1. Mr. Beith
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will pay an official visit to Berwick-upon-Tweed to evaluate the adequacy of the assistance given by his Department towards development and conservation in the area.
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Anthony Crosland)
No, Sir. I am satisfied that my Department is giving appropriate assistance towards both development and conservation in the Berwick-upon-Tweed area.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, following his decision on the shipyard, people in Berwick are left wondering how a town with over 500 historic buildings can be conserved, where the money can be found and how the housing programme for the development that the Department has approved can be financed? Does he realise that neighbouring Scottish towns have the benefit of the Scottish Special Housing Association for housing schemes and that comparable assistance is needed in Berwick?
The hon. Gentleman will know that while I rejected the proposed development on the north bank of the river I accepted in principle the pro[column 362]posed development on the south bank which, I think, will produce more jobs. In the last few years my Department has spent over £2 million helping Berwick-upon-Tweed in various ways. At the moment the SSHA has no powers to operate outside Scotland, but under the Housing Bill now before the House, which I hope will be completed before the end of July, registered housing associations in England will be able to build in Berwick without any call on the general rate fund.
Sir William Elliott
As regards the general environment of the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency, which is part of Northumberland, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to note that the ending of the hotel development grant in March last year severely curtailed hotel development in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Northumberland generally to the detriment of the tourist trade, which has become extremely important to the area? Will he consider reinstituting a grant for middle-range hotel development at least on a level commensurate with the previous one?
My Department is not responsible for the hotel development scheme, although I initiated it when I was at the Board of Trade some years ago. However, I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade who is responsible for hotel development.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will advise the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr.Beith) that the answer to his problem is to have Berwick returned to Scotland.
2. Mr. Pardoe
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied with arrangements to combat holiday traffic congestion in the South-West and Cornwall this summer.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)
Yes, Sir. The holiday route system has an inbuilt flexibility which has responded to changing conditions since its inception in 1969 and I am satisfied that the arrangements made for this summer[column 363]utilise to the full the various options available for the management of holiday traffic.
Is the Minister aware that the inevitable cuts in public expenditure, both past and present, will mean that road building in the South-West, particularly new bypasses, cannot keep pace with the increase in holiday traffic? What plans has his Department worked out to ensure the easing of road congestion through the better use of the existing rail system?
This matter was fully dealt with in the debate on the railways a week ago last Monday when every encouragement was given to them through the extra money being put into the rail network to improve services. On routes and bypasses, I think that the hon. Gentleman should await an announcement which is to be made fairly soon.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to enlarge on the announcement regarding the consultation paper? May we take it that it will include the reduction of 400 miles and the effect that that will have on the bypasses about which we are talking?
The hon. Gentleman would be better advised to wait until the paper comes out. It is a somewhat lengthy matter to deal with in a question-and-answer session like this. The paper should be out fairly soon.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further communications he has received from the building societies relating to mortgage interest rates; and if he will make a statement.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a further statement about building societies.
40. Mr. William Hamilton
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a further statement on official financial assistance to the building societies, and its effect on mortgage interest rates.[column 364]
On 14th June the Building Societies Association accepted the offer of the third tranche of £100 million under the Government's short-term loan scheme. As a result of this scheme, there has been no general increase in building society mortgage rates. The Government and the association are keeping in regular consultation on these matters.
After that welcome statement that the substantial capital inflow into the building societies continues, may I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that there is no reason for an increase of even ½ per cent. in interest rate? Will he tell us how many societies have not taken up the Government's offer, how many of them have now increased their rates by ½ per cent., causing many complaints among our constituents, and what he proposes to do about the situation?
On my hon. Friend's last point, a number of smaller societies which have not taken part in the scheme have increased their rates by a certain percentage, but these societies are in total responsible only for less than ½ per cent. of total building society lending. On the matter of the proposed ½ per cent. increase to cover the margin problem, I have this very much in mind and so have the building societies. I should, however, make my broad intention clear. We have frozen council and private rents for this year and I am determined that the owner-occupier should not pay a higher mortgage rate this year.
What progress is being made towards achieving a low-start mortgage scheme for first-time buyers? We welcome the discussions which the Government are now having with the Building Societies Association, but will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the achievement of such a scheme is still within the aim of the Government?
I know of the hon. Gentleman's long-standing interest in low-start mortgages. This is an extremely important matter which is on the agenda of our joint discussions with the building societies. It will form part of a longer-term review that we are conducting into how best to en sure a stable and adequate flow of mortgage finance on the most sensible terms.
Mr. Raphael Tuck
Has my right hon. Friend given further consideration to a[column 365] suggestion made a little while ago, that the banks should make available some of their huge profits for loans at reasonable rates to intending house owners?
The huge profits of the banks are likely to be rather lower this year than last year, for a number of reasons. But we are, as part of our longer- term studies, considering the whole question of how and whether the building societies or mortgage lending as a whole should have access to institutional funds of one kind or another. This is not confined merely to the banks. We are also considering whether pension funds, insurance companies and the rest should make a contribution to the total amount to be made available for mortgage lending.
Does one of the right hon. Gentleman's previous supplementary replies mean that the Government are prepared to leave the composite rate which the building societies pay as it is at present, and not increase it as a result of Denis Healeythe Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget Statement? Has the right hon. Gentleman made any request to the building societies that they should use part of the Government's loan money to finance new house building to avoid a situation which could otherwise occur in which, just as there is an upsurge in demand, there is a falling-off in house building?
The right hon. Lady's first point is the same as that about reducing the operating margin, which the building societies claim was imposed on them by the increase in the composite rate of tax in the Budget. This matter is now under active discussion with the building societies and it will be discussed tomorrow at the next meeting of the joint advisory committee. With regard to the question of how to employ the short-term Government loan, we have not laid down detailed conditions. The whole object of the exercise is that this loan should be employed in a way which is best in terms of restoring desperately-needed confidence in the private house building industry.
4. Mr. Ioan Evans
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he intends to introduce legislation to[column 366]bring into public ownership land required for development.
34. Mr. Michael Latham
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he is now in a position to give details of his plans for land nationalisation.
We shall announce our proposals as soon as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he realise that if the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947—which was known as the Silkin Act—had remained on the statute book the huge profits made from land since the time the Tories came to power and put the Town and Country Planning Act 1959 into operation would have been avoided? Does he also realise that it is necessary for legislation to be brought forward urgently to ensure that houses, schools and hospitals are built and industrial sites provided at less cost to the community?
There is no doubt that things would have been very much better today had the Tories not reversed and repealed first the 1947 Act and later the initiative which we took in 1965. With regard to the urgency of this matter, I am well aware of all the considerations to which my hon. Friend alludes and I can promise him that a statement will be made before the end of the year.
Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to have the detailed discussion which is essential with the affected industries before or after publication of the Bill containing the proposed legislation?
As the hon. Gentleman knows from his previous employment, we have received memoranda on this subject from the National House Building Council and the House Builder's Federation. I wish to make clear, however, that when we make our proposals we shall not put them in the form of a Green Paper or a consultative document. The policy of the Labour Party when in opposition and of the Government now in power has been made clear, and publication of our proposals will take the form of a positive announcement of Government policy.
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that there is massive[column 367]support outside the House for legislation of this nature? Does he also appreciate that many of us would like an emergency Bill to be brought forward so that, if necessary, we could test public opinion at the forthcoming General Election in relation to whether Opposition Members are prepared to continue to support racketeering in land, which they have done since 1951?
An emergency Bill as such might present some difficulties to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I can promise my right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) that public ownership of development land will be a major issue at the next General Election.
Mr. Stephen Ross
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his failure to give an indication of his intention regarding land already carrying planning consent—which particularly involves small builders, to whom the matter is very important—is causing great problems in the building industry? Can we have an advance statement on the right hon. Gentleman's intention in this matter?
I do not want to make an advance statement. I should like as soon as possible to make a much more definitive statement. On the question of uncertainly regarding the land market, I want to bring this to an end as soon as is humanly possible. But I must point out that that uncertainty, such as it is, is not the main inhibiting factor in the housing building programme.
Has any estimate been made of the cost involved in taking development land into public ownership, whether by local authorities or by the central Government? Is it within the right hon. Gentleman's thinking that none of this land should be available for freehold houses in accordance with the Labour Party policy declaration in 1973?
With regard to the freehold question, I can confirm and underline what was said in the Labour Party policy in 1973: that the freehold of an owner-occupier will not be touched in any way by our proposals. I cannot give an estimate regarding the cost of taking development land into public ownership, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that this will repre[column 368]sent the best investment by the community for many years.
6. SirA. Meyer
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the total cash benefit to tenants resulting from his Department's freeze of rent increases approved by rent officers.
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr.Reginald Freeson)
This information is not available.
Sir A. Meyer
I declare an interest in that I own a house which is let furnished. Does the hon. Gentleman consider it equitable that a fairly massive subsidy to tenants should be borne entirely by landlords who may often be less well off than the tenants they are subsidising? Is he aware that many retired people derive their sole income, apart from the retirement pension, from the letting of their former homes which have become too big for them? Is he aware that the possession of this income may render them ineligible for all forms of means-tested benefit and that as a consequence these people will suffer drastic reduction in living standards due entirely to the rigidity and ideological fixation of his Department?
I am sure that the House appreciates that speech, especially the peroration. If the hon. Gentleman would like to give me details of the kind of cases to which he has referred, I should be glad to look at them. One accepts that hardships and anomalies arise from the introduction of a rent freeze, but these are not confined to the sort of cases which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We also accept—indeed I am sure that the whole House accepts—that the kind of measures which we had to take were necessary, and indeed were acceptable to the country as a whole, to counter the inflationary processes in the housing market.
Mr. R. C. Mitchell
Is the Minister aware that there has been uncertainty in the interpretation of the rent freeze circular dealing with private rents, particularly where improvements have been carried out? Is he further aware that some rent officers are granting a rent increase and then advising the tenant to challenge it in the court if he wishes,[column 369]while others are refusing an increase and advising the landlord to challenge the decision? Can he issue some direction or advice to rent officers?
I shall certainly be glad to consider any cases of that kind. A number of instances have been referred to us over the last few months in that respect in which we hope that we have been able to give help and advice. If any hon. Member would like to provide either the Department or me with details of cases, we shall do our best to help to sort out problems like that.
House Loan Facilities
7. Mr. George Cunningham
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will arrange for a study of house loan facilities in other Western countries, with a view to the improvement of the services of building societies in Great Britain.
The Department is already collecting information on the finance of owner-occupation in other countries, in the context of the Government's proposed housing finance review.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in this country at the moment one can borrow money from a branch of a building society and lend the same money back to the same branch of the same building society at a higher rate of interest? On this point and many others in this field, will he try to take advantage of the good ideas and perhaps more so of the mistakes made in other countries?
We shall certainly be looking as widely as possible at the experiences, both good experiences and mistakes, of other countries as well as looking at this activity in Britain. Our intention is to undertake as widespread a consideration of future policy as possible on the basis of as extensive an experience as we can before we bring forward our own proposals.
8. Mr. Rost
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will pay an official visit to Derbyshire in order to meet representatives of ratepayers.
I have no plans to do so.[column 370]
What will the Secretary of State do to help the many ratepayers all over the country, and particularly the small traders and shopkeepers in the Sandiacre area of Derbyshire, who are faced with a double rate demand as a direct result of his reduction of the rate support grant? Is not this an example of the unacceptable face of the social contract?
No non-domestic ratepayer was affected in any way by my decision, which concerned solely the domestic element in the rate support grant. On the more general question, we had an extraordinarily interesting debate on the whole subject last Thursday which was, in effect, an inquest on four years of bungling mismanagement and extravagance by the Tory Party. At the end 600 or so hon. Members, whether they voted for the motion or for the amendment, were voting to condemn four years of Tory incompetence.
Is my right hon. Friend aware not only that we had to suffer the bungling ineptitude of nearly four years of a Tory Government but that in Derbyshire one of the main reasons why the rates went up by as much as 40 per cent. is that for the previous six years we had a Tory county council whose Tory chairman, now deposed by a Labour chairman, is inviting ratepayers throughout the country to see him to form ratepayers' associations to attack the high rates that are the result of the Tory Government's proposals and of his own proposals in the county?
I am interested to hear what my hon. Friend says and I underline the fact that all over the country on this issue of responsibility for the rates a degree of political hypocrisy has been shown by the Tories such as I have never seen before.
National House-Building Council
9. Mr. Adley
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek a meeting with the NHBC.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), met the National House-Building Council on 8th April. I will be suggesting a meeting to it in the near future.[column 371]
Will the Minister take careful note of the NHBC contract, which in many cases appears to be virtually worthless? Is he aware that a small number of shabby builders hide behind this contract? Is he aware that in my constituency a five-year-old house has been derated by the local authority to £1 and declared unfit for human habitation, yet the person who lives in it and who has an NHBC contract is unable to obtain redress because the contract does not cover this issue? Will the hon. Gentleman look at this point to see whether, if young couples take out contracts like this when buying new houses, they can have some protection. Otherwise, the contracts should be done away with.
I am not aware of that particular case, although I know of other problems in the hon. Member's constituency which are now sub judice. As for the inspection system under the NHBC guarantee, I shall be glad to discuss the extent of that system and how effective it may be. There are problems of recruitment of personnel. It is as important to look at quality control and project management techniques within the building industry as it is to look at the inspection system of the NHBC. In the end this will be a much more important field, and I am already devoting some attention to it.
Mr. George Rogers
Does my hon. Friend agree that the question of the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) demonstrates and condemns the weakness of private enterprise?
There are certainly cases which deserve to be condemned. I hope that where this happens it may be possible for local authorities, provided that it does not interfere with their primary rôle of building for rent, to undertake projects of building for sale direct, establishing standards that it will be very useful to establish in such situations.
I should declare an interest since the National House-Building Registration Council paid for a new roof for my garage a few years ago. Is the Minister thoroughly satisfied that the council is not inhibited by the law of[column 372]libel from striking unsatisfactory builders off the register?
I am not aware of any such inhibition, but I will take that point aboard.
Housing (West Midlands)
10. Mrs. Renée Short
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what response he has received from local authorities in the West Midlands to his representations about the need for more houses to be built for rent.
We are getting a good response. The Department's contacts with local authorities in the region show that they, that is the local authority, recognise the need to provide more houses for rent and are stepping up their previous building programmes. A number are also considering buying new unsold houses from developers.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the National Economic Development Office has forecast a further decline in the number of completions and suggests that by the end of 1977 we shall have built only 7,000 local authority houses in the whole of the West Midlands? This is a serious situation. Does not my hon. Friend think that advice should perhaps go to the local authorities about the more adventurous use of system building for example? Does not this also underline the need to make progress with the public ownership of building land?
The forecasts are very serious indeed and I cannot underline that fact enough. The immediate position in the West Midlands on information that I have is more hopeful than it has been in the past. I could follow up my answer to the Question by saying that there is in prospect the submission of schemes which would involve, if they are all approved for tender in the coming 12 months, about 10,000 housing starts as compared with 6,500 last year.
I cannot say now that that figure will be achieved, but it is our information that there is a good hope that it will be. If so it will show an increase of 35 per cent. in the West Midlands region. As for building techniques, I am in touch with the National Building Agency to[column 373]see whether cannot look further at system building to assist in this direction.
Is the Minister aware that the need for rented accommodation is at least as strong in the private sector as in the public sector? Is he aware that the recent Government restrictions have further reduced the amount of rented accommodation available? Can he tell us whether the Government believe in the need for a healthy and buoyant private-rented sector to help the housing problem?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the facts of the position. Generally, over a number of years now, there has been an average decline of about 100,000 lettings a year in the rented sector market. [Hon. Members: “Why?” ] During the last three and a half years it has been at the rate of about 150,000. [Hon. Members: “Why?” ] That was under a Conservative Government. [ Hon. Members: “Why?” ] We shall have an opportunity to discuss this matter in greater detail, I think, during the coming week. We shall then be able to hear from Conservative Members why, under their Government, there was such a massive increase in the loss of rented housing. For the present, the way to hold the rented market is by increasing social ownership to prevent such properties going out of the market into the speculative area.
New Town and Special Area Committees
12. Mr. Milne
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will issue a circular to local authorities advising councils to extend membership of committees covering new towns and special areas to councillors representing the towns and areas in question.
The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)
I am sure this is a point local authorities will have in mind without the need for advice from my right hon. Friend.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is a rather disappointing reply, because in my constituency we are dealing with a new town that is not[column 374]designated under the New Towns Act? Because of the emergence of the new authorities, it means that democratically-elected representatives in that new town are prevented from taking part in discussions on the town's development.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that it is not a very good idea for the Government always to be giving advice to local authorities, but I think that his is a particular case and I should like to discuss it with him if he is willing.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will pay an official visit to the Caradon district of Cornwall.
I have no plans to do so.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the hardship caused to ratepayers in the district, particularly to low income households, is such that nearly 2,000 rates rebates have already been granted and a further 2,000 are awaiting processing? Does he appreciate that many more would be eligible for help if rate rebates were extended to water charges and re- extended to sewerage charges? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider his attitude to the extension of rate rebates to those two charges, which I appreciate were removed by the previous Government?
The Caradon district was treated exceptionally, both under the variable domestic relief and under my own uniform domestic relief. I entirely concede that. The point of substance about the water and sewerage rebates, however, is that they were effectively removed by the previous Government's Water Act 1973 . I hope that I made it sufficiently clear in last Thursday's debate that although to restore the rebate would require new legislation it was some thing I had very much in mind and was proposing to discuss with the relevant authorities.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received from the[column 375]National Association of Pension Funds on the subject of office rents.
Mr. John Silkin
I saw a deputation from the National Association on 20th June, when it asked for a further statement of the Government's future policy on the control of rents.
I recognise that the Government have recently indicated some of their intentions for the long term, but will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the pensions of thousands of people and the life policy bonuses of millions of policyholders depend to some extent on the free operation of a commercial property market? Will he indicate his early intention to restore that freedom of operation?
I think that in the statement I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) on Monday I indicated once again that it was not our purpose to renew the powers to control business rents when they expired in March 1976.
Did my right hon. Friend see the recent statement by the chairman of the association, in which he pointed out that the pension funds actually prefer periods of low property values, because they enable them to buy income cheaply? Is he aware that pension funds have less than 10 per cent. of their total investments in land and property?
When one considers the question of business rents, one must consider those rents together. One cannot make differentiations between one group of investors and another.
I have read all the right hon. Gentleman's earlier answers, and he has put them all negatively. Is this the right positive form: that, assuming responsibility rests with the right hon. Gentleman after 1976, a free market will be restored in business rents?
I do not think one can prophesy what on earth will happen in March 1976, but our present intention must be good enough. It is that when the powers under the right hon. Lady's Government's Counter-Inflation Act 1973 expire, the present Government will not seek to renew them.[column 376]
Passenger Trains (Punctuality)
15. Mr. Teddy Taylor
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what percentage of passenger trains arrived at their destinations on time or within five minutes of their scheduled arrival times, respectively, in 1973; and what were the comparable percentage figures in 1 972 and 1971.
I will, with permission, circulate the information in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
Does the Minister agree that British Rail's record has been improving, despite an improvement in the scheduled time in the inter-city services? Bearing in mind the substantial proposed increases in air fares between Glasgow and London, Aberdeen and Edinburgh and London, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the railways will in future be carrying a much bigger share of this inter-city traffic and that a further improvement in punctuality is therefore to be encouraged?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Quite apart from the increase in fares, an increase in traffic on the railways can be expected because of the greatly improved service on the West Coast route between Glasgow and London. There has been a very slight deterioration in time-keeping in the past three years, because of one or two exceptional circumstances which we hope will disappear very quickly.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the British Railways Board is now operating one of the finest passenger services in the world and that many of us hope for a great extension of those services to all parts of the country, including Scotland?
Miss Boothroyd. Question No. 16.
I am sorry that I did not rise to reply to my hon. Friend. I thought he was continuing his supplementary question. I am well aware of the improved and excellent service that British Rail provides. It is certainly among the best in the world. I use the service to Scotland quite frequently and I can recommend it to hon. Members.[column 377]
Order. I share the Minister's surprise at a reasonably short supplementary question.
Atmospheric Pollution (Staffordshire)
16. Miss Boothroyd
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many registered works in Wednesbury, West Bromwich and Tipton have been proceeded against by the Alkali Inspectorate for pollution offences since 1968.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)
I acknowledge that some scheduled processes require the inspectorate's specialised skills, but is my hon. Friend aware of the growing body of informed opinion that believes that registered works should be responsible and accountable to the local authorities, and through them to the general public? Does he agree with me that the inspectorate's policy on industrial secrecy is outdated and that certain standards for the control of pollution should be set, not in line with what the manufacturer can get away with but more in line with what the general public living in industrial areas, who are really the sufferers, can be expected to tolerate?
I cannot agree with those propositions. We debated them very fully on Second Reading of the Control of Pollution Bill and in the Committee stage, which has just been completed. The Alkali Inspectorate has during 100 years gathered an enormous amount of technological information, which could not possibly be passed on to every local authority. We are doing our best in the Bill to meet my hon. Friend's important point about trade secrecy and to ensure that there is the fullest possible accountability and that every local authority is entitled to have access to the information. [column 378]
Following are the details:
The following information has been provided by the Railways Board: