houses, and that is why we have such a bad situation of disrepair.

Is it not a national scandal that so many local authorities are keeping many council houses empty for so long? Is not their negligence contributing to the misery of homelessness? Does my right hon. Friend agree that one solution to the problem is to allow do-it-yourself experts who are waiting for council houses to take over those council houses for a rent-free period and do them up at their own expense, because the local authority would have left them empty in any event?

I agree with my hon. Friend. He has made a sound point. The fundamental problem is that those houses have been allowed to exist without being repaired and the local authorities have not had sufficient revenue to do so. Whether the repairs are done by allowing the tenant to do it at his own expense, or whether the tenant pays more so that the local authority can do it, is a secondary issue. The point is that it should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

As the Government's own estimates of the backlog of repairs or cost is about £19 billion, how can the Government justify further constraint on money for repairs by local authorities?

I take seriously the appalling situation of disrepair in local authority houses. That is something I shall he looking at to see how we can best deal with it. I should have thought that the whole House would agree that we should not allow further disrepair. We should avoid the mistakes of the past in failing to maintain houses as we go along out of the housing revenue accounts.

Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing local authorities to use a greater proportion of their capital receipts, perhaps returning to the 40 per cent. level which was the figure until the beginning of last year, as a means of addressing this problem?

That is something that I am busy studying at the moment. The areas where the main disrepair has been allowed to grow tend to be in large municipal housing estates where there are small accumulated receipts. Areas where there are large accumulated receipts tend to be where the local authority has kept its housing in a much better state of repair. There is a serious mismatch between resources and needs.

Does the Secretary of State accept the need for substantial additional resources to be made available to those inner city authorities which have the greatest concentrations of problems? Will he possibly even consider using those capital receipts, which are available elsewhere, to help those authorities with the greatest need?

My hon. Friends will be delighted to hear that the Labour party thinks that the prudent housekeeping of many Tory district councils, which has resulted in accumulated receipts, should be forcibly taken away from them and given to spendthrift authorities which fail to keep their housing in good order.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that those local authorities which have gone out to private contractors to have the housing stock maintained have spent their money more effeciently and cost-effectively? Is it not a fact that one of the principal problems with the maintainence of the housing stock is the inefficiency of the direct labour organisations in many areas? Is that not aggravated by the refusal of Labour-controlled local authorities to accept the lowest tender from private contractors?

I do not believe that the reason my hon. Friend gives is the only one. It seems to me that the essential need is for a local authority to get itself sufficient resources and to use those resources to secure the greatest value for money possible, to make sure that its housing stock does not deteriorate. It is not only rates and grant that are available to a local authority; it is the tenants' income itself, which could be spent on the tenants' houses, if there was a proper level of rent.

May we take it that we have therefore elicited from the Secretary of State that he agrees with the Audit Commission that there is a crisis of serious proportions in the condition of our local authority housing stock? If that is so, and the right hon. Gentleman talks, as he did recently when he was appointed, of prudent housekeeping how can it be prudent housekeeping when local authorities which have a legacy of system-built houses and non-traditional homes are sometimes not allowed to spend their own money to keep together houses that are literally falling apart? Surely it is just ideological nonsense to suggest that any help from the public sector will not solve the enormous problem identified by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Audit Commission and his own Department.

The hon. Gentleman must not put words into my mouth. I did not accept the Audit Commission's description of a crisis. As I said, I have not had a chance to study its report yet, and I am not commenting on it. I accept that there is a large element of disrepair in some local authority housing estates as well as in municipal estates. I should like to make just one point, that that disrepair should not have been allowed to arise. We have two things to do now. First, we have to see how best to clear up the areas of neglect of those local authorities. Secondly, we have to put it fairly on the line that local authorities should not allow further neglect and deterioration. Because several local authorities have neglected to keep their houses in a fit state for their tenants to live in the hon. Gentleman turns round and blames the Government. He should be blaming the local authorities, and he knows it.

It does us all good to have our names forgotten at times.

Will my right hon. Friend accept congratulations from the Conservative Benches on attaining his distinguished office, to which I am sure he will lend his originality and interest? We shall watch with fascination his progress. Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the problems that we have is that many of us are exactly and entirely behind the sale of council houses, which gives people choice, but feel that that money should then be available to repair the stock of council houses? If we delay spending £250 this year, it will be £400 next year and dereliction the year after. Could we not encourage both sale and repair, which would be to the benefit of all the people?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome and the even more attractive adjectives than those used by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). As Question Time goes on it gets better and better.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the combination of privatisation and repair of council houses is what we want, but on several estates the condition of the council houses is such that I do not believe that anybody would want to buy them as they are. That is a special problem, to which I intend to turn my attention, but let it be absolutely clear that I am saying only that I recognise that there is a problem in certain areas. At the same, time I believe that we must make sure that we do not get into a worse position, by ensuring that local authorities take their responsibilities seriously.

Local Government (Widdicombe Report)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to issue the Government's response to the Widdicombe report on local government practices and procedures; and if he will make a statement.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to publish the final report of the Widdicombe committee on local government.

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what response he has received to the publication of the main report of the Widdicombe committee on local government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I refer the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend to the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Rowe) on 19 June.

Why have the Government been so quiet about the publication of the report, given the enthusiasm with which they set up the inquiry? Is it because the Widdicombe report has tackled the problem of one-party domination in local councils, has supported democracy in local councils and has made constructive recommendations on how to strengthen them? Will the Government recognise that not only must they consult, but that there must be an early debate in the House and that they must act on the recommendations?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman believes that the report has been received quietly. It received wide coverage in the press and was welcomed widely by many people in local government. The report has responded fully to the concerns across party political lines that local democracy has been somewhat under threat in a few councils. As a result we have a good report, which contains about 88 proposals, which present a balanced and interrelated package. We shall have serious consultation on this matter.

Is it not true that the proposals to ban people of the rank of principal officer and above from effective political activity is the gravest attack on employment civil liberties since the banning of trade unions at GCHQ? Is it not true that the practice of party representatives attending council group meetings is almost as widespread in the Tory party as it is in the Labour party? The proposed ban is causing grave concern and disquiet. Will the Minister ensure that those aspects of the Widdicombe proposals which try to separate party politics from elected local government are rejected? If not, will she be consistent and demand the removal of the chairman of the Tory party from the Cabinet?

I do not accept the later part of the hon. Gentleman's question. The report will be subject to the fullest and widest consultation among all the parties concerned. On his earlier point about principal officers and above not being allowed to sit on local councils, I remind him that no civil servants are allowed to be Members of this House.

Did my hon. Friend notice the warm reception given to the report in The Guardian editorial? Will that encourage her to seek early legislation to deal with the worst excesses of political corruption, which still cause consternation in local government?

I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety about the worse excesses of political corruption. I read the warm response to the publication in The Guardian. I repeat that the package of 88 recommendations deserves sensible consideration and consultation before the Government take action.

Does the Minister support the idea of ending one-party policy committees on local councils? If so, how will that apply to the London borough of Newham, where all 60 councillors are Labour and there is no opposition? Why is it different for central Government as opposed to local government? If we open policy committee meetings in local government, why not open them in central Government and allow the Opposition into Cabinet meetings?

The House will not be in the slightest bit interested in my views on the report. My Department will be happy to receive the views of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) on the report in due course.

Will my hon. Friend commend the members of the Widdicombe committee on an excellent job — at first sight — which demands much attention before we can make detailed comment? Will she note that the House would appreciate a full-scale debate in advance of the Government producing their proposals on Widdicombe, so that hon. Members can add their input to the important debate on the health of local government?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and draw his attention to the response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne the other day, when he thanked Mr. David Widdicombe and his fellow committee members most sincerely for their report and commented that the committee's study had been thorough and that the report was impressive in the extent of its coverage and the scope of its findings.

As for a debate on the report, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Will the Under-Secretary accept that the sort of language that she is using and the fact that she is responding to the question lead us to conclude that Widdicombe will be quietly sidelined by the Government, probably because it offers no justification for the wilder allegations of the Conservative party about the state of affairs of local government in this country? For example, does the Under-Secretary accept the comment of Mr. David Widdicombe in his foreword:

"There is a solid base of normality in local government"?
Will the hon. Lady realise that we cannot accept not only the retention of personal surcharge, but its expansion to cover elected members in Scotland? We also cannot accept the proposal of Mr. Widdicombe's committee that chief executives should have extended legal powers over democratically elected councillors.

Widdicombe is disappointing because it has failed to address itself to the opportunity with which it was presented to strengthen and enhance local democracy in Britain.

The hon. Member has made the point well that, whatever my lack of seniority, there is considerable uncertainty about the responses of Opposition Members and my hon. Friends, which points to the need for serious consideration through consultation. I hope that that will be achieved in the responses of hon. Members and the many outside organisations and individuals who are interested in local government.

Inner Cities

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he is taking to encourage private sector involvement in the regeneration of the inner cities.

The Housing and Planning Bill will enable assistance to be given to regeneration carried out by the private sector.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, albeit ever so brief, but may I encourage him to go further and let us know about the prospects for more urban development corporations, what is to happen on urban regeneration grants and how decisions on that aspect will link with the announcement the other day of our right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General about inner cities?

The private sector created most of our great cities, and the private sector has a critical role to play in regenerating our great cities. That is why we are taking powers in the Housing and Planning Bill to pay urban regeneration grants. We are extremely grateful to all the Opposition parties for their support for those grants, which have also been welcomed by the private sector. Of course, urban development corporations are well worth considering, and we should perhaps be considering having more UDCs.

Does the Minister not agree that it might help to stimulate greater private sector investment in the inner cities if the Government looked again at whether VAT ought to be charged on building work in those areas and at the possibility of increasing the derelict land grant? Does the hon. Gentleman, have a word to say about last week's speech by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who said that he was critical of the level of aid being given to inner cities by the Government?

We are spending at record levels on derelict land grants, and substantial amounts of derelict land—about 2,500 acres—are cleared in inner city areas every year. One problem is to make sure that something is put up on that land — houses or industry. We are trying, through urban development grants and the new urban regeneration grants, to attract as much private sector funding as possible. Our experience with the urban development grant shows that for every pound of public sector money put in, we attract between £4 and £5 of private sector money.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that even if the Government doubled the resources presently going into the inner cities that would not begin to meet the size of the problem involved in tackling the necessary works? Therefore, the only way is to attract private investment, and the best way to do that is not merely to consider extending the UDC concept to other parts of inner cities, but actually to create them, and with the same commitment that we had when we created the new town corporations.

I note what my hon. Friend, with his considerable experience of these matters, says. I know of no observer of the inner city scene, be it my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) or anybody else, who believes that public money alone will lead to the regeneration of the inner cities. That is why we desperately need to attract private sector money into the inner cities. We are doing so. Urban regeneration grants will help. Urban development corporations may well help. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I listen carefully to what my hon. Friend says.

Will the Minister pursue with the Chancellor of the Exchequer the abolition of the Treasury rule that forbids housing associations from tying in housing association grants with borrowing from the private market for the provision of rented accommodation? Does he agree that this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the expansion of housing association rented accommodation during a period of severe restriction on public expenditure? Will he act on that?

I note what the right hon. Gentleman, with his long experience of these matters, has said. We have received some very interesting proposals from the Housing Corporation about these points. Also, from time to time, happily, I have the chance of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

When my hon. Friend is considering these matters, does he agree with me that the Henley approach is to be preferred to the Chertsey and Walton hypothesis?

I always listen carefully to all that my right hon. and hon. Friends have to say, and the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley was most thought provoking.

Does the Minister recognise that one very serious inhibition on small private investment in the inner cities is the great difficulty in places such as Brixton and Handsworth of obtaining insurance on business premises? Lambeth and Birmingham recently called a conference on these matters. What are the Government doing about it?

I am happy to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General is already looking at this issue in connection with the eight areas exercise. I think that that will produce some results in the not too distant future, which will be of great help right across the inner city scene.

Defective Housing (Basildon)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received about repairing defective system-built housing in Basildon; and what action he proposes to take in consequence.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Richard Tracey)

I have recently received a number of letters from my hon. Friend on behalf of his constituents and direct from owner-occupiers of houses built by Basildon development corporation, using the Lindsay Parkinson HSSB design. Recently I visited the area, together with my hon. Friend, and I hope to announce shortly what steps can be taken to assist.

I thank my hon. Friend and his Department for the assistance that they have so far been able to give to my constituents with their problems. I urge him to act as quickly as possible so that defective properties are repurchased, or the owners receive full compensation, or the properties are repaired, or are given a clean bill of health.

I appreciate the various remedies that have been put forward by my hon. Friend, but, as I told him recently, I shall be very glad to have a meeting with representatives of the Vange Action Group. I am very conscious of the need for an early decision.

May I say to the Minister with responsibility for sport that I hope that defective housing will be more successfully tackled than was the World Cup by the English football team? Serious though the problems may be in Basildon, may I make the point that this is a national problem and that it requires urgent attention and the provision of national assistance to local authorities and development corporations before the year is out?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not consider that I am giving him the elbow, but housing in this country is considerably better than much of the housing that I saw when I was in Mexico. Of course, the Government of Mexico are much more closely associated with the party opposite than they are with the party of this side of the House.

You are quite right, Mr. Speaker. The only housing that we know of similar to that in Basildon is in Watford.

Planning Decisions (Appeals)

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make it his policy to uphold on appeal the planning decisions of local authorities.

That is a relief. Is my hon. Friend aware that the answer given earlier by the Secretary of State to the effect that the green belt, if protected by the structure plan, is safe with him will be welcome to many hon. Members on the Tory Benches, especially in the light of a grotesque application in my constituency to which objection has been taken not only by Christchurch council but by Wimborne and New Forest councils and by Dorset county council? Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that if district councils, as planning authorities, backed by county councils, begin to feel that every time they refuse an application that is contrary to the structure plan and which affects green belt land, those decisions will be overturned by his Department, local government will be even more disillusioned about central Government? Surely none of us wants to see that.

My hon. Friend raises some interesting points. He will not expect me to comment on a specific case. He should raise the general aspect of this issue with my right hon. Friend when he and his colleagues meet him.

I was about to say that I was going to give the Minister an easy ball. There has been a settlement whereby the Globe theatre is likely to be built on the South Bank. If the matter of planning in respect of this comes before the Department of the Environment, can the House have the assurance that the Department will do everything it can to encourage the rebuilding of Shakespeare's Globe after 400 years?

I was privileged to be born in Stratford-on-Avon and I have considerable sympathy for anything, to do with William Shakespeare. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman fully realises that all material matters will be considered.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many local authorities are being forced to make planning decisions against their wishes? That is because under the rules, the circulars and the structure plans, they know that if the matter goes to appeal and they lose it is likely to cost a great deal of money. Will he seriously consider the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley)?

Since 1947 Parliament has provided a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against local planning decisions. In considering such appeals the Secretary of State will have regard to all material planning considerations. I repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), that these general points should be raised at the meeting with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The Minister has done well, so far. In view of his sports portfolio, will he take an interest in the planning permission to redevelop Stamford Bridge and call that in so as to make sure that we preserve good football at Stamford Bridge?

I have once again to say that I cannot discuss the merits of any particular case at the Dispatch Box.

Palace Of Westminster

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he now expects the restoration of the exterior of the Palace of Westminster to be completed.

The current work on the Terrace elevation and Lord Chancellor's Tower should he completed in November. Plans for the next phase are under consideration and I hope to make an announcement later in the year. There is much still to be done and it will take a number of years to complete this massive task.

As the restoration work which has already been completed has done so much to enhance the architectural heritage of this part of London and proved such a popular tourist focus, we look forward with great anticipation to the completion of the work. May I, as a surveyor, ask my hon. Friend what stone cleaning technique he proposes to use for the remainder of the work —the wet or the dry?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Palace of Westminster is a major tourist attraction and that it is right to show it at its best. As for cleaning techniques, he rightly says that there are two approaches, one wet, one dry. The wet one heals the affected areas by the steady application of dripping water and the dry one involves a vigorous attack with air and grit. I prefer the former.

Local Authority Services

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many responses have been received by his Department to the consultation paper, "Competition in the Provision of Local Authority Services", published in February 1985.

My Department had received more than 450 responses by 30 October 1985, and a list of the main respondents was placed in the Library on that date. One or two further comments have been received since then.

Will the Minister confirm that the majority of responses from councils of all political colours have opposed the compulsory extension of tendering? Is not the real answer to allow local councils to spend the money that they need to have the size of work force that they want to carry out their duties officially?

No, Sir. The responses were varied and wide and it would be quite difficult to determine whether they came down on one side or the other. There are clear signs that competitive tendering has helped to provide efficient and effective services and that it does not disturb the good running of local authorities.

Urban Programme

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many jobs have been created under the urban programme.

The urban programme has created or retained about 24,000 jobs each year through support to capital projects since it was substantially expanded in 1982–83, and projects approved for urban development grant should generate some 20,000 permanent jobs.

In the light of his reply, does my hon. Friend agree that well targeted—

We seem to be in the business of getting the wrong names today, but never mind.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the light of his reply, well targeted schemes to help inner-city areas are a more effective way in which to promote economic growth and to provide real jobs in the community?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need the best possible targeting on inner city areas which are suitable for development. Above all else, we must concentrate on areas where there can be the type of regeneration that leads to successful job creation, such as the urban programme has been responsible for. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I intend that, in future, the economic job-creating components of the urban programme will get an increased share of available moneys.

Does the Minister agree that one of the major obstacles in the programme is the need for money to be spent by the end of the current financial year? Is he aware that, by delaying approval, his Department is putting an intolerable burden on local authorities, which must ensure that they get their specifications and tenders out and that the work is done by the end of the year?

I understand that my Department's urban housing renewal unit has, with the co-operation of the hon. Gentleman's city council, recently approved a scheme for one of the big housing estates in his constituency. The council is confident of being able to spend that money. It just requires proper co-operation and planning between the Department and the council. We are very pleased to help in Hull, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituents are also pleased.

Local Authority Land (Planning Permission)

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will bring forward proposals to limit the power of local authorities to give planning permission over land they own.

In general, the present arrangements for making this type of decision appear to operate satisfactorily, but the Select Committee on the Environment referred to this matter in its recent examination of witnesses and we shall consider the matter again if it makes recommendations on it in its forthcoming report.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. However, will he look at the general principle, because there is something seriously wrong? Would he not be concerned, like me, if a local education authority, such as Dorset county council, gave itself permission to sell a piece of land belonging to a school playing field despite the objections of all the other local authorities and eveybody interested in, or adjacent to, the project? That is a matter of concern, and I hope that my hon. Friend will look into it.

My hon. Friend will not expect me to comment on the particular case that he has raised. However, he can rest assured that we are sympathetic to his general point. Local planning authorities are, of course, answerable to their electorates for the way in which they discharge their responsibilities. They do not have complete freedom of action. However, my hon. Friend can rest assured that we shall consider the matter carefully.