House Building Materials
1. Mr. Frank Allaun
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will hold an urgent inquiry into the delays being encountered in house building because materials in short supply are going to the construction of office blocks; and what action he will take to prevent this.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Anthony Crosland)
The production of building materials is getting back to normal, and once the difficulties arising from the recent short-time working are overcome I do not expect the supply of building materials to hold back house building, although there may be occasional difficulties. I am nevertheless considering what the Government's policy should be on official and commercial property.
May I wish my right hon. Friend every success in his vital task of obtaining more houses for the country? Is he aware that, despite what he says, many local authorities are encountering delays of eight to 12 months in the completion of urgently needed houses? Is he also aware that some building firms are making the excuse of shortage of building materials for local authority housing while diverting materials to their own commercial contracts?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his good wishes, which I greatly appreciate. While we are recovering from the period of three-day-week working there will undoubtedly be difficulties, but I hope that these will clear themselves up before too long. In a way, I wish that the supply of materials was the biggest constraint on the house building programme, but I am afraid that there are far more serious constraints which are basically legacies which we have inherited from the previous Government.
The whole House will wish the Minister well and will support him in obtaining more houses and house building. Can he indicate to the House [column 1233]what the new Government's target for house completions will be to the end of 1974 and, if possible, 1975?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his sincere good wishes. I fear that I cannot satisfy him on the second part of his question.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that these delays are occurring not only in new building but also in house improvements, where delays have occurred because of shortage of materials and difficulties in obtaining certain types of skilled labour? Is he aware that the 75 per cent. grant for house improvement is to be reduced to 50 per cent. in June and that many people and local authorities are likely to lose the 75 per cent. grant because of these delays? Will he therefore consider paying grant at the 75 per cent. rate on improvements which have been started but not completed by June?
I am only too well aware of the terminal date for the 75 per cent. grant. It is a matter which I am considering, but I must say that I am considering it without any definite commitment.
2. Mr. Biffen
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement detailing the Government's policy towards established livestock markets and their rôle in the rural economy, in the light of possible developments of the large-scale livestock marketing complex such as that under consideration on land adjacent to the intersection of the M5 and M50 motorways.
The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)
The possible effect on existing communities and development in the surrounding area caused by a large-scale project would be material to the consideration of any application for planning permission.
Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the project referred to in the Question would be of such a magnitude that it would constitute a major departure from the county of Worcester plan and, therefore, would involve his Department? Is he aware of the widespread disquiet that the project has caused among marketing authorities, and [column 1234]will he underline his own awareness of the tremendous importance to the rural economy in the West Midlands of market towns in Shropshire and adjacent counties?
Such an application, were it to come—I do not believe that it has yet come—would be novel in this country. My own view is that the new country of Hereford and Worcester might spend some time considering whether it was a major departure from the plan. Were it so to decide, the question whether it would be called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of States would of course become a very live issue.
Concessionary Fares (Schoolchildren)
4. Mr. Biggs-Davison
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received calling for the extension of concessionary children's fares on public transport to all children attending school; and whether he will make a statement.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)
A few letters have been received on this since I took office. Fares for children are, however, a matter for the transport operators.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that does not get us very far and that, apart from the few representations he has received, my right hon. Friend who was his predecessor certainly received representations from me? Will he give it his consideration if I take up the case again?
We shall always be pleased to hear from the hon. Member, but he must realise that concessionary fares for children or anyone else are primarily a matter for the commercial judgment of the operators of the services. It is important to remember also that lower fares for some people mean higher fares for others.
Mr. Walter Johnson
Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency, for example, parents were persuaded to send their children to the Derby schools, some two miles away, as the fares were to be free? Now, under the new county council authority, this concession has been withdrawn. What does my hon. Friend intend to do about that?[column 1235]
This is a matter for the local authorities. If they wish, on the advice of the Department of Education and Science, they may decide to give grants to allow schoolchildren to travel at reduced fares. A working party set up by the DES has reported and made radical suggestions for changes, but no ministerial decisions have yet been taken.
Mr. Walter Johnson
In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment.
13. Mr. Dempsey
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give a general direction to transport undertakings to extend the concession of half fares to young persons until they reach the compulsory school leaving age of 16; and if he will make a statement.
No, Sir. My right hon. Friend has no power to do so.
Is my hon. Friend aware, however, that since the compulsory school leaving age was raised to 16 bus fares have increased enormously? Such costs weigh heavily on countless thousands of working-class parents whose children do not qualify, on geographical lines, for concessionary bus fares. Will my hon. Friend do something about it? Some municipal undertakings have already given this concession. Why should he not instruct the Scottish Bus Group to do likewise?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has no powers to do that, and I emphasise that the matter of concessionary fares is for the commercial judgment of the operators. Before the war the concessionary fares were originally introduced to attract children and others to use public transport. But the economics of public transport have changed drastically since then.
Mr. Harry Ewing
Will my hon. Friend note the very important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey)? Some local authorities which own their own passenger transport undertakings grant children half fares until they are 16 whereas the Scottish Bus Group does not. Is my hon. Friend aware that even today the Scottish Bus Group has an application before the traffic [column 1236]commissioners substantially to increase fares in Scotland? Will the Government take power to deal with this? After all, is not that what Governments are elected for?
I understand fully the point made by my hon. Friend, but the question of subsidising concessionary fares represents only part of transport costs. The Government already make very substantial contributions to the cost of public transport. Ultimately it is a question of priorities.
I recognise that the question of concessionary fares is a matter for the bus companies and transport undertakings, but will the hon. Gentleman say whether the Government have a view about whether it is desirable for concessionary fares to be available to school-children?
The previous Labour Government, of which I was a member, introduced legislation to give local authorities power to extend concessionary fares to the elderly. Local authorities can provide free travel for any children travelling over three miles or, if under eight years of age, over two miles. As I said in reply to an earlier Question, there has been an investigation by the Department of Education and Science which is now being considered, but no official view has been taken.
5. Mr. Blaker
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if, in his proposals for the protection of furnished tenants, he will bear in mind the importance of avoiding damage to the tourist industry and, in particular, the owners of holiday flats.
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Reginald Freeson)
Is the Minister aware that holiday flats play an important part in our tourist industry? Is he also aware that most owners of such flats wish to let them in the winter, thus alleviating the housing problem, provided they can be satisfied that they can regain possession at the agreed date in order that tourists who have contracted—often many months ahead—may be able to spend their holidays there?[column 1237]
Yes, I am aware of this point. I am bearing it in mind in preparing the proposed legislation.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that evictions from furnished tenancies are now a main cause of the appalling housing situation in London? May we have legislation as early as possible on this vital matter?
The legislation will be introduced very soon. I accept the point that my right hon. Friend has made. Insecurity in this field of tenure is one of the biggest single causes of homelessness, particularly in inner London, and indeed other parts of the country.
What led the Minister to reject the recommendations of the Francis Committee to the effect that if he were to give security of tenure on furnished accommodation similar to that on unfurnished accommodation there would be a great danger that the supply of accommodation would dry up, leading to substantial hardship?
No doubt we shall be able to discuss the detailed aspects of interpretations of the economic situation in the housing market when we introduce the Bill. The Labour Party made representations to the Francis Committee in favour of security of tenure for furnished tenants. Nothing that has happened since that time, particularly in inner London and other inner city areas, has led us to change our minds. On balance, notwithstanding the kind of risk to which the right hon. Lady has referred, it would be right to introduce this kind of security.
Lime Kiln Development (Cheddar)
6. Mr. Wiggin
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now hold a public inquiry into the development of lime kilns in Batts Combe Quarry at Cheddar in the county of Somerset.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)
No, Sir. Planning permission containing stringent conditions was granted by Somerset County Council in March 1973, and my right hon. Friend could hold a public inquiry at this stage only if he were to initiate revocation proceedings. He sees no reason to do this.[column 1238]
I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's truthful and sensible answer. Will he correspond with himself and his 19 hon. Friends who put down an earlyday motion in the previous Parliament asking for a public inquiry? Furthermore, does he appreciate that the Labour candidate in my constituency at the last election, encouraged by the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks), who instigated the motion, promised that Labour Ministers would hold a public inquiry?
The question of a public inquiry related to the call-in of the planning application. It would require revocation proceedings, and, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, the building now exists.
Will my hon. Friend appreciate that his answer disappoints not only those who have been pressing for the inquiry but those of us on this side of the House who are connected with the West Country who have been pressing for such an inquiry over a long period?
The difficulty is that the actual building is now in being. However, I can promise my hon. Friend that the stringent conditions laid down by Somerset County Council will certainly have to be adhered to.
I recognise the realism that comes upon the Labour Party when it takes office, but will the hon. Gentleman recognise the enormous efforts that have been made by the Somerset County Council to reconcile the conflict of interests between the quarry industry and those who regard amenities as of great importance? Will he also recognise the great change of heart that has taken place during the past three years by the quarry companies themselves which wish to live up to their responsibilities and are spending a great deal more money on improving the sites of their quarries?
I agree that Somerset County Council has taken great care in this matter, both with regard to local amenities and particularly with regard to traffic. The traffic flow may well be lessened by having the lime kilns where they are.
7. Mr. Raphael Tuck
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he [column 1239]will introduce legislation to stop the practice known as “winkling” by persons who engage in the business of estate agents.
I am considering further action, although it may be difficult to improve the law on harassment. Vigorous enforcement by local authorities of the existing provisions of the law could go a long way to stamp out such abuses.
Is my hon. Friend aware that many so-called estate agents are combining property dealings on a huge scale with their orthodox agency activities and are running veritable empires of property dealing? I mention two: the Lofts Estate Agency and Mr. Oliver Burge. This is regarded as unethical by leading professional bodies. Will my hon. Friend consider introducing legislation compelling anyone who sets himself up as an estate agent to have professional qualifications and to join a recognised and professional body, such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to make impossible that sort of dodge?
I accept what my hon. Friend says, that these abuses occur and are to be deplored. On the question of legislation, I can only say at this stage that the matter is under consideration. It is a matter of reform of the law which has previously been considered in Parliament. I shall consider the matter further.
Mr. George Cunningham
May I ask my hon. Friend not to overlook the fact that some firms of solicitors are prepared to put their names and prestige behind some of the activities mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Tuck)?
Yes, I am aware of that as well. If there were to be a change in the law covering the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Tuck), it would necessarily have to deal with certain other spin-off activities, so to call them, which are concerned in this type of abuse.
South Bedfordshire (Speed Limits)
8. Mr. Madel
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether, in view of the traffic conditions in villages in South Bedfordshire, he will reconsider [column 1240]the criteria issued by his Department for determining whether 30 mph speed limits should be imposed; and if he will make a statement.
Yes, Sir. We shall be discussing revised criteria with the new local authorities in the next months.
In view of the planned growth of population in these villages, the ever-increasing volume of traffic and the urgent need to alter the criteria, may I ask the Minister whether his reply means that he will have early talks with the new Bedfordshire County Council?
On the last point, once the new local authorities have settled down there will be general discussions with them. On the other matter, because of the build-up in certain villages and the fact that certain village routes are main routes in some instances, there will be a variation in some of the criteria.
What progress is being made with designated routes for heavy vehicles, especially in country areas? Further, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the proliferation of traffic signs and road safety signs is beginning to make jungles of what have hitherto been attractive villages?
The question of heavy goods vehicles raises a much more complicated matter than can be dealt with on this Question. The signs to which the hon. Gentleman refers are, unfortunately, required. As speeds increase, and as more people travel on the roads, more signs will be required. However, every effort will be made to standardise signs and make it as easy as possible for people to be directed properly on the road without too much inconvenience or damage to roadside amenity.
Rate Support Grant (Ealing)
9. Mr. Molloy
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will explain the degree to which ratepayers in the London borough of Ealing can expect to benefit as a result of the Rate Support Grant Order 1974 which he has made.
The domestic rate relief in Ealing for 1974–75 will now be 13p in the pound, instead of 7.5p in the [column 1241]pound as proposed by the previous Government. The corresponding increase in the estimated rate support grant is £1.4 million.
I thank my hon. Friend for that welcome reply. It is a sensible counter-inflationary measure. Does my hon. Friend agree that inasmuch as we all acknowledge that local government is almost the core of our civilisation—it is in the town halls where the real work is done by a magnificent voluntary spirit—the whole question of local government finance is desperately in need of examination and overhaul?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter, and, with him, I acknowledge the enormous amount of work that has been done, and is being done at present, in reorganisation by local government. As to how local government finance as a whole should be reorganised, I expect that we shall have a prolonged spell in office to consider how to improve the present system.
Can the hon. Gentleman say what particular speciality there is about Ealing which halves the rate for domestic ratepayers while, at the same time, the rate of the domestic ratepayers in Leicestershire is quadrupled? Is not this a clear case of political gerrymandering?
On the last point, clearly it is not a question of political gerrymandering. If the hon. Gentleman was present at the rate support grant debate, he will know that many of my hon. Friends were highly critical because their authorities lost and that those of many right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House gained as a result of the fixing of 13p. Ealing has a lot of problems as a London borough, and because of that we thought it right to make the grant 13p across the board, which was a fairer method than the previous Government's allocation.
Sir G. de Freitas
When the Government review the rate support grants and finance generally, will they take account of the counties which suffer enormously from having a great financial burden as a result of overspill from cities, encouraged by successive Governments?
This is a problem that has been raised by many of the delegations [column 1242]I have seen. We hope to start the rate support grant negotiations for next year as soon as possible in order to have a much more sensitive formula than the present one. I hope that that will take into account some of the difficulties to which my right hon. Friend has referred.
10. Mr. Allason
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he is taking to increase the supply of land for house building.
There is no evidence that land for house building is in short supply at present; this is not surprising when house building itself is at its lowest level for more than 25 years.
Does not the hon. Gentleman accept the proposition that the reason for the high price of land is its shortage, and that if there were a considerable increase in the supply the price would fall? Is he satisfied with current prices of housing land?
No, I am certainly not satisfied with current prices of housing land. However, there have been some rather chequered experiences in land prices within the past year or so, largely linked up with the catastrophic drop in house building under the previous Government.
Can my hon. Friend say when we may expect to receive legislation bringing development land into public ownership?
This matter is being worked upon at present in the Department. No doubt future Questions will be dealt with adequately by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government.
Mr. Arthur Jones
Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate on that and say what is implied by “taking into public possession” ?
There is a later Question on the Order Paper, on which the hon. Member will be able to pursue the matter in greater detail.
Will the Minister recognise that a much more effective way of reducing the price of land is to introduce a [column 1243]land value tax immediately on the granting of planning consent, with an escalating rate as the years go by? Will he accept that, contrary to the view just expressed by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Jones), it is impossible to increase the supply of land without building out into the seas around us?
I take that last subtle point, but I do not accept the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question.
Planning Procedures (Dobry Report)
11. Mr. Blenkinsop
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has considered the implications of the interim report of Mr. George Dobry on planning procedures; and what action he proposes.
Mr. John Silkin
I would refer my hon. Friend to the answer given to the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) on 25th March.—[Vol. 871, c. 28–29.]
While welcoming any action of a practical kind on the part of my right hon. Friend, as indicated in the earlier answer, may I ask whether he nevertheless agrees that the real cause of discredit of planning is the recent purely negative rôle of development control? Will he insist that the Government's new proposals about land ownership ensure that planning is given a positive rôle?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comment. It is a view that has been held by me and my family for the past 25 years.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give urgent and immediate consideration to three propositions in the interim report? The first is public involvement. Too few local authorities still do not notify their communities of the impact of local planning applications. The second is the setting up of planning advisory centres, so that both the applicant and the public can obtain advice on a technical and difficult aspect of the law. Thirdly, there are the very useful comments made by Dobry on the slowness and difficulties involved in planning appeals. That is one of the factors which hinder the bringing forward of land for housing development.[column 1244]
There is no. difference between us regarding public involvement. It is a matter which can be carried a great deal further. I am wholeheartedly in agreement with planning advisory centres. The hon. Gentleman may know that an experimental planning advisory centre is being set up in Winchester. We hope that it will give us a great deal of information and that it will lead to further extensions of this very good proposal.
The appeal procedure has been somewhat lengthened by the large number of planning applications during the past two years or so. There is a considerable backlog, much of which is now being dealt with. People wishing to make planning application should be encouraged to go for written representation when they can. Sometimes there is prejudice against it, but by now a large number of applications are being dealt with by written representation. Those who make written applications do not complain about the procedure, and the time taken is considerably less than with the normal appeal procedure.
12. Mr. Adley
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to pay an official visit to Clay Cross.
I have at present no plans to do so.
That is probably a very wise decision. Will the right hon. Gentleman take an opportunity to censure the aggressive and arrogant behaviour of a small number of people in Clay Cross and reject the outrageous proposals made by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House at the last Labour Party conference? Will he take an opportunity to tell the House and the country where he stands in the battle of thuggery versus the rule of law?
The hon. Gentleman was a Member in the last Parliament, so he knows perfectly well where I stand on the rule of law. On the more general questions he raises, a Government statement on Clay Cross will be made tomorrow. As regards the speech of my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council at the party conference to [column 1245]which I listened, by far the greater part of it was a devastating critique of Tory housing policies. He made one or two references at the end of his speech to the question of Clay Cross and no doubt they will be alluded to in the statement to be made tomorrow.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Clay Cross council is far from being composed of thugs? The council introduced free milk for schoolchildren, free television licences for every old-age pensioner in the town and a comprehensive warden scheme for all the old people in the town, the like of which has not been seen in the rest of the country. Will he bear in mind that in February 1973 the previous Secretary of State for the Environment met the other council, Conisbrough, which had been surcharged by another auditor for twice as much as the Clay Cross council had been surcharged and that after a mysterious meeting which took place at Whitehall the surcharge on the Conisbrough council was removed?
I was not aware of the last point made by my hon. Friend.
Provided my hon. Friend ceases threatening me, I shall check it. The other, wider issues will no doubt be the matter of some discussion when the Government statement is made tomorrow.
If the right hon. Gentleman will not go to Clay Cross, will he go instead to Ince-in-Makerfield and make close inquiries into the property speculation in which close associates of the Prime Minister are alleged to be involved?
That was a very distasteful supplementary question.
Mr. Frank Allaun
When my right hon. Friend makes his statement tomorrow, will he take into consideration the fact that there have been several important procedents for Parliament passing retrospective legislation to correct injustices?
I am aware of what my hon. Friend says. There is an interesting point in the action taken by the last Government in relation to Merthyr [column 1246]Tydfil. All these matters will be discussed on the Government statement tomorrow.
Rate Support Grant (Preston)
14. Mr. Thorne
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how the Preston District Council may be affected by changes in the rate support grant.
The domestic rate relief in Preston will now be 13p in the pound, instead of 13.5p in the pound proposed by the previous Government. The corresponding reduction in estimated rate support grant is about £31,000.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although this may seem a small sum it will have an impact in the Preston area? Does he further agree that yet again we are concerned with the allocation of scarce resources, and will he exercise some influence upon the Government to ensure that the resources allocated to arms expenditure are suitably reduced in order to meet people's needs in the Preston area?
I mentioned the £31,000, not to minimise the matter but to draw attention to the fact that many authorities which are very worried about the rate support grant have not really grasped the fact that it was the previous Government's rate support grant measures that we in principle had to adopt because of the time factor. With regard to the rate support grant in the future, we are considering how to allocate central Government support more fairly and effectively.
Does the Minister agree that possibly the way to cut back arms expenditure for the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) would be to look at the British Aircraft Corporation works at Preston?
Housing (Compulsory Purchase)
15. Mr. Cyril Smith
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will announce early plans to correct the anomalies existing in the Land Compensation Act 1973 whereby people who live in houses on which compulsory purchase orders have been served, but who are rehoused by the relevant local authorities before the compulsory purchase orders have been confirmed, lose their rights under the Act.[column 1247]
Mr. John Silkin
I am writing to the hon. Member on a case he has recently drawn to my attention. If he cares to send me details of any other cases he has in mind, I shall be glad to look at them carefully to see whether any anomalies arise.
16. Mr William Hamilton
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the future investment programme for the railways.
The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
I am considering the Railways Board's proposals.
Does my right hon. Friend recollect that one of the promises on which we fought the election was that we would increase investment on the railways and attract freight and passenger traffic from the roads? Does he not agree that this is particularly relevant in Scotland where North Sea oil is extremely important and the demands on the roads are becoming impossible? Will he give an assurance that there will be a White Paper very soon and that the investment in rail will be not less than that envisaged in the original White Paper?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in stressing the relevance of railway investment, but I think he will also understand that, much as the present Government have already done, to perform all the election manifesto in a month would have required an incredible speed of operation which I could not hope to maintain. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that I shall not take three and a half years as the previous Government did to state our railway policy. I am concerned to make it known as soon as possible.
In giving consideration to his future investment programme, will the right hon. Gentleman give particular attention to the electrification of the North Wales Coast railway line through to Holyhead and also to the continuance for a considerable time of the Cambrian Coast railway line?
I think the hon. Member should know that the proposals for investment are submitted in the first instance by the British Railways Board. I do not take these decisions for the [column 1248]railways, but I certainly have a very warm spot for electrification. [Laughter.] Some hon. Members may think that I should sit on such a warm spot. I authorised the electrification programme from Preston to Scotland which is to be opened next month.
Sir John Hall
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify a point which he seems to have put in doubt? Is it or is it not the intention of the present Government to implement the railway investment programme that was announced by the last Government?
I should be in some difficulty in announcing it as the last Government stated it, because is was announced in the House in November and was cut by the Chancellor of the Exchequer within a month of its having been announced. I shall certainly announce our railway investment programme as soon as possible.
17. Mr. Moate
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will announce the cancellation of the Maplin project.
I have nothing at present to add to my answer to the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) on 20th March and the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade on 21st March.—[Vol. 870, c. 107; c. 1334–40.]
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that on 16th January he told the House not that there would be a review but that the next Labour Government would in a matter of weeks cancel Maplin? Can he tell us whether the present review is genuine, thereby implying the possibility that the project will continue, or whether his earlier promise was genuine, because one of them cannot be genuine?
There may perhaps be more than one precise interpretation of the phrase “a matter of weeks” . I can assure the hon. Gentleman of two things: my views on Maplin have not changed, but the review is a genuine one.
Sir J. Rodgers
Is the right hon. Gentleman yet in a position to consider other methods of saving money? For example, [column 1249]what are his views on the Channel Tunnel? Is it to be cancelled or deferred?
I shall be making a statement on the Channel Tunnel at 3.30 p.m.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is holding up his decision? Is it because he does not know where the next airport in Britain should be or where the next seaport should be? It would help the House to know what is holding up this decision.
The review of the airport need is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. He has promised to report the result of the review to the House before the Summer Recess, and I think it not unreasonable that a few weeks should be taken in reviewing the matter. I have no detailed proposals before me for a seaport, so I have no decision to make on that.
Motorway Hazards (News Dissemination)
18. Mr. Leslie Huckfield
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to introduce a code of practice with a view to improved co-ordination between the broadcasting and police authorities and the motoring associations in the transmission of motorway accident and fog information; and whether he will make a statement.
There are already close relations between these three parties. I shall review the arrangements in conjunction with the report of the tragic accidents on the M1 on 13th March last.
Will my right hon. Friend first repudiate the suggestion put forward by the RAC—possibly the silliest suggestion it has ever made—that it was the 50 m.p.h. speed limit that was responsible for this last pile-up? Is he satisfied that the present system of co-ordination between the broadcasting authorities, the police and the motoring organisations does the maximum not only to get information to the motoring public about where the fog is but what they ought to do when they are in it?
I think that it would be asking a little too much for the broadcasting authorities to give detailed driving [column 1250]instructions. I hope that all motorists, before they go on the road, whether there is fog or not, will acquaint themselves with the necessary steps to take and, most important, not drive at 50 mph when it has been broadcast on the radio, well before an accident, that there is only 25 yards' visibility on that section of the road.
Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of installing additional hazard warning systems for this eventuality, which so often follows on motorways with so little warning? Little seems to be being done. Will the right hon. Gentleman, having considered it, make a statement to the House?
I do not think that the problem is a lack of new devices. It is a case of extending the already well developed computer-controlled system. I have been in my office for only a month, so I cannot take full responsibility for all the deficiencies in the transport system as I find it, but I shall certainly do what I can to satisfy the hon. Lady on the matter she has raised.
Pudsey-Dishforth Motorway Link
19. Mr. Giles Shaw
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the latest position with regard to the proposed Pudsey-Dishforth motorway link, in the light of recent cuts in public expenditure.
The Pudsey-Dishforth route is at a very early stage of preparation and is not directly affected by the recent expenditure cuts. Work already in hand to collect essential traffic information is continuing.
May I ask the Minister for further enlightenment on this matter? Does his answer mean that it is not in the programme as offered by the previous Government and that it is further postponed, or is it a matter upon which the Minister has not yet decided?
No. There is still a great deal of information to be obtained before a final decision in this area may be made.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in the Bradford area, where great [column 1251]steps have been taken, backed by local resources, to diversify in industry, there is much anxiety that there should be adequate access to the motorway network, particularly to the North-East and to the North-West?
That is part of the reason for the fact that studies are being undertaken on the need for this road.
Will the Minister consider establishing a planning inquiry commission so that there may be full public scrutiny of the whole road strategy of the area between the Mersey and the Humber, as there are so many road projects for this area? In fact, individual planning inquiries cannot take account of the change of traffic flow that each of them has on neighbouring areas or areas in the middle such as mine.
The established procedures will provide a wealth of information and provide plenty of opportunity for the public to make their views known. I do not believe that any other special consideration need be given to this matter.
Improvement Grants (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
20. Mr. Elliott
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is aware of the delay caused by shortage of skilled labour in the building trade to schemes which have obtained grant approval in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; and if he will consider extending the period in which grants approved at 75 per cent. can be allowed.
I would refer the hon. Member to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) on 18th March.—[Vol. 870, c. 25–6.]
I am aware of that answer. Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the delay in presenting new legislation to introduce such grants as were embodied in the Housing and Planing Bill of the Conservative Government makes it essential to extend the present period of grant?
Even had the Housing and Planning Bill introduced by the previous Government been proceeded with, there would still have been a problem [column 1252]arising on the point that the hon. Member has put to me. I am not sure, therefore, that the point he has now put in his supplementary question is entirely relevant.
Mr. Edwin Wainwright
Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that because of the shortage of labour and materials many individuals are finding it extremely difficult to get their repairs and alterations done? Some of these people are elderly and have spent all their money on the houses in which they live and want to modernise them. Will my hon. Friend take that into account?
Certainly. We are giving this matter urgent consideration, and I hope that shortly we shall be able to make a statement on the matter.
21. Mrs. Renée Short
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what proposals he has for the future motorway programme.
27. Mr. Mather
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the implementation of the road programme.
I am satisfied that, after allowing for a substantial transfer of traffic and resources from road to rail, the continued development of a national network of inter-urban roads is justified. I am reviewing the priorities of individual schemes within the programme in the light of the funds likely to be available over the next few years.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a widely held view that the whole of the motorway programme needs to be re-examined on the grounds of cost to the nation, land use and national amenity? Is he further aware that many people feel that part of the cost of the motorway programme should be used to improve the urban bottlenecks within our towns and cities rather than that we should carve up great swaths of countryside to build more motorways? Will he carry out such a reexamination before taking steps to build any more motorways?
We are reviewing the whole programme, but I think that my [column 1253]hon. Friend is not expressing a majority view when she suggests that the interurban fund should instead be spent on building roads in urban areas.
I did not say that.
Indeed, I have received a great deal of contrary advice to the effect that it is the urban roads that create blockages in urban areas. There is a lot of controversy. I find that some of the most eloquent advocates of no road building are the most persistent supporters of a particular road development. That in essence is the problem.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give a date for the start of the Esher bypass, bearing in mind that this idea was conceived 30 years ago and we are still waiting for it?
I am afraid that I cannot give a detailed reply to a general question of that sort. I shall let the hon. Gentleman know the answer.
22. Mr. Jessel
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment on what date he now expects to open the final section of the M3 motorway from Lightwater to Sunbury.
I have nothing to add to the answer given to the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Mitchell) on 25th March.—[Vol. 871, c. 28.]
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the prospect of the completion of the eastern end of M3 gives rise to a great deal of anxiety in the Twickenham area because of fears of a heavy increase in the volume of traffic, not only on the Great Chertsey Road but on turnings leading to Kingston and Hampton Court bridges and in Whitton? Will he take these anxieties seriously and stand by the decision of his predecessor to taper the eastern exit from M3 from three to two lanes?
I read the speech that the hon. Gentleman made last July about this matter. As he probably knows, a working party, comprising the Department, local authorities and police, is now considering all the various measures that may be required to cope with the increased volume of traffic. Some [column 1254]of these measures have already been announced.
Green Belt Land
23. Mr. Norman Fowler
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on his policy concerning the preservation of green belt land.
The preservation of green belt land is an important aspect of the Government's determination to protect and improve the environment. I shall support the policy of maintaining green belts and will consider sympathetically proposals for their extension.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he confirm that the Government's policy is that it is better to develop derelict land for housing than to use fresh green belt? If that is so, will he recognise that there is no case for allowing Birmingham to sprawl further into the green belt when it has now been found that 7,500 acres of derelict land exist in the West Midlands?
I read with great interest the hon. Gentleman's speech in the Adjournment debate on 12th March. I am aware of his views on this matter. I understand that the proposals to which he has referred will come to me for decision, and I shall try to take a view on them by the early summer.
Would my right hon. Friend agree, however, that there are methods other than green belt by which to achieve the same aim of preserving open space?
Yes, I would agree, but so far those other methods do not command universal assent and are not part of the policy of the present Government any more than they were of the previous Government. Until we have an alternative strategy for saving the countryside, we should stick to the one that we have.
Mr. Michael Latham
Does the Secretary of State accept the policy of his predecessor that 2,000 acres of what one might call “scruffy” metropolitan green belt should be released as quickly as possible?
I said in reply to a Question asked a few days ago by the [column 1255]hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) that I should take a view on that question when I had detailed proposals from the standing joint conference.
Rate Support Grant (Liverpool)
24. Mr. Loyden
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how the Liverpool District Council will be affected by the changes in the rate support grant.
The domestic rate relief in Liverpool for 1974–75 will now be 13p in the pound, instead of 7p in the pound proposed by the previous Government. The corresponding increase in the estimated rate support grant is £1.85 million.
I welcome the almost life-saving effect on Liverpool of the Government's decision. When making the assessment of the 1975–76 rate support grant, will my hon. Friend consider giving more positive discrimination in areas such as Liverpool which still have housing and other environmental problems?
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. The additional assistance to Merseyside is the effect that we had in mind in adopting a flat rate of domestic relief. We will certainly be considering how we can allocate central Government funds more fairly next year.
Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the additional money which will now go to the big cities as the result of the reallocation of the domestic element in the rate support grant will be spent on additional services, as it should be, as opposed to reducing the rates?
That is a matter for the local authorities.
Davyhulme Sewage Works
25. Mr. Churchill
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about his Department's experimental programme at the Davyhulme sewage works.
My Department is supporting two small research projects at Davyhulme. The first, into the use of pure oxygen in the activated sludge process of sewage treatment, is nearing completion. The second, into the physico-chemical treatment of sewage, for which plant is being installed, is expected to [column 1256]start in the autumn and will continue for several years.
Can the hon. Gentleman say what assistance the Government are willing to give Greater Manchester and the regional water authority to mitigate the intolerable levels of smell to which my constituents are subjected from the sewage works, and what research his Department is sponsoring into more efficient and acceptable means of disposing of this waste, in particular for recapturing some of the methane gas and making use of it for energy purposes?
Although the House treated with some mirth what the hon. Gentleman said, I can assure the House that it is not a matter for mirth to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, who have to suffer living near the sewage works. As far as we can ascertain, it is not the research projects which are responsible for the smell. Some emanation of smell is inevitable from a sewage works. I am satisfied that Manchester has done all it can to mitigate this situation. It will now be a matter for the regional water authority, and I hope it takes effective measures to reduce any effects of nuisance from this work.
70 mph Speed Limit
26. Mr. Whitehead
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now restore the 70 mph speed limit in force before the recent fuel emergency.
My hon. Friend will know that the 70 mph limit was restored on motorways last Friday. There is still need for economy in the use of petrol, and for that reason it is not yet possible to restore the 70 mph speed limit on other roads.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on resisting the extensive lobbying for a permanent 50 mph speed limit? Does he agree that the high cost of petrol is likely to be a much greater incentive to voluntary saving by motorists than the limits temporarily enforced during the state of emergency, which grossly overtaxed the police and were in any event widely violated after the first week or so?
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. I agree with him that [column 1257]it would be wrong to abuse this emergency for a drastic change in the level of speed limits.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether there was a reduction in the accident rate on the motorways during the 50 mph period?
Yes, I can confirm that the figures for December show that there was a fall of about 9 per cent. We do not have the figures for January and February yet, but in addition to the lower speeds there was a great deal less traffic, particularly during the petrol shortage last December.
Aire Valley Motorway
28. Mr. Cryer
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will give early consideration to the cancellation of the Aire Valley motorway.
Is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents would prefer new schools to new motorways, that they are already appalled at the low level of compensation proposed for people affected and are very suspicious that this motorway is part of a much larger, expensive network, and that it should be treated as such and not in isolation?
I hope that we treat all motorways as part of a general plan and not in isolation. As to the question of compensation, I have received no evidence from any source of a suggestion that compensation is inadequate. I shall be only too pleased to consider any information which has been given to my hon. Friend.