Rate Support Grant
1. Mr. Pardoe
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will pay an official visit to Cornwall to investigate the effects of his rate support policies.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Anthony Crosland)
I have no plans to do so at present. I am well aware of the strength of local feelings on this issue, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government has met local authority representatives from Cornwall.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and I thank his right hon. Friend for his extremely helpful letter in reply to me today. I realise the difficulty about doing anything to help this year and I welcome the view of the Department and of the right hon. Gentleman that it may be possible to help in 1975–76. Will the Secretary of State turn his attention to the question of rebates? A large part of the rate is made up of sewerage and water rates, which are not eligible for rebate. Help in this financial year would be of enormous assistance to my constituents. Will the Secretary of State help Cornwall in this matter?
The question of rebate is extremely important. With regard to the ordinary rate rebate, 75 per cent. of the hon. Gentleman's constituents are eligible for rate rebate, but this does not apply to water and sewerage rates. I cannot give an undertaking to do something about it this year but the matter will be very much in our minds in our attempts during the next few months or [column 372]so to bring about a more equitable distribution of the rate support grant next year.
Will the Secretary of State, explain—because the point did not come out clearly in the recent debate on the rate support order—why Wales is receiving special treatment while other outlying areas are not? My constituents would be interested to know this.
We took the view that much of Wales had been affected far more seriously than other areas by the application of changes in local government and by reorganisation of finance and water and sewerage services. Lest there is a misunderstanding, I should point out that, even with the uniform domestic relief for Wales, some districts in Wales will lose out as a result of our decision.
I do not wish to misquote the right hon. Gentleman but, without being specific about his actual words, has he not given the British public the impression that what he is proposing is to bring in a measure of social justice? On what basis does the right hon. Gentleman assume that people in small towns and in the countryside, such as in Cornwall, are, on the whole, much richer than those in the large urban areas?
I do not assume anything of the sort. I accept at once that average earnings in Cornwall are lower than the national average, but it should be pointed out that the average rate payment in Cornwall is also much lower than the national average. These two factors have to be balanced.
1. Mr. Ashley
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the progress of his study of possible changes in the rate support systems.
My officials have begun discussions with representatives of the local authority associations. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government and I hope to meet the associations later in the month. We shall also be discussing the issues with a representative sample of local authorities.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of Stoke-on-Trent [column 373]have suffered badly from the recent changes in the rate support grant and would like special consideration from him to alleviate some of the great hardship involved? Is he further aware that the present rating system is full of anomalies and injustices? Can he assure us that there will be a thorough review of the whole system to ensure that those anomalies and injustices are removed?
I am well aware of what has happened to my hon. Friend's constituents and how strongly they feel about it. Indeed, he led a deputation from Stoke-on-Trent to see the Under-Secretary of State. I shall do the best I can over the rate support grant to produce next year a formula which will certainly not be universally popular—no formula can be—but will at least be universally held to be the best that we can produce in this imperfect world.
Does the Secretary of State realise the great anger that exists in many parts of the country—certainly in Hertfordshire—at the way in which he has gerrymandered the rate support grant? Is he aware that this is held to be totally unfair and that it is unacceptable to have constantly rising rates, which would have been avoided had he not taken the action he did in March?
I am well aware of the anger that is felt in many parts of the country, including Grimsby, I may say. If I had been out to gerrymander, I would appear to have done it ineffectively so far as my own interests are concerned. I do not think that the hon. Member seriously means his accusation about gerrymandering. On the general point, I must make it clear that if we take the country as a whole we see that I redistributed only about 7½ per cent. of the total rate support grant. The total national increase in rates this year was not the responsibility of this Government; we inherited it from the previous Government.
I accept what my right hon. Friend has said—I hope that he will repeat it—that the vast bulk of rate increases is directly attributable to the Tory policies that the last Government pursued, but would it be possible to introduce for this year a special Supplementary Estimate on the domestic element in the rate support grant? I assure [column 374]my right hon. Friend that a substantial number of people, not in my constituency but in many others, are finding that the present rates impose an intolerable burden.
Certainly, in my lifetime, I have never known such universal anger and resentment at the level of rates. This is in a sense new social phenomenon. Rates have come to the top of many people's priorities. However, my hon. Friend was born in Grimsby and is therefore a man of acute perception and common sense. As such, he will not expect me to promise anything for this year.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is tremendous anger in Derbyshire and elsewhere about this matter, and that it is purely because of his actions that that anger has been increased to the extent that it has. [Hon. Members: “No.” ] Yes, it has. My hon. Friend's accusation of gerrymandering is right. Will the right hon. Gentleman take immediate action to put this matter right?
No, Sir. I must make it clear once again that the total national increase in the rate burden this year, which has been so bitterly resented by so many of our citizens, is the responsibility of the Tory Government.
2. Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what has been the financial effect on the voluntary housing movement of the rent freeze.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)
Some housing associations report that they are finding it difficult to meet the financial effects of the rents freeze. Provision is made in the Housing Bill for some adjustment to subsidies payable to housing associations. This will help associations, but we are considering whether further measures may be necessary.
Does the Under-Secretary accept that the aid promised in the Housing Bill is totally insufficient, and will he, as a matter of urgency, consider specifically the possibility of allowing [column 375]housing associations to pass on extra service charges, such as higher fuel costs, which local authorities are permitted to do?
I do not agree that the aid which the hon. Gentleman mentioned is totally insufficient; at worst it is comparatively insufficient. I accept that there may be problem. I gave the assurance in the debate on Monday—and I give it again today—that we are seriously watching the situation to see what else should be done. The question of service charges is under review.
Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that the rent freeze is a fiddle and that it is doing everything possible to hurt those in council house estates who pay a normal rent and to relieve those who would be able to pay an economic rent, and that, indeed, the whole thing is being paid by other people in the country and not by council house tenants?
A bigger fiddle was to allow rents to rise while controlling wages. But if the Conservative Party does not like our rent freeze, let it put down a motion on it and vote on it.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, in contradistinction to what the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) said, the National Federation of Housing Associations has widely welcomed the Housing Bill and hopes that it will go through the House as fast as possible?
We have had many consultations with that organisation. My hon. Friend is right to draw the conclusion that he does.
What is the estimated amount of these additional subsidies for housing associations that the Minister has just mentioned? Will this come out of the £100 million or so which is being provided for housing associations under the Housing Bill for the improvement of old houses?
It is extra, and the sum of £1 million.
Local Authority Staffs (Salaries)
3. Mr. Trotter
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what were the [column 376]approximate numbers of posts in local authorities in England and Wales with salaries in the band between £4,000 and £5,000 and in each higher band of £1,000 (a) prior to reorganisation on 1st April 1974, and (b) subsequent to such reorganisation; and what is the difference in total costs.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)
I regret that this information is not available.
Is the Minister aware that there is a general feeling in the country that many local authorities have not shown sufficient restraint in arriving at their senior staffing levels following reorganisation, and that many ratepayers, at a time of unprecedented increase in their rates, feel that this information should be made available? Is it not right that it can readily be made available and must be made available?
I warned the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) during the passage of the previous administration's Local Government Bill that there was widespread disquiet about what was happening as a result of local government reorganisation. I am still very concerned. As soon as a full report from the LACSAB survey has been received, my right hon. Friend will consider what further action is necessary. The survey should be received in about two or three weeks.
Speaking as the chairman of a district planning committee and a member of a county planning committee, may I say that a large number of people are worried not only about the salaries of officials but about the growing numbers of people employed? Will the Minister, in a less ambitious project, make a random sample of, say, planning establishments in metropolitan counties and non-metropolitan counties and compare them with the people who were engaged in planning on 1st April 1974? Does he not agree that we may be rapidly reaching a stage when there are more cow-boys than Indians?
My hon. Friend may be talking about establishments. There is, of course, a widespread shortage of actual planners, but in overall numbers, it [column 377]would seem from the preliminary survey that there was an approximate increase of 5 per cent. in the number of staff employed as between the old authorities and the new.
5. Mr. Silvester
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will examine the desirability of extending the qualifying date for the higher rate of home improvement grant in respect of those dwellings, the future of which is awaiting his decision on an application for compulsory purchase.
39. Mr. Arthur Davidson
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has yet made a decision with regard to extending the date beyond which the full improvement grant is payable.
I would refer the hon. Member and my hon. Friend to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) on 30th April. I regret that no concession is possible in cases where, for whatever reason, the submission or consideration of applications for preferential rates of grant has been delayed.—[Vol. 872, c. 440–1.]
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in my constituency, on at least two orders, replies have been delayed for nine and 10 months respectively, and that the people who are suffering from the delay are now being asked to bear the additional burden of losing the additional support that they would have received on the improvement grant?
In welcoming the hon. Member as a fellow representative of Manchester, I would point out that all but two of those months fell in the period of the previous administration, who were also responsible for the limit on the 75 per cent. grant. Unlike this administration, who have made a concession, the previous Government gave no sign whatever of making any concessions.
Is my hon. Friend aware that his reply to me is welcome because it will remove the anxiety of countless householders who have been callously mucked and messed about for month after month by builders? In view of the high cost of building, however, and [column 378]the delays by builders, will he examine the whole system of improvement grants to see whether there is some way by which small householders can really benefit? After all, they were the people whom the system was intended to benefit in the first place.
I accept what my hon. Friend says, especially about the way in which people have been mucked about by builders. At the same time, I draw his attention to the fact that we are trying to do something—not totally satisfactory by any means—in the Housing Bill which is before the House at present. But these are matters to which we shall no doubt have to return.
Motorways (Service Stations)
6. Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what criteria he uses in the selection of sites for motorway service stations.
The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
Sites are sought for development initially with the motorway development at roughly 25-mile intervals and are normally 30–35 acres in extent. Sites are also earmarked where appropriate roughly half way between these for possible later development if and when traffic builds up to demand additional facilities. The selection is made in consultation with the local planning authority concerned and account is taken of traffic, engineering, environmental and agricultural considerations.
I am grateful for those details. However, may I put it to the Minister that it is time that his Department thought of something less elaborate in the service station/restaurant complex every time a filling station is required on a motorway? May I commend to him the European example of using petrol only substations at intervals of less than 50 miles?
We are prepared to consider any suggestions in this context, but successive Governments have accepted that is is desired by the travelling public to have available refreshment facilities as well as petrol, breakdown and other facilities. The survey commissioned by the previous Government and recently published rather suggested that there was a [column 379]public demand for the complexes that we now have.
Dr. Edmund Marshall
In the choice of motorway service station sites, as, for example, that proposed at Hatfield, in my constituency, is any importance attached to local public opinion?
I am not sure to what extent specific attempts to meet local public opinion are made, but certainly the local authorities and the detailed arrangements have to have planning permission from the local planning authority in the normal way.
In view of the appalling state of motorway service stations, will the Minister consider investigating the operations of Jacques Borel, on the French autoroutes, which serve qualitative and very inexpensive food? At the same time, will the Minister reconsider licensing the motorway catering establishments? Will he also consider the desirability of unlicensed motorway restaurants, in view of the fact that one can now drive on roads other than motorways at the same speed as one does on motorways?
On the question of licensing, new legislation would be required. My assessment of public opinion is that the public would not take kindly to licensing specifically motorway restaurants. The hon. Member suggested, perhaps, that I should make a personal tour of the French autoroutes. If he could arrange for my Chief Whip to give me permission to be away, I could see many advantages in that course. But we are constantly surveying the facilities that are available and, as I have said, the survey of public opinion on this matter does not suggest that the motorway service stations are in the appalling condition that the hon. Member suggests.
7. Mr. Arthur Jones
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is meant by the phrase “bringing land required for development into public possession” , used in the Gracious Speech when referring to the acquisition of land required for development.
I have nothing to add to the reply given on 3rd April to the [column 380]hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel).—[Vol. 871, c. 353.]
Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether compensation for land acquired will be on the basis of existing use and at the level of market value? If there is——
Mr. William Hamilton
Declare your interest.
—a question of land being taken into public possession and that is to be done on the basis of taking it over on an unknown date for an unknown amount, that would amount to expropriation.
The hon. Member is well versed in these matters.
He is well breeched as well.
The Labour Party when in opposition was committed to the principle of current or existing use value, and so are the Labour Government when in office. On the other point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, he will have to wait in patience for a little longer before we can announce details.
Mr. Frank Allaun
Does my right hon. Friend accept that his assurance that such land will be paid for at present use value, for example, a waste land, farmland or disused dockland—or slag heaps—will be enormously welcomed throughout our movement, because otherwise it would be paid for at the exorbitant price that it obtains once planning permission is given? Sometimes that price is 100 times greater. As my right hon. Friend has just indicated, this is an essential part of the Labour Party's plans.
My hon. Friend will know that I was heavily implicated, as he was, in the preparation of those plans, and that I am also very committed personally on these matters by an article, which undoubtedly he will have read, in Socialist Commentary only two months ago.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that lack of detail on his proposals is causing great anxiety? [Interruption.] Uncertainly is bad for any market. Will he say whether he intends to introduce a White Paper before [column 381]any legislative proposals, and, if so, when?
Regarding uncertainty, all of us who are interested in housing are concerned with what is happening in the land market. But there is no indication that a shortage of land with planning permission is at present a major inhibiting factor on the house building programme, so we are not dealing with a matter of desperate urgency. I should prefer not to commit myself on a date for a White Paper, or for legislation, but long before the end of the year some detailed proposals will be put to the House.
Rent Freeze (Landlords' Costs)
8. Sir J. Eden
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what he estimates to have been the effect of the Counter-Inflation (Private Sector Residential Rents) Order on small private landlords following the increased costs that have occurred since the order was made.
16. Mr. Tebbit
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take action to allow private landlords to recover the increased costs which they will incur during the rent freeze in respect of providing hot water.
33. Mr. Costain
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will take steps to allow private landlords to recover the increased costs which they will incur during the rent freeze in respect of providing central heating.
I am currently examining the effects of the Counter-Inflation (Private Sector Residential Rents) Order.
Sir J. Eden
Will the hon. Gentleman ask his right hon. Friend to look with great urgency at what is actually happening, particularly at the amount of genuine hardship that is being experienced by those who are in business in a small way, often designed to supplement their income in retirement? Will he end this arbitrary rent freeze as quickly as possible? In particular, in the short term, will he at least enable landlords to charge increases where, for example, heating costs have risen quite disproportionately?
We are determined to end the rent freeze as soon as possible— [column 382]as soon as we are ready to bring in our repeal of the Housing Finance Act, to which we are committed. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are well aware of the problem of service charges. I can give him no assurance beyond that.
Is my hon. Friend aware that rent registrations and negotiations for rents to go from control into registration are still going on in the private sector? Does he agree that this means that at the end of the three-year period a landlord will be able to charge the increased rent which is negotiated now? In other words, the rent freeze will have gone for those tenants and they will have only two and a half years of regulation instead of three years.
It is a pernicious system, which was contrived by the Conservative Party when it hatched the deplorable Act which we are now considering repealing, and the repeal of which we shall very speedily bring before the House. We greatly regret the anomalies to which my hon. Friend has referred. In so far as we can put matters right, we shall.
Will the hon. Gentleman repeat his pledge, so that we may get it quite clear? He said that the rent freeze would be ended on the introduction of his Government's Bill to repeal the Housing Finance Act, and not on its passage. Second, for how long does the hon. Gentleman expect the private landlord to pay out of his own pocket the extra costs of, for example, hot water and other services which the landlord may not at present recover from his tenants—especially as the Chancellor has put up the cost of electricity by 30 per cent?
Many of my constituents who are the tenants of private landlords have no hot water supply. Therefore, that problem does not arise in their case. With regard to the first question, the hon. Gentleman misheard what I said. I said that we are anxious to bring the freeze to an end when we can replace it by more permanent legislation. The freeze is at present scheduled to end on 31st December. We shall just have to see how we get on.
Is the Minister aware that his answer is a typical Socialist [column 383]answer? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.” ] I am delighted with the cheers from Labour Members, but they should wait. Is the Minister aware also that more than 10 years ago I said in the House that as long as the Socialist party adopted such an attitude there would be no private flats or houses for rent? [Hon. Members: “Declare your personal interest.” ] I shall. Is the Minister aware also that I have no interest as such, except as a tenant?
Has the Minister's attention been drawn to the letter which has been sent by the Dolphin Square Trust saying that it is impossible to maintain that building in its present state? Is he further aware that that building has more Members of this House as tenants than has any other building in England? Will the hon. Gentleman satisfy himself that Members will not be subsidised by the ratepayers of Westminster?
I should be very grateful if the hon. Gentleman would come to my constituency party meeting on Sunday and confirm that I give typical Socialist answers in the House. At the same time, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the question of the Dolphin Square Trust is a particularly difficult one, but the last thing I shall do is stand up in the House and say, “Members of Parliament before other citizens” .
Sir J. Eden
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the totally unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I will seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.
9. Mr. Berry
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans the Government have in relation to nationalising the ports.
It is the Government's intention to bring all commercial ports and cargo handling activities into public ownership and control, and I propose to consult those concerned about the form and scope of the necessary legislation.
Will the Minister give us an example of the way in which our ports would have benefited during the past four years had the 1970 Bill become an Act?[column 384]
The 1970 Bill would now have had to be reconsidered, because it was confined to only a few ports. If the hon. Gentleman had followed industrial relations in the early years of the last Government he would have had knowledge of the arguments I deployed at great length in the Committee stage of the measure—at which he was also present—where I gave chapter and verse.
Mr. R. C. Mitchell
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the most efficient port in the country—Southampton—is already nationalised? Would it not be a very good idea if we quickly nationalised all the other ports to bring them up to the standards of Southampton?
My hon. Friend will not expect me to give such unqualified praise to one of our many ports, because that might get me into trouble. There is no doubt that the record of the nationalised ports is good. In a group strategic planning can be done, embracing the whole country, so that we consider what the ports industry needs strategically in a way that, unhappily, the National Ports Council cannot, because it has no executive powers.
Will the right hon. Gentleman address his mind to what possible useful purpose could be achieved by this ridiculous measure? There is adequate control over the ports as things are at present. Will he bear in mind the fact that nationalisation of almost anything constitutes a standing temptation to Ministers—I am not including the right hon. Gentleman—who would not be able to run a whelk stall, constantly to interfere and do a great deal of damage?
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was making something like a public confession—because, despite his well-known and publicised views, he was in charge of some of our nationalised industries. I have no access to his papers, but, reading between a few lines, I would say that he was not loth to interfere, and did interfere.
10. Mr. William Hamilton
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many acres of pit bings and other coal mining areas of derelict land have been cleared in each of the last six years [column 385]in England by local authorities and by private companies and how much public money has been involved; and if he will ascertain and provide comparable figures for Wales and Scotland, respectively.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)
I regret that records are not kept in this degree of detail, but I will, with permission, circulate in the Official Report the nearest available information relating to each of the three countries.