HC Deb 16 April 1975 vol 890 cc423-5
11. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation to enable local authorities to act as estate agents, undertake the legal side of house purchase, and provide a wide range of community services such as funeral arrangements and taxi services; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)

I suppose that, as a solicitor, I ought to declare an interest. I sympahise with the general objectives to which my hon. Friend has referred, and we shall keep these possibilities in mind along with other candidates for legislative time.

Mr. Roberts

Does my right hon. Friend accept that while most of us acknowledge that in the foreseeable future the great bulk of local authorities would not wish to extend their activities into a great many commercial fields, there is an overwhelming case in terms of competition, of community service, of local government finance and of political purpose for local authorities to be allowed to have this extension of services?

Mr. Silkin

I have always taken the view that local authorities should be given as much independence and freedom as possible. That is a view that is often expressed on both sides of the House. I intend, however, that this freedom and independence shall be given a purpose and a means to implement it.

Mr. Graham Page

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that this proposal is municipalisation gone mad, and that to extend the public sector to undertakers and taxi drivers, to say nothing of conveyancing and acting as estate agents—perhaps I, too, should declare an interest—is merely to increase the burden on the ratepayer?

Mr. Silkin

If the right hon. Gentleman and I, and other members of our profession, were to die of starvation, we should at least get cheaper funerals. However, it ill behoves the patron saint of municipal lotteries to start worrying about municipal trading.

Mr. Ron Lewis

I accept everything that my right hon. Friend has said, but I wonder whether he could have discussions with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in view of the pressing need of the local authority associations to look at the whole question of new legislation for taxis and hackney carriages.

Mr. Silkin

I always delight in conversations with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I shall certainly bear this in mind.

Mr. Speed

Will the Minister accept that we shall look with interest at what his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has to say about education in the light of the independence that he has mentioned? Secondly, since clearly, following the Budget Statement yesterday local authorities have to cut their suit according to their cloth, if the Minister's answer had been "No, Sir" it would have been much more in accordance with what the Chancellor was saying yesterday.

Mr. Silkin

But not quite so truthful. The whole basis of this matter is whether in fact, as my hon. Friend is implying by his Question, the Government side of the House and the Government believe that this is something which is desirable, leaving aside the economic constraints which exist at any particular time. I personally—and, I think, my hon. Friends—have never made any secret of what we believe.

Mr. Stephen Ross

As a chartered surveyor, I declare an interest. Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is already intense competition in estate agency and that where local authorities have taken on this service in the past they have proved abysmally unsuccessful?

Mr. Silkin

It would be interesting to debate the success or lack of success of municipal undertakings in estate agency, or, indeed, of some estate agents, because not everyone can be successful. I am afraid that I must stick to my main principle.