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Volume 171: debated on Wednesday 25 April 1990

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Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he is considering to amend the community charge regulations.

The operation of the community charge is of course being monitored. I have no proposals, at present, for changes to the regulations.

In the light of that reply, does the Minister accept that his policies on the poll tax and uniform business rate will increase dramatically the already record levels of bankruptcy among small business people, and have resulted in 200 shops and small businesses in the Minister's own constituency closing down? The policies were dramatically exposed in The Guardian by Mr. Francis Ching, who said that the poll tax was robbing the poor left, right and centre. It is an absolute scandal, and for the Minister to come to the House with such a reply is a disgrace.

With respect, the hon. Gentleman might await my reply. He had the courtesy to refer to my constituency, where two issues come together—first, the uniform business rate and secondly, revaluation. It is common to all parties that we support revaluation. That was made clear in January by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould). We proposed a transitional scheme, about which I hope to have the opportunity to say more later. In my constituency, small businesses are considerably helped by the uniform business rate, which protects them from the higher rate increases that result from Avon's spending decisions. If the Opposition are now in favour of the uniform business rate, as well as revaluation, they will have a story to tell in my constituency and other places in the south.

My right hon. Friend may or may not propose to amend the regulations, but in the meantime the administration of the exemptions at local government level is what worries many of my colleagues. People are waiting weeks and weeks to receive the decision from their local authorities. In my case, Southampton city council is Labour controlled and has the poorest administration. People are waiting weeks in fear and trembling that they will not receive the exemptions.

I am concerned about what my hon. Friend says. To be fair to local authorities as a whole, in most the arrangements have gone pretty well and, as I was proposing to say later, most bills have gone out net of both transitional relief and benefit, which is commendable for the local authority staff involved. Where local authorities have done less well, there is cause for concern. That should be recognised by local authorities and we should compare what some have done with what the majority have managed to achieve.

May we take it from what my right hon. Friend said in his original answer that, in addition to reviewing any operational defects of the community charge, he will look at how the uniform business rate is operating in all parts of the country? Does he agree that although we concede that revaluation was long overdue, there is evidence that, in conjunction with rising rents in some areas, the difficulties being experienced by small businesses are considerable? Surely, it can be no part of the introduction of the uniform rate for small businesses to go the wall.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the interaction of rent levels and revaluation. In my constituency, even with revaluation, rates will represent only about 20 per cent. of the rental levels faced by small businesses. We must consider the transitional arrangements that the House has agreed for small businesses. I have made it clear time and again that if it proves necessary to extend the transitional period to ensure that small businesses avoid steep rises in their rates towards the end of that period, we shall be prepared to do so.

In a written answer to me last week, the Under-Secretary of State said that there was no intention of changing the basic principle underlying the community charge, which is that almost all adults should pay a contribution towards providing local services. As he emphasised that there was no change in that basic principle, what changes do the Government intend to make to remove the unfairness of the present system?

I wholly endorse what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said. I shall be saying one or two things about the operation of the community charge later this afternoon and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman stays to hear the speeches.

While my right hon. Friend is conducting his review of the community charge, will he seriously consider disaggregating married couples, which has already been done for national taxation? Figures researched by the Library suggest that that would cost between £1 billion and £1·5 billion, but instead of angling the extra money to profligate councils, such as Lancashire county council, that would give the money directly to those, such as married and retired couples and young mothers, who actually need the help.

I note what my hon. Friend has said. She and other hon. Members have mentioned that issue in the past. It produces a quite different set of anomalies, but we shall certainly consider it in the next few weeks.

Are not the Secretary of State and his right hon. Friends engaged in a desperate search for a way out of the mess that they have created? Will he confirm, for example, that a meeting was recently arranged between senior officials of Strathclyde regional council and someone described mysteriously as an influential Conservative Member of Parliament? Will he further confirm—in case he does not know the answer, I shall tell him it—that that influential Conservative Member of Parliament was none other than his right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who, just a few months ago, was the Prime Minister's campaign manager in the leadership election contest?

I am afraid that although my responsibilities run all too wide, they do not cover either the diary of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) or the activities of Strathclyde regional council. But as I imagine that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us more information about this spectacular cross-border conspiracy later this afternoon, I look forward to hearing about it. We are also all agog to hear more about the Labour party's proposals.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any proposals to use empty Government-owned property for homeless people.

It is Government policy to sell such empty houses that are no longer needed. Where disposal is not practicable, Departments let property to local authorities or housing associations to relieve local housing pressures.

Is the Minister aware that there are about 35,000 Government-owned properties and that in the south-east alone there are more than 1,000 properties owned by the Ministry of Defence—some of them shown in pictures such as I have here? Does not he think it a scandal that about 18 per cent. of Government-owned properties are lying empty while only 2 per cent. of local authorities' properties are empty? How can he tell local authorities how to manage their housing when the Government obviously cannot manage their own?

Our policy is to sell Government houses that are not required or, when appropriate, to rent them on a short-term basis. To answer the hon. Lady directly, what is a national scandal is that housing authorities that are directly responsible for managing the housing stock are sitting on more than 100,000 empty council houses in England alone. The worst offenders are overwhelmingly Labour authorities. Labour is presiding over housing waste on a massive scale while at the same time bleating about homelessness.

Will my hon. Friend note that one of the great problems for the homeless in Lambeth is the cynical disregard of their plight by a local authority that has 2,000 empty homes, 1,900 people in expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation and rent and rate arrears of £66 million? Would not the best news for the homeless in Lambeth be a return of a Conservative local authority on 3 May?

My hon. Friend makes a perfect point, which exactly illustrates what I have just been saying.

The Minister is misleading the House: it is not the Government's policy to sell these houses. Many of them have been standing empty for more than 10 years. There are literally dozens in my area belonging to the prison department that have been empty for 10 years, three years and so on. Why does not the Minister arrange for them to be let, through housing associations and local authorities? Does not he remember opening the Institute of Housing exhibition in this very House only a few weeks ago, in which the displays demonstrated that the Government's record is worse than that of any other housing body—local authority, housing association or private? In percentage terms, the Government have three times as many empty properties as local authorities. The Minister cannot blame local authorities when he is incapable of providing for homeless people the housing that he has right now.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman spoke about percentage terms, because we have a much smaller housing stock than local authorities, which are, of course, responsible for housing. Of course the percentage could be lower. The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that the Government, and especially Departments such as the Ministry of Defence, have to keep surplus housing for contingency purposes. The hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly be able to guess for himself what those purposes are. When properties cannot be sold we are beginning to let them to housing authorities. There have been 570 lets in recent months, so the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to say that the property is not being shifted.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the distribution of the £250 million package to combat homelessness in London and the south-east.

Allocations of £112 million have been made this year to local authorities. In addition, the Housing Corporation has announced £45 million worth of housing association schemes to help the homeless over the next two years. Bids for the remaining £93 million will be invited later in the year.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. How much of that money will be used to bring empty properties into use? What is being done to speed up the work of housing associations and others so that they can bring more affordable rented property on to the market in the south-east as an alternative to local authority accommodation?

The objective of that money is largely to bring into use housing that is not being used properly, thus releasing people from bed-and-breakfast places. That will help directly the single homeless. In that context I am placing in the Library today a list of 26 voluntary organisations that will be offered a total of about £1 million of funding this year for projects that will relieve or prevent single homelessness.

Does the Minister realise that the record number of homeless people means that there is a record number of disfranchised people in London and the south-east and in the rest of the country? Is not the truth of the Government's tragic and scandalous record of failing to provide housing, that people without houses do not support the Government and people who do not support the Government do not get a vote?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the scandalous record of the Government in not providing housing. An extra 1·7 million houses have been provided over the past 10 years whereas the population has risen by less than 1 million. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a problem of homelessness. It could be relieved overnight if Labour-controlled local authorities put on the market their void housing. Nevertheless, one needs to look at why there is a homelessness problem. It is overwhelmingly a matter of families splitting because of problems at home. That creates a demand for two houses when before there was a demand for one.

While accepting the congratulations, at least from Conservative Members, on the Government's latest package, my hon. Friend will of course accept that there is concern about homelessness on both sides of the House. Does not he find it astonishing that the Opposition's only solution, amid their carping about the Government's proposals, is to spend more money on local authorities, which too often have high rent arrears and long relet periods, and which exhibit a general incompetence which, among other things, was commented upon at length by the Audit Commission?

My hon. Friend is right. We are often accused of not providing enough resources. Rent arrears are overwhelmingly found in Labour-controlled local authorities. Some £319 million is not being raised because of rent arrears, and responsibility for the overwhelming part of that lies with Labour-controlled authorities. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that scandalous situation.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to what factors he ascribes the standard spending assessment for Barnsley metropolitan district council being the lowest of the metropolitan district authorities.

Barnsley's SSA of £112 million, or £669 per adult, has been calculated in accordance with the distribution report approved by the House on 18 January, using the factors applicable to all metropolitan district councils. Those factors reflect the demographic, physical and social characteristics of each authority area.

The Minister is probably aware that, even under the grant-related expenditure assessment, Barnsley's grant was always at the bottom of the list. At this late stage, will he look at Barnsley's SSA, as the low assessment has led to Barnsley being capped? That is unfair when Manchester has an assessment of £1,170 per adult to provide the same level of services.

I regret that Barnsley should have chosen to budget to spend excessively, and the figures are clear. In Barnsley's case, the budget of £142 million for 1990–91 is almost 27 per cent. above its SSA, which is equivalent to £178 per adult above the SSA. Using the measure used by the hon. Gentleman, the budget is also some 19 per cent. above the rescaled 1989–90 grant-related expenditure, so, on any reasonable measure, the budget is excessive.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what new controls he is introducing to tighten the regulation of the disposal of waste.

The Environmental Protection Bill will extend and strengthen local authorities' powers to control licensed waste disposal and, through the duty of care, will place new responsibilities on the producers and carriers of waste.

In my constituency, many 'waste disposal activities have been carried out sensitively. Is my hon. Friend as worried as I am about the future plans for Todmorden moor, which lies between our constituencies, where it is intended to take out coal and put in waste?

I am aware of the problems associated with Todmorden moor and of the keen interest and concern that characterises my hon. Friend's assiduous work in his constituency. As he knows, it will be for Calderdale metropolitan council to consider the matter and the specific points that he outlined.

Will the controls that the Minister mentioned have any effect on the problems in my constituency, about which I know that he is concerned, or does he think that those problems can be resolved only by the legal action that is under way?

The problem in Wath upon Dearne, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, may be settled through the courts, although whether it is to be within the jurisdiction of the American or of the British courts has still to be decided. We both know that it is a unique and difficult example. The Environmental Protection Bill strengthens controls and enshrines tougher measures covering the importation of hazardous waste.

Is my hon. Friend aware that 181 operations in London are licensed to discharge radioactivity, but do not have to reveal either what sort of radioactivity it is, or the level? Should not that be on a public register?

The Environmental Protection Bill will enshrine legislation to cover that point. Part of it deals with radioactivity, and many other parts cover increased public access to environmental information.

In a short time, we have seen how terribly important is the control of all aspects of toxic waste. While we welcome the tighter controls that will be implemented by the Bill, will not there be a special problem with chemical special waste treatment plants and toxic waste incinerators? Despite all the Minister's assurances during the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill, will he assure us again that he is in touch with what is happening on the ground? What extra staff will be needed by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution so that it can take on board its extra responsibilities arising from integrated pollution control when those responsibilities are transferred to it from the waste disposal authorities?

The hon. Lady may recall that, under the Bill, the regulatory role is placed in the hands of local authorities. An environment audit on the various plans has to be submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and that is true of Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. Relatively few staff will be involved. Responsibility for regulation will remain with the local authorities, and it will be for them to provide the necessary staff to fulfil that task. It is important that I should say that the authorities can now charge for the licensing of the sites. We believe that those charges will cover the costs of the additional staff who will be required.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what action he is taking to make private housing properties which are unfit for human habitation or lacking basic amenities adequate for letting to help reduce waiting lists of local authorities; and if he will make a statement.

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

There is a statutory duty upon local authorities to take action against unfit properties, including those lacking basic amenities. Where such action is taken, financial assistance may be available under the new system of renovation grants starting on 1 July, to help owners carry out the necessary repairs.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I thank him also for visiting my constituency to see the problems on the former coal board site at Crackley. As a result of his visit, the council has written to the owners of the empty properties, none of whom has had the courtesy to reply. When will the Government give additional powers and moneys to local authorities to help them to solve that serious problem?

I enjoyed my visit to Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I was grateful to the hon. Lady for her presence. Newcastle-under-Lyme has done well as a result of the Government's housing policies. This year, its housing investment allocation was £4·159 million compared with only £1·69 million last year. That was an increase of about two-and-a-half times. I hope that that gives some satisfaction to the hon. Lady on the resources front. I have said that the local authorities have the appropriate statutory powers. The problem is that some authorities are not exercising those powers.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of returning such properties to active use would be to go further in liberalising the rented sector? Shorthold tenancies are a step in the right direction, but there is a need to go much further.

My hon. Friend is right. The liberalisation that we have already implemented has brought many more properties into use in the private rented sector. In the light of that success, the Government may be looking for further progress.

Has the Minister read the report of the Association of District Councils, published six months ago, which states that one in seven houses in England and Wales is in need of repair and that the total bill would be a massive £36 billion? The ADC, which is Tory controlled, has urged the Government to provide additional moneys to the public and private sectors so that a start can be made on repairing badly needed houses. Is the Minister aware that the greatest concentration of poor private sector housing is in the north of England? When will he do something about that? Or does he intend, like his predecessors, to sit back and let further decay take place?

All Conservatives are concerned about the quality of the housing stock. The Government's record on improving housing is exemplary. I remind the House that during the last year in which the Labour Government were in office only £90 million was spent on home improvement grants. That massive sum has been exceeded fourfold in many years since then. There are regularly more than 100,000 improvement grants a year now, whereas under the Labour Government we were lucky if there were more than 50,000. That is an example of the Government's fine record on private sector housing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever we say about the private sector, the most effective way of reducing local authority waiting lists is to start on our own doorsteps, as it were, and to fill the empty homes that are available for occupation? There are about 2,000 such homes in Wolverhampton. If we were to collect the rent arrears of £7 million and invest that sum for the homeless, we would begin to get somewhere. There is much rhetoric about the homeless, but I am sure that as a result of the community charge the local authorities will begin to get their house in order.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The best thing that the people of Wolverhampton can do for themselves is to vote for a Conservative council on 3 May.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received over the provision of capital investment in housing following the autumn statement; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend receives such representations from time to time, including some drawing attention to the large increases in public expenditure provision for subsidised rented housing that we have announced.

Does the Minister accept that the Government's current housing investment policy is disastrous? The bottom has fallen out of the private sector and there is a major problem with pre-1919 houses. Are not hundreds of thousands of people waiting for proper accommodation, including the elderly and the handicapped who need specialised accommodation and who will die before it is provided under this Government's policies? As for Wolverhampton—

Public expenditure on housing is massive—£3 billion in housing revenue subsidy;£3 billion in housing credit; and a doubling of Housing Corporation expenditure up to almost £2 billion. The Government are spending astronomical sums. We inherited very bad housing stock from previous Governments, especially Labour ones. The real problem is bad Labour councils not managing their stock properly.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the large amount of housing investment made available to the voluntary housing movement is most welcome? Can he forecast the number of dwellings likely to be forthcoming as a result of that money?

The current average build from that money is about 17,000, rising to 20,000. In two years' time, the figure will rise to 34,000 a year.

When will the Minister at the Department of the Environment stop making cheapjack political points—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman must make his own judgment about those matters.

Ministers are making cheapjack political points out of the homeless. It is all very well for fat Conservative Members to laugh about homelessness. More than 70 per cent. of my constituency casework relates to housing. If all these wonderful things are being done by the Government, why has homelessness in London doubled during the past 10 years?

I have not been making cheap political points; I have been making rather expensive ones during the past 10 minutes. One reason why the hon. Gentleman represents a constituency with such bad housing is that the housing authorities there and in surrounding constituencies are run by Labour councils. They have mismanaged their housing stock—

I am giving the facts. I am not necessarily making political points, but simply pointing out the facts to the hon. Gentleman.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received about the level of community charge in Barnet.

I continue to receive representations on many aspects of the community charge.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the community charge in the London borough of Barnet, whose schools had the best results of any local authority in England and Wales and which educates 2,000 refugees from Brent each day, compares very favourably with that of other local authorities? Will he confirm that its community charge of £338 compares well with the £498 imposed by Brent, £534 imposed by Camden, and £573 imposed by the London borough of Haringey? Does not that contain a message for the community charge payers of Barnet next week?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. Community charge payers in Barnet pay a £70 contribution to the safety net, without which the charge would be £268. Last week, I had the opportunity of visiting Barnet with my hon. Friend. The most common fear expressed to me by shoppers in the high street was of boundary changes. They asked me to make absolutely certain that none will be made, so that they will not suffer the consequence of becoming charge payers in Brent, Haringey or Camden.

Barnsley and Calderdale would benefit from the same poll tax levels as in Barnet, as that would help them to sustain some of their services. Over the past two years, the Minister and his predecessors have been happy to present the nation with estimates of gainers and losers showing that, according to the Government, 60 per cent. of the population would gain from poll tax. When the true figures were known, the Minister and his Department refused to produce them, despite pressure from myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and many other right hon. and hon. Members. Will the Minister confirm that figures from the House of Commons Library's statistical section reveal that, in reality, 28 million people will be losers under poll tax—79 per cent. of the population—and that the figures that he and his Department use are wholly mythical?

That is absolute nonsense. We have published all the figures. The statistics that have been published on many occasions, at frequent intervals, show clearly that as a consequence of the changes to the system, 60 per cent. of households will benefit. Those that do not benefit—such as in Barnsley—would do so if Conservatives were in charge of their councils. The message clearly coming through is that with a Conservative council, one pays a lower community charge. Conservative councils cost less.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his Department's target for the percentage of household waste that could be recycled using (a) source separation and (b) mechanised separation; and if he will make a statement.

Our aim is to recycle 50 per cent. of the useful content of household waste by the end of the century. Achieving that will depend on the right mix of collection and sorting facilities in each area for each waste stream and, above all, on encouraging the market for recycled materials and identifying the environmental benefits of recycling and the real costs of alternatives, such as disposal to landfill.

Has my hon. Friend heard the news that Birmingham city council, in co-operation with the private sector, is managing to recycle 92 per cent. of domestic waste without the need for separation? I thank my hon. Friend for visiting my constituency to see for himself the work done in that respect by Test Valley borough council. What measures does the Department have in mind to encourage local authorities, either with cash or in kind, to recycle more domestic waste?

I know of the scheme that my hon. Friend mentioned, and it sounds very interesting. Test Valley borough council has an excellent record of recycling. I can offer an additional incentive, in that I shall be introducing a new provision into the Environmental Protection Bill allowing waste disposal authorities to pass on to waste collection authorities such as Test Valley the financial credit for avoiding landfill costs by recycling waste instead.

Does the Minister accept that Greater Manchester waste disposal authority has done extremely well with its experiments in the mechanical separation of waste? However, the move from an experimental to a permanent basis will depend on the price that it can obtain for reclaimed materials. What steps are the Government taking to ensure a guaranteed price for reclaimed paper and plastics?

I have heard of that scheme. I have no theoretical preference for separation at source or the later mechanical separation that he mentioned. We are undertaking a number of experiments to see which is the best system. Most recycling makes economic and environmental sense. The Environmental Protection Bill will have the longer-term effect of raising the cost of landfill, which gives added economic incentives to recycling.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in creating a market for recycled products—in particular waste paper—it is important to set an example? Will he have a word with colleagues in other Departments to encourage them to use recycled paper, as the Department of the Environment does?

Yes, Sir. That is under active consideration in all Government Departments. I confirm that my Department uses recycled paper for all correspondence, and I hope that hon. Members will consider using recycled paper for their correspondence from the House.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many councils have so far set rent increases above Government guidelines in England and Wales.

About 75 per cent. of the English authorities which have announced their rents for 1990–91 have set rents above the guideline. On present information, the average rent increase per week is 76p above the guideline.

Is not that another sign that the Government have made a pig's ear of the assessment of rent levels to local authorities, as they did with the standard spending assessments and the poll tax? Is not it time that the Government admitted that, and had the courage to apologise to local authorities for the incompetence of the Department of the Environment? There is no doubt that it is having a disastrous effect on the economy of local authorities. Before the Minister answers by saying that Sheffield is Labour controlled, I should tell him that obviously it has had to put up rents because the guidelines are low. In Tory-controlled Redbridge, rents have gone up by£15 a week.

The variations are not excessive. I said 76p and that is not an excessive variation on the Government's estimate. When making their estimates, the Government took into account all the rent rebates that had to be paid and the cost of borrowing. One variant is the maintenance budget, which councils set for themselves. Another variant is rent arrears, and one problem is that in many areas large rent arrears go into the accounts and affect other people's rents. Throughout the country, rents in the public sector are well below market values. That is representative of the subsidies that we are giving towards rents.

But surely, morally and politically, those councils have no right to implement Tory policy on the poll tax or on rents. The Minister should say that those councils can resist and fight back. If democracy means anything, the fight back of the common people means a tremendous amount. People power does not happen only in eastern Europe. It can happen here. Does the Minister agree that those elected representatives can resist and fight back, and should not it be encouraged?

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to hear that, if I follow him correctly, I agree with him. The Government have done precisely that. They have given local authorities a great deal of discretion over the way in which they raise rents. That is precisely the discretion that they are exercising, so I think that I agree with the hon. Gentleman.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list the 10 local authorities with the highest number of empty properties.

Local authorities with the highest number of empty council dwellings in April 1989 were Manchester—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Liverpool—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Sheffield—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Salford—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Birmingham—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Sandwell—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Hackney—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Southwark—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Wolverhampton—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; and Newcastle upon Tyne—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."].

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that it makes an absolute mockery of the Labour party's alleged concern for homelessness when its elected councillors cannot give proper care to the homeless within their areas?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The only other figures that I could have read out would have concerned rent arrears, which is almost the same list.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Liverpool's homelessness record is one of the best in the country? Might not that be due to the fact that, since 1983, when Liverpool city council came under Labour control, it has regularly been building houses for the people who live in the area? Is not it true that many of the so-called empty houses are blocks of flats that were built when the Tories were in power and that they are being demolished because they are a blot on the area? Is the Minister aware that the Government practically destroyed industry on Merseyside and that many rent arrears are due to the great poverty in the area?

I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I respond to him by asking him a question: who gave Liverpool the resources to build those houses?

Does the Minister agree that the picture is very much blacker than the list he gave in reply to the question? Is not it a fact that throughout the United Kingdom about 100,000 homes are standing empty in Labour-controlled council areas which, at a stroke, could take 400,000 people off the homeless list? Is not that diabolical? Instead of carping and shedding tears about it in this place, should not the Opposition get on to their friends in Labour councils about the homeless?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The figure of 100,000 has to be compared with only 40,000 people currently in temporary accommodation and 11,000 in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

When the Tory flagship in Bradford is sunk without trace, will the Minister give a firm assurance that there is no prospect of his Department blocking grants for the building of new homes for rent and for the modernisation of older homes on the Lower Grange estate in Bradford, where many of my constituents have been living in the most deplorable conditions for many years?

It is this Government who have made the method of allocating credits across the country as transparent and objective as possible. We shall continue to use that objective assessment method in the future as we have done in the recent past.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to announce the final levels at which relevant local authorities have been community charge-capped.

The date for announcing final caps will depend in part on how authorities react to the caps that I proposed earlier this month, but I expect the capping process to be finalised in time for all capped authorities to set their new budgets by June or July.

Does my right hon. Friend find it deplorable that Bristol and Avon are about to waste more community charge payers' money going to court to get the right to spend more community charge payers' money? Is not this a case of heads, charge payers do not win, and tails, they lose?

I note what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that many of his constituents will raise an eyebrow about what has happened. I cannot comment on any case before the court, but my hon. Friend will be aware that there have been at least five judicial reviews on rate capping and that the local authorities failed to win any of them.

Has the Secretary of State's attention been drawn to a letter that is being sent out by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to people who write to him about the poll tax, in which he boasts that, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, he persuaded the Cabinet not to proceed with the poll tax, that he believes that there will have be changes to a system based on the ability to pay and that he intends to take a close interest in the matter? Would not it be a good idea for the Secretary of State to consult his predecessor, who takes the view, shared by many people across the whole political spectrum, that the poll tax is a disaster and cannot continue to operate?

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) intends to take a continuing close interest in the evolution of the community charge. However, I am bound to say that my right hon. Friend's description of what he did when he was in the Cabinet, which I am sure is accurate, is slightly less illuminating than some of the descriptions of how the right hon. Gentleman justified his time in Cabinet.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will issue a definition of affordable rents.

Housing benefit is available for those tenants who would otherwise have difficulty affording their rents. In addition, subsidies to local authorities and housing associations enable rents to be kept within the reach of people in low-paid employment.

Yes, we know that, but the Minister was asked for a definition of affordable rents, given that rents vary for different reasons. Council house rents have been forced up by the Government, housing association rents have been forced up by the new financial arrangements and the pressure of interest rates, and housing benefit levels set a maximum rent of £55. The combination of all those factors, in addition to the reduction in the number of people claiming benefit, is to trap people on low pay in their poverty. That housing policy is against the declared aims of the Government and forces people into a poverty trap. What do the Government propose to do about it?

Average council rents at about £24 a week are far from unaffordable. The hon. Lady will accept that what is an affordable rent in any given case must be a subjective matter.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a considerable difference between many council rents and the rents charged by the all-too-small private rented sector? Does he agree that those who are fortunate enough to have council homes should pay realistic rents for good accommodation and that the revenue from such rents should be used to accommodate people who are in housing difficulty?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is the Government's policy that people who occupy council housing and can afford to pay reasonable rents should do so and that those who occupy council housing and cannot afford the rents should be entitled to housing benefit.

Coastal Pollution


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what measures he is taking to reduce the risk of excess nutrients building up around the coast.

Details of measures which will reduce inputs of nutrients to our coastal waters are listed in the United Kingdom North sea action plan. The decisions to ban dumping of sewage sludge at sea and to treat all substantial sewage discharges to sea will further reduce nutrient inputs by between 10 and 20 per cent.

I thank the Minister for that reply. What does he propose to do to prevent Welsh Water from redirecting sewage discharge from Cardiff bay to the Bristol channel should the bay development go ahead, as that will add greatly to the risk of eutrophication in the Bristol channel? The matter concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House.

So far, eutrophication has not been found to be a significant problem in United Kingdom coastal waters and has not increased significantly in recent years. However, the development plans to which the hon. Gentleman alludes will be carefully considered by my Department with that in mind.

Does my hon. Friend agree that while there has been a welcome across the broad spectrum for banning sewage effluent outfalls, it will be many years before we can provide alternatives because some of them are only just coming on stream, particularly in south coast areas?

My hon. Friend is right. It takes time to design such schemes and to obtain the necessary planning permission, but we have made an enormous commitment, and the water companies have a substantial investment undertaking, to put in place the necessary schemes. One reason why we are having to spend so much to catch up is that some of the companies languished for too long in the public sector.

Local Government Finance


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received from tenants' organisations in favour of capital value rates.

I am not aware of having received any representations in favour of capital value rates from tenants' organisations or anyone else.

Would not a system of capital value rates be as unfair to those on low incomes as a local income tax would be unwieldy? Is not by far the fairest and most accountable system of local government finance—subject of course to proper implementation—the community charge?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. The more people understand about capital value rates, the more they despise the proposition.

If three out of four voters in England rejected a local government tax in the general election, and if a body elected—in the main—outside England subsequently ignored that vote and imposed that local government tax only on England, would the Minister describe those of his fellow countrymen who resisted that undemocratic imposition by every peaceful means open to them as shirkers and anarchists? Does he recognise that the danger of anarchy arises when Governments ignore the principle of democratic consent to law, as the Government have done with the poll tax in Scotland?

I do not follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument. I am not well read in the principles of anarchy, but my clear recollection is that the question whether there should be a community charge was put fairly and squarely to the electorate at the last general election.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the impact of the uniform business rate on bed-and-breakfast businesses.

The impact of the uniform business rate and the non-domestic revaluation on bed-and-breakfast establishments which are subject to rating will vary among properties and areas of the country in the same way as for other properties. I am pleased to see that businesses as a whole in my hon. Friend's constituency will benefit from an average rate reduction of 45 per cent. in cash terms, without transition, as a result of the new business rate arrangements.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the anxiety about the suggestion of the 100-day rule? Will he examine more closely the problems that it could create? If introduced, it could discourage smaller bed-and-breakfast businesses from operating. That would have a profound effect, and would work against our policy to encourage more tourists to use tourist facilities off-peak.

I have met several hon. Friends to discuss the treatment of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We are considering the arguments that they and others have put to us.

Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State for the Environment? Perhaps they could trot down to Bath together. I have been told that there has been a revolt by the business men and women of that constituency. The result of that and other developments is that we could be recycling the whole Government, not just the Secretary of State for the Environment.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list the 10 county councils with the highest percentage overspend over standard spending assessment.

The list is as follows: Derbyshire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Avon—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Northumberland—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Cumbria—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Oxfordshire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Cheshire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Isle of Wight—[HON. MEMBERS: "Liberal."]; Humberside—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]; Nottinghamshire—[HON. MEMBERS "Labour."]; and Lancashire—[HON. MEMBERS: "Labour."]

Does not that send the clearest possible message to the local government electors that Conservative councils cost them less, and that Labour and other Opposition-controlled councils cost them much more?

I could not agree more: everywhere that we look, Labour councils cost the community charge payer more money.

Is the Minister aware that people in the London borough of Barnet who want to go swimming go to the Swiss Cottage baths in the borough of Camden, and that people who want to take their children to one o'clock clubs go to Parliament Hill fields, also in the borough of Camden? It is all very well for Conservative-controlled authorities to keep spending down, but their residents must use the facilities in neighbouring Labour-run boroughs because they are not provided in their own boroughs.

With a Conservative council, one gets not only a lower community charge but better value for money and better services.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, had we not changed the domestic rating system, the spending by the authorities that he mentioned would have given rise to such a huge burden on ratepayers that any Government who failed to get rid of rates would have been rightly and severely criticised?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The Government were the first with the guts to get rid a the iniquitous domestic rating system. We still await the Labour party's statistics for what it proposes in place of the community charge.