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Volume 180: debated on Wednesday 14 November 1990

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Local Authorities (Spending)


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what level of inflation he assumed in fixing his total standard spending for local authorities for 1991–92; and if he will make a statement.

Our proposals for the local authority finance settlement take account of what the country as a whole can afford. They do not assume any particular level of inflation. Our proposal for total standard spending is the level needed in cash terms in 1991–92 to provide the standard level of service taking into account all relevant factors.

Is the Secretary of State aware that most of us know that the level at which the assessment has been pitched is 7·8 per cent? With the current rate of inflation at about 10·9 per cent., even my poor school mathematics suggests that there will be a 3·7 per cent. gap between the assessment and what local authorities will be forced realistically to plan for in their budgets. Is the Secretary of State aware that good local authorities, such as mine, Kirklees in West Yorkshire, will be forced to make drastic cuts in expenditure on essential services, to lay off staff and to push up the poll tax to a rate at which they will be capped? Does he realise what he is doing to good local authorities with his plans?

As I recall, the standard standing assessment of the hon. Gentleman's constituency will increase by 18·4 per cent. next year. The level of local authority spending this year represents a 25 per cent. increase in two years. We are proposing an increase of nearly 13 per cent. in the external financing going into local authorities for next year. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should give more taxpayers' money to local government, I should be interested to hear how much more, who will pay for it and whether the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has accepted his figure.

When my right hon. Friend talks to local authorities, will he remind them of the enormous savings that they can make by cutting waste and inefficiency? The Audit Commission has identified savings of £1·3 billion, of which only half have been achieved, with no help from the Labour party.

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Recently, the Audit Commission suggested that there was scope for savings of about £100 million in energy efficiency. In a study of sickness absence in some London local authorities it pointed out that the six worst could save £27 a year per community charge by reducing sickness absence to Confederation of British Industry average levels. There are substantial savings for local authorities if they listen to the Audit Commission and implement its proposals.

Nevertheless, is not it ridiculous for the same Secretary of State in the Department on the same subject, that is, local government finance, to use two widely differing inflation rates—an artificially low rate for local government spending commitments and the full, true rate of 10·9 per cent. for setting the business rate? Is not it one of the nonsenses that we understand the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) will sweep away? Will the Secretary of State support him in that or would he rather resign than do so? Or, will he be back here next week under new leadership to say that the poll tax was, after all, a terrible mistake?

I am delighted to discover that, despite a recent outbreak of democracy in the Labour party, the hon. Gentleman is still in his present slot—I think more or less. Let me say something about the comparisons that he made. Thanks to the uniform business rate, businesses will not be clobbered by high-spending Labour authorities, as they used to be. Over the past decade, businesses have regularly been fleeced by Labour local authorities, which is why their rates bills have gone up by more than the rate of inflation year after year. The hon. Gentleman is still remarkably coy about telling the House by how much he thinks the external financing of local authorities should have been increased next year and he should tell us where that money would come from.

River Thames


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what consultations he has had with the chairman of the National Rivers Authority about the condition of the River Thames and its tributaries in London.

It is for the National Rivers Authority to decide how best to use its statutory powers in order to secure acceptable river quality standards.

I congratulate the Government on setting up the NRA and thereby tackling problems long neglected. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the sorry state of the River Wandle, which flows through my constituency. That river will not be familiar to many hon. Members, but it is a tributary of the Thames once described as the busiest industrial river in the country. Will my hon. Friend give material encouragement to those of us who are striving locally to upgrade and improve the river?

I compliment my hon. Friend on taking the personal initiative of bringing together the local authority, voluntary groups and the NRA in a group that I feel should be affectionately known as the "Wandles of Wimbledon". I am extremely keen to encourage the NRA to help my hon. Friend in whatever way it can. I recommend that he makes contact with the regional manager of the NRA. Whatever help it renders will be made easier as a result of the substantial increase in funding that we announced last week.

Will the Minister pay tribute to the London county council and the Greater London council for all the work that they did to ensure that the Thames is probably the cleanest urban river in Europe? The efforts by people in Newham to clean up the River Lea were spoilt by the dumping of a large amount of industrial oil into the river. How many prosecutions have been taken out in the past 12 months against the irresponsible people who still pollute our rivers in London?

I cannot give the specific number that the hon. Member seeks now, but I shall write to him on that matter. He will know that the NRA, which the Government were responsible for setting up, took action only the day after it was formed against the Shell oil company for polluting the River Mersey with oil from a fractured oil pipe and the company was subsequently fined £1 million. That made everybody sit up. There have been several similar examples throughout the year and they will continue.

I am most reluctant to single out the GLC for praise, but several initiatives have been taken, not least by the water companies and the NRA, which have played a significant part in cleaning up the Thames.

Is my hon. Friend aware that thousands of my constituents who care deeply about the environment of the historic and beautiful stretch of the River Thames at Twickenham will be most grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for calling in a planning application to construct a large food shop beside the Thames, a plan that the autocratic Richmond upon Thames council had intended to push through against the wishes of a large majority of my constituents?

My right hon. Friend is happy to accept my hon. Friend's congratulations and is most grateful.

Community Charge And Housing Benefits


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how the increase in rates support grant for 1991–92 will be identified to cover the cuts in the direct subsidy payable to local authorities to cover community charge and housing benefits; and if he will make a statement.

The estimated cost of the change to local authorities in England is £68 million. The Government propose to increase the moneys that they provide by about £3 billion, or nearly 13 per cent. The change is more than adequately provided for.

Is the Minister aware that in Barnsley the amount of direct subsidy has been reduced by about 3 per cent? Is he further aware that at the same time its revenue support grant has decreased from £28 million to £25 million, at a time when the authority has to deal with the effects of the Environmental Protection Act and other legislation that comes on stream next year as well as with pay rises, some of which have already been agreed, of 9 per cent? How can the Minister identify in that settlement where Barnsley has received adequate resources to fund community charge benefit? How does he expect the authority to set a poll tax in the face of all the reductions in grant?

The hon. Gentleman makes partial use of his statistics and I shall give him some others. The standard spending assessment for Barnsley—that is the amount that we consider it appropriate for Barnsley to spend—has been increased by 19 per cent. The total amount of external finance from the Government has been increased by 8 per cent. I explained to the hon. Gentleman in my main answer that an extra £3 billion will be provided to local authorities next year and that that is nearly 13 per cent. extra. It is clear that the rate of inflation between April next year and the following April will be in single figures. All the matters that the hon. Gentleman mentioned have been well and truly catered for.

Will not my hon. Friend be a little more honest with the House?

I said, "a little more honest", Mr. Speaker, over my hon. Friend's use of the term "external finance". Is not my hon. Friend confusing the uniform business rate contribution with what in the past have been moneys given under rate support grant, and basically supporting the view of the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley)? Is not it true that many areas have suffered a substantial reduction of the sum that they received from central Government under the RSG and that that is being masked by the increase in the business rate contribution, which, instead of coming from local government to local government, is coming from central Government?

I should have thought that the important feature is the total moneys that local authorities will receive from central Government sources, which now include the national non-domestic rate. In Macclesfield, the increase is 19 per cent. That is because the people of Macclesfield will not be expected to put £50 each into the safety net next year. That gives Macclesfield a magnificent opportunity to set a low community charge next year.

Did the Minister discuss with his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning the housing benefit implications of that policy? Given the announcement made by his hon. Friend only the other week, it will have a catastrophic effect on the leaseback scheme of private houses to both housing associations and local authorities. Does not the Minister realise that many more families will be pushed into bed-and-breakfast accommodation and that the bill for that will be passed on to the poll tax payer? We have the absurdity of the Government ending a scheme that they wanted to encourage while at the same time increasing housing benefit and poll tax bills. Is not it time that the Department began to talk to individual Ministers within it and came out with a coherent policy instead of a contradictory one?

I see nothing catastrophic or harmful to local authorities, local authority tenants or community charge benefit claimants in what we propose. The amount of direct subsidy is being reduced from 97 to 95 per cent., and the balance is being made good within the SSAs, which have risen by an enormous amount, as even the Opposition must admit.

Will the Minister take the opportunity of clarifying the confusion in my constituency about the community charge?

The poll tax. The Conservative party in Northern Ireland has said that the poll tax is good for us in Northern Ireland and that it wants to extend it to Northern Ireland. On the other hand the aspirant leader of the Conservative party said today that he wanted to abolish it in Great Britain. What is the future of the poll tax?

The Government's policy is that the community charge applies in Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland.

Community Charge


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on progress in collecting the community charge in Coventry.

At the end of September, 82 per cent. of charge payers in Coventry had begun paying. No doubt that figure will move towards 100 per cent. during the next five months.

May I, on behalf of, I hope, the whole House, congratulate my hon. Friend on his welcome appearance at the Dispatch Box?

Whatever legitimate arguments there may be among some of us about the financial arrangements for the new system this year, we are all agreed that taxation should be collected and that it should be paid. Does not my hon. Friend agree that Coventry has done rather well, despite the opposition of some Coventry Members? Of course, it has not done quite as well as Taunton Deane in my constituency.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the majority of law-abiding people deeply resent the prospect of having to pay more next year because of those who default? Should not the capping mechanism take that into account?

Of course, it is true that both Taunton Deane and Salisbury have done rather better than Coventry. Some 94 per cent. of people have started paying and some 50 per cent. of the projected yield has been collected. It is also true that the poorest will suffer if people such as Members of Parliament do not pay their community charge.

I pay tribute to the great city of Coventry, especially on a very special day for that city, for achieving payment of its community charge very close to the national average.

I join the Minister in marking the fact that, 50 years ago tonight, some 600 people died in Coventry and several thousand houses were either damaged or destroyed. Of all the remarks made about Coventry that the Tories could have made today, of all days, the remarks about defaulters by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) were the last that we expected.

Is the Minister really so confident that Coventry is the only city where, since 11 July, defaulters have appeared in large numbers in the magistrates courts—100 people a day in July, 200 a day in August, 500 a day in September and 1,000 a day in October and November? They were dragged before the courts because the Tory poll tax in Coventry and everywhere else is the most unpopular tax in the country. Is the Minister also confident that in two weeks' time his new leader will have him at the Dispatch Box defending the poll tax?

My city of Plymouth suffered similarly during the last war, so I do not need any lessons from the hon. Gentleman. Coventry began issuing statutory reminders in June and held its first magistrates court hearing in July. It has not encountered any problems with court hearings. After an initially slow start, it increased the number of summonses to 1,000 a week. That figure has now reduced to 500 a week because Coventry has obtained most of the liability orders that it needs.

Does not the impact of non-payers, especially those who can and should pay but simply will not, concern people not only in Coventry but throughout Britain? This year, sensible limits have been imposed on what local authorities can spend. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that next year, it will not be possible for local authorities simply to add on a large sum to make up for those who will not pay?

It is interesting that under the previous discredited rating system, some 30 per cent. of people needed reminders. It remains true today that those who do not pay increase the burden of local taxation on those who do.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I feel almost diffident about asking my question as it will put his new job on the line. Will he ask the Secretary of State whether he thinks that the people of Coventry agree with the new Secretary of State for Education and Science, who on the radio earlier today suggested that we did not need a leadership election to understand that the Conservative party has a problem with the poll tax? He went on to say that it was a problem that the Conservative party needed properly to address before the general election. Does the Minister agree that the issue needs addressing properly, and if so, how will he do that?

The problem has been addressed for the past 20 years. I gather that my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is promising jam tomorrow in much the same way as the Labour party has. It has done nothing but promise jam tomorrow. It is about time that we heard a little more about its plans. It is important to remember that about £3 billion extra external financing has been made available this year, as I am sure the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) will recognise.

Order. If the hon. Gentleman looks down the Order Paper he will see that, with luck, I shall be able to call him later.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what predictions his Department is making concerning the rise in average temperature over the next 10 years.

The intergovernmental panel on climate change estimates that, as a result of human activities, average global temperatures will increase by 0·2 deg Celsius during the next 10 years. The uncertainty range of that estimate, which does not take account of any natural climate variability, is 0·15 deg and 0·3 deg Celsius.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, as far as measurement is possible, that is the highest increase in the past 10,000 years? [Interruption.] This is a serious matter and I hope that the Secretary of State and other Conservative Members will treat it seriously.

Is the Minister aware that that is the highest increase in the past 10,000 years measured from air samples in the Antarctic and that in order merely to contain current levels of concentration we would require a 60 per cent. drop in emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide? In those circumstances, does the Secretary of State agree that it is necessary to take much stronger and more urgent action to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases and to promote afforestation schemes and the protection of the southern ocean and the savannah grasslands, which are the major areas where the change from carbon dioxide to oxygen takes place?

As the hon. Gentleman will doubtless know, there was an extremely successful conference last week in Geneva at which we reached an outline agreement on climate change and global warming, which should lead to the start of negotiations on a climate change convention next February. The science is not quite as the hon. Gentleman described it, but one of the encouraging features of last week's conference was not only the commitment to action by all states, but the fact that, I think for the first time, nobody disagreed fundamentally with the scientific conclusions that were advanced.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that recently on this important subject the Labour party committed itself to phasing out nuclear power and to a greater use of coal as against gas, at the same time bringing forward a still earlier timetable for stabilising carbon dioxide? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those do not add up and that that is simply a sign of scientific ignorance among Labour Members?

They certainly do not add up. The Labour party is the only organisation outside the executive committee of the National Union of Mineworkers that thinks that coal is cleaner than gas. It has also said that we can secure the environmental objectives and the goals that we want at virtually no cost. That is frankly dishonest and I hope that the Labour party will face up to some of those problems rather more honestly.

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said, will he confirm that he wanted to accept the European target on the stabilisation of carbon dioxide emissions by 2000 and that it was the Prime Minister who intervened to insist that the target date should be 2005? Perhaps while the Secretary of State is answering that question, he will also tell the House whether he agrees with the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) that the Government could do better in their action on global warming and that Britain should play a more positive role in the development of EC environmental policy.

I know of no one at the Geneva conference last week who did not think that we played an extremely prominent and helpful role in securing agreement. If the hon. Lady had spoken to some of the European Free Trade Association, European Community, and other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members, she would have found that that was the case. As to agreement within the Community, despite the astonishing intervention of hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), the shadow spokesman on the environment, in writing to every other European environment Minister, very few of whom had heard of him, to urge them to try to isolate us at that meeting, we secured a wholly satisfactory outcome which recognised the different problems and programmes of a number of European countries. The agreement enabled Britain and EFTA to give a strong lead at the Geneva conference, which ensured that it was as successful as I hope that the hon. Member for Dagenham would wish.

Bearing in mind the Government's positive lead, will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the climatic research unit at East Anglia university, which has done excellent work on global warming? Does he agree that a sober and scientific appraisal of the facts is needed, rather than party political posturing?

The unit to which my hon. Friend draws attention has done outstanding work. That is recognised not only in Europe but beyond. I am delighted that, as a result of the public expenditure settlement announced last week in the autumn statement, we are substantially increasing the funding of environmental research on climate change and other matters.

Is the Secretary of State not aware of the despair felt by many environmentalists because the Government are content merely to stabilise emissions over the next 15 years while other members of the European Community—such as Germany—are clear that they can reduce emissions by 15 or 20 per cent. by 2005? If Germany can do that, why cannot we do so? Is not that another example of short-term national political considerations being placed at the forefront of international environmental considerations? Where is the principle?

The hon. Gentleman may not know that, according to returns made to the International Energy Agency, six European countries have not declared any stabilisation or reduction targets for carbon dioxide. Different countries have different sets of problems and some of those with a high input from nuclear energy find certain issues rather easier to resolve than we do. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that the Germans are talking about an orientation, rather than the pledged target that we have set.

Nuclear Waste


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the Government's latest prediction of the levels of nuclear waste to be disposed of in the United Kingdom in the years 1990–95.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

About 125,000 cu m of low level radioactive waste will be disposed of to Drigg during the next five years.

Is the Minister aware that the Chernobyl incident released about 50 million curies of radioactivity, and that we already have 5,000 million curies of high-level radioactive waste stored at Sellafield? Is not it foolhardy to continue importing such waste from other countries in even greater amounts over the next five years when we do not know how to dispose of that which we already have?

We do not import radioactive waste. We import spent nuclear fuel for reprocessing and since 1976 all contracts provide for the eventual return of the waste arising to the countries concerned.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that reducing our nuclear energy production and burning more coal would create more waste products such as carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, and that far more radiation comes from spent ash than from the sort of manageable waste produced by the nuclear power industry?

That is a fair point. Every industry and every form of power generation should take responsibility for its emissions.

Coastal Waters (Discharges)


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to revise the criteria by which to gauge the appropriate standards required for discharges to coastal waters; and if he will make a statement.

On 5 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that in future all significant discharges of sewage to coastal waters would receive at least primary treatment. It is now for the relevant regulatory bodies to apply this policy to individual discharges.

Further to that announcement, the Minister may be aware that there has been a controversial proposal for a main drainage treatment works at Inverness. Following the environmental assessment, the original proposals have been shelved, as they would clearly have been in breach of the guidelines, and the costs involved to bring a treatment works up to a suitable standard will probably be more than twice those originally envisaged—well in excess of £10 million. Will the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State therefore lend a sympathetic ear to local authorities such as Highland region, which will have to incur such huge costs for future generations, and will he encourage the Scottish Office to do likewise?

Experience has taught me that planning applications for sewage treatment works are invariably controversial, as are those for landfill or incineration sites. I shall, of course, bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the principal causes of pollution in coastal waters are rivers into which waste is discharged? Will he ensure that there are adequate controls not just in this country but throughout Europe and that they are especially applied to countries that border the Rhine, which contributes more to pollution in the North sea than any river in this country?

In so far as my hon. Friend's question referred to the United Kingdom, I accept entirely that he is right. As a result of measures introduced in the Water Act 1989, regulations are tougher than they have ever been. Secondly, the Environmental Protection Act 1990 will ensure a far tougher regime, especially part I of the Act which will tighten standards for those who pollute air, land or water. That will be effective. It may also please my hon. Friend to know that several proposals that will emanate from Europe will be based on our experience and the legislation in the Environmental Protection Act. Not only is our example replicated throughout Europe, but the same standards will apply in what might be described as a level playing field.

Will the Minister confirm that the level of nuclear discharges from Sellafield today is one hundredth of what it was in the 1970s?

I am not in a position to confirm or to deny that figure, but so that we do not fall into the trap of scaremongering—I know that it would never cross the hon. Gentleman's mind to indulge in that—I can tell the hon. Gentleman that any accident which may occur, or any releases into the atmosphere from Sellafield., are minuscule compared with the nuclear releases from natural sources such as rocks. We ought to get this whole thing in proportion.

Community Charge


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to introduce a standard disaggregation formula which will identify separately the amounts being raised by county and district councils as regards the community charge.

The proposed community charge bill for 1991–92 will be simpler and easier to understand. It will show more clearly than this year which are the overspending councils and which are the prudent ones.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Ipswich the Labour-controlled borough council and the Conservative-controlled county council are unable to agree for what share of the community charge they are respectively responsible? Does he appreciate that without a standard disaggregation formula there will continue to be such disputes and it will be that much more difficult to establish more accountability?

The Bill that we propose to introduce next year will, I hope, meet my hon. Friend's concern. Had that Bill been enacted this year, it would have shown clearly that Suffolk council was responsible for 77 per cent. of the total spending by the authorities in my hon. Friend's area and that Ipswich borough council was responsible for an overspend of £97 on its standard spending assessment. That is nearly 100 per cent. more than it should be. If overspending of that kind continues next year—I hope that it will not—it will appear on next year's bills.

It is appropriate that the Minister referred earlier to the Coventry war experience. I draw attention to another aspect of the 1939–45 war. I wonder whether the Minister has read about the Nuremberg trails. If he has, he will have learnt that war criminals said that they tortured people to obey the law and that they murdered people to obey the law. Does the Minister agree that they were not obligated to obey an immoral law and that similarly no hon. Member is obligated to obey an immoral law and thus absolve himself or herself from responsibility to constituents suffering untold hardship as a result of the imposition of the poll tax?

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman's question has to do with the disaggregation formula. However, like other hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman is paid a salary by the taxpayers of this country in order to make laws. He is not paid a salary by the taxpayers of this country in order to break laws, or to urge others to break them.

Do the very refreshing and enlightened remarks by the Secretary of State for Education and Science this morning suggest a new and realistic approach to the poll tax?

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) was one of those who were kind enough during the summer of this year to contribute to the Government's review of the community charge. That review is now complete. I thank my hon. Friend again for the very important contribution that he made to it.

Has not the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) highlighted yet again the problems and disadvantages of the poll tax? Is not it time for the Minister and his ministerial colleagues to line up behind the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and say, "Let's scrap it altogether?" When will they learn the lesson?

First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has said no such thing. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) raised a serious point and got a serious answer. So far as I could judge from my hon. Friend's expression, he was satisfied with the changes made by the Government in the Bill as they were precisely the kind of things that he was looking for.

Bathing Waters


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will provide the most recent figures which are available on the compliance of bathing beaches with the European Community bathing water standards.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what percentage of designated United Kingdom bathing waters currently complies with the European Community bathing waters directive; and what was the comparable position in 1979.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will provide the latest figures which are available on the compliance of bathing beaches with the European Community bathing water standards.

The 1990 results show that 77 per cent. of the 446 identified bathing waters in the United Kingdom met the directive's coliform bacteria standards this year. This compares with 76 per cent. of 440 waters in 1989 and 66 per cent. of 27 waters in 1979.

In view of the long time scale involved, what guarantees can the Minister give that measures to bring beaches up to current EC standards will be sufficient to cope with the improvement in those standards, as they will not be static? What consultations has the Minister had with local authorities and what additional resources is he giving to improve beaches? Furthermore, what steps is he taking to lower the discharge levels of nitrates and phosphates into the marine environment?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I announced previously the United Kingdom's national target would be 100 per cent. compliance by the year 2000. I am pleased to say that that target has now changed and I am able to announce from the Dispatch Box that we believe that we shall achieve 100 per cent. compliance by 1997. I know that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that. It will involve a capital spend to ensure that the treatment of the waters is brought up to standard. Our record in the United Kingdom is extremely good. I would find it extremely difficult to believe that any other member state would have 100 per cent. compliance by 1997.

I was pleased to hear of the improvements announced by my hon. Friend the Minister. Can he say whether the improvements extend also to the beaches of north Wales because it does not look like it or smell like it? Is he aware that we in north Wales do not think much of the idea of long sea outfalls as a long-term way of curing the problem of pollution of our beaches?

The target date that I gave earlier applies to all bathing waters designated in the United Kingdom. Therefore, it applies to Wales. I have further good news for my hon. Friend and the House. Later this afternoon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be announcing details of an accelerated programme which will ensure that we meet our target by 1997. That will apply to Wales as well.

The Minister has announced a 1997 deadline for bacterial standards on beaches. On what time scale will the Department consider discharges to rivers? Will there be serious consideration of the impact of the growth of algae in the North sea on the marine environment and fish life?

It is the same target. The point raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) has an effect on coastal waters. We are talking about two directives—the bathing water directive and the municipal waste water directive, which is not yet in its final form but which we hope to agree in December. The target date for the municipal waste water directive I would guess—I think that it will be confirmed next month—will be the year 2000. As I have said, the date for 100 per cent. compliance with the bathing water directive is 1997.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a crucial element in meeting both the standards is investment in sewage treatment? Does he agree that one of the effects of the privatisation of water and sewerage has been the liberalisation of such investment from the Treasury? Does he agree that that preserves us from the danger of a sudden swingeing cut in investment such as occurred under the previous Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would go further and say that it is only as a result of privatisation that we have a massive £28 billion investment programme which will be invested over the next 10 years by the newly privatised water companies. I have to assure my hon. Friend that neither I nor any Minister in any Government could find that sort of money from Her Majesty's Treasury. It is interesting to hear the carping from Labour Members with regard to the privatisation of water, as when they were last in office they cut the amount of assistance given to the water authorities.

Does the Minister recall that Britain's wholehearted adoption of the bathing water quality directive came about only after the European Commission threatened the Government with legal action in the European Court of Justice? That is on record. Further, does not the new accelerated programme to meet standards by 1997 result from the action that is currently pending in the European Court? As the Government have the legal responsibility for water standards, what contingency plans do they have to effect an even quicker implementation of the standards and at what cost to the water consumer?

I am sorry to say that I have never heard so much rubbish in all my life. If we are talking about facts, let us look at the facts. When talking about compliance with the bathing water directive, the House should be reminded that when the previous Labour Government were in office between 1974 and 1979 they did nothing—absolutely nothing. They never designated one single bathing water. Not one beach was covered by them. It is a bit rich for the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) to try to lecture me or anyone on this side of the House about what this Government are doing. The accelerated programme is the finest in Europe. The trouble with Opposition Members is that they delight in pulling the nation down and selling it short. That was the view expressed by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) in the letter that he sent to European Community Ministers. It is an absolute disgrace.



To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has any plans to meet the chairman of English Heritage to discuss his cathedrals initiative.

Lord Montagu has told me that the provision of £11·5 million over the next three years for grants towards repair to cathedrals will enable us to establish the scheme on a really sound footing. My officials are discussing the basis of the new grant scheme with his officials and with the church authorities.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for two Tory Members to be running a book?

I refer to cathedrals, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for acknowledging that the repair and maintenance of cathedrals is beyond the resources of cathedral authorities. As those great institutions enjoy affection and respect far beyond merely churchgoers and are monuments to our national heritage, is not there a case for increased public support to ensure that they are maintained properly?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that it is right that public appeals and private donations will remain the major source of funds for the repair of cathedrals, but it is right also that the state should play a role by using grant to lever in private finance. That is the objective of our new scheme. As I said, we shall be spending £11·5 million on the scheme in the next three years. The scheme has been widely welcomed by churchmen and by others who visit our great church buildings, though I recognise that the repair of cathedrals is not uppermost in everybody's minds this afternoon.

I endorse the view that public money should be spent on those great works of art and great assets for the country at large. Does the Secretary of State agree that, as he has undertaken to endorse the principle that public money should be spent on those great buildings, it would be better to do that and leave market forces to obtain money for Trident, for example? Instead of leaving cathedrals to raise money by flag days, we could use flag days for spending on nuclear weapons. The £9,000 million saved could then be spent on pensions, the national health service and a little bit on cathedrals.

The hon. Gentleman must have heard the Leader of the Opposition say on a number of occasions that the Labour party now believes in market forces. That is what we are told again and again. The hon. Gentleman must therefore be a continuing embarrassment to those responsible for trying to burnish the image of the Labour party.

Countryside Commission


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment by how much the Government have increased funding to the Countryside Commission since 1979; and how funding will be increased in the next three years.

Since 1979, grant in aid to the Countryside Commission has more than doubled in real terms to £25 million this year. The commission will lose its responsibilities in Wales from April 1991, but its grant for England is planned to rise to more than £30 million next year and £41 million over the following two years.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Countryside Commission has done particularly well from a financial viewpoint under the Government of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? Does he further agree that the additional funds provided by the Government have enabled the Countryside Commission to plant more trees, which is particularly important to the people of Kent and my constituents who suffered considerably from the loss of trees as a result of the 1987 storms?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The chairman of the Countryside Commission has warmly welcomed the sharply increased funding that we plan for the years ahead. It will enable the Countryside Commission to undertake several new initiatives and to continue the Task Force Trees programme, which will help to replace trees lost in the storms earlier this year, including in Kent.

Is the Minister aware that we join in welcoming the increased subvention for the Countryside Commission, but are still concerned about whether the money made available will enable us to make sufficient progress on access to the countryside and rights of way, an issue which was very properly identified in the White Paper but does not seem to be making much progress? We are also concerned about the continuing problems of common land. Will those two problems, which are of much concern to many people who use the countryside and who want access and rights of way, receive greater priority as a result of this and future settlements?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges that the Countryside Commission has done well under this Government. He mentioned the right of way network. I confirm that it is an announced aim of the Countryside Commission to bring into good order our entire network of rights of way—all 140,000 miles of it—by the end of the century. As regards common land, I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the statement that my hon. Friend the Minister made in recent weeks.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Scottish headquarters of the Countryside Commission is in my constituency, not far from his Scottish home. He will realise that under the Prime Minister and this Government the Countryside Commission has been responsible for vast improvements in access to many of Scotland's more beautiful parts, with the introduction of car parking and other facilities such as camping and caravanning. That has been the result of the generous attitude adopted by the Prime Minister and the Government.

I am delighted that Scotland is to get its own Nature Conservancy Council. I was sad, but not wholly surprised, that that was resisted every step of the way by the Labour party. Doubtless that attitude will have been noted in Scotland.

Council Homes


To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many council homes have been started by local councils in the current year.

Local authority housebuilding is currently running at a rate of 7,000 starts a year. Housing associations are the major providers of new subsidised housing for rent. We announced last week that funding of housing associations will increase to more than £2 billion by 1993–94.

Is not the stark reality that since the Government took office the building of council houses has dropped catastrophically, that homelessness is rising steadily, that the number of people on council waiting lists in big cities is growing all the time, whereas it was falling in 1979, and that many building workers are being laid off as the slump deepens?

The stark reality is that about 40,000 households are in temporary accommodation. At the same time, there are about 100,000 empty council houses, mainly in Labour-controlled authorities. That is the real scandal of the housing problem, which we intend to put right by attaching conditions to the vast housing subsidies that we give to councils.

Is it right to condemn people to live in council houses for the rest of their lives, paying rent until the grave and having nothing to leave their children? Is not it preferable to pursue our present home ownership policy and to help housing associations?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why our policy of right to buy has been such an enormous success, with more than a million households that would not otherwise have done so now owning their own houses. It is also why we shall be experimenting in Basildon with the rent-to-mortgage scheme.

Does the Minister recognise that there is a strong connection between the decline in the supply of all sorts of rented housing over the past 11 years and the inexorable rise in homelessness? Has he had an opportunity to read the report prepared recently by the Tory-controlled London Boroughs Association, entitled, "A Crying Shame—The Child Victims of Homelessness"? That report calls for a supplement to the inadequate £250 million allocation for homelessness and the relaxation of controls on capital receipts and it calls for local authorities to be allowed to bring into use long-term vacancies in the private sector. What does the hon. Gentleman intend to do about that?

What I want to do about the 600,000 empty houses in the private sector is to reinvigorate the whole private sector by totally changing the attitude to landlords. My problem is that if the Labour party ever returned to power, it would introduce new controls which would completely kill off the rented sector. The number of houses per head of population has risen considerably in the past few years. Because of the break-up of marriages and various other social forces, there are pressures on housing. That is why we have vastly increased the money that we are spending on the homeless, both single people and families. This Government have done more than any other Government to focus money on the homeless.