HC Deb 09 January 1985 vol 70 cc764-5
2. Mr. Thurnham

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further action he is taking to control the total running costs of his Department.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Patrick Jenkin)

I shall continue to use MINIS and my Department's budgeting systems to keep these costs under close and regular review.

Mr. Thurnham

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that local authorities are doing everything in their power to control their running costs?

Mr. Jenkin

Many local authorities are, but I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the series of value-for-money reports being produced by the Audit Commission which suggest that if all local authorities followed the precepts there laid out they could save many hundreds of millions of pounds. That would be of great value to ratepayers.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best judges of whether a service is good value for money are ratepayers and taxpayers? Does he further agree that the best facility to enable them to make such a judgment would be for the right hon. Gentleman to announce this afternoon that his Department will support fully the Bill, which is to be introduced soon, to secure freedom of information and access to information in local government? Will the right hon. Gentleman make such a commitment and carry it through during the rest of this Session?

Mr. Jenkin

That matter goes wider than the original question. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to await the Government's reaction to that Bill.

Mr. Steen

Has my right hon. Friend considered closing down the public land registers, which cost his Department about £250,000 a year to maintain and which, in the past four years, have sold only 2,000 acres of publicly held land? Does he agree that the best thing would be to auction off publicly held land which is dormant, redundant and derelict?

Mr. Jenkin

I cannot accept my hon. Friend's suggestion. The land registers have proved an immensely valuable means of bringing to the attention of builders and others the fact that public land is available and should be put on the market. Many hundreds of acres have been sold. I have now made the first orders, using my statutory powers, to oblige certain authorities to disgorge land for which they do not appear to have any valid use. That would not have been possible without the registers.

Mr. Janner

Does the compulsory, squalid and practical asset stripping of local authorities, especially those such as Leicester which have been rate-capped, not so add to the dictatorial powers of the right hon. Gentleman's Department that the running costs of the Department are bound to increase if, as is extremely unlikely, the Government are to give any decent service to people who have been served well by local authorities?

Mr. Jenkin

I am not sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman would want that question reported too widely in the Leicester Mercury, as I suspect that the great majority of ratepayers in Leicester are pleased that, for the first year, they are getting some relief from their rates under the rate-capping legislation. I should have thought that there was universal support for the view that land which is held by public authorities and which is not needed by them should be sold so that it can be put to good use. I am astonished that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not accept that proposition.