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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 115: debated on Wednesday 6 May 1987

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the present level of homelessness and the cost of the use of bed-and breakfast accommodation.

I refer the hon. Member to the replies given to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) on 16 January and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) on 18 February.

Does the Minister recognise that, during the eight years since the Conservative Government were elected, homelessness has doubled and that the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has probably quadrupled? Does he recognise also that it is the most shattering indictment of his Government's policy that more funds are being spent—squandered—on bed-and-breakfast accommodation when, in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), he confirmed that it would be cheaper to build houses for the homeless than to put them in bed-and-breakfast accommodation?

I know how much the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the issue. I know of his long standing interest in it. However, he is blinkered in his attitude to the possible full range of solutions to the problems of homelessness. I can only draw his attention to the considerable number of empty homes in council ownership in London. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not done what he could to persuade councils such as Brent and Lambeth to make use of the money that I offered them last year to fill empty houses to house the homeless. They turned it down.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House when the inquiry that his Department has conducted into the working of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 will be reporting? Does he realise that many unemployed people move to areas such as the seaside and other areas of great beauty in the countryside and create major problems in towns such as those in east Devon? Will he make certain that the report is published?

I entirely appreciate the concern felt in areas such as east Devon over this issue. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are giving them close attention.

Will the Minister confirm that one of the ways in which he and his fellow Ministers are planning to try to deal with homelessness after the next election is another Conservative attempt to revitalise the private rented sector and that, at the moment, they are planning to give subsidies to private landlords so that they can make a profit out of housing?

It is surely a matter of common interest and concern in the House that there are 540,000 empty homes in the private rented sector. Surely we can find ways of making it possible for some of those homes to be tilled to house people in need.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that much of the additional funding for the Housing Corporation this year is specifically targeted at replacing bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Pending the reduction and elimination of that unsatisfactory form of housing, will my hon. Friend look closely at the possibility of, at the least, registering the landlords of some of that unpleasant property?

I know and respect my hon. Friend's long concern, as a board member of Shelter, in this matter. Almost all the extra money going to the Housing Corporation this year is to provide additional accommodation for the homeless and for young job movers, in close co-operation with the private sector. With £30 million of public sector money we shall draw in about £60 million of private sector money, provide a substantial number of new homes, and get people out of bed-and-break fast accommodation.

The Minister is quite right in saying that there is not one simple solution to the problem. There are a variety of solutions. Why has he not done more to encourage councils such as Bromley and Brent, which have tried, with modest resources, to experiment with making resources available to tenants who do not want to buy the house or flat in which they are living to enable them to have a stake somewhere else in the market, thereby releasing much needed family housing? Why has he not helped Brent council in that direction?

Transferable discounts are an interesting idea. That is why my Department is monitoring, for a short period in Bromley, Brent and in Ealing, the effects of the transferable discounts policy to see whether it works. We have three useful experiments going on. 'We shall look at the matter before the end of the year.

Green Belt (Planning Policy)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he intends to revise his guidance on planning policy in the green belt; and if he will make a statement.

No, Sir. The Government's policy is that there should be no inappropriate development in the green belt.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply.

If the acreage of green belt has doubled during the period of this Government, is that not evidence in itself that the balance between the needs of primary agriculture and those who have a genuine interest in matters environmental — not just a party-political, partisan approach—is well safeguarded by the proven record of the present Administration?

Yes, that is the case. In fact, the area of approved green belt in England has more than doubled since 1979 to 4·5 million acres. I confirm again that approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for development in the green belt for purposes other than those connected with agriculture, sport, cemeteries or institutions standing in extensive grounds, or for other uses appropriate to a rural area. That has always been the position, and I reaffirm it now.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that in Harlow two controversial planning applications have been made, one of which is concerned with the green belt. They relate to Brenthill park and the Guilden way. My right hon. Friend is shortly to make a decision about Brenthill park, but I understand that a public inquiry is to be held on 16 June on the Guilden way application. As the two applications are intertwined, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider——

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. For once in my life I have been put off by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider—[Interruption.]

As the two public inquiries are intertwined, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider on 16 June delaying the decision on Guilden way until after a decision has been made on Brenthill park?

I cannot entirely accept my hon. Friend's assertion about the intertwining of the two applications. I feel that each must be considered on its merits, and I also feel that we owe to those who appeal for permission a duty to deal with their applications speedily. I therefore believe that it would be right to proceed with the first application as speedily as possible, and to take the second in the normal sequence.

Nitrogen Fertilizers


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from water authorities concerned about the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with public water authorities on the pollution of public water supplies by nitrates; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend has received no representations from water authorities specifically on the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers. However, discussions on effective methods of limiting nitrate levels in water supplies are proceeding with those water authorities most affected.

The Minister will be aware, however, that the water authorities, including the Severn-Trent water authority, are very concerned about the level of nitrogen use, and that there is a feeling that there is an impasse between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Obviously, it is in the interests of everyone that the issue and the dispute are resolved. Can the Minister give us a definite time scale under which positive steps will be taken?

Not quite yet. The hon. Gentleman is right: the Severn-Trent water authority is one of the authorities with which we have been in the closest touch about the matter, and it has sketched out for the Department some outlines of what water conservation zones might look like. That work has been very helpful, and I pay tribute to it. However, we have not yet reached the point at which we can set a time scale.

Will my hon. Friend recognise that there is deep concern about the excessive use of nitrates in agriculture, and that not only the Opposition parties are concerned about our environment. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is very concerned. Will he therefore speak to our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and ask him to try to offer some form of financial inducement, perhaps, to farmers to reduce the amount of——

Order. I do not want the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) to be put off as well.

These are complicated issues, and there are two or three different ways of approaching them. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been giving very helpful advice to farmers about how to minimise damage. On some occasions, water treatment can also be used. My hon. Friend referred to the polluter pays principle. Financial compensation could cause difficulties. However, it might be right for experimental zones to have some such regime.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), whom I should have called first.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The mood at the moment is not conducive to being nasty to farmers, but is my hon. Friend aware of the rising tide of dissatisfaction in areas such as Southend where water consumers are having to pay substantially for the removal of pollution from their public water supplies, particularly when they know that the only effect of the use of nitrates is to produce vast mountains of cereals that cannot be given away? Once the current excitement is over, will my hon. Friend bear in mind his legal obligations under the Single European Act to make the polluter pay for his pollution?

My hon. Friend refers quite rightly to a serious problem, but solutions are not easy to find. That is why it is taking a little time to come forward with them. The detailed control that some people suggest there should be over applications of nitrogen would be exceedingly difficult to run in other than experimental areas. None the less, we shall have to consider whether we can find some solutions.

Is the Minister aware that for nitrogen fertilisers we could substitute part of what is becoming another problem—the manure mountain that is developing in Europe, along with the butter and the beef mountains? Conservative Members may laugh, but there is already a manure mountain in Holland, and one is developing in this country as a result of EEC subsidies for intensive farming. The manure mountain is causing pollution on the land and in the groundwater. If it were used instead of nitrogen fertilisers, we might be able to solve the problem.

The hon. Gentleman's chemistry is about as good as that of the famous American senator who, in relation to the acid rain problem, said that the time had come to take nitrogen out of the atmosphere. Nitrogen is still nitrogen, whether it emanates from an animal or from ICI, Billingham. A quite separate problem, that of slurry waste, is affecting water in much the same way as are fertilisers. The question is whether we can treat waste in such a way as to avoid that problem. I do not, therefore, think that the hon. Gentleman has yet solved the problem.

My hon. Friend is well aware of my longstanding problem with the River Avon, and he will have heard of the considerable disquiet that greeted the apparent decision of his Department to cope with the proposed River Avon survey. Can he say to what extent, and when, that might be funded by his Department? Will he also take on board the considerable concern that is felt by those at the Freshwater Biological Association, which is facing a 30 per cent. cut in its manpower? They are the people who can do most to solve the problem of the nitrate poisoning of our water supplies.

The latter point is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. He is responsible for the science budget. I was not aware that my hon. Friend had any problems on any matters whatsoever, but it is alleged that there are problems with the Avon in his area. The first proposal that was put to my Department for a survey was thought by the scientists in my Department to be not very well based, but discussions continue and if something sensible and helpful can be designed, we shall certainly consider whether to support it.

Is the Minister aware that as a consequence of nitrate levels in some areas being double the recommended EEC values, in April of this year the European Community started legal action against the United Kingdom Government? In addition, the river quality survey shows that the recent trends of improvement have been reversed. What steps are the Government taking to restore these trends? How much cash are they making available to water authorities to bring water quality within the EEC guideline of 50mg/litre? Further to his answers to other hon. Members, will he emphasise in his discussions with his colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that he is sticking to the polluter must pay principle?

There is a certain amount of confusion here, too, I am afraid. The European Commission has not instituted legal proceedings. The hon. Gentleman may be thinking of the quite separate problem of nitrites, which has nothing to do with this issue. His question is a bit off the beam.

I forget what the hon. Gentleman's second point was, I beg his pardon.

Land Use


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when, following consultation, he intends to publish a circular on planning and agricultural land.

We are giving very careful consideration to the comments that we have received on the draft circular "Development Involving Agricultural Land" and hope to publish it soon.

I knew that it was a tricky question, but I have a feeling that it was actually a plant.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in West Norfolk which is, after all, one of the most beautiful parts of the country, there has been some concern about the recent announcement in respect of development on agricultural land. Will my right hon. Friend make it crystal clear that the announcement will not lead to any additional development and, indeed, that it will probably lead to better planning decisions? Will he also make it clear that it will not lead to an increase in the number of planning applications granted on appeal in respect of land outside village development guidelines?

I apologise to my hon. Friend. I received a message that he would not be here. I am delighted that he is, because it gives me a chance to answer his important question.

I hope to publish the revised circular soon, but we are taking account of all the comments made to us. No change will alter the basic fact that planning permission will be required for all developments on open land, although we intend to substitute the need to have environment and countryside objectives in mind as well as the agricultural quality of the land. That does not mean that 85 per cent of the land will be opened up to controlled development of any sort, either in west Norfolk or in any other beautiful part of the country. It could mean that there will be better planning decisions about the use of the small amount of land that has to be taken. I hope that that will be the result.

What account is the Minister taking of the recommendation of Friends of the Earth that priority be given for public house building and for the planting of deciduous trees? Does he agree that the planning arrangements for agricultural land and its protection have served our environment well?

With that last point, I entirely agree. As I have said, I hope that the new circular will result in even better planning for the use of land. On the first point, I imagine that the hon. Gentleman meant public housing rather than public houses. There is a conflict in many district councils between the refusal to give planning permission for more housing and their desire to build more houses themselves. That is a conflict for the local authorities to resolve.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the pressure for building on the green belt and on agricultural land is partly due to the fact that we have not yet done enough to recycle urban and fringe land? Will he confirm that perhaps 47 per cent. of all new house building last year was on recycled land, but that much more can still be done to build on land in the inner cities, on land held by local authorities and other statutory undertakers? Will my right hon. Friend undertake to make every effort to ensure that the private sector is aware of urban development grants, derelict land grants and all the other initiatives introduced by his Department?

I agree with all that my hon. Friend has said, with one tiny exception. Last year, 47 per cent. of all development was on recycled land and 45 per cent. of all housing development was on such land. That is the best figure that we have ever achieved, and I hope that we shall be able to do even better in the future. It is remarkable that we have managed to use old land for 47 per cent. of all development.

Order. Will the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) refrain from holding private conversations?

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that his draft circular included no provision whatever for the protection of the countryside for environmental purposes outside the green belt, the areas of outstanding natural beauty and the national parks? In view of the representations that he has received, will he give an assurance that protection for environmental and conservation purposes will be extended to the whole of the countryside?

The hon. Gentleman's premise is wrong. The original draft of the circular gave the very protection that he seeks, but my colleagues and I are considering whether the English language can be made clearer so that even the hon. Gentleman can understand it.

Radioactive Waste (Hinkley Point)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment where the low-level and the intermediate-level radioactive waste from Hinkley Point power station is held at present; what plans have been made for holding it in the event of a new pressurised water reactor electricity generating plant at Hinkley Point; what is the size of the area involved; and how long the waste will have to remain on site.

Low-level radioactive waste is temporarily stored at Hinkley Point nuclear power station pending disposal at Drigg. Intermediate-level waste is also stored at Hinkley Point pending the development of a suitable disposal route.

No proposals have been received by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for energy for a new station at Hinkley Point. I cannot therefore comment on what they might be.

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks, but is he aware that the Central Electricity Generating Board intends to put a new PWR at Hinkley Point? As nuclear waste is already being stored there, and as even more may be stored there in the future, does he accept that planning is much more than a purely local function? Will he give an assurance that if the new station is built there will be consultation in the whole south-west area and not just in the local Somerset part about disposal and containment and, indeed, about the whole plant?

Any proposal — I do not know of any proposals at present — will be considered in the normal, thoroughly rigorous manner.

May I warn the Government that the consequence of the expedient in relation to nuclear waste disposal policy announced by the Secretary of State for the Environment in the House last Friday is that all Britain's low-level nuclear waste will be concentrated at Drigg in Copeland and there is no other policy in sight for the foreseeable future? Is the Minister aware that that policy is increasingly unacceptable even in a community that supports the development of civil nuclear power, especially when the Government fail entirely to make the necessary investment in the infrastructure — in roads and other communications to the area — which should be an essential prerequisite for the development of any such policy? Is he aware that the people of Cumbria and of Copeland in particular are slowly but surely losing all faith in the Government and their policies?

I can put the hon. Gentleman's mind firmly at rest on one matter. There will be a low-level waste disposal route, which will be combined with the intermediate waste disposal route, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued. Drigg will therefore not be the only facility. That would be quite unacceptable. It may even be necessary to create some low-level waste storage facilities at the power stations if there is any slippage in the programme. Drigg cannot be the only national facility — the hon. Gentleman is quite right about that. In fairness, I should point out that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his predecessors have gone out of their way in a number of respects to try to discuss matters with the council at Copeland and elsewhere and there has been a good level of agreement on some of the projects undertaken.

The Minister mentioned long-term disposal routes. Is he aware that since his right hon. Friend's announcement last week there has been considerable alarm in the Highlands and Islands about the possibility of nuclear waste being dumped on the islands?

Order. The question is about Hinkley Point. It is not much wider than that.

Waste from Hinkley Point could go to any of those places, Mr. Speaker. Will the Minister therefore confirm his written answer to me last week that no research has been specifically directed to small islands and reassure the people of northern Scotland that there is no intention to dispose of nuclear waste there?

Hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and other hon. Members are going around the country trying to stir up the maximum alarm, when they should be thinking about their responsibilities. There is no proposal on the table at the moment, so the hon. Gentleman should not try to get into his local newspapers by believing that there is.

Council House Sales


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many council houses have been sold to sitting tenants in England since May 1979.

From April 1979 to December 1986 about 769,000 tenants bought their homes from English local authorities and new towns.

Does my right hon. Friend intend to take any further steps to draw the attention of the public to the Housing and Planning Act 1986? Does he expect the provisions of that Act to have a big effect on future sales?

Yes, we have tried to get a circular to every council tenant who is living in a flat. I do not think that we have had a 100 per cent. success rate, but we have done our best to distribute a leaflet to them and the matter has been publicised in many respects. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that much more could be done. We shall seek other ways of making it clear that under a Conservative Government everybody will have a right to buy their house or flat at a discount. I refrain from adding to the leaflet that under either of the two Opposition parties that opportunity will depend on whether the local authority is prepared to give them the right. That is disgraceful backtracking from one of our most successful policies.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the seriousness of selling off so many local authority houses when his Government are building only about 130,000 a year, which is about half the number that the Labour Government built before 1979? Does he not understand that the more houses that are sold off to sitting tenants, the longer those who want to rent their local authorities will have to wait?

The hon. Lady is putting her desire to be a municipal landlord before the wishes of the people.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that later this month in Darlington the 1,000th council house will be sold to the existing tenant? In view of the fact that many other families in Darlington wish to purchase, will he establish from the Opposition, as a matter of urgency, in which local authority areas the right to buy will be suspended and in which it will not?

I am delighted to hear about the sale of the 1,000th council house in Darlington and I am waiting for the Labour party to declare from which authorities this right will be removed. However, it is a pretty academic question, because I do not think that it will be in a position to remove that right.

The Secretary of State's description of Labour's policy is a perversion. Our policies on these matters were stated fully in Committee on the Landlord and Tenant Bill. Does the Secretary of State recall that in 1983 the Government estimated that the discounted price at which homes were sold was £9,000, so, on the figures that he has given, does he agree that about £7,500 billion in capital receipts has been generated from sales, which is enough to build about one third of a million homes to rent over the last eight years? Why, with all those extra resources, have the Government built 500,000 fewer homes to rent instead of a third of a million more? Does he not agree that the story of the last eight years with regard to housing is one of squandering the resources for providing homes to rent for the people?

If I have misdescribed the hon. Gentleman's policy on giving local authority tenants the right to buy from their local authority, I would be glad if he will make that clear. I thought that there was a Lib — Lab pact on this matter and that they were in agreement. I have heard Opposition Members say many times that they will give local authorities in stress areas the right to refuse this opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman always talks about council houses, but he knows that private sector house building is at an all-time record. We are encouraging the Housing Corporation, with funds as well as legislative improvements, to go into the independent rented sector and build a great many more houses.

Would my right hon. Friend care to tell the House whether, on the heels of the great success of the municpal right to buy, he can hold out hopes to private tenants of private landlords that they might expect legislation to enable them to become home owners as well?

I would certainly like to tell my hon. Friend that we are very keen to increase the number of houses to rent and in due course we shall bring forward proposals to do just that in the private sector.

Community Charge

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received as w the minimum level of community charge to be paid by those on low incomes.

My right hon. Friend has received, and continues to receive, a substantial number of representations on this issue.

What will the Minister do to reassure my constitutents in Huddersfield who, if there are three people in a household, are faced with a 138 per cent. increase in their rate bill and a 218 per cent. rate increase if there are four adults in the household? What will the Minister say to those who are not only on low, but middle-range, incomes, who are faced with such a ruinous increase in their rate bill that they will end up either in the poor house or the work house under this Government?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that there are no work houses under this Government. However, there is a considerable amount of income support and help for the low paid in our society. If we concentrate on that, we have already said that the mentally handicapped and those in old peoples homes will be exempt, the severely physically disabled will receive 100 per cent. rebates and that there will be generous rebates for those on low incomes. Indeed, 80 per cent. of old-age pensioners will be better off than they are now as single pensioners. [HON. MEMBERS: "No".] Opposition Members may not like to know that they will be better off under a Conservative Government, but the public know it. It is also important to recognise that it would be unfair to impose financial burdens on those on low incomes. It is equally unreasonable for people to vote in the length and breadth of this country without realising the financial penalties of the policies for which they are voting.

Does my hon. Friend agree that when the community charge is introduced there will be a very much greater incentive for Labour-controlled councils, such as Norwich city council, to keep rate increases down to a low level, and that that would benefit my constituents, business and industry in Norwich?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, the opposition to the community charge from the Labour Benches stems from the fact that they know that it will bring reality home to authority after authority. If spending in Huddersfield and many other authorities was reduced to the grant-related expenditure level, authorities could reduce considerably the burden on ratepayers.

Now that even the Prime Minister yesterday admitted that this was a poll tax, and when the Secretary of State takes home about £30 a week extra as a result of the change, what have the Government to say to the millions of families already below the bread line who will be tipped further into misery by this change?

Reference has been made to the question of a poll tax. [HON. MEMBERS: "Poll tax."] Exactly. I have the reference here and I am glad that Opposition Members also read Hansard. If hon. Members would read Hansard and go to the dictionary, they will understand the definition of a poll tax — [Interruption.] If the hon. Member would listen, I will advance his education even further. A poll tax means a tax per head. However, it has nothing to do with the voting register. If hon. Members go back to the dictionary—[Interruption].

A poll tax is a tax per head. In this case, we are making exemptions, to which I have already referred. According to "Chambers" and other dictionaries, no reference is made—and no reference was made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday—to the question of linking the definition of a poll tax to the voting register.

Is it not true that the only places where the electors have anything to fear is where there are high-spending councils, and that if people are daft enough to elect a bunch of twerps, such as those who represent Manchester, they have only themselves to blame?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the community tax—or rather the community charge—brings home to voters the cost of what they are voting for. In Manchester, the business ratepayers alone would save £30 million or £40 million. Manchester might then be again the prosperous city that it once was under private enterprise.

Mr. Speaker, "twerp" is a good old-fashioned northern word, which was used in a sensible parliamentary way. What is unacceptable about it?

Why does the Minister continue with useless subterfuge when even the Prime Minister confessed yesterday that what the Government intend to introduce is a poll tax? Why does he seek to mislead people when he knows that his own Green Paper makes it clear that many people who pay no rates now will pay under the new system? For example, of the 7·5 million low-income families receiving housing benefit, 3 million pay no rates now, but will have to pay the new tax. Many of those people, including national insurance pensioners, widows and unemployed people, will have to pay the same level of tax as stockbrokers, moneybrokers and millionaires. Pensioners and unemployed people will be taxed at the same level as the latter group, and everybody will pay a minimum of 20 per cent. Is that what this Government regard as fair and just?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."' Say that louder. If that is the Conservative view, we intend to make sure that the people of Britain know all about it.

In setting income support levels, we shall take into account the impact of those levels on the most vulnerable groups, especially those who will pay for the first time. However, let us consider the other side of that. How many people earning £10,000, £15,000 or £20,000 a year, in houses the length and breadth of this country, pay nothing because they are not the householder? Is that justice? Similarly, is it justice that the Labour party talks about capital values, which would double the charge being paid by some people because capital values in London rose by 25 per cent. last year? That would be the threat to people living in Ealing, Brent, Waltham Forest and in other areas. What would people living in those areas do if faced by the capital values that are proffered by the Opposition?

Will my hon. Friend point out that it is the present rating system—to which many people do not contribute—that is unfair and that the way in which old-age pensioners are clobbered by the present system is totally unfair? Will he assure us that a Conservative Government would reform the present rating system, unlike the Opposition, who continue to support high-rating councils throughout the country?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and I think that most people in the country would agree with him, especially those living in high-spending Labour, alliance and double-alliance counties? The basis of what we are doing is at the least courageous, for a start. We are tackling the question of rates, about which people have grumbled in every party for 50 or 60 years. All that people are offered by the Opposition are capital values and a doubling of rates in many areas of the country, which people cannot afford to pay.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the level of the community charge and uniform business rate in London.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the likely level of the community charge in inner London boroughs.

Since we published illustrative figures on 1 April we have received a small number of representations about the likely impact of our proposals on authorities in London.

As the Government have already caused many local authorities of all political complexions to make difficult choices between draconian cuts in basic services and increasing rates, how on earth does the Secretary of State justify a poll tax which, in areas such as Hammersmith and Fulham, will lead to the average family rate increasing from £365 in 1986–87 to no less than £432 per adult in the same year? What justification is there for such a regressive, heavy poll tax in local areas?

I shall give the hon. Gentleman a good justification. Hammersmith and Fulham is overspending by £16 and the Inner London education authority is overspending by £246 per adult per year respectively on their GRE. That massive overspending must be paid for by the people and I suggest that it is not unreasonable that it should be paid for by the people who vote those idiots into office.

The Secretary of State's discourtesy towards elected councillors is well known in this House and outside. Does he know that at present the average rate in the London borough of Newham is £517 a year and that if the poll tax is introduced it will mean that a two-adult household must pay £648 a year, a three-adult household £1,026 a year and a four-adult household £1,368 a year? That news will not do much damage to the Conservatives in Newham, because they do not stand a chance there, but how can the Secretary of State defend a system which imposes such charges on the second most deprived local authority area in the country while benefiting Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher in Dulwich to the tune of £37 a week in savings? This is an up the pole tax.

Newham receives a high GRE of £906 per adult and it is spending £167 per adult on top of that. The community charge will be high in Newham because expenditure is high. Furthermore, the Labour party in its publication "Local Government Reform in England and Wales" states that it wants a system of capital rateable values with variations in income, not variations in rateable value —[Interruption.] I am entitled to tell the House what the effects of the Opposition's policy are. The effect of variations in income on the assessment of rates is that rates will increase massively in the north of England and will decrease in the south-east. That is their proposal and it is about time the country knew it.

If Labour Members are genuinely concerned about the problems of Londoners on average or below average incomes, should they not spend more time talking about local government expenditure, which is at the heart of the problem? Can my right hon. Friend tell the House that he will keep rate-capping provisions in operation after the community charge has been introduced to give protection to people in Ealing?

As the Green Paper showed, we intend to retain some form of limitation on the charges that authorities may impose. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the reason for the high levels of community charge in London is massive spending. The overspending of ILEA above GRE is £246 per adult. Somebody must pay for that and the House will not disagree with the suggestion that the people in inner London should.

Will my right hon. Friend further consider Ealing and appreciate that the pressure for the community charge arises because of the sheer abuse of the rate system by the Ealing Labour council, which has imposed a 65 per cent. increase in rates on domestic ratepayers and a 57·3 per cent. rate increase on industry? That means a rate increase of at least £5 per household. Pensioners come to my surgery crying because they cannot pay it, but the Labour party does not care. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the vicious Ea ling Labour council will be rate-capped as soon as possible to save my constituents from the bread line?

I cannot say anything about the future of rate limitation or how it might affect Ealing, but I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that the ruthless and cynical imposition of massive spending and massive rate increases on innocent citizens is one of the most disgraceful and distasteful features of the Labour party.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that in Tory-controlled Wandsworth, the Prime Minister's favoured local authority, the community charge will result, per head, in a 115 per cent. increase compared to the present system, and that that is the biggest increase of any local authority in England or Wales? How does he justify that?

I justify it very simply. It is because there is a £246 per adult overspend by the Inner London education authority, of which Wandsworth is part. The Wandsworth rate, and the community charge that follows from it, is extremely low because of the good management of that council, but it is ruined by the surcharge for ILEA.

Given the passage last night in another place of the remaining stages of the Scottish equivalent legislation, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the possible advantages of deferring legislation in England and Wales until any minor difficulties are ironed out in Scotland?

We are likely to defer the English and Welsh Bills until the start of the next Session of Parliament, as my hon. Friend knows. That will allow plenty of time to look at any difficulties. It is important to return to the point that the Labour party is proposing a system that would have the effect of putting up the charges that people pay in the north of England through the rating system, and bringing down what will be paid in the south-east. Some of my hon. Friends will be glad to hear that information.

The Secretary of State is in the mire on the poll tax and I hope he realises that. Is he aware that his excuse for the 115 per cent. increase in Wandsworth—because of ILEA spending — simply does not wash because, so capricious is the poll tax system that it will lead to a reduction in average rate bills in Conservative Westminster, which is also in the ILEA area? Do the adjectives "ruthless" and "cynical" also apply to the 57 per cent. increase in the business rate that businesses in Wandsworth will have to pay, the 31 per cent. increase that businesses in Westminster will have to pay, the 32 per cent. increase that businesses in Ealing will have to pay, and the 82 per cent. increase that businesses in Kensington and Chelsea will have to pay? When the Secretary of State used the word "idiots", was he referring to those hundreds of thousands of electors who rejected the policies of the Conservative Government and Conservative councillors at the polls last May and elected Labour councillors? Was not the Tory Reform Group correct when it described the poll tax proposals as neither Conservative in concept nor sensible in application?

The hon. Gentleman might be glad to know that I have announced today proposals which will allow the minority of businesses that might face significant increases in rate bills five years to adjust to the new rate levies and that, where increases in the valuation are greatest, we shall postpone some of the increase in value to the next revaluation period.



asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the rate of homelessness (a) in 1978 and (b) at the latest available date for which figures are available.

English local authorities accepted responsibility for finding accommodation for 53,100 households in 1978 and for 103,000 in 1986. Over the same period the total housing stock has grown by 1·4 million while the number of households is estimated to have grown by only 1·25 million. Therefore, the overall supply of housing has improved.

In the last few weeks the Government have discovered that public money thrown around reaches those parts of the electorate that monetarism cannot reach. Why do they not tell the local authorities to use the £7·5 billion from the receipts of council house sales to build some homes and provide some shelters for the homeless? The Government do not do that because they have a cynical disregard for the homeless, some of whom are not on the register and therefore, the Government do not have to worry about their votes.

If the hon. Gentleman had due regard for the needs of the homeless he would go to a local authority close to Bolsover, such as Manchester, and ask it why it is keeping 5,000 of its houses empty and why it has failed to collect £6 million in rents to help fill those homes.

Is the Minister aware that in London several hundred people are forced to sleep on the streets because they have nowhere to live? Is he aware that people placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by local authorities are being evicted to make way for the tourist trade? Is he further aware that Tower Hamlets council is trying to evict 140 Bangladeshi families from bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Does he not think that the level of homelessness in the major cities is an absolute scandal and warrants immediate and urgent action by the Government to ensure that everyone in the country gets a roof over his head that he can afford?

I am not responsible for the activities of loony Liberal Tower Hamlets council. However, I am responsible for drawing to the attention of the hon. Gentleman the fact that there are about 30,000 empty council houses in London that could and should be used by Labour-controlled local authorities to house the homeless.

Tree Planting


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what was the total cost of all the tree planting funded directly or indirectly by his Department in 1985; what percentage of the trees have survived; and if he will make a statement.

The Department funds the Countryside Commission, which paid £1·6 million in conservation grants, principally for tree planting, in 1985–86. A sample of trees planted previously with commission aid showed a median survival rate of 77 per cent. Planting by the Department directly during 1985 in the royal parks totalled some £50,000.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure he appreciates that it is not the number of trees that are planted that is important, but the number that survive. Is he aware that in order to get the maximum number of trees to survive it is important that sufficient is spent on maintenance and not just on planting? I urge him to ensure that, however much tree planting is done, the right balance is maintained between maintenance and planting so that we can get the maximum survival rate, so as to beautify our countryside.

My hon. Friend is quite right. The Countryside Commission survival rate figures are not bad. What my hon. Friend says will have to be taken into account in, for example, any new farm planting schemes.

In commending the work of my hon. Friend's Department and other Departments, including particularly the Department of Transport, in tree planting schemes, may I ask whether he agrees that the real role of Government should be to offer expertise and encourage to people to plant trees? To that end, does he think that the time is now propitious to have another national tree year?

That may well be a good suggestion and perhaps it should be taken forward in the context of the work of the European Year of the Environment Committee. I pay tribute to the work being done all over Britain by farming and wildlife advisory groups on tree planting on farms.

Housing Expenditure (Leicester)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how much money from central Government funding was provided for the city of Leicester to spend on housing in 1979 and 1986, respectively.

Central Government contributions towards Leicester city council's housing expenditure are estimated to have been £45·2 million in 1986–87. A comparable figure is not available for 1979.

A comparable figure, is it, because it would show that the amount available has been reduced by at least 50 per cent., thereby making it impossible for the excellent Leicester city council to carry out its duties in providing, maintaining and improving housing for people who need it in our cities?

On a specific point, what has happened to the £14 million that the Government promised would be available by the end of April under housing defects legislation for councils such as Leicester? Smith houses, Boot houses and houses with other defects are placing an immense burden on the council. Money will have to be spent on these houses instead of on the general provision. The money was promised, but where is it?

The announcement about the additional sums will be made in due course, to answer the hon. and learned Gentleman's second point. In answer to his first point, he supported the Labour Administration of 1974 to 1979, which made the biggest capital cuts in the nation's housing programme ever—about 46 per cent.

Will my hon. Friend exercise great caution in giving any additional sums of money to Leicester? Is he aware that Leicester city council—sadly, it is Labour-controlled now, but it will be Conservative-controlled after tomorrow — has 1,000 empty council houses and 26,000 council houses needing repair? The council is spending £5,972 on fighting the Housing and Planning Act 1986, which gives more rights to council tenants. It shows no interest in council tenants whatsoever. It is twinned with Nicaragua and does not give a damn for the decent people who live in Leicester.

I am delighted to respond to the authentic voice of the city of Leicester. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and with the editor of the Leicester Mercury, who, on Friday 1 May, condemned the activities of the Leicester city council in its smear campaigns over the rights of tenants in Leicester city—campaigns to which the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) gave his support.