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Volume 113: debated on Wednesday 1 April 1987

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European Year Of The Environment


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what initiatives his Department is taking to contribute to the European Year of the Environment.

My Department intends to provide more than £750,000 in direct support of the United Kingdom's National Committee and of projects within its programme for European Year of the Environment. We are also sponsoring a number of specific projects.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, in addition to the various initiatives in which he is involved, industry in the United Kingdom has set a lead in producing much of the new technology that will help to abate pollution? Does his Department intend to support in any way the fair that is due to take place next month in Birmingham, which will show British technology at its best?

Yes, Sir. We had a lot to do with the generation of the idea of the international pollution abatement technology fair at the national exhibition centre in Birmingham. which starts on Monday. It is important to remind people that valuable jobs are to be found in providing modern equipment for pollution abatement for home use and export.

Will the Minister comment on the work of the national committee in promoting the European Year of the Environment, and in particular the efforts of the officers who have been responsible for drawing-up the programme?

I should like to pay tribute to those, including the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who have done sterling work on the committee under the chairmanship of Sir Peter Harrop. The committee is finding the job enjoyable, in that many good projects are coming forward. I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the staff, who will now be in place with a proper budget to deal with.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House what progress is being made in the European Community, particularly by the United Kingdom, towards reducing levels of acid rain?

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last year, we are committed to a £600 million programme of flue gas desulphurisation to ensure that the declining trend of our sulphur emissions continues, as we need it to do.

As to European Environment Year, will the Minister indicate what occurred at the meeting of European Environment Ministers with regard to the protection of the ozone layer?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the case, at least in theory, that Council meetings are confidential, but it is no secret that the Community agreed a negotiating position to take to the Vienna meetings, where the protocol will finally be agreed, which will involve a freeze followed by cuts in the production of chlorofluorocarbons.

As part of the European Year of the Environment, will my hon. Friend encourage bee keeping? If so, will his Department drop the proposal that is contained in the consultation document to classify bees as pests?

There has been a certain amount of unnecessary alarm about this matter because, by a failure, for which I apologise, I did not send the relevant consultation paper about air pollution to the bee keeping associations. Bees are ecologically and economically important, but in urban areas uncontrolled swarms can occasionally cause problems to householders. We were discussing whether additional powers were needed to deal with that.

Will the Minister note that this is the European Year of the Environment, and will he send a message of goodwill to our European neighbours by announcing that the British Government will join them in signing the 30 per cent. declaration on acidic emissions? Will he announce the phasing out of the dumping of sewage sludge in the North sea, and will he give the House an assurance that the Government will not block the directive on large-scale plants for acidic emission, which is due to come up at the May Council meeting, and thereby do something to improve Britain's bad name in European environmental circles?

Britain's name is not so bad as the hon. Gentleman appears to hope it is. To start at the end, it is not Britain but Spain that is now blocking the large plant directive. Secondly, I would be happy to end any particular dumping if it were shown to be environmentally correct to do so. Scientific studies show that for some treated sewage sludge dumping at sea may be the best practical environmental option, and we must not abandon that concept. On the hon. Gentleman's third point, we have explained again and again that the starting date of 1980 for the 30 per cent. club is systematically unfair to Britain. That has been recognised in the negotiations in Europe on the large plant directive, incidentally, but it has not been recognised yet in the protocol itself.

Housing Needs Expenditure


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to allow local authorities to spend more than 20 per cent. of their capital receipts from council house sales on housing needs; and if he will make a statement.

I have no immediate plans to alter the rule whereby local authorities can spend the whole of their receipts from council house sales, provided they do not use more than 20 per cent. of them a year for prescribed expenditure.

Would it not be a splendid idea with the coincidence of this question with National Housing Week to double the limit for prescribed expenditure to 40 per cent. to give a real initiative to housing authorities? Secondly, would it not be important to build on the consensus on the need to involve housing associations, building societies and other financial organisations to put together a committee that again could build on the consensus and enable us to solve the housing problem by using all the financial resources that are available, which are obviously considerable?

The Labour party and the Conservative party—the Government—both agree that there should be overall control of local authority capital expenditure. The Liberal party, and the Social Democratic party—the alliance—have not made clear to me what their view on that is. If that is the case, an increase in the prescribed proportion of receipts would result in a reduction in capital allocations. That would be unproductive. It would make life harder for housing authorities in deprived areas in inner cities. Although the hon. Gentleman does not really care about the details, it would probably make life harder for Leeds than will leaving the percentage as it is.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, given the improvements in the economy since this policy was introduced, for which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer rightly took credit last month when introducing the Budget, it is increasingly difficult to defend or understand the 20 per cent. limitation? Is it not high time that it was revised upwards to at least 30 per cent.?

I am sure my hon. Friend realises that what matters is gross provision. That has increased from £2,669 million last year to £2,922 million in 1987–88, a big increase. As for dividing the gross provision between allocations and the use of capital receipts, the issue is whether the resources go to the more deprived areas or to the less deprived areas. I think the House will feel generally that the right way to help deprived areas is to make available to them the bulk of the capital allocations, rather than to increase receipts.

In view of the supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham), surely there can be no justification for preventing local authorities from spending 80 per cent. of their own money, which they have been forced by the Government to accumulate, when there is desperate need in areas such as Leicester for improvements, repairs and maintenance, and when the council has had 50 per cent. of its funds taken from it by central Government.

The hon. and learned Gentleman may not understand the system. Allowing an increased proportion of receipts to be spent means that local authorities go out and borrow more. Local authorities are indebted in total to the extent of over £30 billion, and any increase in spending will lead to an increase in debt. The Government do not mind a bit whether spending takes the form of so-called capital receipts or of increased allocations. The point is to determine the best way of helping authorities in need. Is it receipts, or allocations? I would have thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman would look to the interests of his constituents and realise that allocations will be of more use to them.

Where a council has a good record on selling council houses and has been sensible about its spending and its rates, will my right hon. Friend let such councils make individual representations to him to allow the 20 per cent. to be exceeded if that council has a number of derelict homes that urgently need repair?

I would dearly like to have the sort of slush fund suggested by my hon. Friend, but I fear that that would be the wrong way to proceed. I must repeat that, if the House wants more money to be allocated to the major areas of housing stress and housing repair problems, the right way to do so is to reduce the prescribed proportion and increase allocations. However, I am not proposing any change.

In view of the obvious anger, if not dismay, felt on all sides of the House, will the Secretary of State reconsider Government policy on local authority capital receipts? Is he not aware that many Conservative as well as Labour authorities regard this policy as unnecessarily restrictive, especially since their money is involved? Will he contact the Conservative councillor to whom I spoke in Coventry yesterday when I opened a sheltered dwelling scheme—Quniton Lodge—who said, "We would like to build many more of these schemes and we have the money to do so, but the Government will not let us spend it". That is the case in many authorities around the country—Labour and Conservative alike—which need only one word from the Minister—yes—to allow them to spend their money to provide houses, especially for elderly and disabled people. How can it be right to have a fiscal adjustment of £6 billion in the Budget and to continue with this stupid control?

I read, even though the hon. Gentleman may not have done so, the Labour party's policy for local government finance. He made it absolutely clear that the Labour party believes in controlling the total capital expenditure of local authorities. Do we agree?

It is the same point.

If we are agreed that there should be control of borrowing, is the Labour party saying that it would like to increase the prescribed proportion and reduce the amount that goes on allocations within a controlled total? That is the question that the Labour party must answer. If the Labour party answers it in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), it will deprive the hon. Gentleman's constituency of the help that it needs.

In the light of the representations made to my right hon. Friend by both sides of the House, but especially from the Conservative Benches, will my right hon. Friend give further consideration to the matter? Will he agree to meet a delegation of his hon. Friends, not least because those of us who represent responsible borough councils — my borough of Macclesfield is the lowest-rated borough in Cheshire — are aware that they need to spend their money to provide accommodation for the elderly and for the young? Will he bear in mind that these authorities have obeyed every exhortation and request of the Conservative Government?

I would he delighted to meet my hon. Friend and any group of councillors or hon. Friends that he may wish to bring with him. I would be — [Interruption.] If the House will listen, let me say that I would be sorely tempted to agree with him. However, if I were to do so the result would he that the most deprived areas of the country, including Leeds, Whitehaven, Workington and South Shields, would suffer because they would receive less in allocations because more would be going to my hon. Friend's constituency.

Fulham Football Club


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to meet the president of the Football League to discuss the future of Fulham football club; and if he will make a statement.

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

I see the president of the Football League regularly, but I have no plans to discuss the future of Fulham football club specifically. I have no powers to interfere in decisions of the club's directors or with discussions they may have with the Football League.

I am sad to hear that. Will the Minister recognise that his act of listing certain buildings at Craven Cottage, helpful as it was, will not stop the Bulstrodes of this world from demolishing our football clubs for commercial gain? When the Minister next meets the president, will he urge him to change the Football League's regulations so that no one may acquire a League club without guaranteeing that the club will not be used for other than football and sports-related activities without the management committee's approval?

Obviously, the Football League's regulations are very much a matter for the League's management committee. I am sure that the House will agree with the hon. Gentleman about the protection of football clubs. However, the problem at Fulham football club, as with many other clubs, is that it has lost the support of the communities around it and the supporters who ought to be bringing in revenue to keep the club together.

Will the Minister recognise that Fulham football club has generated more loyal support and determination to save it from the greedy hands of property speculating asset strippers than virtually any other sporting institution has demonstrated this year? Will he also recognise—this is critical—that the survival of football clubs depends on thir being run in the interests of football? Part of the problem with Fulham football club has been that its ownership in recent years has been vested in the hands of individuals who have been more concerned with what money they can make out of property development than out of the furtherance of the football club's fortunes.

I am sure that Fulham football club will have found a large number of supporters in recent times. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has become a vocal supporter, as was his predecessor, the late Mr. Martin Stevens. I am well aware that football as a game has increased considerably in popularity across the board in recent years. However, unfortunately, the clubs at top level have been losing supporters because they have lost the support of the communities around them.

Is the Minister aware that we have rarely heard such a dismal reply to such an important question? When he meets the president of the Football League, will he explain that the football grounds are so attractive to speculators because they were all created, at the turn of the century, in the heartlands of our industrial populations? They need to be protected by regulations within football itself, and by suitable planning action by local authorities and the Government. Will he also consider with the president Ihe fact that there is such a little return on investment in football at the moment that makes the capital sale of the grounds so attractive to the speculators? Action to maintain these oases of sport in the midst of our industrial conurbations will require of him initiatives which he has so far singularly failed to take.

I have to remind the right hon. Gentleman that football clubs are private companies, and it is essential that private companies should be attractive to their supporters—the consumers. I have observed, from what the right hon. Gentleman said, far too many interventionist tendencies, which are only too typical of his party.

Private Sector Tenants


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received in respect of security of tenure for private sector tenants.

We get a steady flow of representations on this issue, requesting the reform of the private rented sector to bring empty flats and houses back into use in the interests of those who need homes.

Why should any legislation that would remove security of tenure from incoming tenants in the private sector be any more successful than the totally discredited Rent Act 1957, which not only ensured a substantial reduction in the rented sector, but led to Rachmanism and to existing tenants having their security undermined? When will the millionaire Secretary of State recognise that the appalling housing crisis requires much more public sector and housing association accommodation, not opportunities for racketeering landlords to exploit tenants?

On the hon. Gentleman's second question, I do not think that cheap personal attacks on my right hon. Friend do the hon. Gentleman any good at all.

On the hon. Gentleman's first question, opinion about the private rented sector has changed greatly. I direct him to the excellent editorial of 24 March in that admirable morning newspaper, The Guardian. Now that my reselection has safely passed, I can mention that that editorial was rather in my praise. The editorial said that the private rented sector had a vital role to play in housing, and it was right.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the appalling housing crisis to which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has just referred is entirely due to the dogmatic and static attitude of the Opposition parties? The way to give the right to rent to millions of young families is to encourage building societies, institutions and other responsible bodies to provide that rented accommodation. Will my hon. Friend do everything possible at the earliest opportunity to introduce legislation to that effect?

May I remind the Minister that the question is about security of tenure? Does he appreciate the vulnerable position of the tenants of some private landlords? Landlords knock on the doors of their female tenants late at night, not coming for a cup of coffee, but seeking other favours. That happens throughout the country and, indeed, in my constituency. That vulnerability is due to lack of security of tenure, and that is why my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and others call for greater security of tenure in the private rented sector. The Minister must address himself to that point. Young people, and women in particular, are extremely vulnerable under the present rules.

I was slightly surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, because he has never written to inform me of any of those complaints. I repeat what I said on Second Reading of the Landlord and Tenant (No. 2) Bill the Government have no intention of changing the security of tenure of present renting tenants.

Does not the present legislation relating to rented accommodation mean that unemployed people who have access to work are often unable to accept the offer of employment? Will not legislative reform enable people to take jobs that they cannot take now because no private rented accommodation is available?

Only the attitude of some — I stress, some — Opposition Members is preventing us from reaching a position in which the law can be reformed in order to bring back into use some of the 540,000 empty privately owned flats and houses in the country. That would be in the interests of those seeking work, of young people who are moving to big cities and of the homeless.

Liverpool (Rate Support Grant)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what rate support grant is to be received by Liverpool city council in 1986–87; and what the comparable figure was for 1981–82 and 1983–84, in constant 1986–87 prices.

The figures in 1986–87 prices are £129.8 million for 1986–87, £154.1 million for 1981–82 and £141.1 million for 1983–84.

Is that not further evidence, if it were required, of the Government's attack on the city of Liverpool? Is it not time to call off the vendetta against the people of Liverpool, in which the Government have been engaged over the past six or seven years? Does the Secretary of State not realise that it is not councillors with whom he has political differences who suffer, but the homeless, who require homes, the old and the disabled, who require social services, and the council tenants, whose houses require urgent repairs? Is it not time that there was an adequate rate support grant for one of the greatest cities in this country?

I am surprised by that, because I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that Liverpool's share of rate support grant was 1·34 per cent. of the total in 1981–82, and last year it rose to 1·44 per cent. of the total, so Liverpool is in fact receiving a greater share of the rate support grant total.

Will my right hon. Friend remind the Opposition where rate support grant comes from? Does it emerge from the ground like daffodils in the spring or out of the sky like showers in April, or does it come from the taxpayer in villages, towns and cities throughout the country, most of which are run by councillors who are responsible, balance their budgets and show a great deal more consideration for their fellow taxpayers than do those in Liverpool, Manchester and many of the inner London boroughs?

As my hon. Friend raises the point, let me tell him that in 1986–87 Stockport received £171 per head in rate support grant, whereas Liverpool —[Interruption.]

Perhaps I can give the figures that I intended to give. In 1986–87, Liverpool received £264 per head in rate support grant. Stockport received £171 per head. Next year, in 1987–88, at the settlement assumption, Liverpool will receive £264 per head and Stockport £173 per head. I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell). The problems of Stockport are every bit as severe as the problems of Liverpool. That illustrates the point that I made to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), that Liverpool is getting a very good share of the rate support grant—indeed, a much bigger share than Stockport, where, I think he will agree, there are some serious problems, too.

Is it not invidious to start drawing comparisons between different areas? Does the Secretary of State not accept that the rate support grant system is fundamentally flawed, because it does not take into account major demographic changes? One third of the city of Liverpool's population have left in the past 20 years, one in four people are over retirement age, and there is the fastest growing group in the over-80s, one in five are unemployed, and there is one of the largest voluntary sectors of education anywhere in the country. With those major demographic changes and special circumstances, should the right hon. Gentleman not look again at the way in which Liverpool's rate is settled? If the district auditor comes in, and if the Audit Commission carries out a survey that highlights areas where the Secretary of State should assist, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to follow those recommendations?

It is precisely because of the factors that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that Liverpool's GRE gives it a higher rate support grant than that of many other authorities. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the additional factor of shrinking population. I receive strong representations from my hon. Friends who represent Berkshire to the effect that growing population is an equally severe problem for them. Every hon. Member has different views as to why his authority should have a greater share of the rate support grant, and those views are all reflected in the long, almost continuous negotiations on GRE, which have resulted in Liverpool getting not 1·34 per cent. of the total but 1·44 per cent. of the total, a growing proportion, in recognition of those very problems.

I call Mr. Dickens. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that this question is about Liverpool.

Has the Secretary of State read the remarks by the former deputy leader of Liverpool council, who stated that the abolition of the Merseyside county council and bus deregulation had saved an enormous amount of money? Does my right hon. Friend believe that the Government are reaching those parts that the Opposition have failed to reach?

I read that a sum of £10 million had been saved for Liverpool as a result of those two policies. Indeed, I have read that sums of great magnitude have been saved through the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils and as a result of the Transport Act 1985. I am only waiting for the letters of thanks from the councils that opposed both those measures. I believe that due thanks are now in order here for to the very large sums that councils have been saved.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman of what two of his predecessors said about the problems on Merseyside and Liverpool? The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) came up with proposals to try to help the area, but they were cut back by the Cabinet of the day. Also, another of the Secretary of State's hon. Friends said when he came to Liverpool that he had never seen such problems in relation to housing anywhere in Europe. Is it not about time that the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends recognised that the problems in Liverpool have arisen because of the decline of the port, which is no fault of the people of Liverpool? That has happened because we are on the wrong side of the country and because we entered the European Common Market. Is it not time—

Is it not time that Conservative Members recognised the real problems of the city, the high level of unemployment, the great problems with housing and the other problems that go with that, and began at last to deal with those problems on a serious basis instead of producing the nonsense that we hear from the Conservative Benches—

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman should try to apply for an adjournment debate on this subject. I know that this subject is of grave concern to the hon. Gentleman, but he is taking a long time. We have reached only Question 5.

With due respect, Mr. Speaker, it is not a joke that my people in my part of the world are unemployed and suffering. It is about time that the Government began to look at the real problems instead of listening to the nonsense from the Tory Back Benches.

It is a pity, when so much of what the hon. Gentleman says is justified —there are indeed real problems in Liverpool —that those problems were compounded by Militants and by the Labour-controlled council. I have been reading the accounts by Mr. Hamilton of the gross mismanagement of the city by the hon. Gentleman's friends. I can only say that the people of Liverpool now have an opportunity to elect a council which will not behave like the previous council.

People in Liverpool will have to live with the consequences of whatever council they elect. That is the nature of local democracy, and the hon. Gentleman must abide by that.

Order. May I now appeal to the House for brief questions so that we may make progress? We have reached only question 6. Mr. John Cartwright, No. 6.

Homeless Young People


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further research his Department plans to institute into the issue of homeless young people.

I have just announced major research into various aspects of homelessness, costing more than £300,000. We are also acting to help the homeless, for example, through our new mixed-funded housing association schemes, by a leaflet to encourage young people to take a realistic view about leaving home, and by our hostels initiative.

Is the Minister aware that the overwhelming majority of homeless youngsters coming to constituency advice services all over London are local youngsters who are homeless through no fault of their own? Does he have any idea of the number of young people in Greater London who are moving around, sleeping on friends' floors, or sleeping rough, because they have no chance of being housed by a housing association or by a local council? Will he consider a crash programme of emergency housing to deal with the growing army of homeless young people?

I know the depth of the hon. Gentleman's concern about this. Governments have never collected statistics about the young homeless as such, and perhaps we should begin to do so. We are discussing that aspect with the local authority associations. The hon. Gentleman is right that both national Government and local authorities have a responsibility. The most recent figures available to me show that about 40 per cent. of people accepted as homeless give the reason that their friends or relatives no longer feel able to house them, so there is also a wider responsibility.

Will the research cover the problems facing homeless young people in Ealing, who are especially vulnerable due to the NALGO strike? Is my hon. Friend aware that the borough may be in default of its statutory responsibility under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act because people cannot contact the department concerned'? If that is so, what remedy is available for homeless young people in Ealing?

The picture is similar to that which emerged a year or two ago in Brent. In the past year the Labour administration in Ealing has been ruining a perfectly well-run borough and failing to deliver services to people of all ages. It is an extremely serious matter when young people are unable to obtain the statutory help to which they are entitled.

Will the Minister take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), that it is extremely damaging to the cohesion and quality of our society and its economic health if thousands of single people cannot afford to live in the communities in which they grew up because they are unfortunate enough to be unemployed or homeless? Will the Minister establish a programme for local authorities and housing associations to provide accommodation at reasonable rents and with security of tenure so that young people can remain in the communities in which they grew up and thus maintain the quality of our society?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman seems unaware that the Housing Corporation already has such a programme. The hon. Gentleman is in a good position to talk to Labour-controlled authorities such as Brent and Lambeth which have refused money offered to them on a plate this year to help with the problem of homelessness. In the same way, alliance Members might talk to Liberal-controlled Tower Hamlets about the 3,000 flats and houses being kept empty there.

Unified Business Rate


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received from small businesses on his proposal for a unified business rate as a replacement for the commercial rate.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)

I continue to receive representations both for and against the uniform non-domestic rate.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the concern of small businesses represented by the National Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses, especially those in low-rated areas, is that they may be required to pay more towards the cost of local government services under the unified business rate? Will he confirm that there will be a transitional period for businesses to adjust to the new rate, and state how long that period will be?

I cannot say exactly how long the transitional period will be, although there certainly will be such a period, but the major benefit for small businesses will be the knowledge that after the transitional period it will be impossible for the rates to rise by more than the rate of inflation.

Is the Minister aware of the widespread feeling that if Ministers wish to make the business rating system fairer they should go for improvements in the rate support grant system and for an urgent revaluation? Is he aware that figures further given by the Minister for Local Government show that business rates will rise by 31 per cent. in Westminster and by 28 per cent. in Hammersmith and Fulham, that business rates will be forced up by the Conservative party by 33 per cent. in Ealing, by 25 per cent. in the Prime Minister's area of Barnet and by no less than 57 per cent in the Minister's former borough of Wandsworth? Does he agree that The Economist was right when it said:

"The road to Mrs. Thatcher's proposed poll tax"—
and to the unified business rate—
"is one paved with banana skins and leading nowhere"?

Not at all. It is a bit rich to hear those statistics given by the hon. Gentleman, because they relate to the year 1986–87 and, as I understand it, he is supporting the fact that in Ealing in one year the rates have gone up by 65 per cent., an increase of £260 per employee for one particular firm in Ealing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that small businesses cannot tolerate is the rate increase which is erratic and unpredictable? Is he aware that in Leicester in local election year the rates go up by 5 per cent. and that the following year the council does not care and the sky's the limit? No local or small business can possibly tolerate such a situation.

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend wholeheartedly. That is the major benefit that will flow from the national non-domestic rate.

Rate Support Grant


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what has been the cumulative reduction in the rate support grant since 1979 expressed at 1986–87 prices.

The cumulative reduction in rate support grant between 1979–80 and 1986–87 in England amounted to £12·75 billion in 1986–87 prices. The cumulative increase in spending by local authorities in England over the same period amounted to £9·5 billion in 1987–87 prices.

Is it not true that the rate support grant for Cumbria has been cut from 75 to 50 per cent. of net expenditure over those years? Does the Secretary of State understand that in the county of Cumbria we have now lost £60 million in the current year on a budget of £220 million and that we cannot afford it unless rates go up or services are cut? Does the Secretary of State understand that the people of Cumbria do not want that kind of politics and that we cannot afford it? Will he now re-examine the whole question of those settlements?

The hon. Gentleman knows that for the past eight years the Government have been transferring some of the burden from central to local taxes for local authorities. I merely make the point that, far from containing their expenditure, it has had no such effect, and local authorities have, in fact, increased it by £9·5 billion cumulatively over the same period.

Is not the question of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) nonsense? Surely there has been a massive increase in real spending in many of the Labour authorities? They have been spending as though there were no tomorrow. Had there been no rate capping, Leicester, for instance, would have been in a diabolical situation. Leicester has been allowed to twin with Nicaragua, create the Nelson Mandela park, abuse the system totally, have "go gay" policies and put the ratepayers' interests at the bottom of the line, with party political propaganda on the rates.

I confirm that the real increase in local authority current spending has been 13 per cent. in the past eight years. So whatever else they may be, no one can accuse local authorities of being short of resources.

Not only the House but the whole country will welcome the candour with which the Secretary of State has now confessed that tit has been a deliberate policy of the Government for eight years to switch the burden from central taxation to rates. Is it not also the case, however, as Treasury figures published yesterday demonstrate, that the burden of central taxation for the average family with two children far from decreasing in those eight years, has gone up by about £20 per week? So, the result of the Government's policies after eight years is a massive increase in the rates—the direct result of policy, as he has just said—and an increase in the burden of central taxation as well. What bigger failure could there be than that?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman what bigger failure there could be, and that is if his party got into power and spent another £37 billion a year.

Countryside Conservation


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what has been the increase in (a) money terms and (b) real terms in expenditure since 1979 by his Department on the conservation of the countryside; and if he will make a statement.

My Department's support for conservation of the countryside is channelled principally through grant in aid to the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission and in the supplementary grants given to the national parks. These grants have gone up some 275 per cent. in total since 1979, which is 115 per cent. in real terms.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the scale of the increase, at a time when Government expenditure has been carefully controlled, shows how great our commitment is to the countryside? Does he also agree that there is no room for complacency? in particular, there is a growing threat to our estuaries from a range of developments. Will he ensure that estuaries, which are among the best habitats, are properly protected in future?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The expenditure represents the Government's settled and steady policy of raising the priority for the protection of the countryside as compared with the position left by the Labour Government. On the question of estuaries, the formal answer is, of course, that every individual project must be considered properly on its merits in due course. I think it is right to make it clear to my hon. Friend that some of our unspoilt estuaries must remain unspoilt, and that the planning system must be used to do that.

Will the Minister take time today to read the back page of The Western Morning News? Had he recognised that, according to this report, in the countryside of the south-west:

"Rivers were getting dirtier with pollution of 40 per cent. between 1980 and 1985"?
Does he recognise that the countryside people down there are drinking
"discoloured and unpleasant tasting water"
as a direct result of the meanness and shortsightedness of the Government? What will he do about it?

I think that the hon. Gentleman should learn not to refer to the inhabitants of the southwest peninsula as those "people down there". The delays in the time scale for water investment are rather longer than he understands. The problems in the south-west derive largely from the absolutely savage cuts in water investment imposed by the IMF on the Labour Government after 1976. We have restored those cuts and have spent more in real terms.

Further to that last question, would it not be much safer in those circumstances if the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) decided that he would be better off staying north of the border?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is looking for a retirement home, and where better?

How can the Minister equate his supposed care for the countryside with a letter that I received from him today saying that he is granting permission for a massive opencast site in my constituency which will involve the destruction of 27 rights of way, 47 acres of public open space, 68 acres of woodland, plus miles of hedgerow? Although this is for 100 jobs, which we all know are needed, is he aware that it will involve the complete and absolute disruption of the whole road systern in my constituency, with heavy lorries, noise and dirt?

We have just had a classic definition of NIMBY—not in my back yard. Anywhere else, the hon. Lady would welcome the cheap and secure fuel and the jobs, but not in her back yard. That is not a responsible way to proceed on national issues.

May I refer to my hon. Friend's back yard and ask him to put a stop to the silly machinations about a Severn barrage, which will cost a lot of money and be an environmental catastrophe?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's robust views on the matter. There will have to be plenty of time for his views and for the equally robust opposing views of other people on the matter to be properly investigated in due course.

Community Charge


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the latest total of representations received by him in respect of his proposals for a community charge in England; what proportion was in favour; and what proportion was against.

A summary of responses to the Green Paper "Paying for Local Government" was placed in the Library on 15 December.

Will the Minister confirm that as recently as last week he told constituents of mine in Lancashire and Yorkshire that his poll tax would increase their family bills by about 15 per cent.? Will he further confirm that that applies especially in the townships of Wigan and Leigh, and especially to those owner-occupiers in lower-priced properties?

I can confirm that all single householders in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will be significantly better off as a result of the introduction of the community charge.

Can my hon. Friend tell us the proportion of people who were in favour of the charge and the proportion who were against?

I do not have the precise proportions, but out of about 600 responses, 390 were in favour of the abolition of the domestic rating system.

I showed surprise, Mr. Speaker, because so many hon. Members were rising.

First, will the Minister confirm that his suggestion that all single householders will benefit from the poll tax is quite untrue because at the moment single householders on the lowest income pay nothing in rates because they get a full rebate? Under his proposals everybody, however poor, will pay at least 20 per cent. of the poll tax.

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has told constituents in a wide range of Conservative marginal constituencies in the north that in some cases their rate bills will almost double when the poll tax is in operation? In Conservative York it will go up by 25 per cent., in Bradford by 20 per cent., in Grimsby by 17 per cent., in marginal Pendle by 55 per cent., in marginal Hyndburn by 50 per cent. and in Labour Burnley by 90 per cent. Is that what the Conservatives have in mind when they say that they wish to create greater fairness by abolishing the rates?

If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the way in which the question that he asks is answered in the Green Paper, he will see that the examples are only examples and will by no means definitely be the resulting figures. The precise resulting figures will depend upon whether the authorities concerned spend wisely.



asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of the average rate increase in the current year (a) for councils under Conservative control, (b) for non-rate capped councils under Labour control, (c) for councils under alliance control and (d) councils under joint alliance/Labour control.

On average, rates in Conservative councils are up 5·4 per cent. compared with 12·4 per cent. for non-rate capped Labour councils, and 10·7 per cent. for councils under the control of the Social Democrats and/or Liberals. Political control in many of the councils with no overall control is unclear. The average rate increase in all such councils is 8·5 per cent. For those shire counties for which we have information, councils under joint alliance/ Labour control are raising rates by significantly more than are those under joint Conservative/alliance control.

Does my hon. Friend agree that his answer shows that authorities controlled by the Socialists or hung councils controlled by the Opposition parties have increased the rates by 100 per cent.? Therefore, does he not agree that a fairer system of local accountability and local expenditure should be introduced at the earliest possible opportunity?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. It is because the present system does not allow for proper accountability that the Opposition parties are so in favour of it.

The real reason why the figures highlight the problems about which the Minister speaks is that there is industrial deprivation and great unemployment in the north of England. Will the Minister give an assurance that under the new system, the poll tax, the poor, old-age pensioners, the widows and the unemployed will not suffer by having to pay the 20 per cent. extra that he proposes in the poll tax?

The figures that I have given do not refer specifically to the north or to the south. In Gloucestershire, for example, there has been a massive increase in the rates, but I am not aware that that county has a particular problem as a result of unemployment.

Voluntary Agencies, London


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will meet representatives of the voluntary agencies in London to discuss their funding in the next financial year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while the anxieties about the future voluntary agency funding have been substantially allayed, there are considerable difficulties for voluntary agencies in the annual budgeting that is forced upon them by so much public accounting? Will he give us an assurance that voluntary agencies, which increasingly are taking on jobs of considerable importance, will be able to look further into the future when considering the funding for which they are dependent on the Government?

I shall certainly take my hon. Friend's comment into consideration. Let me add that the present Government have done more than any previous Government for voluntary agencies.