HC PQ [Environment]
|Document type:||public statement|
|Document kind:||House of Commons PQs|
|Venue:||House of Commons|
|Source:||Hansard HC [877/1571-96]|
|Themes:||Housing, Monetary policy|
Royco Site, London, E.4
1. Mr. Tebbit
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment why he gave capital sanction for the purchase of the Royco site at Kings Head Hill, E.4.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)
Because the purchase of this development in an advanced state of construction will provide a quick addition to the housing stock available to the council to meet its serious housing needs.
Is the Minister aware that he is under some misapprehension? Is he aware that the site is not in an advanced state of construction? Does he know that a deposit of over £1 million has been paid to the developers and that no firm guarantee of completion has been given? Does he know that the council is refusing to purchase suitable property immediately available in other parts of the borough? Further, is he aware that Royco, the development company in question, has played the same game—namely, making a 1572gross profit and getting off the hook on which it impaled itself—in the London Borough of Hillingdon at Ickenham?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should cast such reflections on a private developer. I hope that the borough of Waltham Forest will pay attention to any strictures that are relevant. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that the situation in Waltham Forest is very serious and that initiatives of this kind are important. After all, when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power the number of housing starts in Waltham Forest fell from 827 to 247.
My hon. Friend pointed out that the Minister's information was incorrect. Therefore, he has given permission on a totally incorrect set of facts. The houses are not in an advanced state of construction—indeed, far from it. Will he now withdraw sanction?
I shall certainly examine the situation to see whether there is any basis for what the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) says.
South Street, Lewes
3. Mr. Rathbone
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he can now give his decision regarding the method for relief of South Street in Lewes.
The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
At present I can add nothing to the answer given to the hon. Member on 1st July 1974.
Is the Minister aware that many people will deplore this further delay in announcing the course of action that will be taken to relieve South Street? Many people feel that all the technical details have been available as a basis for this decision for a very long time.
It is true that we have had the details for some time, but one of the proposals involves a tunnel. That is a very costly job which needs careful examination in conjunction with the traffic figures and other matters. Many people throughout the country want new road schemes, and we have very limited resources.
In the Minister's recent speech at the annual conference of the National Union of Railwaymen he said that the 1573financial obligations entailed in the Railways Bill might mean that other transport services would be cut or contracted. Is it in relation to the services in question that he envisages economies being made?
I am not making any comment about a particular scheme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the present year I am on a road programme which we took over which was very much cut by the previous Government. I think the House knows that there are great pressures on public expenditure in general, and the fact that we are rightly finding more money for the railways is undoubtedly a factor that the Government must take into account.
4. Mr. MacGregor
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received asking for retrospective relief for domestic ratepayers whose rates increased by 30 per cent. or more as a result of his action in the rate support grant order.
5. Mr. Michael Morris
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent representations he has received asking for help for domestic ratepayers whose rates have increased by more than 20 per cent. as a result of the rate support grant order.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Anthony Crosland)
I have received a large number of representations on this subject, many of them from householders whose rate increase has been unaffected or even reduced by my decision on domestic relief. However, the scheme for rate relief this year which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced on Monday will help all ratepayers facing increases over 20 per cent. in their total rates and water charges this year.
I welcome the measure announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday, which many of us have been urging for months, to repair the damage caused by the action of the right hon. Gentleman's Government in March. Does the Secretary of State recognise that this is a measure of short-term relief for this year's rates only, and that as matters now stand it simply postpones the day when, next year, many ratepayers will face exceptionally large 1574increases? Will he undertake to ensure that in next year's rate support grant formula he introduces a system of similar relief for those facing exceptionally high increases, perhaps along the lines of the variable rate grant system to which in principle the Chancellor has returned?
I am happy that the hon. Gentleman is grateful for what we have done. As a result the average ratepayer in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will gain over £17. I feel that I should apologise to the Tory Party for the fact that we have shot their fox on rates. Despite that, I greatly welcome the sudden interest which the Opposition are taking in rating matters after four years of total passivity.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many thousands of my constituents, and those of other hon. Members who have made representations on this matter will be extremely grateful for the prompt action of the Government, particularly as they intervened in a situation which initially was not of their making?
I am glad to make it clear not only that the total national increase in rates this year was inherited from the Conservative Government but also that, to put it mildly, both the volume and the intensity of the representations I have had from my hon. Friends have been at least equal to any I have had from the Opposition.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has changed his mind and is now responding both to the will of Parliament and to the representations of millions of ratepayers. I assure him, however, that one fox is still running very hard for Northamptonshire and similar counties with expansion schemes and new town developments, which have made a number of welldocumented representations to the right hon. Gentleman and his Department on an all-party basis but have yet to see a penny of response.
I make it clear that I have not changed my mind; nor have I gone back on the change in the domestic element. That was a redistribution in favour of some places as against others. The new measure is not redistribution but 1575a total addition to the amount of help that the Government are giving. I am aware of the problem of Northamptonshire. The hon. Gentleman or his county or both have been on two deputations to Ministers in my Department in which the point he has now expressed was put strongly and clearly.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that the problem of rating in the future is really that of rating reform? Will he set up his committee as quickly as possible so that we can get on with the job, away from the party political smearing that we have had, of reforming the rates system in the interests of the people?
I am happy to say that my hon. Friend's constituents will gain on average £7 as a result of Monday's announcement. I entirely agree with her about the need for long-term reform of the rates, and after four years of total inactivity on the subject by the Conservative Government I hope that I shall be able to announce the names of the members and the precise terms of reference of the long-term inquiry next week.
It is right that we should thank the right hon. Gentleman for acceding to the resolution of the House, but he should recall that the Government and their supporters voted against it. What advice can he give to people who are now facing rate demands showing very much above a 20 per cent. increase? In some cases the rates may represent a 100 per cent. increase. What advice has the right hon. Gentleman to give to the ordinary ratepayer who finds himself in a very difficult position? How quickly will the local authorities be dealing with the matter? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that local authorities will use the money for rate relief and will not put it to any other use?
This £150 million goes direct to the ratepayers and cannot be used by local authorities for any other purpose. The individual ratepayer is under no obligation to make a claim or get an application. The responsibility is entirely on the local authority to make a refund if the rates have already been paid in full and, if they have not, to levy a lower second-half instalment. The Parliamentary Labour Party voted against 1576the resolution on 27th June because it was redolent of utter hypocrisy.
The Liberals sincerely congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on acceding to the wishes of the House expressed on 27th June. If it is not considered as being perhaps a slur, will he accept the title of being a good democrat, if not a good social democrat? Does he not agree that this is one of the happiest results of minority government?
Is it the case that the assistance which is to be given will extend to increased demands for water and sewerage charges as well as to the general rates? Can the right hon. Gentleman also comment on the difficulties being faced by small traders, who are experiencing an equally high increase in their rate burden?
The small traders will not benefit directly by the £150 million, although they will, I hope and think, gain indirectly from other measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Water and sewerage charges are included in the calculation of the 20 per cent. I found the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks rather enigmatic, although they seemed to have a generally friendly sentiment.
Mr. Arthur Lewis
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side of the House who tried for four years to get an investigation into the present unfair rating system now pay a sincere tribute to him for doing in 16 weeks what the Conservative Government failed to do in four years?
7. Mr. Durant
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consider a freeze on rates for the financial year 1975–76.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that there must be tighter control of local government expenditure at local level, and that if that does not happen his announcement this week will be only another twist in the inflationary spiral?
There must be tight control at local level. I have made it clear to the local authorities that next year they will be operating in a very cold 1577financial climate. If the hon. Gentleman is seriously pursuing—I doubt it—the question of a Government imposed freeze on all rate increases, I must point out to him that this would raise matters of the gravest consequence.
22. Mr. Arthur Jones
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what evidence he has that some local authorities may find it necessary to demand an increased rate for the second half of the current financial year.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)
Only a few authorities have told the Department that they are considering supplementary rate levies.
Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the proposals for domestic relief announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday require some form of monitoring of rate increases in the second half of the year, in view of the fact that these concessions are to be made to the domestic ratepayer?
The rate relief scheme should have no effect on an authority's financial situation, since these payments go direct to the ratepayers. The scheme should not be used as an excuse to levy more rates.
Mr. Hugh Fraser
Doubtless the hon. Gentleman is aware that the country of Staffordshire, which is Socialist-controlled, will be out of pocket by £6 million by the end of the year because of inflation. This will mean a September precept, unless the Government are prepared to make a new central authority grant. I am sure that this will apply to many other counties as inflation gathers momentum as it is doing now. What statement can the hon. Gentleman make about it?
We are aware of the problem in the right hon. Gentleman's county. Later in the year there will be an increase order dealing with some of the effects of inflation, with threshold payments and so on. I understand that I am meeting Staffordshire County Council representatives some time next week.
In cases where local authorities find that they have to increase the rates in the second half of the year, will the 60 per cent. increase for domestic 1578ratepayers be equivalent to a 30 per cent. precept on the Government for the increases which are forced on these local authorities?
I am not altogether clear what the hon. Gentleman means. I can tell him that if an authority levies a supplementary rate it must declare the amount of assistance that it has had from the proposals which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made on Monday of this week.
Mr. Christopher Price
Is my hon. Friend aware that because of industrial disputes about the London allowance a number of London boroughs have had great difficulty in collecting both rents and rates and have, as a result, had to borrow money at exorbitant rates of interest? Will he keep this problem under review? Some authorities may be in great difficulties in the latter part of the year.
We are aware of the considerable cash flow problems in London. This matter is under consideration.
8. Dr. Hampson
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what financial help he intends to give to local authorities to compensate them for loss of income once relief from sewerage rates is granted to households not connected to a public sewer.
9. Mr. Dixon
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether, in view of the statements on 15th May by the Minister of State and on 3rd July by the Under-Secretary of State on the subject, he will make a further statement about his policy on sewerage rates.
20. Mr. Hurd
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has yet received the report which he requested from the National Water Council on providing relief from sewerage charges for households without mains drainage.
21. Mr. Newton
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has yet formulated proposals for relieving households without mains drainage from the payment of sewerage rates; and if he will make a statement.1579
As my hon. Friend the Minister of State told the House on 3rd July, my right hon. Friend has asked the National Water Council for urgent advice about the various aspects of sewerage charges for premises not connected to the public sewers. I understand that the council is making very good progress in its study of this problem.
Does the hon. Gentleman now accept that the £150 million is being paid retrospectively to make adjustments because the Government would not listen in the first place to suggestions by the Opposition proposing precisely what they are now doing? Will he say whether the money will be distributed under two heads, both the general rate and the water and sewerage rate? In this way, those not on water services, for example, would not get a rebate to which they would not otherwise be entitled while at the same time those with septic tanks could be given special relief. Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman guarantee——
Order. We cannot debate these matters again. The Minister must now answer the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the iniquity of the situation arises from legislation introduced by the Conservative Government which we are busily trying to unscramble. I reinforce what my right hon. Friend has told the House already. Sewerage charges are included in the £150 million and their increase will be included in the percentage. With regard to cesspits, the difficulty is that water authorities have no power to incur or to reimburse the expenditure on that function because of the Conservative Government's legislation. It would require further legislation to deal with the matter, and the National Water Council is looking into it.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that we on this side, and no doubt some of his hon. Friends, have always seen in him someone who is sympathetic to this problem? Does he not find it embarrassing that he gives statements which contradict those of some of his ministerial collegues on this point?1580
I have not known of any contradiction on this matter. I am sympathetic to the problem and I repeat that it is iniquitous that someone not receiving sewerage service should have to pay a charge. We inherited that situation and we are endeavouring to unscramble the egg.
Is my hon. Friend aware that while many hon. Members on the Government side welcome the removal of the ludicrous anomaly introduced by the Conservative Government whereby people pay for services they never receive, there is nevertheless an urgent need to ensure that money is available for water and sewerage services so that vital housing programmes which have been neglected during the past three years can go ahead?
That raises another matter. However, I remind my hon. Friend of the cuts imposed last December which had a serious effect on this matter. With regard to the need for urgency, we are hoping that the report of the National Water Council should be available at least by early autumn.
Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the anomaly he is dealing with has nothing to do with the Water Act and has existed for a long time under Governments of different complexions? Will he seriously consider going for selfassessment in this respect, bearing in mind that he is dealing overwhelmingly with villages with no sewerage services? Does he not agree that it would be better to have a rough-and-ready system which will work from next year rather than a perfect system for which we may have to wait for three or four years?
We hope to have a system which will work from next year. That is the reason for the urgency of the inquiry at present. It is true that this problem has existed for decades, but it is now at a much more intense level because of increases in charges and other factors. I would have thought that the last Water Act which reformed water services would have been the very means by which to have put the matter right, but it was not put right.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that a house which is not connected to a public sewer is usually given 1581a lower rateable value than one which is connected, in order to compensate for the deficiency?
I am afraid that with the vagaries of the valuation and rating system that is not always so.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman's statement that legislation would be required to enable water authorities to pay for the emptying of individual cesspits instead of leaving it to the owner to pay the local authority, will he not admit frankly to the House that the Government had the opportunity to put that matter right in the Control of Pollution Bill both in Committee and on Report, when amendments were moved to that effect, but that the Government steadfastly set their face against giving such relief?
The Control of Pollution Bill involved a different matter from that which we are concerned with here. As I understand it, district councils have power under the Public Health Act 1936 but water authorities have no power to incur or reimburse expenditure on this function. This matter would require legislation, possibly a one-clause Bill. I am sure that at the earliest possible time after we receive the report from the National Water Council the Government will introduce legislation if required.
Local Government Commissioners
10. Mr. Madel
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will consider further measures to inform the public about the responsibilities of the local ombudsmen and the procedure to be followed by the public when approaching the local ombudsman with a complaint; and if he will make a statement.
This is a matter for the Commission for Local Administration itself. I understand that the commission is already giving urgent consideration to it.
As it is vital that the public know about the local ombudsmen, will the Under-Secretary ask local authorities to circulate a leaflet to all ratepayers, possibly with the autumn rate demands, giving information about the ombudsmen? Will he look at the situa1582tion in which a person with a complaint, which he has to make in the first instance through a councillor for a particular area, may not live in that area and thus may not know the councillors representing the area? Ought not the system to be changed if we are to enable the local ombudsmen to get to work to deal with local grievances?
Distribution of a leaflet to every ratepayer would be somewhat costly, although I shall look into the suggestion. Leaflets are being prepared for citizens' advice bureaux so that information about the local ombudsmen is available. With regard to pursuing a complaint through councillors for a particular area or a particular authority, if the councillors will not approach an ombudsman and flatly refuse to help a constituent, the constituent can go direct to the ombudsman with, if necessary, the assistance of his Member of Parliament.
Mr. R. C. Mitchell
Will my hon. Friend accept that it is becoming obvious that some councillors are reluctant to forward complaints to the ombudsmen because they think that those complaints reflect upon their councils? What is the procedure whereby a Member of Parliament can take a matter direct to a local ombudsman?
I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this point. The position is that a complainant who believes that he has suffered injustice must approach a member of the local council first. If he is unsuccessful in persuading any councillor to forward the complaint he may approach the ombudsman direct, and in doing so he is free to seek the advice and assistance of his Member of Parliament.
Are all local ombudsmen now in position? If not, would it not be better to wait until they are all in position before the necessary publicity campaign is launched?
Three ombudsmen have been appointed but unfortunately at the moment they are operating from a temporary address. 47 Parliament Street. They are empowered to examine cases as from now and I remind the House that this relates to cases arising from 1st April 1974.1583
Mr. Arthur Lewis
With regard to publicity, will my hon. Friend consider approaching the various local radio stations, which welcome material such as that relating to ombudsmen which they can use as a basis for their local programmes? I am sure that if he contacts the local radio stations they would welcome the opportunity of broadcasting a programme on this subject. Will he approach them?
I welcome that suggestion and I shall look into it.
Housing Conditions (Tenanted Property)
11. Dr. Edmund Marshall
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether it is his intention, in paragraph 30 of his Circular 70/74 to local authorities, that they should seek to purchase rented houses where the tenants have bad housing conditions because their landlords are inaccessible.
Paragraph 30(b) of Circular 70/74 authorities local authorities to buy rented accommodation where they have clear evidence that tenants are suffering bad housing conditions, including threat of harrassment and risk of homelessness. This authorisation applies whether landlords are inaccessible or not.
May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to 43 rented houses in Corona Drive, Thorne, most of which are badly in need of repair and which are owned by Corona Properties Ltd., of PO Box 439, Manchester, the staff of which are under instruction from their principal, Mr. Mark Kingsley, not to reply to any correspondence about housing, including letters sent by me on behalf of tenants?
I know that this case has attracted my hon. Friend's attention for a considerable time. I join with him in deploring the inconsiderate attitude of landlords towards tenants. I hope that the fact that he has properly used the privilege of the House to raise this matter will not go unnoticed by landlords. I hope that absentee landlords in Manchester who mistreat my hon. Friend's constituents will not reflect on the city of Manchester in the same way that absentee landlords who mistreat my 1584constituents tend to discredit the areas to which they are making a bee-line.
Mr. Michael Latham
With regard to Circular 70/74, will the Under-Secretary confirm that only 2,500 of the existing unsold 30,000 private houses have so far been bought by local authorities?
The hon. Gentleman's information is almost two weeks old. Further schemes have been coming forward. The many conferences that I have been holding with local authorities in various parts of the country show that the response is going well, but in the period immediately after the issuing of the circular I would not have expected the scheme to have got off the ground in the way in which we are sure it will eventually do so.
Will this provision apply to furnished as well as unfurnished houses after the end of this Session?
That depends upon the good will of Parliament and the good sense of all hon. Members.
12. Mr. R. C. Mitchell
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on trends in house prices with special reference to the South of England.
The latest national figures based on general building society lending, as well as the latest figures for the South-East Region, excluding greater London, suggest that house prices are now stabilising.
Is my hon. Friend aware that it is welcome news that house prices are stabilising? Is not that in favourable contrast to the rapid increase in house prices which occurred under the previous administration? Will my hon. Friend say when we are to get information about the Government's policy on land, which particularly in the South of England is the key to the whole picture?
There are later Questions on that subject to which answers will be given which will I am sure be to the vast satisfaction of all hon. Members. I am sure the House would not wish the situation to persist in which, for example, 1585in the South-East Region, which concerns my hon. Friend, house prices rose last year by 52 per cent.
When will the Minister stop tinkering with the building society system and make a constructive effort to bring down the rate of borrowing in the mortgage sector? It is no good saying that prices are stabilising if no mortgage facilities are available.
The hon. Gentleman must know that since the Government's welcome initiative, decried by the Opposition but enormously successful, mortgage funds have been coming forward very well and, unlike the situation in which the Conservative Government's £15 million bribe had no effect whatever on the building societies, our prudent and sensible loan facilities have been accepted by them and they have held down interest rates.
Mr. Frank Allaun
Is my hon. Friend aware that according to building society statistics one-third of the cost of a new house now goes to pay for the land? In London that means on average £4,300 per house. Does not this strengthen immensely the case for public acquisition of land?
The case was previously incontrovertible. It is now unanswerable.
In spite of what he said about mortgage interest rates, is the Minister aware that under his Government mortgage interest rates have been at 11 per cent. for longer than under any other Government?
That is one way of putting it. Another way of putting it is that mortgage interest rates have not risen under the present Government whereas under the previous Government they rose 2½ per cent.
14. Mr. Freud
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what are his current plans for speeding up the consideration of planning appeals.
I would refer the hon. Member to the answer given on 25th June to hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant.)1586
Will the Minister take steps to see that the procedure for appeal by representation is speeded up since it is causing severe hardship? There would need to be only a small number of inspectors in addition to the present number to speed up the procedure. When does the Minister propose to publish the results of the Dobry inquiry?
We are aware of and concerned about the long delay in planning appeals, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1971 there were just over 9,000 appeals and in 1973 there were double that number—18,326. That is one cause of delay. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that I think we have now turned the corner, because all regions have had a "blitz" on appeals. We hope that the Dobry Report will be out by the end of this year.
Dunbar (Power Station)
15. Mr. Beith
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will conduct a study of the possible effects on the environment, development and traffic in North Northumberland of the proposed power station at Dunbar before any decision to proceed with the project is taken.
No, Sir. I have no reason to suppose that such a proposal might have detrimental long-term effects on North Northumberland.
Does not the Minister recognise that answer to be extraordinary? My constituents greatly fear that the construction of such a power station would bring about a short-term boom in jobs—which would be damaging to the long-term prospects of the area to which he has referred—and might cause severe environmental damage. Is he aware that my constituents look to him to represent their interests in this matter to the Secretary of State for Scotland?
I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is aware of the facts over the border. I will certainly draw this to his attention. We do not think that there will be a major flow of labour from the Berwick area into Scotland which would have a detrimental effect on other contracts in the Berwick area.1587
17. Mr. Adley
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with the working of the new water authorities.
It is much too early to comment on the performance of the new water authorities since they assumed executive responsibility for water services only on 1st April. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced to the House on 27th June, we consider that the new organisation should be reviewed in about two years' time.
I realise that the authorities are new, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that in my constituency and elsewhere the absence of sewerage facilities, largely caused by the absence of funds, means that the water authorities are usurping the position of the planners because water authorities have to decide to which sewerage scheme to give priority? Is the Minister satisfied that this Department has enough information about the priorities and the way in which water authorities are establishing their priorities?
We are gathering that information at present. I repeat that water authorities have had a very short period of life so far. Planning was a major worry which we often expressed when the Water Bill was going through Parliament. I am happy to say that in most areas considerable co-operation exists between the regional water authority and the planning authorities, and for the progress of both that is essential.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we want to keep open the possibility in the future of redressing the mistakes made in the recent past and of having an effective link with local government possibly via regional elected authorities?
That is for the more distant future. I think that we must allow the water authorities to continue for two years without disturbing their functions. My main criticism of water authorities, which is similar to the criticism made by my hon. Friend, is that they are basically undemocratic bodies. That is what is wrong with them.1588
Mr. Stephen Ross
After the two-year period, will the Minister extend his review to the local authorities? Is there not a strong case for some local authorities being all-purpose authorities, such as my own constituency and possibly the former county of Hereford?
If we were to conduct a major review of local authorities, I would fear for the suicide rate among the officers. The Labour Party is pledged to look at some of the more glaring anomalies that resulted from the Local Government Act 1972.
Mr. Ioan Evans
Although there is general satisfaction among ratepayers at the way in which the Government have dealt with rates, there is particular dissatisfaction about the water and sewerage rate. Could that be reviewed before the two years have elapsed? For people whose premises are not connected to the public sewer to have to pay this rate is adding insult to injury.
I said in reply to an earlier Question that this is being considered by the National Water Authority and we are hoping for a report by the early autumn so that the anomalies can be put right at least by next year.
Is the Minister aware that the new regional water authorities have one thing in common: that rural ratepayers pay considerably more for their water and drainage? Will he ensure that before next year this anomaly is taken care of in the rate support grant?
The hon. Gentleman refers to the rate support grant but I remind Opposition Members that it was the Conservative Government who removed from local authorities responsibility for sewerage and water. The hon. Gentleman asks me whether we can give help through the rate support grant. It is true, and always has been, that water supplied by a water board area of a regional water authority is more expensive in a rural than in any urban area. The water authorities will be looking into this in their pricing policies.
18. Mr. Rifkind
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the estimated total cost of bringing all development land into public ownership.1589
No figure is available for the total value of all development land. The cost of our proposals for bringing such land into public ownership will depend on the details of the scheme which will be announced as soon as possible.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the country will be amazed that this proposal should be put forward without any knowledge of the cost involved? Can he say whether he and his colleagues will be satisfied with the nationalisation of development land or whether, as many of us suspect, it will be merely the thin end of the wedge towards the nationalisation of all public land, including private homes, as advocated by many prominent members of his party?
The proposals are perfectly clear, and the hon. Gentleman has no right to misrepresent them in that way. It has been made plain again and again that these proposals will not—I repeat, not—touch the owner-occupier, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. The country will not be amazed in the way that he describes because, unlike the hon. Member, people have the sense to see that we are discussing not a public cost but public wealth.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that if there is one matter that offends millions of people in this country it is that landowners should be able to exploit human need in the way they have been doing by withholding their land until they are paid their extortionate prices? Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that if we make this one of the major issues in the forthcoming General Election there is no doubt that the vast majority of people will declare firmly that their native land should belong to them?
Landowners have made a speculative killing in recent years which has jeopardised good planning and greatly increased inequality and appropriated to themselves a rise in development values due to the actions of the community. We shall make this a major part of our election policy.
Mr. Tom Boardman
What public sector projects will be cut out so that this vast sum can be found without add1590ing to the public sector borrowing requirement?
The hon. Gentleman has not realised that what we are discussing here is not a cost to the Exchequer but an investment which will be one of the best that the country and the Exchequer could make.
19. Mr. Costain
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he can make an estimate of the effects which his recent policies have had on the level of private housing starts; and if he will make a statement.
The decision of the Building Societies Association to hold the recommended mortgage rate at 11 per cent. coupled with the Government's initiatives to increase the flow of mortgage funds, should encourage the private house-building industry to undertake a higher level of building. The Government is urgently pursuing longer-term studies on how best to ensure a steady flow of funds and on related matters.
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that his answer is purely a political one to hide the facts? Does he not appreciate that housing starts are about half what they were this time last year and that the building industry is in a state of complete chaos? I remind the right hon. Gentleman of a statement by one of his predecessors a number of years ago when I asked whether what the Labour Party was proposing was to nationalise the building industry. He replied "No. All that we have to do is to break individual contractors and we shall get them for nothing." Is that the right hon. Gentleman's policy?
I respectfully congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his nerve, since in the last Parliament he was PPS to a Minister who left the building programme in the most disastrous state that we have seen this century. We have taken a number of important measures to encourage private house-building. Certainly I am not satisfied with the outlook at the moment, although there are now beginning, for the first time in two years, to be slightly encouraging signs that we may get a pick-up in private house-building.1591
Mr. Ronald Atkins
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fall in the level of private house-building occurred especially during the period in office of the previous administration and that the bad position today is directly the result of their policy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. While the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) was ensconced in the Department of the Environment, the rate of private housing starts fell from 20,900 in the first quarter of 1973 to 11,400 by the first quarter of 1974. It was almost halved as a result of the actions of the previous Government.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is in some areas a complete breakdown in planning procedures and that this is a contributory factor to the low level of private housing starts? What is he doing about it, and what were the encouraging signs about which he spoke just now?
The encouraging signs are that an improvement of starts occurred in May, the last month for which we have figures, for the first time for very many months. As for the hon. Gentleman's planning point, there may be certain areas where that is an inhibiting factor. If he has specific examples in mind I hope that he will write to me about them. There is no doubt that the main inhibiting factor has been the lack of confidence on the part of builders that they will be able to sell their houses in 12 or 18 months' time, and the object of our policy is so to increase the supply of mortgage funds that they will feel confident about their ability to sell.
Rates (Local Railway Services)
23. Mr. Trotter
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation to amend Section 20 of the Transport Act 1968 so as to remove the rate burden on areas with passenger transport executives in relation to local railway services.
May I suggest to the Minister that it is unfair to continue with a situation where the metropolitan countries are contributing from their rates under statute for their local rail services when non-metropolitan counties do not have 1592to meet that burden? May I also suggest that if he still feels that it is necessary——
May I ask the Minister whether he agrees that it is unfair? May I also ask whether he agrees that the section requires amendment so that the marginal costs of these rail services are taken into account in the local rate burden rather than that we should still have the arbitrary system of allocation of costs which is being discarded for the rest of the railway system, I believe largely so as to bring us in line with the EEC directive No. 11/91?
I think I can satisfy the hon. Gentleman on the last point. Renegotations between the PTEs and the Railways Board are in prospect because the Cooper formula, which was hitherto the standard, will no longer be used by the Government for grants if the Bill becomes law on 1st January next. We are looking into that aspect.
There is no reason why the metropolitan counties should not make a contribution which is assessable for transport supplementary grant for rail services if, as I understand, they use them as part of their total transport pattern, particularly for travel-to-work journeys. In the non-metropolitan counties it is not usually possible to use rail services to the same extent. But under Section 203 of the Local Government Act 1972 non-metropolitan counties can, if they wish, make arrangements similar to those of the metropolitan counties.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will examine the relative costs of railway schemes as opposed to road schemes within the areas of passenger transport executives where, for example, motorway schemes are put forward? Will he also assure the House that he will examine the viability of existing railway schemes to bear the traffic burden within areas like the Aire Valley?
In the first instance it is for local authorities to form their own views on what is most appropriate for their areas. But these matters will come to us when the transport policy and programme is considered later this year.1593
In view of the horrifying losses recently announced by the GLC in the running of London Transport services, may I ask the Minister whether he will give any help to relieve the rate burden there?
It is open to the GLC, as to other county authorities, to include support for public transport among the items that it puts in its transport policy and programme. But as I am advised, I confess mainly from the Press, as to the size of this, I do not think it will be possible to accommodate it in what is likely to be available for TPPs. It is a matter for the local authority to determine its transport priorities, and in accordance with the money available we shall do what we can to accommodate those priorities.
24. Mr. Stanley
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the average cost, including land, of constructing (a) three-bedroom council houses and (b) three-bedroom council flats in the South-East at the latest convenient date; and what proportion of this cost receives Exchequer subsidy.
£5,700 was the average construction cost for five-bedspace houses in tenders approved in January to September 1973 by local authorities in the South-East, excluding greater London. This amount does not include land or site development works, for which reliable figures are not available. Very few five-bedspace flats are built and a similar average is not produced. Under the present subsidy arrangements in 1974–75 any deficit arising on an authority's housing revenue account from the provision of new dwellings would attract 80 per cent. subsidy.
Will the Minister confirm that the overall subsidy cost of rehousing a family in the South-East by means of a local authority tenancy is now £700 more per annum than the subsidy cost of providing the same family with the means to own its own home?
The two situations are not comparable. The subsidy provided for an owner-occupier is larger than the subsidy for a family housed in a council house. The hon. Gentleman need not 1594shake his head. These are official figures based upon the subsidies given by the previous Government. If the hon. Gentleman is implying that, because everybody cannot yet be housed through owner-occupation—we are anxious to champion owner-occupation—by a £500 million loan facility—we shall nevertheless not provide them with council houses, it is a strange argument to deal with homelessness.
As my hon. Friend is able to give us the cost of a house but not the cost of a house but not the cost of the land, may I ask what percentage of the cost is represented by materials, labour and profit?
Not without notice and not without a pocket calculator. Under the Labour Government which went out of office in 1970 the cost of construction was falling. Under the Conservative Government the cost of construction soared from £4,050 in 1970 in greater London to £5,370 in 1972.
25. Mr. Ralph Howell
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many extra local government positions have been created in the county of Norfolk as a result of local government reorganisation including an apportionment of Anglian water authority positions relating to the county of Norfolk.
The information about local government staff is not available within my Department. As regards the employees of the Anglian Water Authority, it is not practicable to allocate these to particular county areas.
May I help the Minister by telling him that in the old county of Norfolk area at least 1,000 extra local government positions have been created as a result of local government reorganisation? Is he aware that the intention of the Local Government Act was not to create extra jobs but to reduce the number of positions and that 7,400 people were prematurely retired? As a result of the way that the Act was applied, however—[Hon. Members: "Too long."]—at least 100,000 extra jobs have been created in the country.
Order. That is enough for a supplementary question.1595
The hon. Gentleman began his question by asking whether he could help me. He has indeed done so. He pointed out some of the difficulties which resulted from local government reorganisation and some of the difficulties which resulted from the reorganisation of water authorities, both measures having been introduced by the previous Government. I remind him and the House that the Government do not control the numbers of staff either of local authorities or of regional water authorities.
North Circular Road
26. Mr. Berry
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to publish the orders for widening the North Circular Road between the junction with the Great Cambridge Road and the junction with Bounds Green Road; and if he will make a statement.
I have recently been approached by the Greater London Council about six improvement schemes for the North Circular Road, the first four of which are included in the length mentioned in the hon. Member's Question. They are as follows: Great Cambridge Road, Green Lanes, Wilmer Way, Bounds Green Road, Golders Green Road, and Popes Lane to Western Avenue.
Having previously undertaken design work as the Department's agents, the council has suggested that there should be a joint reappraisal of the traffic requirements on which the design work has so far been based. I have agreed to this.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I was told earlier in the year that a decision would be made by the late spring? Is he also aware that this further reappraisal, important though it may be, will cause great concern in my constituency particularly among the 500 to 600 householders whose homes are under threat? Will he assure the House that he will make a further statement in the near future to relieve them of their worry?
I understand the point and sympathise with the hon. Member and his constituents. All public participation exercises, public inquiries and the rest prolong the period of blight over the various routes under consideration. I was 1596advised, however, that the statutory procedures in these cases would in any event be lengthy and strongly contested by the hon. Member's constituents among others, and that if we could reach some understanding on the proposed scale of the development, that would help.
Mr. Arthur Lewis
May I support my Member of Parliament and declare an interest? The Minister will be aware, will he not, that this has been going on for years and that something should be done to get this matter moving, because hundreds of people are vitally affected and want a satisfactory answer?
I can assure my hon. Friend that I am as concerned as he is to find a satisfactory answer, but when many people are concerned they are not usually of one opinion. There are many who do not want any development and others who do. In each case it is a properly contested statutory process and I am hoping to find a compromise arrangement which will facilitate matters.
In view of the nature of the Minister's answer, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment.