HC Deb 19 July 1973 vol 860 cc951-77

4.4 a.m.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

I wish to draw attention to the problems of providing adequate public services for those who live and work in London. London, like other large cities in the world, contains a great deal of wealth and a great deal of poverty. It has an exciting variety in its cultural life, its historic buildings and its national and commercial institutions, but side by side with all this wealth there is poverty, multiple deprivation, congestion on the roads, and an overloaded public transport system, prob- lems of environmental pollution and of crime, and many examples of homelessness, loneliness and human despair.

Although we in London take pride in all that we have, we should also remember that for hundreds of thousands of Londoners the wealth does not exist. They are shut out because they cannot begin to afford what London has to offer, cannot in thousands of families make a decent life for themselves.

Those who visit London from the Provinces sometimes assume, because they see the bright lights of the West End, that the problems of London are small or non-existent. It is perhaps because of this that London receives less attention than it might in the House, less money than it needs from the Government, and less understanding of its terrifying problems from the nation at large than it should get. This is why I welcome this opportunity of raising this subject in this debate this morning.

The problems we face in London are getting steadily more serious. The burden shouldered by public services becomes greater and, therefore, more expensive. Because in recent years they have not been able to keep pace with the deteriorating situation, some of the public services are becoming dispirited and morale is being affected. It is no exaggeration to say that we are reaching a crisis in Greater London.

Obviously I cannot attempt to deal with every service and problem, but it is important at the outside to emphasise that the problems are inter-related. For instance, a failure to house people may throw a burden on the social services, on the schools, on the police, and on the probation service. But there is more to it than that. This very lack of adequate housing at reasonable prices and rents is making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the Greater London Council, the boroughs, the hospitals, the Inner London Education Authority, the probation officers, the police and the transport services to attract and hold the very staff they need to deal with an ever-growing variety of problems.

With the statistics of homeless reaching an all-time peak, with 500,000 people, according to the census, living in accommodation without their own bathrooms, hot water and inside lavatory, with 100,000 people lacking even the exclusive use of a stove or sink, with very modest houses built in my constituency at the beginning of the century now changing hands for £12,000 to £13,000, it is obvious that the housing crisis lies at the root of many of our problems. The actions and the inaction of the present Government in housing and land policy have exacerbated a steadily worsening situation.

In addition to all this, there are three specific problems which London faces to a degree not experienced by other cities in the United Kingdom, each of which places an enormous burden on its public services. These three are immigration, tourism, and the long-distance commuting which takes place from outside into the GLC area. I want to say a few words about each.

The census indicates that about 42 per cent. of new Commonwealth immigrants have settled in London and, in addition to that, London has received and is receiving large numbers of immigrants from Ireland, both north and south, and from other parts of the country, particularly those that have been devastated by the failure of past Conservative Governments to provide proper employment opportunities in the regions.

London has in the main welcomed immigrants. Many of those who have come have assisted in manning the very public services which I have been speaking, but they need to be housed, and their children need to be educated and often have special educational needs which have to be catered for.

Then there is tourism. The London Tourist Board says in its tenth annual report for the year ending 31st March 1973 that 80 per cent. of foreign visitors to the United Kingdom come to London. By my calculations, that means that at least 4½ million people a year come to the city. In July 1972 there were nearly 900,000 visitors from abroad, and, at the present rate of growth, next year we can expect to have 1 million foreign visitors in July alone. As welcome as foreign visitors are, they involve a considerable burden on the transport services. Homes and land for them must make way for hotels and have done so at an alarming rate in some areas of London, and many other public services paid for by the ratepayers are bound to be affected.

Lastly, long-distance commuting places enormous burdens on the transport system, on rail and on the roads. The GLDP public inquiry opening presentation on behalf of the GLC gives figures based on the census data which shows that commuting into the GLC nearly doubled between 1951 and 1966—from 240,000 to 467,000.

Now to take a look at some of the public services. I believe the schools situation to be crucially important. Last year my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) and I and many other hon. Members warned the Secretary of State for Education and Science repeatedly about this problem at the time when she was interfering with the negotiation of the London allowance. One estimate I have seen is that South-East London will be short of about 300 teachers when the new term opens in September. The Government must understand that this is a crisis. At the moment they are apparently burying their heads in the sand. A report in the Evening Standard on 10th July said: The Department of Education and Science are not convinced that the high turnover of teachers in London has anything to do with the London allowance. It should take a look at the Inner London Education Authority magazine "Contact" in which a teacher estimates that living in London costs him £400 a year more than living in the North of England, and that estimate takes no account of higher housing costs in London.

London teachers cost the ILEA and the outer boroughs £6.2 million per year more than the national average. Part of this cost is due to the special needs of the children of immigrants. London receives £3 million in special grants towards this extra cost but employs 2,000 extra teachers specifically for this purpose at a cost of about £5 million. Also, 2,600 teachers are specially recruited for teaching in educational priority areas and additional teachers are necessary because the number of children staying on after 15 years of age is higher in Inner London than it is in the rest of the country.

I come to the problems of transport. It is clear that with the Labour victory in the GLC elections there will be a radical change in the whole transport strategy for Greater London. The debate on urban transport planning underlined an almost total conversion away from orbital and radial motorways in cities and towards schemes for traffic restraint and greater reliance on public transport. I believe strongly that such an approach is right, but in the light of all I have said about the burdens borne by London on behalf of others it is imperative that the GLC should have an early assurance from the Government that the sum it was proposed to spend on the abortive Ringway I should be available for what even the Secretary of State appeared to admit on 9th July was the wise recommendation of the Expenditure Committee's Report on urban transport planning.

That includes phase II of the Fleet Line, capital expenditure on the high speed bus and a whole range of expenditure implied by The Times in its leading article earlier this month. It said: Public transport needs to be sold fullbloodedly as a system, beginning with market research in depth and leading not only to new and improved movement techniques, but also to city planning designed to support and draw the greatest benefit from them. Improved interchange, large-scale development over transport terminals. silent and fume-free systems for special areas, greater priority for pedestrians and cyclists, and stimulation of taxis and hire-cars—all might be expected to find a place in such a strategy. But plans to expand and develop all forms of public transport are liable to be frustrated by the growing shortage of drivers. London Transport is well known to be about 6,700 men short out of a total establishment of 60,000. Frankly, unless the drivers of buses and trains can be made a special case under phase 3, and housing close to depots and termini can be provided especially for them, the whole case which the GLC is putting forward is unlikely to be made possible.

I want to say a word or two about the police, because in this respect, too, London has special problems. Indictable offences in London, per thousand of the population, amount to 43.4 whereas the figure for England and Wales excluding London is 25.9. That in itself is enough to justify extra Government aid, but the burden falling on the Metropolitan Police is greater than that.

The recent visit of Dr. Caetano cost about £200,000, quite a hefty bill when it is realised that the annual cost of such activities is £4 million, of which the central Government, which presumably arranges all these visits, finds about £1 million. So the ratepayer is considerably worse off in London as a consequence of exercises of that sort.

I could go on mentioning other problems, but other hon. Members wish to speak. Situations similar to those that I have described could equally well be applied to social workers, weights and measures staff, probation officers, nurses and hospital staff, a host of jobs upon which the life of London depends.

I have three final points. First, the Government must take full cognisance of the extra cost of services in London. I understand from the GLC that no less than £182 million a year is necessarily spent by the GLC and the boroughs by reason of the high costs of running services in London, and that figure, incidentally, was arrived at after deduction of 50 per cent. of the addition cost to the police of the specific grant.

Secondly, there will be no solution to these urgent problems until the housing crisis in London is overcome, and that will not be done until speculation and profiteering in urban land arc ended and the lump outlawed. Thirdly the Government or the Pay Board must recognise the additional cost of living in London, particularly for those dependent on modest salaries and wages who are doing vital jobs.

I have only introduced a whole range of problems which affect our capital city. The bitter lessons of failure in other parts of the world, in places such as New York, as there for all to see. Unless we tackle these problems imaginatively, speedily and generously, the cost in social, economic and human terms is likely to be crippling. I therefore hope that the Minister will take to heart some of my observations.

4.19 a.m.

Mr. William Shelton (Clapham)

I welcome the opportunity of the debate to make two brief comments about the services in London. The first, which is causing some concern to some of my constituents and to me, is the GLC's proposal for banning the use of parking meters before half-past ten in the morning.

Naturally, the objective must be to discourage commuters. This is not only ill-judged but it is an unfair proposal and I hope that the GLC can be persuaded not to proceed with it. Because it is ill-judged, it will not work. Those who can arrange their hours for themselves will drive in anyway at about 10.30 a.m. I do not think that the flow of commuters will be reduced. I think that we may get a slight amount of staggering of the traffic, which may be useful, but it will not achieve the GLC's objective.

Secondly, it is not very fair, because the people who will find themselves in difficulty are the mass of workers, many of whom come into London in their cars and are not in control of their times of work. Therefore, this proposal will probably be socially divisive. The bosses will be able to come in at 10.30 a.m. in the morning instead of 10 o'clock, or whatever it may be, while the people who have to come in at 9 a.m. or 9.30 a.m. will have to come in by public transport or pay for parking spaces.

I am told that some seven or eight years ago the parks authorities tried this device in the inner circle of Regent's Park. They banned the use of parking meters until 10.30 a.m. As a result I understand that one could see all the wealthier medical consultants arriving at 10.30 a.m. so that the total flow was not reduced in any way.

I suggest that the right method of controlling the situation is by pricing. If there is this problem—we must accept that it exists—the solution is to make it prohibitively expensive to stay on a parking meter for more than one, two or three hours. It may be said that such a system would be advantageous to the richer and less advantageous to the poorer in our society. In a community which uses the price mechanism, those with more money have many advantages, and they would have an advantage in this way. However, it gives people the choice whether they wish to put their cars on parking meters at 9.30 a.m. or not.

Another matter that is causing specific concern in South London is the proposed route of the M23 radial. I have been in touch with the Department about this matter and it has been extremely help- ful. I appreciated the answers that I was given. Nevertheless, the matter is most unsatisfactory.

The M23 is under construction at the moment from Crawley to an interchange at Merstham with the M25. The proposal is to link it back to the A23 to make the traffic flow viable, and this is to be completed next year.

In 1968 and 1969 orders were made authorising further construction forward into London, first, to a point south of Streatham Vale and, secondly, continuing from there to a northern terminal joining, by a delta in Streatham Vale, the A24 and A23 and, at that time, Ringway 2 which was to be built. Due to the volume of complaints a Minister in the Labour Government made a statement in 1969 that this proposed continuation was "under review". In other words, a decision had not been taken.

The next thing that happened in this tale was the Layfield Report which generally recommended that radials such as the M23 should continue on and link up with Ringway 1. That was the situation when the Layfield Report was published.

I am advised by the Government that the review announced in 1969 is still under way and is now further complicated by the Greater London Council's proposals not to build Ringway 1. Despite the great publicity given to this statement by the GLC, I understand that the Department has not received official notification. From the Department's point of view, the GLC is still proposing to build Ringway 1. Perhaps the GLC will get round to talking to the Department about it sooner or later.

Nevertheless if the Ringways 1 and 2 are not to be built, it will be absurd to carry a radial such as the M23 into the centre of London with no ringway on to which the traffic can move. That would be like a river with no access to the sea. Not only would the traffic have nowhere to go when it left the radial, but continuing the radial through Streatham Vale would be to destroy a good community with good houses which are becoming increasingly scarce and increasingly valuable.

I should like to press upon my hon. Friend the Minister that a decision should be made as soon as possible, that the GLC should consult, presumably the Government, about Ringway I as soon as possible, and that the blight provisions which still apply to the proposed route right into Streatham should be removed as soon as possible. These provisions and the proposed extension of the ringway are doing great damage and causing great distress to many people in that area.

4.26 a.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

I was particularly interested to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. William Shelton) on the working of the meters. I have considerable sympathy with what he says. One should rely principally upon the charge rather than on other devices in order to maintain maximum flexibility. But there are, nevertheless, other devices and more than one must be used in order to deter as many as possible or to alter the balance of personal advantage which obtains at the moment in the decision about the different possible modes of transport.

I can never participate in these ridiculous debates without pointing out that they are ridiculous and that it is high time that the House found another way of doing things. Of course, it is a voluntary madness in that no one has to be here in the night—

Mr. William Hamlin (Woolwich, West)

The staff have to be here.

Mr. Cunningham

That is true and we should express our gratitude to the staff who, because of our incompetence in finding a better way of doing things, have to put up with this situation. The sooner we find a better way—and one does not have to be very clever to do that—the better for us all. There might be dispute about the ideal way of operating, but there can be no dispute that this is not it.

We could have been holding these debates almost simultaneously upstairs in Committee rooms on the lines of Second Reading Committees so that we could get our remarks into HANSARD and in that way our deliberations could have been concluded by a normal time in the evening.

We are technically to vote the Government f11,000 million at nine o'clock in the morning, and that is not an unimportant matter. It is right that such a decision should be given more consideration than the House ever appears to give it. The sooner the House gets into the habit of referring the Government's proposals for expenditure to subject committees of the House, where these exist—and they cover most subjects—the sooner will this Parliament look like obtaining a professional appearance and not look like a bunch of amateurs which operates in a way which no other legislature in the world would tolerate.

Most of what I want to say on the London situation relates to housing, but I shall take advantage of the presence of the Under-Secretary to mention two points about transport. First, I underline and support the appeal for a relaxation of phase 3 an order to allow London Transport to pay such rates for bus drivers and similar transport operatives as is necessary to attract the staff to do the job. At the moment people do not use public transport because it is not reliable. The services are not sufficiently frequent. Literally, this year the biggest reason why the public transport services are not reliable and frequent enough is that there is no margin of staff over the basic number required to do the job. This is because the rates of pay are simply not adequate to attract or keep staff.

It has become the new orthodoxy that we should build up public transport, make it more reliable and more attractive, as a necessary preliminary to disincentives to the use of the car for the journey to work. But we cannot improve the system if, by keeping the rates of pay down, we fail to get the minimum number of staff required to operate the services.

I fought hard to stop the Under-Secretary of State from approving an enormous new roundabout in the middle of my constituency at a cost of about £7 million. I believe that it would not only be highly detrimental to the amenity of the area but that it is unnecessary for the flow of the desirable amount of traffic in the area.

The Road Research Laboratory has done a lot of good work on the design and shape of roundabouts, and is still doing some. The work it has completed relates principally to small capacity roundabouts. I believe it is hoped that it will complete its work on larger capacity roundabouts by next year some time. In view of the disastrous effects of these enormous roundabouts and the possibility that we may be installing them where the conventional wisdom of the traffic designers in a year or two might suggest that they are not required, even for traffic purposes, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do all he can to hasten this research so that we can avoid making decisions which may turn out later to have been blunders.

I turn to London's housing need. I feel obliged to question an obligation which has rested on the London boroughs for a considerable time, although it has lately been modified. This is the obligation to house any family which is homeless in their area. It is highly contentious to say that the boroughs should not have the obligation to house any family which is on the streets, but one needs to distinguish between what I call, in brief, the deserving case and, let us say, the family which has recently come from Manchester or Glasgow or Dublin and has had no normal contact locally, not having spent much time in the area, perhaps only a few weeks.

To impose on the London boroughs an obligation to provide a house over the heads of such a family is to ensure that the thousands upon thousands of people on the housing waiting lists in London, and the thousands of others who are in dire housing need although they are not on the waiting lists, do not get the treatment to which they are entitled and of which they stand in greater need.

In the next Session, the House will have to address itself to the question of the Government's White Paper on the improvement grants and housing stress-areas. I want to take as an illustration one street in my constituency, because it shows that landlords are taking advantage of the generous financial assistance now available to them and that the proposals in the White Paper, though welcome in some respects, are inadequate. I refer to Stonefield Street, which consists of about 30 houses of attractive architecture, traditionally occupied for the last 100 years by working-class people, but over the last 20 years or so progressively colonised—not too strong a word in this context—by young professionals coming into the area.

I stress that there is no blame to be attached to such people, who merely buy these houses when they come into the market. But the eviction or winkling out of the families who lived in those houses means that those families then become homeless and have to be housed by the borough council. Whereas these houses originally provided a home for ten people, they now contain only one family. Some of the houses have no families in them at all.

A tenant in one house in Stonefield Street was recently visited by the owner or his representative and offered money to get out. Such tenants are of course controlled tenants, and often they do not take the advice of a solicitor because they do not want to go to that much trouble. They are people who do not know their legal rights; they are unaccustomed to calling in a professional person for advice.

Another set of tenants in the street were offered so-called suitable alternative accommodation. The owner says he wants to sell the house, but he is not interested in selling it with the tenants in occupation. The owner does not intend to improve the house but wants to sell it as the residence for one family. By getting rid of the tenants before he sells the house, the owner can make much more money.

Yet another house in the street has been only a third occupied in the last two years. Only one of the three flats in the house is occupied; the other two flats have been empty for the last two years. The owners of the property company, instead of improving that accommodation, for which they could get generous Government help, have taken the last remaining tenant to court to try to get a possession order against her by buffering suitable alternative accommodation.

The judge, who knew little or nothing about the social conditions in the area, felt that it was socially undesirable to leave a house two-thirds empty and thought that it would be conducive to good housing policy to grant a possession order which will have the effect of moving the woman tenant from that accommodation into a little flat somewhere else. I was in court at the time and I am afraid that nobody pointed out to the learned judge that it would have been possible to fill that house if the owners had simply wanted to put tenants in and charge them a so-called fair rent. It is over a year since that court case was heard and the property company has failed to satisfy the court that the alternative accommodation is suitable, because it is very damp. Therefore, that house remains two-thirds empty. I could multiply those examples many times, but I do not think I need to do so.

In another house the first floor rooms have been vacant for three years. In another the basement has been empty for six years, the top floor for five years and the ground floor for two years. In fact, there is only one part of that house which is occupied. Many of these houses have damp basements or are lacking roofs. The repairs are not done unless the council uses its full powers and nags constantly at the owners to have the repairs carried out. We must face the fact that when owners are reluctant to obey their orders, great administrative costs are placed upon councils.

That is the kind of thing which is happening right in the middle of London. I became the Member for Islington, South West three years ago and at that time there were 10,000 people on the housing waiting list. There are now 11,000 people on the waiting list. Every time some old buildings are knocked down so as to build afresh it is found that the new buildings accommodate far fewer people than the old buildings.

Last week one of the families living in Stonefield Street telephoned me late at night to say that they were being harassed. Whether it constituted harassment in the legal sense would be open to doubt. However, what I am about to describe is the sort of thing which often happens and which should be given as much publicity as possible. A wall needed to be rebuilt and instead of doing that in a normal considerate fashion the owners decided the dates for themselves. The owners did not put up the normal protection from the elements in the way of plastic sheets and that kind of thing. The builders were permitted to scatter bricks all over the sitting rooms of the people concerned. A man arrived home to find a ceiling support based on his bed.

That is not an isolated case. That is happening week in and week out. That is the regular kind of thing which comes to me during my weekly surgery. It is happening throughout London and not only in the area which I represent. For many thousands of people that is what life in London is like. For many people on all ranges of income London is an extremely pleasant place to live, but for many others the housing conditions and the way they are treated by the owners and by the owners' agents is reminiscent more of the 19th century.

I shall quote briefly a letter which a constituent received from a property company. She is a controlled tenant who is entirely secure in her accommodation. She lives with an adult son. The family is not accustomed to looking after itself in the face of solicitors and such people. I quote this letter because it gives the lie to the argument that improvement grants are improving the situation for rented accommodation. The property company concerned is Marcolt Investments Limited. That company wrote to my constituent saying: … we confirm that it is our intention to carry out remedial work to the above property and it will be most helpful if you could find alternative accommodation. There was no statement that it was a controlled tenancy, that she did not need to get out, no suggestion that she might take legal advice, no offer of suitable alternative accommodation, which is the only way in which it could get her out. It then offered her £1,000, and concluded: As there is some urgency to this matter we would appreciate your letting us know at your earliest convenience when you could move, and, of course, when you do decide to go it will not be necessary to pay any more rental". She had been living in that house for a very long time. Simply because the owner decided that her several grown-up children might look after her, she received that kind of harassing letter, although she is a controlled tenant. When I took the matter up with the company the implication was "We considered that she had these grown-up children and therefore they should be able to look after her."

That kind of thing must be stopped, and the only way is to give councils powers to compel improvement. The existing powers in Section 19 of the 1964 Act are inadequate. I do not believe that the proposals in the White Paper of the other week will be sufficient to deal with the situation. It suggests that we should have housing stress areas of a very restricted size of about 500 dwellings, that it should be possible in inner London to identify those little areas where there is an improvement problem, and that there the councils should be given greater powers to compel improvement. But in an area such as Islington it is not possible to pick out such little areas. The unimproved houses lie cheek by jowl with the improved houses. There is no basis upon which we can pick a few streets here or a few streets there because we need to use the powers.

What is necessary in inner London is that the councils should have the power to compel improvement and to buy properties by compulsory purchase order more liberally than they can now, not in areas of a few streets only but throughout the whole of their territory. I am not suggesting that they should then proceed to use those powers throughout their territory; they would use them in individual houses throughout their territory. Unless they can do that, they will never be able to make an impact upon the enormous numbers of people waiting to be housed in inner London.

Unless we manage to house those people the facilities which are needed to provide a decent life for all Londoners, including, and most particularly, the very well-off, will not be provided, because there will not be the people in inner London to take the jobs. We cannot expect people to do the jobs of inner London unless we are prepared to ensure that they have the houses.

4.49 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I am very glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham) on the subject of housing and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Guy Barnett) on the collapse of the public services in London.

It is not only protected tenants who are at risk. I have a very bad case in my constituency of unprotected tenants who are being made homeless. It may be all very well to say that we should think first of Londoners, but what is one to do when a family with several children —from Cornwall, perhaps—find themselves homeless after having moved into a furnished flat in one's borough? Is the local authority simply to say that it cannot help them, when they are living on a very modest income and cannot afford to buy a house?

That is one of the dilemmas of a sympathetic authority. It is one of the dilemmas that we are facing in my borough. We face the problem of people living in furnished accommodation, perhaps what someone has called a flat but which may be just a furnished room and a shared bathroom and lavatory, when the owner of the property decides to knock the whole thing down. Perhaps it is a large house and the owner manages to acquire two or three adjoining houses and to build on that site about 150 flats, at £10,000 a time, having bought the houses for perhaps £17,000. This is a great temptation to the developer.

What is to happen to the people in the unprotected property? This dilemma is faced in Greenwich, and in Islington. It is a problem throughout London.

It is not sufficient for local authorities simply to be given extra powers to compel landlords to do certain things. We must establish the principle here that private ownership of this kind of property does not meet the circumstances of our age and that development must not be allowed to exert a kind of social blackmail.

In one sense, I am glad that the Under-Secretary is specifically concerned with transport matters, although I should have preferred it if we could have had a more general approach to this matter. The House knows that the Under-Secretary and I have been engaged in long discussions, officially and unofficially, about the future of the Dover radial route. Those constituents of mine who are very hard pressed along the Rochester Way are concerned about the fact that so far we have had no answer or information about what is to happen and whether that small portion of the Dover radial route is to be finished.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will give us a firmer answer than we have had so far. I am not blaming him entirely. We all know that this matter is to be settled between the Greater London Council and the Department. There are important questions to be settled. But for the benefit of the very hard pressed people living in Rochester Way who have been putting up with intolerable conditions for so long, I hope that there will be a very early easement of these problems.

I want to return to some of the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich about the collapse of public services. I have had correspondence with one or two employers in my borough who have complained about some of the statements that I made in an article in the Evening News last week, in which I was talking about the problems of redundancy and of loss of employees' skills, in South-East London in particular. I said that it seemed rather odd that in spite of all these redundancies we are short of labour. My hon. Friends and I are very concerned about these matters in the South-East, and we shall attend to these problems more directly.

There seems to be a paradox here. It springs from the fact that employment and housing are inter-related. Many people who would like to work in a particular area cannot afford to do so. I think of a young married man with four children. He was working in a public department at Gillingham. His job was changed and he was brought to headquarters in London, but he found that on his wage he could not afford the fares to London and at the same time look after his family properly.

It was expected of him that he would move to London anyway. On the salary that he was receiving as a civil servant he could not afford to buy a reasonable house near London, and that is the dilemma that is being faced all over London. Young professional and working class people with families have no chance of getting council houses because they may have to be on a housing list for five, six, seven or even eight years. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East, with his experience, is probably far worse off than we are, and the position in our area is bad enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) has personal experience of this problem, too.

My hon. Friend talked about the police. The situation in the Metropolitan Police area is such that if we were to take every constable from Liverpool and Manchester —two very large cities—and bring them to London we would just about reach the establishment of constables. If we were to take every constable from Wales—thereby denuding Wales—and bring them to London again we would just about reach the establishment figure here. That is one way of expressing the problem.

My hon. Friend talked about transport, and I shall come to that in a moment. He said that there was a shortage of 6,500 transport staff out of a requirement of 60,000. The shortage in the Metropolitan Police is even more critical when one considers the total establishment. At some stations at night there are perhaps two or three constables out in cars and two on duty in the station itself. That is the total strength that is available for a large police station in parts of London. If there is an emergency they have to draw upon inadequate staffs in neighbouring stations.

That means that our law enforcement service in London is on a razor's edge. If there is sickness, or if a man is hurt, the position in the service is critical. In some cases there are more inspectors and sergeants than constables available for duty. Constables are having to work on their rest days, and this must tire them and possibly make them less efficient.

My hon. Friend spoke about the transport service. There are two bus services in my area, the 192 and the 228, about which there are constant complaints from the public because of the inadequacy of the service. People have to wait in the rain perhaps for an hour for a bus to arrive. Grenwich is a very hilly place; there are many elderly people, and they cannot walk easily. When I wrote to Sir Richard Way about this, he replied, "Our trouble is that we cannot get staff, not so much because of inadequate salaries but because there is not the housing".

There is a shortage of housing, and this is true not only of our transport; it is true of our teachers as well. When my hon. Friend and I had discussions with the Department of Education and Science earlier in the year, not only on the London allowance but on the general staffing situation in London, we discovered that there was a very rapid turnover of staffs in London schools, especially in our part of London, in the South-East, and particularly amongst young teachers who had been teaching perhaps for four or five years, who wished to marry and settle down and were trying to buy a house. They were finding it quite impossible to buy a house on the salary that is paid to teachers with four or five years' service. They had to move out. I think of Abbey Wood School. Crown Woods School and some of the other large secondary schools in our area where there is a great turnover of staff. At my local primary school the headmaster told me that two of his best young teachers are leaving this week to take up appointments outside London because they cannot afford to buy houses in London.

These questions of employment and housing go together. The career teacher is something of the past. Those of us who went to school 40 or 50 years ago can remember teachers who were on the staff for 20 or 25 years. People retired from a school in which they had begun their professional careers. That is a thing of the past. There is a tremendous turnover of staff, particularly in London.

The other day, in Battersea, I saw a terraced house, over 100 years old, for sale at £15,000. I do not know what it cost to build, but that sort of thing is general throughout that part of South-West London. It is even worse than in our borough of Greenwich. My hon. Friend referred to prices of £12,000 and £12,500. Then people cannot get mortgages. It seems a paradox that there is increasing homelessness and yet we have the prices of housing at this excessive level. There are empty houses at high prices and people are unable to buy them.

There is the question of rents, too. The cost of a new building is such that the rents of council houses coming on to the market are excessive—£14 or £15 at Thamesmead. What working-class family can afford that rent? I hope that when the Government put their thinking caps on they will decide that London needs to be considered by itself, that the problems of public services in London, its employment and planning problems, are such that London needs to get a lot more attention than so far it has had.

It is unfortunate that we have had to use this debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill to debate some of the problems of London, but it is only about once or twice a year that we get this opportunity. Yet about 8 million people live in Greater London and we Members of Parliament for London believe that we do not get adequate attention for the important problems of the people of London. The problems of the regions are constantly ventilated. There is a Secretary of State for Scotland and one for Wales, yet the combined populations of those countries would not be as great as the population whom we represent.

I ask the Government to ensure that next Session adequate time is given for discussion of London's problems, and, more important, that in Government much greater urgency is attached to the problems of the people whom we have the honour to represent.

5.7 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Guy Barnett) on opening this debate, which has been a short but useful exchange on a number of problems in connection with London. The House will appreciate that some of the problems raised, particularly problems of the police and of education, are not for my Department, but I will certainly pass on the views expressed to my right hon. Friends.

The problems involved in providing adequate public services in London are complex, and responsibility for many of them falls on the shoulders of the Greater London Council and the various statutory undertakers. But that is not to say that the Government are not interested or involved in the way in which these services are provided. Indeed, central Government play a large part in assisting these bodies to carry out their responsibilities and we have a duty to see that the capital city's public services are capable of supporting both the residential and the working population.

I have some sympathy with the view of various hon. Members about the way in which we conduct our affairs, in that we have to discuss these subjects at this sort of time in this sort of way. Again, this is not a matter for me, but I have sympathy with these views.

In recent years it has become recognised—I think by both the last administration and the present one—that land use planning cannot be divorced from all the other aspects of city life, including the public services which make up the complete urban fabric of today. Therefore, it is necessary for the whole structure of London to be examined in its component parts and this is why the development plan for London will become London's structure plan.

Of the various public services which come under the umbrella of my Department, transport is obviously one of considerable concern to the public and one that has been referred to tonight. I must emphasise first that the planning of public transport in London is the responsibility of the Greater London Council and not of the Government. However, we are always ready to provide generous financial support for worthwhile public transport projects put forward by the GLC or the transport undertakers.

Since June 1970, this Government have committed over £125 million in grant to London's rail system alone. Among the schemes which we are supporting are the electrification of commuter services out of King's Cross and the construction of the first stage of the Fleet Line. I should say here—my right hon. Friend has already made this clear—that a decision on the second stage must await the result of the London rail inquiry now being conducted. In addition, there is the massive re-signalling scheme at London Bridge. All these things will make travel by rail in the London area much more attractive.

Over the same period, since June 1970, the Government have paid over £6 million of the cost of re-equipping London's bus fleet, not to mention 75 per cent. of the cost of the 50 bus lanes so far approved in the greater London area. I believe that these bus lanes are proving a great success. They are not unique to London, being used elsewhere in the country, too, but we are backing them in London with hard cash.

The hon. Member for Greenwich will know that only yesterday afternoon 1 attended the inauguration of the Thames commuter hovercraft service running from Greenwich to Tower Bridge and Westminster—a very comfortable ride, very quick, and at very competitive fares. The Government are contributing £75,000 towards the commuter element of this hovercraft service. I am sine that the hon. Member for Greenwich and, perhaps, other hon. Members living in that part of the world will wish to make use of this service to wend their way speedily to Westminster, and perhaps back home in the evening.

All this shows that the Government appreciate the importance of public transport in London, whether by road, by rail or now by water, and we are prepared to back it with generous financial support.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) spoke about the Dover radial route. I imagine that he would be surprised if I gave him any further hard information tonight, and I shall not surprise him. My hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Mr. William Shelton) mentioned the related topic of the terminal of the M23 and the problems of blight about which we have had considerable correspondence. Both of these problems —the Dover radial route and the M23 —are connected with the Greater London development plan and the GLC's road proposals, as hon. Members know.

It was announced on 10th July that the transport committee of the Greater London Council recommended giving up the safeguarding of certain of the primary routes in the Greater London development plan. My right hon. and learned Friend has already made clear that if the GLC wishes to submit road proposals different from those set out in the development plan, he will consider its views before a final decision was taken.

In its announcement, the Greater London Council said that it would shortly ask my right hon. and learned Friend to delete particular primary roads from the plan. Until he receives formal notification, however—he has not yet received it—I cannot take the case which has been put by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham and the hon. Member for Woolwich, West any further, since both those projects are to a greater or less extent bound up with the road system in the greater London development plan and the GLC's proposals.

We do not underestimate the problem of staff shortages on London Transport, to which several hon. Members referred. I can tell the House that Mrs. Denington has already discussed this matter briefly with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries and myself, and she is to have a further, and probably rather longer, meeting with my right hon. Friend next Wednesday, when this particular matter will be discussed. We are seized of the point. We know of the difficulties. I hope that between us, London Transport, the GLC and the Government, it will be possible in some way to relieve the present serious situation.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

Will the Minister bear in mind in the present consultations and any to come hereafter the urgency of providing capital for London Transport to redevelop some of its bus stations and railway stations, to include, among other things, some high density housing which would be valuable in assisting with the staff shortage in London?

Mr. Speed

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. That is the type of matter which we would wish to be exploring in greater detail with London Transport and the GLC. My right hon. Friend's mind is not closed to any suggestions both of a short-term nature and of a longer-term nature to try to solve the problem which, although it is particularly bad at present, has also been experienced in past years and has tended to be a recurring one.

The question of parking meters and pricing restraint was mentioned particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham and the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham). The proposal not to allow parking at meters before 10.30 or 10.15 a.m. is still a tentative one by the GLC and it will be up to the council to make a firm decision. I have some sympathy with the view that road space in London is a very expensive commodity and to put a ton or so of steel on a piece of road and charge very little for it to stay there does not seem the best way of sorting out our priorities.

In the recent debate on urban transport the House expressed the view that we must look at this, not only in Lon. don but in other major cities and towns, to see whether we can speed the traffic, particularly public service traffic which is so essential to the life of cities. These are matters in which the GLC and my Department are very closely concerned

The question of housing is principally one for my hon. Friends, but I want to make some comments on what has been said this morning, because public sector housing is one of the main services which the GLC and the London boroughs provide. As with the other issues I have mentioned, London's housing problems have been fully studied by the Layfield Panel of inquiry on the GDLP and the Government are currently considering the panel's recommendations. There are one or two aspects of the housing situation I want to mention without in any way prejudicing this consideration.

Since its formation in September 1971 the Action Group on London Housing has undertaken a great deal of constructive and valuable work. The land availability survey conducted by the London authorities at the group's request in the early part of 1972 was the most detailed study ever conducted in the capital. It provided a firm base upon which the group could make predictions about the progress being made in solving the problem. Work has continued on updating and revising the returns which have now been completed in respect of almost half the London authorities. This work has resulted in the identification of additional land and it is reasonable to expect that further gains will be forthcoming as the work progresses.

At the same time the Government have been playing their part by ensuring that all possible land that could be regarded as surplus to the requirement of Government Departments and the nationalised industries and was suitable for housing purposes was identified and released.

Action has also been taken on the recommendation of the Layfield Report that a review should be conducted of the green belt to identify land that could be released for housing purposes without detriment to the overall green belt policy. The Standing Conference on London and South-East Planning has been asked to conduct an urgent study and to identify up to 2,000 acres of such land.

The group has over the past year visited 14 of the London boroughs to discuss their individual housing problems, the policies being adopted to solve these problems, and what more could be done. This included the need for assistance to be made available to inner London. The group has reported on the outcome of its visits and on the revision of the land availability figures to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. I expect that the group's third interim report will be published before the House rises for the Recess next week.

For the future the group intends to turn its attention increasingly to the problems of obsolescence in London.

The hon. Member for Islington, South-West mentioned in particular the problem of homelessness. We hope that the GLC and the London boroughs will co-operate to spread the burden of homelessness more evenly over London because this should help to ease the difficulties which obligations to rehouse the homeless cause in respect of waiting lists.

We must not forget, as the hon. Member for Greenwich pointed out, that many recent arrivals in London came here because there are jobs in London for them in essential services which make the capital function properly. The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) referred to a family which came from Cornwall. I do not pretend that the solution is easy, but we believe that the London boroughs and the GLC in co-operation can spread the load from some of the hardest pushed. As the report of the Layfield Panel rightly observed, obsolescence and worn-out housing is likely to be a principal problem for the future in London. The hon. Member for Islington, South-West touched particularly on this point, and he gave a number of very interesting and disturbing examples from his constituency. Coupled with an overall shortage of accommodation, this obsolescent housing leads to the pattern of housing stress, which is certainly common and a problem in inner London, and all the side effects which arise from it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of harassment. The recent White Paper, to which the hon. Gentleman gave, not a wholehearted but a guarded and cautious welcome, entitled "Better Homes: The Next Priorities" contains proposals which were drawn up with problems of areas such as inner London very much in mind and where the social evils of overcrowding, problems of bad landlords and evictions are extremely important, perhaps more important than the physical conditions of the houses. That is the concept of the housing action areas about which the hon. Gentleman had some critical comments to make.

The housing action area which the White Paper introduces is designed to give local authorities faced with the sort of evils which the hon. Gentleman described the powers to deal with them quickly and effectively and it offers a package of proposals—a mixture of inducements, powers and obligations—which the Government hope to give effect to in legislation to be introduced in the next session. The proposals and details are still very much open to discussion, and my hon. Friends will consult the local authorities about them. I hope—and if this message goes out from this debate it will be invaluable—that the London authorities and hon. Members will tell us how they think these proposals might be improved and, most important perhaps, I hope that local authorities and the London boroughs will draw up plans to make the maximum use of the new powers as soon as they become law so that no time is lost.

Harassment is a criminal offence and therefore is a matter for the courts, but I appreciate the point that there is a thin dividing line—sometimes it is not so thin —which makes it extremely difficult to judge whether it is a criminal offence. We have shown our determination that harassment shall be stamped out by recently increasing the penalties for such offences where they can be proved in the criminal courts. I am aware that cases still occur. I hope that local authorities will do all that they can to prevent them by ensuring that offenders are brought to book and that tenants who are threatened with harassment are aware of their rights. If this debate and the examples mentioned concerning tenants' rights can be given the widest publicity, and if local authorities, citizens advice bureaux and other bodies can give them wide publicity, it will be extremely useful.

To sum up, this has been a fairly wide-ranging, fairly brief but useful debate. The various problems of London are not unique to London, but inevitably they are on a much larger scale than they are in any other part of the country. I take the point that perhaps we do not discuss London sufficiently. I could say that we do not discuss the Midlands sufficiently, but we have time to discuss places such as Wales and Scotland. However, that is not a matter for me. The comments made about the problems of the police and education will be drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends concerned.

The Government, together with the GLC, the London boroughs and the various statutory authorities, are tackling these problems energetically. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Greenwich that it is all crisis. The Government now have some exciting and worthwhile proposals about housing. In all these problems of transport and housing and in the problems of London we are taking action. I believe that it will be effective action, and we are backing that action by a great deal of hard cash.