Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a further sum not exceeding £1,151,288,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1986 for expenditure by the Department of the Environment on subsidies, the option mortgage scheme, improvements and investment, grants to housing associations and the Housing Corporation and sundry other housing services.— [Sir George Young.]
§ Mr. Speaker
I understand it will be convenient for the House to discuss also the following Estimates: class VII, vote 2, class VIII, vote 2; class VIII, vote 3; class VIII, vote 5; class XIV, vote 1
§ 4.3 pm
§ Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)
Last year and again this year the Select Committee on the Environment has produced two reports, one commenting on the main Estimates of the Department of the Environment and the other on the main Estimates of the Property Services Agency. I wish to draw the attention of the House to those reports, published on 22 May, which are noted on today's Order Paper. In preparing them the Committee has scrutinised closely the whole range of Estimates concerned and taken evidence from officials. The work is laborious but necessary and we have been charged to do it by the House because of the way in which, in the past, vast amounts of public money have been voted annually without debate.
The results of our scrutiny may not attract widespread public interest and are the reverse of sensational. Nevertheless, they are of value in Parliament's work of scrutiny of expenditure by the Executive.
I shall start with the Department of the Environment. We looked first at some matters on which we commented in our two reports of last year. The Government have not yet remedied the situation that dog licences cost substantially more to issue than the revenue that they raise. The net cost is still in the order of £3.4 million a year. There has been a consultation paper following our last year's report but no action has so far been taken. We consider that the House should not be asked to vote further Supply for this wasteful purpose next year, although we are giving the Government a little more time this year and do not seek a reduction of the vote. The Government must make up their mind to abolish the licence or to introduce a new cost-effective system for the care and control of dogs along the lines of the working party paper produced in 1976.
The Committee returned again to our criticism that some expenditure is being incurred on a regular basis by the Department under the sole authority of the Appropriation Acts. This situation has not been remedied. For example, £850,000 is being paid to various international bodies without any specific statutory authority, and this seems to be a common practice in most 1271 Departments. The Committee regards this as unsatisfactory, and if corrective action is not taken before next year's Estimates the House should consider very seriously whether or not it is prepared to vote money in this way.
Last year we also drew attention to the considerable over-claiming of housing subsidy by local authorities. We are pleased to learn that the Department has made changes in this sector which should have the effect of reducing over-claiming of the kind of levels unavoidable in any system of paying in advance. We feel that to abate claims where audited returns are not submitted in a reasonable time is a correct way forward.
We were not happy as a Committee about the state of housing maintenance. It seems certain that there is a very large backlog both in the private and in the public sectors. The level of local authority expenditure in improvement grants is falling. It is true that the Government have issued a consultative paper upon which comments were due last Tuesday, but the time has been further extended. It is not clear what the position is in the public sector from any of the evidence we have been able to adduce. In fact, there is a lack of information about the precise dimensions of the whole problem.
It is true that there is to be a house condition survey in 1986. I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that the information collected will be in a form that can be compared with the results of the last survey. If we have to accept that resources available for renovation are limited, it is all the more important to have a clear picture of the problem and to deploy the resources available to the best possible advantage.
We commented in our report upon the provision of sites for gipsy caravans. Such sites are provided for 65 per cent. of caravans, so there is a substantial shortage. Most of us are familiar with the kind of problems that this gives rise to. We also felt concerned that some local authorities were using the grant, which has a heavy Exchequer reimbursement element in it, not for true travellers but as a cheap means of rehousing families who would otherwise have to come off their general housing waiting list. I hope that the Minister will look into this much neglected area of his Department's activities.
Also of importance is the inadequate provision made by the Department and local authorities for those who are prepared to move their homes in search of work. At present local authorities make available only 1 per cent. of their new lettings for people coming into their areas from other parts of the country. That does not encourage mobility of labour. We have therefore made a modest proposal that the figure should be raised to 2 per cent. I realise the difficulties for local authorities in giving increased priority to one group as against another in allocating their housing resources, but 1 per cent. is a very pathetic figure at a time of high unemployment. Perhaps the Government could provide some financial inducement to authorities which are prepared to do more and penalise those which are not.
We have some comments to make upon the development corporations in Liverpool and London. In Liverpool, no evaluation seems to have been made of the imaginative experiments of the Liverpool international garden festival, and this should have been done. We need to know whether money spent in this way is the best way to help to regenerate areas of urban blight.
1272 In London, we were disturbed by the evidence that the administrative costs of the London Docklands development corporation appear to be 20 per cent. of its total costs, while the comparable figure for the Merseyside development corporation was only 8 per cent. There may be good reasons for this disparity, and if so they should be spelt out. We hope that the Minister will be able to give us further enlightenment or promises to carry out an investigation into this discrepancy.
I shall now deal with the Property Services Agency. There is another backlog of maintenance in the public estates administered by the PSA, and that is expected to grow in the coming year. The danger is that neglected work will give rise to greater expenditure in the future than if it were tackled immediately. No doubt the Minister will plead a lack of resources, but in that case it is necessary to ensure that the available money is being spent in the most effective way.
In accordance with the current practice in the Civil Service of giving local managers more responsibility for expenditure on the resources that they are using, the PSA has been delegating maintenance work to individual Departments. At present, Departments can spend up to £1,000 on a job without reference to the PSA. This figure is too small, and it is indicative, we felt on hearing the evidence, of the reluctance on the part of the PSA to relax its monopoly on the facile excuse that Government Departments are incapable of supervising contract work in excess of the derisory figure of £1,000 a job. We are convinced that much more value for money is to be obtained by increasing local managers' responsibility in the various Government Departments.
The main observations in our report are concerned with the relationships between the PSA and the Departments. Under the two-year-old property repayment services system, Departments are now charged a rental by the PSA for the accommodation they occupy, whether the property is in the Government's direct ownership or belongs to a private landlord to whom the PSA pays rent. An oddity is that the rentals collected by the PSA are paid straight into the Consolidated Fund and are not credited to the agency in the Estimates. If they were, a more realistic profit and loss account would be produced and surplus rents could be put into reserve to finance further acquisitions when appropriate.
I appreciate that the purpose of the property repayment service system is essentially to encourage Departments to appreciate the value of the accommodation that they happen to occupy and therefore make any appropriate economies which that knowledge can bring about. However, there are shortcomings in the way that the system operates in practice, if only in the great amount of paperwork that it seems to generate. The Committee came to the conclusion that it would like to see a civil accommodation account for the PSA, set out on commercial lines with past capital expenditure, current expenditure and revenue all taken properly into account. This would enable a far more accurate assessment of the Government's property portfolio.
The Government have continued their policy of transferring design work from the PSA to outside consultants. As far as the Committee could tell, the change is resulting in increased costs. We are told that this is a short-term phenomenon and that the introduction of fee competition between consultants that took place in 1984 will reduce the costs entirely. Clearly, this part of 1273 expenditure calls for continuing close scrutiny. I hope that the Minister will assure us that he is not allowing consultancy firms to take him for a ride.
§ Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)
My hon. Friend has given us an excellent resumé of the Committee's views and I do not wish to add much. However, does he agree that too narrow a range of consultants is being asked to make tenders, and that only large organisations are being asked? Are there not many people operating on a much smaller base who could do the work just as well, and probably a great deal more cheaply than the big boys are doing it at the moment?
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
My hon. Friend is a member of the Committee and has taken a close interest in this aspect. There is a great deal of merit in his proposition. I anticipate that my hon. Friend the Minister may take the view that it is necessary to maintain the balance between firms of proven worth and whose which are unknown but nevertheless may offer services at a reduced fee. The Department could well examine that more carefully with a view to widening the range of people with whom the PSA is prepared to do business.
The Committee had several comments about our examination of the PSA's expenditure on major new works. I am glad that, despite the criticisms that we have made in other parts, we were able to congratulate the agency on the much better presentation of this year's material than last year's. However, we still have reservations as to the way in which the Treasury makes money available for purchasing properties when they come onto the market on advantageous terms.
From the evidence that we received from officials, it seems that, practically, this can be done in current circumstances only if the PSA has an unexpected shortfall on expenditure on other works. This is a hit and miss way to buy property that comes on the market on good terms, and not an intelligent way to operate a property portfolio. To this extent, my previous remarks about a civil accommodation account on a proper commercial basis, giving credit for all rents payable by Departments, would be a way in which a fund could be built up, as happens in the private sector, in order to buy a property at the right time.
We feel that Departments should be strongly discouraged, when giving new contracts, from altering their specification for new projects after the time when financial provision for them has been made in the Estimates. Failure to discourage them makes the original Estimates presented to the House meaningless, and that is one of the criticisms that the Committee had to make strongly.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
The hon. Gentleman is advancing his case eloquently. I underline what he just said by reiterating our experience when we debated the Estimates last year. We were much concerned about possible corruption in the PSA, but are now concerned with incompetence. If accounts are badly presented and if people have written into those accounts estimates that fall well short of the final figure, is it any wonder that people misrepresent that as corruption?
§ Sir Hugh Rossi
The PSA itself talked about corruption, which caused it concern and which was the 1274 subject of investigation by another Committee of the House. Steps are being taken to deal with any corruption, but much still remains to be done about the presentation of the Estimates. Perhaps the PSA is a prisoner of Treasury conventions, some of which we criticise in our report.
The Select Committee is glad to have had the opportunity of examining the Estimates. It has been of value to us to range across all the Department's activities. We hope that the results of our work will also be of some value to the House and, of course, to the Department.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
I am pleased to follow the excellent presentation by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), the Chairman of the Select Committee. All members of the Select Committee, from whichever party, would commend to the House his diligence in chairing the Select Committee and his taskmaster approach.
I shall deal with four matters, starting with the Property Services Agency. There is undoubtedly a need for continuing close scrutiny of the PSA. I trust that the Minister will be able to give us the assurance that he was unable to give last year—that the many shortcomings in the PSA have been put right.
PSA officials appeared before the Select Committee and it was clear to all of us that its accounting methods were unsatisfactory. We discovered many examples, if not of bad housekeeping, of bad presentation. That is why the memory of Sir Geoffrey Wardale's report, which dealt with corruption in the PSA, still hangs over that organisation. He concluded that the organisation of the PSA had not been put right and that many defects and examples of inefficiency and incompetence still existed. He also said that he could not be sure that corruption had been ended. That is clearly a matter for the Department of the Environment.
The contrast between the retaliatory measures which the Government take against local authorities and against the PSA is considerable. Within their own house, the Government are often not as scrupulous about obtaining value for money and dealing with inefficiency and incompetence as they are when challenging local authorities, which, on the whole, have given far better value for money than the PSA.
I commend to the House the recommendation on the civil accommodation account. This method of presenting accounts would ensure that some of the criticisms of the PSA that we have made over the past two years would not need to be made again.
The Chairman of the Select Committee talked about gipsy sites. Many local authorities have failed to implement the terms of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. The reason for that is that the legislation is not mandatory, and many local authorities do not implement it. Those local authorities which have chosen to implement it have attracted travellers and gipsies to their areas. This allows other local authorities to pretend that they have no problem and that there is no need for them to make provision.
Many authorities which have provided sites also have many other pressing social issues to deal with. On Merseyside, the Liverpool city council with all-party agreement, provided a site at considerable public expense, while other adjacent authorities, such as the Wirral and Sefton, made no such provision. Liverpool's problems in connection with travelling people have increased as a 1275 result of its attempts to tackle the problem, whereas other authorities which have done nothing do not attract the problems.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)
The experience on Merseyside appears to be different from that in my area. Those authorities which have achieved designation are able to control the problem, but those which have not yet provided sites end up with a flood of gipsies who have been moved on from designated areas. Perhaps the situation is different in different parts of the country.
§ Mr. Alton
I was about to make that point. No clear lines can be drawn and the problem does vary in different parts of the country. Merseyside and other areas with ports of entry, especially from the Republic of Ireland, have particular problems.
It is clear that the legislation is not being uniformly implemented throughout the country and that some local authorities are getting away with making no provision, while others have to bear the brunt. That is clearly unsatisfactory.
I agree that more needs to be done to evaluate the work of development corporations. I admit that I was sceptical about establishing development corporations. I was nervous that the Merseyside development corporation would simply try to take the place of the local authority and that it would lead to the further erosion of local democracy. I am glad to be able to say that the work done by the development corporation on Merseyside, especially in connection with the international garden festival, has been spectacularly successful. I pay special tribute to all those involved, including Basil Bean, the chief executive of the development corporation, who is soon to move to another post. He has been a driving force, like Sir Leslie Young, who, as chairman, was the corporation's local anchor. He understood local commerce and problems and tried to take into account local political sensitivities.
If the development corporation is to continue to be successful, we must broaden the board to ensure that all local political opinion is taken into account. I am pleased that Mr. John Smith has accepted the deputy chairmanship of the corporation, but I emphasise that some people on Merseyside are worried because the political weight of the corporation does not take into account the views of people outside the Conservative party. That could bring discredit upon the corporation.
Apart from improving democratic accountability and ensuring that political opinions are properly represented, I agree with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green about the need to evaluate the work of the development corporations. I should like to know how many jobs have been created on Merseyside as a result of the garden festival. Much was said in advance about it providing a stimulus to employment. In that sense, the garden festival has not been as successful as it was in terms of being a major land reclamation project. About £30 million of public money has been spent. We should be given some idea of the cost effectiveness of such projects and of how useful they are in stimulating local commercial recovery.
I hope that the development corporation will be encouraged to continue its work in redeveloping the south dock area of Liverpool and to establish the northern Tate 1276 gallery at Albert dock. I hope that adequate funds will be made available to enable the corporation to complete some of its imaginative projects.
Dealing finally with direct labour organisations, many do not provide value for money. That was made clear to us by witnesses from the Department, the PSA and local government. In the two years that I have served on the Select Committee, I have become ever more convinced —even more than when I served as chairman of the housing committee in Liverpool — that we must find other ways of managing large areas of municipal housing.
I was brought up in a flat on a council estate and I am well aware of the way in which council property can meet the needs of those who come from the poorest backgrounds and cannot afford to buy their own homes. There will always be a role for public sector housing, but the way in which that housing is managed and maintained should be further considered by Parliament and by the Select Committee of which I have the privilege to be a member.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should reflect carefully on what he just said. He implied that council housing was appropriate only for the poorest section of the community who cannot afford to buy their own homes. Surely a major principle of council housing is that it is based on need and not on income. Rather than going for the ghettoisation effect of public housing as in the United States, which the hon. Gentleman implies, we should be going for a broader spread of social background for council housing.
§ Mr. Alton
I was implying that there should be as much diversity in housing as we can achieve. If people do not have a need, I would prefer that they were not reliant on public sector housing. I want to see the dismantling of municipal empires, with control being handed over to tenants living on estates, particularly through housing cooperatives. I want to see more opportunity for self-build and for low-cost homes for sale. As many people as possible should be able to enjoy the comfort of decent housing.
Some of the worst housing conditions in my city are, I am afraid to say, in municipal housing, and that situation has pertained under all administrations. That has happened because those who live in that housing often do not feel that they have a stake in the community. In other words, they do not feel that their homes belong to them.
That is why we must hand over as much property as possible, to the tenants on council estates through a radical system of decentralisation, especially supporting housing co-operatives. Indeed, the best clerks of works, as it were, who are able to get value for money, are the people who live on those council estates.
The Government's present policy of simply selling off council houses is not the answer. Equally, the action of Labour authorities in cities such as mine in preventing people from forming housing co-operatives is diametrically opposed to the best interests of the people. I want diversity, coupled with value for money. That is why I say that the best clerks of works are those who live on council estates. If they are given control of their homes, they will get value for money when they hire labour for maintenance purposes.
I am depressed by the present state of much council accommodation, not only in my city, but throughout the country. People are often obliged to live in damp, squalid 1277 conditions, and that can have an enormous effect on family life. People can be driven to the depths of despair because of the conditions in which they are forced to live. The Government should provide more resources to tackle these problems. They should also encourage the establishment of housing co-operatives and the dismantling of large corporations.
It is clear that, in this sphere, bigger is not better. Of the 70,000 council properties in my city, 6,000 are currently lying empty. I have in the past highlighted examples of houses — fortunately they have now been demolished—which had stood empty for 23 years. I believe that the local authority had even forgotten that it actually owned those properties. That is what can happen when council ownership grows like Topsy and direct labour organisations and municipalities decide what is best for the people living in their houses. We need a more radical approach.
Too much emphasis has been laid in the past simply on the problems of the public sector, as the Select Committee points out. In many parts of inner cities the challenge will come in housing action and general improvement areas, where progress has come largely as the result of progressive legislation enacted by the last Labour Government and as the result of grants provided by the present Government.
The Minister frequently tells us about the amount of money that has been made available for improvement grants, but because of the reduction now being made in improvement grants, the work done in the 1970s and early 1980s is being put at risk in housing action areas. We shall end up with a patchwork quilt of housing renovation and decay. In other words, by being pennywise and poundfoolish we are wasting a great deal of public money that has already been invested in those areas.
About 400,000 building workers are today languishing on the dole. Public money is being paid to them to remain idle. The cost of leaving people unemployed, of paying benefit and of lost income tax which they would otherwise be paying, coupled with the cost of private and public sector housing, is enormous. I cannot understand the logic of such economics and I hope that the Government will reconsider their approach both to public and private sector housing. They must stop using housing as an economic barometer for their monetary idealogies.
I again pay tribute to the Chairman of, and my colleagues on, the Select Committee. It is vital work to examine public accounts. It is important for Select Committees to act as the watchdogs and guardians of the public purse. We have discharged that responsibility in the way that the House would expect.
Hon. Members must one day give serious consideration to improving the powers of Select Committees so that they can do more, perhaps by way of directly stimulating change and initiating legislation. I hope that at some future time it will not simply be a question of the Chairman of our Select Committee putting points to the Minister, but that he will have a chance to initiate the changes which both he and we know are necessary.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
The point that I wish to make, while specific, might be felt to be narrow. However, for those who are affected, it is a point of great importance.
We referred last year to the cost of dog licences, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) commented on the subject in his remarks today. I congratulate him on the quality of his speech. He said that nothing had been done about the matter, and it is true that, while we have had a consultation paper, nothing appears to be happening in relation to dog licences.
Nor is it simply a question of revenue, although it seems ludicrous to raise only a fraction of the cost of providing the licences. However, I should have thought that, if for no other purpose than that of revenue, the course that I shall urge would commend itself to the Government.
There is more to it than finance. In recent weeks in Blackpool there have been two cases of toxocariasis, a disease which causes blindness. It arises through dog dirt. Almost inevitably, and tragically, children come in contact with it in the parks and elsewhere, although it can affect anybody. Of the two cases in Blackpool, one resulted in total blindness, and in the other a child lost an eye. When a parent sends his or her children to play in the park and finds that that is the result of what is considered to be an innocent occupation, the trauma is difficult to overestimate.
It is essential that a proper licence fee is charged that induces some responsibility. That would help in large measure. Secondly, the Government should bear in mind that the burden of policing parks rests firmly upon the shoulders of local authorities. A substantial proportion of the new sum that is raised should be given specifically to the authorities which have the responsibility, the difficulty and the expense. The sum should be additional to any other moneys that they receive. It should be given to them specifically to assist them to meet their difficulties. That will help them properly to police and control the parks.
When a licence is granted, we cannot say to the dog owner, "You must produce a veterinary certificate which states that your dog has been wormed." Perhaps that would be too expensive a requirement to put upon dog owners, although it might be a sensible course to take. I have a dog, and I would be only too pleased to give such an undertaking. However, when a licence is issued there should be a requirement that the owner produces a receipt to show that he has bought the appropriate powders. If he has bought them, it is almost inevitable that they will have been used. That requirement would not impose an onerous obligation.
First, we should introduce a licence fee that will make people responsible for their dogs. It is often the dog that is straying that causes trouble. Secondly, a proportion of the revenue so raised should be given to local authorities to assist them to control their parks. Thirdly, there should be some proof that a dog has been properly wormed. If these steps are taken, the tragedies that we have experienced in Blackpool will not recur.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
I agree with much that the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) has said, but I shall 1279 not take up his remarks because I wish to refer to two other matters and I do not want to waste too much of the time of the House.
The Select Committee questioned officials of the Department of the Environment about the right-to-buy scheme for tenants of charitable housing associations. The scheme was introduced under the terms of the Housing and Building Control Act 1984. It involves tenants of charitable housing associations who are not able to purchase the accommodation in which they currently reside being able to purchase accommodation on the private market with a grant from the housing association which is equivalent to the discount which they would have received if they had been council tenants or the tenants of a non-charitable housing association exercising their right to buy their present dwelling.
I asked the officials to tell me how much money was laid aside in the Estimates for the cost of the grants and where the money was to come from. The response from the officials was unsatisfactory. I have it in print in front of me. It reads:The cost of the discounts under this scheme is met by Exchequer grant in the form of a housing association grant paid to the housing association through which the tenant arranges his purchase. Provision for it forms a small part, not specifically identified, of the overall provision for housing association grant in subhead El of class VII, 1.That means that the provision of money for grants to tenants of charitable housing associations exercising their rights under the scheme comes directly from the pool of money that is available to housing associations for the development of new and improved property to rent. In other words, the amount of money is crucial. We are told that the cost of the grants is only a small part of the overall provision, and it appears that no specific estimate is made of the cost of the scheme. This is a crucial issue, because the cost of the scheme will be deducted from the overall sum that is made available for association grant purposes by the associations for the development of new and improved property.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some rather more satisfactory answers than those which were given by his officials. I invite him to tell us how much money is expected to be paid under housing association grants to tenants of housing associations who are not able to purchase the accommodation in which they are living and who purchase on the private market. I hope that he will give us the total for this year and the sum that is expected to be paid next year. The issue is crucial for the purpose of housing association development this year and next.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that everyone who moves out of a charitable housing association flat or house creates a vacancy by taking advantage of the scheme? Each vacancy is created at much less cost to the Exchequer than the building of a new flat or house. In creating lettings for the associations, the scheme provides a cheap alternative that offers value for money.
§ Mr. Smith
I accept some of the premises in the hon. Gentleman's intervention, although he leaves out of account the calculation of mortgage tax relief, for example, which will become available to the person or family who move into the private sector. The person who moves out will obtain a mortgage and will be entitled to the relief which he is not receiving currently. The equation 1280 is rather more complicated than the simple formulation which the hon. Gentleman presented, but his basic proposition is correct.
If a family, an individual or a group of people move out of a unit of accommodation and that unit becomes available for letting by the charitable housing association, a vacancy will be created at less cost to the Exchequer than the building of a new flat or house. However, money will have been taken out of the overall pool that is available for the development of new accommodation and new schemes. That worries many housing associations and those who are waiting for association accommodation. I hope that we shall have some serious and sensible answers in response to this small but important issue.
The Government have riot been spending very much money on housing over the past few years. I tabled a parliamentary question about a year and a half ago seeking comparative figures. My question asked the Government to use a base date of 1977. I accept that the trend has been similar under Governments of both political persuasions, as I am sure the Minister will hasten to remind us. Nevertheless, the graph has steepened under the present Government. I asked the Government to start with a base date of 1976–77 and to state, against a figure of 100, what had happened to elements of Government expenditure from that base date. The answer revealed that under almost all headings public expenditure was within the 90 to 110 level. Some items of expenditure had decreased slightly and some had increased slightly.
There has been a dramatic increase in public expenditure on defence and social security. The social security increases are a direct result of the amount of unemployment benefit that is paid out. In one respect alone there has been a dramatic fall from 100 to 30—a cut to less than a third. That was housing.
The record of the past 10 years is not a proud one. We can see the results throughout Britain. Houses and fiats are in an appalling condition, with people having to live in damp, mouldy, difficult, overcrowded accommodation without any hope of being able to move out into something better for themselves and their children. Many people throughout Britain, including my constituency, are having to endure those difficulties.
About a month ago the Minister for Housing and Construction went to Islington to see some of the housing conditions for himself. He saw what the local authority, against all the odds—in the face of continuing cuts in the housing investment programme and constraints on capital expenditure—has assiduously been trying to do. In many cases it has been producing good accommodation, but it is able to do far too little in the face of the enormous problems of those who need accommodation.
Even if the Under-Secretary of State and his civil servants are not prepared to admit that the overall levels of HIP allocations are too low—they have consistently not been prepared to accept this—and to admit that the constraints on the spending of capital receipts are an economic absurdity and a cruel deceit for the people living in inadequate and insubstantial accommodation, perhaps they will accept that some specific problem areas need a specific allocation of funds.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I note what my hon. Friend is saying about housing stock in his borough of Islington. His borough has partnership status and is the seventh most deprived local authority area in 1281 England, whereas my borough of Newham is the second most deprived area and has neither partnership nor programme status. Is that fair?
§ Mr. Smith
I would certainly not advocate swapping Islington's partnership status for Newham's position. I know Newham well—of course, not as well as I know Islington—and am well aware of the urban dereliction there, the difficulties that face the people and the need for special Government attention and assistance. I look forward to the day when we have a Government who are more clear-sighted and humane than the present Government and who will not only pay attention to those problems in Newham, but will pay more assiduous attention to the problems in Islington, despite its partnership status.
I draw the attention of the Under-Secretary of State to five specific problem areas where housing subsidy is inadequate and where the Government could undertake to give special assistance without necessarily breaching their overall approach to the HIP allocation system. I have tried so often in the past to convince the Government that this is a good cause, and failed, that I am rapidly giving up any hope that the Government will bend on this matter.
First, the Government have been happy to rush legislation through the House to deal with housing defects in non-traditional blocks which have been badly, inadequately and dangerously built, to protect the interests of those tenants who have availed themselves of the right to buy and bought flats in such blocks, but they have not been prepared to recognise the difficulties and needs of the tenants in such blocks. Perhaps the Government are now giving some consideration to their needs and wishes.
Secondly, the Government have consistently refused to acknowledge that asbestos in large quantities in large blocks, many of which were built during the 1950s and 1960s, is dangerous and should be removed, in the interests of the safety and health of the residents. They have refused to acknowledge that local authorities face a special difficulty in ensuring that the asbestos is removed properly and quickly. The Government have not been prepared to consider an ad hoc system of special grants for the removal of asbestos where it is found by the local authority. I am sure that local authorities would be prepared to have a system of Department of the Environment approval when the Department deems that to be necessary. Surely it would be more sensible to do that rather than leave local authorities with the job of having to meet the removal costs from their overall existing housing programmes. A special system should be implemented as quickly as possible to remove asbestos where it is dangerous.
The third problem area is the inter-war estates. During his visit to Islington the Minister for Housing and Construction visited some of the inter-war estate blocks which have been renovated and transformed under the council's imaginative programme. I think that he was impressed. In assessing the housing needs of a particular area, the Government should recognise the considerable cost incurred by local authorities in transforming old blocks into better accommodation.
Fourthly, the Government should consider the number of homeless people who apply every year to the local authorities for housing. The Government will say that this 1282 is taken account of in the general needs index. The pressure on many inner city boroughs to provide housing is becoming so acute, especially in those boroughs which have resorted to using sordid and inadequate bed-and-breakfast accommodation, that they are often able to deal with only the problem of the homeless and not the needs of the other people in their areas who need better housing conditions. I hope that the Government will pay attention to that problem, which affects some parts of Britain more dramatically than others.
Fifthly, I hope that the Government will give some recognition, not just to the non-traditional blocks but to the blocks that were constructed in concrete in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, where people are living in damp conditions and condensation is running down the walls. As any hon. Member who represents an inner city area will know, people are living in inadequate, poorly heated and poorly insulated accommodation which needs major renovation work if it is to be made a decent place in which to live.
The Government are taking no account of those problems in the housing investment programme allocations, in their capital restraints or in any of their housing policies. Even if they want to keep the lid on public expenditure, they must realise that there are specific problems and that people are suffering tragically and need the concern, care and attention not just of their local authority, but of the Government, who control the nation's purse strings. I hope that the Government will give us some mileage today to show that, for once, they are awake to the fact that hundreds of thousands of families with children are living in appalling, substandard, inadequate and degrading accommodation. These people need something better and they are waiting for the Government to take action.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I am glad to speak after the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) who always makes challenging speeches with great authority. I also join in congratulating the Chairman of the Environment Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), whose diligence is exceeded only by his qualities of chairmanship in the scrutiny of these Estimates, which are a less glamorous but vitally necessary part of the work of the Committee.
I should like first to deal with that part of class VIII vote 3 which relates to urban development corporations and specifically to refer to the London Docklands development corporation. Under class VIII vote 3 there is an allocation of approximately £50.7 million for the corporation. That is one of the best possible investments of public money. It is marvellous to behold the regeneration taking place in this eight square miles of our capital city. It is not simply a matter of redeveloping land or converting warehouses or building new homes. The corporation is making superb environmental use of the greatest natural asset of the area —the Thames and its docklands.
§ Mr. Chapman
I shall give way shortly. I will continue with what I hope is not a peroration but a few facts. I will then give way to the hon. Gentleman as he is 1283 the leader of our county council. The LDDC development must be seen in the context of the great public service infrastructure. The docklands light railway is a most interesting enterprise and £15 million is to be provided for that from the Estimates, towards a total cost of about £70 million. I am pleased that rapid progress is being made on that enterprise and I acknowledge the Government's commitment in giving the go-ahead for the STOLport.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) has touched on a subject that is very close to my heart and close to the interests of the residents of Newham. He mentioned that the LDDC was building houses. He must be aware that the majority of people living in Newham cannot afford to buy houses in the LDDC area. The Government have used the resources invested in the LDDC area as a reason for not allowing the borough of Newham partnership status. The 6 per cent. of Newham residents who live in the docklands area reap no benefit from the LDDC's activities.
§ Mr. Chapman
I think that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is being slightly shortsighted. I bow to the hon. Gentleman's authority and knowledge of the area, but in my view the whole thrust of the provision of housing in the docklands is to cater for all income groups as far as is practicably possible. Various docklands trust schemes have been set up, as well as the more conventional and recently introduced concept of equity sharing, and these provide opportunities for people to start the process of home ownership on quite modest means in that part of our capital city.
The hon. Gentleman's intervention gives me the opportunity to stress that what is taking place in the LDDC area is a classic example of what should happen in redevelopment—a marriage between private enterprise and public authorities. I am sure that co-operation is also happening in the Merseyside development corporation. Both private enterprise and public authorities bring their own special skills to the benefit of one another and to the satisfaction of the community.
Although the estimate for the next year's public expenditure programme for the LDDC area is £50.7 millions, there is little doubt that previous expenditure, with this expenditure and future expenditure, is primarily responsible for bringing in private development. Private companies have already committed themselves to commercial and industrial development to the value of £140 million in the LDDC area. Four thousand homes have been started or completed and 180 new firms have come into the area since 1981, creating 4,000 new jobs.
I have one query — not a criticism — about the relatively high level of expenditure allocated to administration and salaries for administration staff—20 per cent. of the £50.7 million total. I am told that those figures may not be correct. If they are not, someone must be held to account for providing misleading figures. Administration costs will necessarily be high because of the area in which the development is taking place. That £10 million of public money for administration should be seen in the context of private investment as well as public commitment.
§ Mr. Alton
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) has highlighted the argument by the Chairman of the Select Committee about the need to monitor and evaluate the success of the LDDC and the 1284 Merseyside development corporation. An important difference between the two development corporations is that private enterprise has been successful in building homes in the LDDC area whereas no home provision has been made in the MDC area. Would it not be practical for the MDC to follow in the footsteps of the LDDC and to build houses?
§ Mr. Chapman
I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has greater experience of the MDC. I can speak with more authority about the LDDC than about the MDC. Home provision has proved to be a staggering success and that concept should be extended to other conurbations. I once wrote a very modest paper—so modest that it received little attention —pointing out that 15 years ago there was a case for earmarking certain areas of, for example, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, to create special priority areas and so concentrate resources to redevelop and renovate and show what can be done.
My second point relates to the housing subsidies mentioned by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. Class VII vote 1 relates to housing improvement grants. It is not all gloom and doom in this sector of housing subsidies. I took the precaution of checking the figures. In 1978–79—I do not know why I chose that year—£90 million was spent on housing improvements grants. By 1983–84 the total outturn was £933 million. Last year it had gone down to £778 million. Nevertheless, these figures show that there has been a massive increase in resources devoted to one type of housing subsidy. Improvement grants are, by any criterion, a most cost-effective way to renovate, refurbish and rehabilitate our housing stock—and they provide jobs.
I welcome the publication of the Green Paper, not because I think it has the complete answer or is an end in itself, but because it will create a framework for a better system for the most effective use of the significant resources devoted to this part of housing subsidy. There is a great case for ensuring, far more effectively than we have hitherto, that those resources go to the households that need them, rather than right across the board, irrespective of need.
I turn finally to the whole question of capital expenditure, which covers all the classes and votes which are the subject of the various motions. According to what I was told recently, under the present Government, whereas current expenditure has increased in real terms by 8 per cent., capital expenditure has decreased by 4 per cent. in real terms. I know that capital expenditure decreased even more dramatically in the previous period, but that shows that the Government were starting from a low base.
We must have a much more intelligently planned rolling expansion programme for our capital investment. We have managed to do it in defence and in the Health Service, so I cannot see why it should be beyond the wit of Government to try to isolate capital expenditure programmes from the general thrust of demand-led current expenditure in particular.
The capital investment in the nation's infrastructure is cost effective, and I do not see why the Government cannot announce that next year there will be an increase of X per cent. in real terms and the following year a further increase of, say 1 per cent. beyond that, and stick rigorously to it.
§ Mr. John Mark Taylor (Solihull)
I wonder whether my hon. Friend, in his well-intentioned enthusiasm, is losing sight of one point. The capital expenditure programmes to which he is referring are often assumed to be labour-intensive and therefore helpful in regard to unemployment. Will my hon. Friend accept that most of the capital expenditure programmes in construction and environment are anything but labour-intensive? Will he concede that point?
§ Mr. Chapman
I concede it partly, in the sense that I withdraw the remark if I made it, but I do not think I said that I was advocating an expansion of capital investment programmes in the construction industry in particular because it was the most cost-effective way of providing employment. I am sorry if my hon. Friend thought I said that; I do not think that I did. What I said earlier was that increasing housing improvement grants is one of the most effective ways of providing employment in the construction industry.
But I go further and suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and, respectfully, to the House that what is important is not only the level of investment in the infrastructure programme of the construction industry but that the construction industry should know what it is so that it can plan ahead to try to achieve it.
The House will know of my particular interest in construction and in the environment. I hope that the Government will find a more intelligent way of dealing with the programme for the construction industry, which is still our greatest industry, whether measured in terms of output or manpower.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
It is not often that I am able to say that I agree with part—if not all—of a speech by a Conservative Member, but I agree with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) in regard to housing improvement grants and their consequential effect on employment locally. I am pleased that it is not only Opposition Members who are calling the Minister's attention to that matter. Great difficulties are being encountered in the attempts to improve housing in my constituency and in the area of the Rotherham metropolitan borough, and at the same time there is tremendous pressure on the housing investment programme.
I wish to refer to two matters in the Estimates, one of which relates to housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) spoke about the way in which the Housing Defects Bill was rushed through the House last year. I should like to draw attention to the plight of people living in defective houses. They have seen the Government introducing legislation to deal with the problem which has arisen when people have bought a pig in a poke, but the Government have done nothing to give local authorities the ability to repair such houses, if indeed they are repairable.
Hundreds of people in my constituency have bought housing direct from the Rotherham metropolitan borough council or from other public bodies in my constituency, such as the National Coal Board. They are still waiting for the Minister to introduce a proper reinstatement programme for Reema and Tarran houses, or alternatively to give money to my local authority for the repurchase of those houses if they cannot be reinstated.
1286 The local authority is incurring expense in finding out exactly the plight of people and whether they would like to have their houses repurchased. I have in my hand six A4 size pages which were sent out in desperation by Rotherham metropolitan borough council, in May of this year, to tell the people who bought houses which are designated under the Housing Defects Act 1984 that at present very little can be done for them, apart from asking them to write to the council describing their circumstances, so that the council can decide whether such cases can be deemed to be emergencies and bought back.
When the Act was passed, Rotherham council was told that there would be money available, although the assurance was not very specific. The Government's role in making money available for housing in Rotherham in the past five years has been a diminishing one. This year, the council has been able to build only 60 bungalows. That is in an area with a population of over 250,000. In the late 1970s, Rotherham was in the proud position that within a fortnight people could move into new homes if they were unable to buy on the private market. Since public authorities started to sell houses, the vast majority of people in my area have been unable to buy them.
Not only has the council had to reduce its house building programme, but under the housing investment programme it cannot repair council house stock that needs repair. In addition, the council has not been given any money for the repurchase or reinstatement of houses designated under the Act.
I understand that in May of this year the local authorities submitted information on what they deemed would be the cost of implementing the Housing Defects Act. I urge the Minister to tell the House whether any decision has been taken in relation to Rotherham and other areas which have a large number of defective houses on their hands. Can he tell my council when it will get the money, so that it can write to the people concerned and tell them exactly where they stand?
In introducing the Housing Defects Bill, the Government, to put it mildly, put the cart before the horse. Hundreds of my constituents still do not know what is to happen. Some of them have had "For Sale" notices in their front gardens for over two years. Some people have been trying to sell houses and move up the housing market, but they have been denied the opportunity to do so. Although there is an Act, there is still no money for my local authority to carry out the legislation. I hope that the Minister will move quickly.
Class VIII, vote 2, relates to grants to the British Waterways Board. For the first time since becoming a Member of the House, I have had to write to the board this week because of a decision that it has taken. I give credit where it is due, and I give it to the Government for their decree that all uses of canals should be reviewed. The board has said that, for 12 months, it must remove the rights of Kiveton Park angling club to fish in the Chesterfield canal in the south of my constituency. The club has had that right since 1909. It has received a letter from the board stating that the review must be enforced, even though fishing rights may be restored after 12 months.
When aid is given to the British Waterways Board, the fact that the canals are not only used for transport but are a source of recreation should be taken into account. The South Yorkshire canal, which flows into Rotherham, has been used for many years for transport. but other canals, 1287 such as the Chesterfield canal, are used for fishing. I ask the Minister to realise that recreational facilities on canals are important for many organisations and people. I hope that the Minister, under the aid given in the vote, will ensure that the recreational facilities and the need to improve canals are taken into account.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
It is not just a matter of improving canals, but of maintaining them. In Scotland, canals are deteriorating quickly. Farmers in my constituency took me round last month to see the number of leaks in the deteriorating Victorian puddling. A huge amount of work is required to keep them in their present condition, let alone to improve them. Is the same problem developing after 150 years in my hon. Friend's constituency?
§ Mr. Barron
My hon. Friend has raised a good point. I am not always in favour of them, but many voluntary organisations and canal societies have been working for generations to stop the natural erosion of canals. When money must be spent and there is a lot of work to be done, that work cannot be done by voluntary organisations. The Minister must recognise that any provisions for expenditure must cater for the leisure side as well as for transport, which is already well catered for.
I would hate to suggest that all that the unemployed in my area have to do is to go fishing. There is a massive problem of youth unemployment in my constituency. If we cannot find them work, we have a responsibility to find them something to do, even if that means providing leisure pursuits on the canal. When the Minister is considering aid to the British Waterways Board, he must keep that in mind at all times.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I draw your attention to column 1079, of yesterday's Official Report, where some singularly ill-founded remarks seek in rather pathetic fashion to wax critical of a Labour authority in the north-east. The fact that they are critical does not disturb me unduly, even though they are unjustified. However, they are attributed to me. I seek your guidance on how to have my name removed from such a pathetic effort.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there has been an error in the report of what he said?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I shall make inquiries into that, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to it.
§ Mr. John Mark Taylor (Solihull)
For many environmentalists this year has been the year of the badger; for others, the focus has been on ancient monuments and the heritage, with anxious reference to Stonehenge. My remarks will relate to derelict land and urban renewal.
It is the contention of many of us from the provincial conurbations that the control of urban sprawl into the countryside is merely the converse of the more serious problems of deprivation, demoralisation and evacuation of 1288 the older central urban areas. The interests of those who would wish to see a denial of green field development as a soft option, and the interests of those who wish to see new resources put into inner-city areas converge. They are the same interests. In all the big provincial conurbations, an enormous consensus of political will is available to the Government should they wish to draw the fairly simple conclusion that has been circulating for some time: the political interests of the periphery of our provincial conurbations, usually in the hands of the Conservative party, and those of the older urban centres, usually in the hands of the Labour party, are the same.
In my constituency, there is a sincere and genuine desire to halt the sprawl into the green field countryside. There is a genuine belief that if resources are denied to constituencies such as mine, they should be made available in the central Birmingham and the central midlands conurbations, where the fabric is badly rundown and those resources are needed. When the Minister considers class VIII, vote 3, I hope that he will bear my points in mind. He will have a ready audience if he does SO.
The green field soft option is easier for the developer than the hard, difficult urban site, such as the Saltley gasworks in Birmingham, which has underground, broken-down brickwork and poisoned earth to a considerable depth. Clearly, that site is the harder option. Initiatives must be taken to make the difficult site an attractive proposition to the developer. In this context, as other hon. Members have said, the development corporations have been an outstanding success. Development corporations have cut through and succeeded in difficult urban sites such as Merseyside and the London docklands. Even those of us who have spent a long time in local government are driven to the conclusion that development corporations often succeed because they can override local government and do not get clogged and fettered by its traditional mechanisms, which, although well-intended, are sometimes leaden-footed, negative and unhelpful.
In terms of ownership, much of the redundant land and demoralised sites in the urban conurbations are languishing in public ownership at unrealistic book values, which could have been designed to repel any interested inquirer. Such sites may be on the books of the British Waterways Board, public service undertakings, British Rail or even local authorities. People are inhibited by those unrealistic book values from putting such sites on the market. Would the Minister give some thought to a more enlightened or cavalier technique? If that brought results it might be worth the effort. Why do we not get the local authorities to acquire those sites compulsorily, at whatever price, and award comprehensive planning permissions to the sites? They could spend some money making them attractive and auction them for whatever price they will fetch. There would be only one proviso to the purchaser — whatever he chooses to do within the umbrella planning permission he should put the work in hand within a limited time. I cannot see who would be the loser from such an initiative. There would be some loss of money on the book values of publicly owned property, but those are unreal assets and perhaps the sooner they are written off the better. If what I have suggested is practical, so much the better.
I shall conclude by explaining my intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet 1289 (Mr. Chapman). I am anxious that we should not raise false hopes. Every right hon. and hon. Member is naturally anxious about unemployment and would like to think that there is a connection between spending more money on construcion and alleviating some unemployment. It would be irresponsible for any Member to raise false hopes. We should all take account of two important discounts. The first is that many major construction programmes are not labour intensive. The second — I am afraid that this example is anecdotal and a rather cautionary tale — relates to a conversation that I had recently with a major civil engineering contractor from the Wolverhampton area. He had one of the final stages of the M54 contract, the Telford motorway, just north of Wolverhampton. He advertised in Wolverhampton where unemployment is high for men to work at good pay on the final stages of the motorway. There was no take up from that advertising campaign. That civil engineering contractor was puzzled and anxious about the reasons for that lack of response.
In the closing days of the West Midlands county council, I should like to say that its forays into healing derelict land has been one of its successes. I contrast that with one of its more recent initiatives when it decided to go to Dublin to discover why Irish tinkers come to Britain. That decision was given some publicity recently. The matter comes within the ambit of the debate. The authority did not have to go so far to find the answers. I am sad that in its late stages, that authority should approach the difficult problem of tinkers and gipsies in that far-flung and self-indulgent way.
The Minister may not be competent to address that matter, but I am looking forward to his reply. I am sure that I shall enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), the Chairman of the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Those of us who are not members of the Select Committee are probably in a better position than those who are, to thank our colleagues of all parties who are members. The House does not pay sufficient attention to the hard work that they do. Whatever their conclusions, it behoves those of us who benefit from the work to say thank you.
It is normal to excuse oneself for not following a previous speaker, but I should like to follow the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). We are discussing matters quietly, and I believe that there is an important and serious point to be made about what he said. I must concede that there is some truth in the fact that it is easy to say, "Yes, let us have public expenditure. Let us spend on infrastructure and there will be many more jobs." That case is rather spoilt by exaggerration, but I believe that there is a great deal of potential work in many projects.
One or two colleagues and I were told last year by the Institution of Civil Engineers that for every £100 million spent on sewers at least £55 million would return to the Exchequer in one form or another. The point relates to social accounting. The Severn-Trent water authority representative argued that although one had to take with a pinch of salt the amount of employment that would be created—I agree with that—by sewer reconstruction, if more people were employed that would result in less unemployment benefit being paid, more people paying 1290 taxes and more prosperous firms. That catalogue is familiar to the House. Less would also be paid in national insurance, housing benefit and various other benefits. A major sewer programme is needed, because hardly a week goes by without us reading in our local newspapers of major roads crumbling over Victorian sewers. If one takes account of the social cost, is a major sewer reconstruction programme as costly as is made out?
I should have liked to be a fly on the wall at the Cabinet meeting this morning which discussed the Government's public expenditure problems. I hope that some Ministers—I do not like to put it this way—had the wit to ask what the cost of a major programme would be. I agree with the hon. Member for Solihull that a case can be brought into disrepute by being over-egged, but, nevertheless is there not something to be said for major capital programmes? How much do they cost? How much will doing something about the waterways cost?
I am one of the few Labour Members who represent a large number of farmers. During the rainy weather last month I was taken around some waterways by friends of mine who are farmers. Mr. Sandy Manson of the Pardovan farm near a canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow showed me point after point where the canal was leaking.
The time has passed for minor repairs or patching. Civil servants at the Scottish Office or the Department of the Environment who are involved with the environment must understand that sooner or later the problem must be tackled. Every five years that passes, the problem worsens. The clay and the puddling deteriorate. The Victorians built well, but the canals cannot be expected to last for ever. At some time, someone, somewhere, will have to do something about them. What is true of Scotland is true of south Northumberland and north Durham, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans) knows well. I suspect that the problem is repeated in south Yorkshire, Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
§ Mr. Chris Smith
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a further point, which is perhaps rather better illustrated by the analogy of motorways than canals? If we spend 2 per cent. more on motorway construction than is being spent at the moment, motorways will last for considerably longer. If we put more money into quality construction, it lasts longer and therefore less has to be spent on repairs.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I endorse that point strongly. Last Friday week, Scottish Labour Members were guests of the RAC and AA in Glasgow. They made the point that there had been skimping—I shall not bore the House with the details—on some of the motorway foundations. We are reaping endless trouble from that. This raises the issue of road repairs and potholes and the fact that if repairs are not done roads will deteriorate.
I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) on the question of housing. The city of Glasgow has worked miracles in the past five years. When people see what can be done to raise the row by relatively small sectors that are "outstanding", to use the word of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, great advances can be made.
§ Mr. Harry Cowans (Tyne Bridge)
I have listened to my hon. Friend, and surely he agrees that the converse is also true. Local authorities are unable to complete the clearing of an area to build better houses because of 1291 Government cuts in housing. People are left in limbo because they cannot pay the compensation necessary to clear the area, and instead of making improvements the area is left like a battlefield.
§ Mr. Dalyell
It is awful when the job of clearing cannot be finished. My hon. Friend knows more about housing policy than I do, so I simply endorse what he says. When there is not the money to finish the job, it is extremely wasteful over a period of time.
I represent a fairly small local authority, West Lothian district council, with which I have an excellent relationship and for which I have the greatest respect. Even a small authority such as that needs £190 million to £200 million for necessary repairs. That does not include luxuries or frivolous work, as was confirmed by the director of finance, Mr. Stanley Stirton, and others. Those may seem staggering sums, but I return to the social calculations. Such repair work will take people off the unemployment register. Bearing in mind the cost of unemployment and housing benefits, and the potential income from national insurance and extra taxes, how much does it cost to employ people when we have 25 per cent. or so unemployed and the possible withdrawal of British Leyland, Bathgate and the closure of the Polkemmet pit?
These are urgent issues for a community such as I represent. I hope that during this quiet debate we can have a reflective answer from a reflective Minister, who has not been afraid to speak his mind on other matters.
The work that could be done if more funds were given to the Historic Buildings Council for Scotland is also labour intensive. I am told that if the £22 million for the national heritage memorial fund under class VIII, vote 4 were doubled, contractors could employ far more young people in the traditional crafts such as stonemasonry, lead piping, lead roofing and the rather difficult plumbing in an old building. Moreover, a great deal of the money which would be paid out would return to the Exchequer.
I went on a brief visit with the Historic Buildings Council to Methuen castle three weeks ago. The contractors I met there explained at great lenght the need for a little more money and said that they could then go ahead with more projects. That would create a difference in employment in rural areas.
§ Mr. John Mark Taylor
I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that many of the heritage and conservation programmes are indeed labour intensive. I make that intervention to balance what I said earlier.
§ Mr. Dalyell
In a sense, there is cross-party agreement on this matter. I hope that Ministers will note that and reflect on it.
Class VIII, vote 4 relates to redundant churches. Something must be done, and quickly. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) and I have been on heritage visits together. He knows exactly what the problem is. Time is often not on our side when the fabric is deteriorating.
Class VIII, vote 2 refers to the additional responsibilities taken on by the Nature Conservancy Council. I have asked this question before. Because of what has been learnt at Halvergate and elsewhere, has not the time come when, rather than pay out money to people who are doing 1292 what they ought not to be doing, we should consider listing sites of scientific or special interest in relation to nature reserves, such as we automatically accept for buildings?
It is difficult to make the point properly during Question Time, but the matter came up yesterday during Environment questions. It is all very well for the Minister to say that £50 an acre is being paid out all over Halvergate, but that represents quite a bit of money if it is repeated throughout Britain. Is this really a proper thing to do? Is it not time that the Government considered listing?
Class VIII, vote 3 deals with derelict land. It is extraordinary that, so long after 1945, and unlike any other country in Europe, there seems to be derelict land in all of our constituencies. I am a passionate believer in local authorities. Could not some policy be worked out with them to enable them to do something about the problem? Here again, the solution is labour intensive.
I shall not trespass on the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), but those of us who have the problem of travelling people in our constituencies feel that more could be done to provide them with sites. It is an extremely sensitive issue. The attitude in my constituency is, "Yes, we must have facilities for travelling people, but not next to me." That is a familiar feeling. Problems are created, however, by the failure to provide facilities.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) came on board the royal research ship Charles Darwin—I was glad to see him there—when some of us were invited to do so by the Natural Environment Research Council. It is just by HMS Belfast in the pool of London. Although I am relating the problem to class VIII, vote 5, the problem is that many Departments are involved. Professor Sir Malcolm Brown, the head of Keyworth, explained that his work is made difficult because it depends partly on the Department of the Environment, partly on the Department of Education and Science and partly on the Ministry of Defence, so consideration goes all around Whitehall.
If the Minister says that my question must be answered by the Department of Education and Science I shall not quarrel about it, but I would like to know about the ocean drilling programme. It is a matter of shame to our country if we cannot afford the candidate membership of that programme. We were to have been partners with the United States, Canada, Japan, France and Germany. We have a great deal of expertise, and all those who went on the Charles Darwin must have been impressed by the well-known international calibre of British scientists working in this area of activity. Something should be done.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act features in the Estimates. Endless time was occupied in Committee discussing marine nature reserves. Having recently visited the marine biological laboratory at Plymouth and talked to the director, I understand that there are problems at Penzance and Lundy. I suspect that the marine nature reserves have not got off the ground, partly because of the resistance of fishermen. They are afraid that the inspectors are connected with Her Majesty's inspectors of taxes. The last people the fishermen want to see are tax inspectors. Has the Department of the Environment any view to offer about the delay at Lundy and in the Scillies and, as a Scot, more urgently for me, about the fiasco of St. Abb's Head? Furthermore, it is most important that something should be done fairly soon about Loch Sween.
1293 I put down a question yesterday about the Property Services Agency:To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, if he will give a breakdown of the £89 million required for the progress of the Mount Pleasant airport in the Falklands after 1 June.In his reply the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said:It is not the practice to disclose rates for particular components of Government contracts, but I can say that essentially the sum covers the balance of work to complete the secondary runway, aircraft apron, roads, buildings and services, together with the site clearance of temporary facilities when construction ceases and the usual provisions for retention pending the expiry of maintenance periods on work already completed."—[Official Report, 10 July 1985.]I wonder, as my hon. Friends on the Front Bench may wonder, what would have happened to Liverpool, Lambeth and some of the other local authorities in London if they had suddenly decided to spend £89 million? Yet this happened without a cheep. The Falklands expenditure is sacrosanct. No local authority could get away with expenditure of that kind.
§ Mr. Dalyell
As my hon. Friend says, they would have been rate capped. What is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander. Time after time I used to bore people stiff—[Hon. Members: "Never."]—by asking about the cost of the airport. Even those civil servants who should not be here are laughing. Every time the answer, carefully costed, was that it would cost no more than £215 million and that there would be absolute cost control.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
My hon. Friend never bores the House by drawing attention to the peculiarly perverted values of the Government about Falkland Islands expenditure. Does he accept that if the money that was spent on the airport in the Falklands had been used in the London borough of Newham, it would have solved its housing problems?
§ Mr. Dalyell
This has come to be known as the Margaret Thatcher international airport. Its financial history is revealing. It started at £215 million. Time after time the cost was said to be £215 million. Then it edged up to £240 million. By some alchemy, it then rose to £360 million. From 1 June another £89 million had to be added. We also find that the "wide awake" airport at Ascension Island is to cost another £49 million. The cost is already over £500 million and it is edging steadily upwards. What has happened to the monitoring of PSA expenditure? All that the Under-Secretary of State, who is a nice man, can do is to give a watery smile. If I were talking nonsense, he would be down my throat. There is one law for military expenditure and another for local authority expenditure. It is not a sensible way to run a country.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)
Tempted though I am to follow in some detail the breadth and depth of this debate, I shall return to some of the issues that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi).
On the Department of the Environment Estimates, the mobility ratio of local authority housing is very important if we are to encourage those who might wish to seek jobs in the more prosperous parts of the country to move. It is 1294 not just a question of increasing the percentage of stock that is put aside from 1 per cent. to perhaps 2 per cent., important though that is. What worries me is that many authorities do not participate in the mobility scheme. I single out in particular Scottish local authorities. Scotland has higher than average unemployment. One might think that there would be a ready willingness to co-operate with other local authorities by asking them to make available a percentage of their stock. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will consider how the mobility scheme could be strengthened.
My second point, on improvement grants, was mentioned not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green but by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) and the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). There has been a massive increase in expenditure on improvement grants. A more discriminatory policy in terms of need is appropriate but it is a much more complex problem than that. In the prosperous parts of the south-east it is common for the price of houses that need to be improved to be inflated, in the sure and certain knowledge that the purchaser will be able to secure an improvement grant. In such areas as north-east Lancashire, however, where the average price of a house is much lower, an improvement grant may result in an even lower price being obtained on the open market. A loan system may work in some areas but not in others. I hope that this point will be taken into account during both this discussion and subsequent discussions on the Green Paper.
As for canals, I have to declare an interest as a member of the amenity advisory council of the Inland Waterways Association and as the chairman of the all-party waterways group. Having press-ganged the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) into becoming secretary of the group, I am pleased that he has spoken on the subject so soon after his appointment. I hope that we shall hear often from him on the subject. It is only fair to say that the Government have increased substantially the resources of the British Waterways Board. That has enabled it to clear up the backlog of work and make improvements. This is already evident in many projects. However, the BWB could do much more to help itself.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) referred to the use of redundant land. That is true of other under-utilised assets. An example is Lock Cottage at Cow Roast in my constituency which is tenanted by Mr. and Mrs. Kent. When it offered to sell the cottage, the BWB's valuation was £65,000. I sought three other valuations from professional valuers in the area. The average valuation was £45,000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull said, that is typical. The BWB did not want the valuation to be carried out by an independent valuer. I suggested that somebody should be appointed by the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers. However, the BWB was determined not to realise that asset.
Finally, I wish to refer to the thorny and vexed question of gipsy sites, which is not as easy as has been suggested. I have served on a local authority — Chiltern district council — which sought and obtained designation. As soon as the expenditure on the sites had been put in hand and we had bright, new and clean gipsy sites, the so-called gipsies moved in and vandalised them and demolished 1295 everything that was there. It was totally wasted expenditure. I wonder what value for money we get from some of those schemes.
On the other hand, my own local authority in Dacorum is being flooded by travellers not just from boroughs and districts that have obtained designation but by some people who have been evicted from the Molesworth protest site. We are trying in vain to achieve designation but are frustrated time and again by the changing criteria which reflect the fact that people see our area as a transit camp on the way to getting a site at one of the new official gipsy locations. The whole system of gipsy sites needs to be carefully examined.
With regard to the Property Services Agency Estimates, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to the inadequacy of the local discretion given to managers. A sum of £1,000 is a small sum over which to have jurisdiction when putting out work. That would not be so bad if, as a result, there was not duplication. A local manager, given the opportunity to put out a project for under £1,000, may discover later that, because it has been many years since the application was made and it has only now reached the end of the pipeline, it is being let as part of a major contract. Such duplication occurs far more frequently than the PSA is prepared to admit.
The PSA is a notoriously slow payer and thus it is difficult to attract competitive bids at the local small or major level. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green will give the PSA a firm kick up the backside to make it pay more promptly for the services that it commissions.
Perhaps at this stage the existence of the PSA should be considered and a decision reached on whether it should be divided among other Departments or eradicated. Even if the PSA remains in existence, there is some merit in placing it under an obligation to follow the rules and regulations that govern local authorities under the Local Government, Planning and Land Act. For example, why are local authorities obliged to put out to tender a cross-section of one third of their ordinary maintenance work but the same obligation does not apply to the PSA? That is certainly food for thought when the Minister considers the PSA.
I should like to add my voice to that of many of my colleagues in congratulating our Committee Chairman on the way that he leads us. It is always pleasant to serve on a ship where the captain has a firm hand on the tiller and where he shows such clarity of thought as the present incumbent. In saying that, I am sure that I speak for those of all political parties.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)
I wish to refer to a few items within the Department of the Environment's Estimates. Dog licences, which are referred to in the Select Committee report, were also mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell).
There is a need to remove the present crazy anomaly whereby the collection of the dog licence fee amounts to more than the revenue from the licence. However, from my own experience in Burnley I have learnt that much controversy surrounds dog issues. I strongly advise that it should not be left to local authorities to determine the amount of the licence fee. There should be a nationally 1296 based fee to avoid the inevitable comparisons which would be made if authorities were allowed to set the fee themselves.
I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that the revenue should be used to provide services such as dog wardens, and certainly Burnley would like an additional dog warden. Due to the present Government restraint, it has been unable to employ another warden. Despite the controversies arising in Burnley from the dog ban in certain parks — I stress "certain" because only a relatively small area has been affected by the ban—it is a reasonable compromise which has been overwhelmingly accepted. I believe that the Department of the Environment should consider the matter and give more advice to other authorities that wish to follow in that direction. The advice given could be based on the experiences and problems that we encountered in Burnley, which I believe can be blamed on both the council and the people who opposed that ban. In certain parks children can play on the grass without fear of being covered in dog dirt, which is welcome to many parents, yet in other parks, usually in close proximity, dogs are allowed.
Canals have been referred to in the debate. That is an item of great importance to a constituency such as mine, through which the Leeds and Liverpool canal runs. Lancashire Enterprises Ltd., a subsidiary of Lancashire county council, has formulated a programme to improve the canal and bring it back to standard. That applies only to the section of the canal in the Lancashire county area. The cost of the scheme to revitalise it is the staggering figure of £81 million. The company hopes to fund certain sections of the canal, depending on the areas that it goes through, through urban development grants, the urban programme, Manpower Services Commission schemes and other assistance from the Government. If we are to deal with the important problem of canals and waterways that need urgent attention, we have to ensure that the British Waterways Board and other bodies involved have the necessary resources to tackle it.
Many difficulties arise from all the different aspects of the urban programme. Some of those items are now being considered by the Government. There are many anomalies under the traditional urban programme. Many people are disappointed this year at the allocations that were given to them. It seems a bit of a nonsense to invite all authorities to apply to the urban programme when there are insufficient resources to allocate. It might be more appropriate to concentrate resources on areas of urban deprivation if they are limited.
There are programme authorities, partnership authorities and designated authorities. There are many anomalies among them, too. I, for one, cannot see why expenditure arising under the urban programme can be disregarded for penalty purposes for programme or partnership authorities, but not for designated authorities. To me it is only a matter of degree.
I was surprised when my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said that his borough was not a partnership authority whereas Islington is. That shows the great uncertainty about how authorities are designated. The Under-Secretary will say that there are different categories of local authorities and different headings of deprivation, and one has to be classified under so many of those headings to qualify. However, when one looks at some of the authorities, one stands back and says, "I wonder why that one has managed to achieve that status 1297 and the other one has not." Burnley is a designated authority, yet two authorities on either side, Pendle and Hyndburn, which are very similar, do not have that status.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I endorse my hon. Friend's comments. It does not make sense to Newham borough council. We look at those authorities close by which are partnership authorities or programme authorities. I do not want anyone to think that I was suggesting that Newham wants to take something away from the surrounding borough, which we know is also deprived. It is very difficult for us to explain to the people of Newham why Tower Hamlets, Islington and Hackney and other nearby boroughs get special support while we do not.
§ Mr. Pike
My hon. Friend has made the point very well. I take exactly the same view of Blackburn, which is close to Burnley. Those of us in Burnley would not wish Blackburn to lose its higher classification. It is extremely strange that Pendle and Hyndburn have no classification. We need to see whether this programme is catching all the authorities as it should be doing.
On the matter of grants, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) referred in particular to north-east Lancashire. I referred to that subject in the Select Committee when we were discussing the Estimates. The Government will have to consider carefully the implications of their Green Paper. Too often the Government look at housing as it is in London without looking at valuations and other factors in the provinces. In Manchester and Liverpool, the problems are very different from those only 24 miles away in Burnley, in north-east Lancashire, where property values are much lower. In those areas, if a person improves his house, the selling value, after his own share and the contribution from grants, will be less than the value for which that property could still be sold. That is one reason why council house rents are far too high. We had to increase them because of Government policy, and now semi-detached council houses are empty because people can buy terraced houses far more cheaply.
The Government should consider carefully before making changes in grants. There is abuse, and when the Minister for Housing and Construction came to Burnley last year he saw the problem for himself. He did not go on the exact tour that we had planned, because when we were driving round the streets of Burnley he suddenly said, "Stop the car, I want to get out." He went to the nearest person on the street and said, "I want to see your house." The house he want into proved the very point that the Government should look at closely. It was a house that had been improved on a grant; the grant was insufficient, and the house needed another grant to bring it up to scratch.
The Government should give councils the authority to inspect all work to make sure that contractors carry it out to the proper standard, and they should give councils the financial resources, powers and staff to do that work. Hon. Members on both sides of the House must be anxious to ensure that we get value for money. If the grants system is abused, whether by contractors or by anybody else, we should be concerned about it because it is a waste of public money which could be better used to make sure that other houses are brought up to standard. I accept that this may not be a major problem, but in my area the problem does exist. As I have said, the Minister for Housing and 1298 Construction saw it for himself, not through any planning by Burnley borough council, but purely because he stopped the car and wanted to look at a house immediately.
The Opposition have a right to argue about insufficient resources—and resources are insufficient—but I have always accepted that the Government have the right to limit the amount of money available whether we like it or not. My biggest objection is that this Government seem to believe that councils should not have the additional rights to determine at local level what they wish to spend and what additional resources they want to put in. Whichever political party is in government and however much I might disagree with the figure that the Government have fixed, they have a right to say what money they will put in. But councils should be given the freedom to raise money locally to tackle the jobs and problems that they were elected to tackle.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
It is always a pleasure but a daunting task to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), whose knowledge of local government matters is unrivalled in this House. He was a distinguished leader of Burnley council.
For obvious reasons I should like to speak about the Government's housing policy in London. There must be something wrong with their policy on housing, because the Duke of Edinburgh, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) have all said at different times that the Government have got it wrong. That is a most distinguished trinity of Establishment noses to get up. I hope the Minister is thinking carefully about the critics of housing policy among the Establishment, and not just among the Opposition.
It is arguable that the Government have not one housing policy but two — one for votes and one for public spending. Their votes policy appears to be to spare no expense to encourage or woo people into becoming owner-occupiers in the belief that home owners vote Tory. The policy is matched by a number of Labour Members who seem to think that all council tenants vote Labour. Both concepts are mistaken.
Changing the legal terms under which people occupy their homes does nothing to solve our housing problems. Put simply, there are not enough homes to go round and the homes that we have are decaying rapidly. The Government's public spending policy is to concentrate cuts on public investment on housing in order to compensate for their failure to keep other areas of public spending under control. Since 1979–80 London has suffered a cumulative loss of more than £3,000 million, and provision for public investment in London's housing has been chopped by two thirds.
London's housing problems are enormous and grave. The fabric of houses is deteriorating and 640,000 London homes are unsatisfactory. Many of them are in the private sector. Homelessness is increasing. Last year, there were 25,000 homeless families in London, with 3,000 of them in bed and breakfast accommodation. Waiting lists are lengthy; there are 500,000 people on the waiting list in London alone. In 1982 the Government stopped keeping separate figures for unemployed construction workers, but then there were about 40,000 such workers on the dole in London.
1299 Building figures are heading for new lows. Only 4,000 new council homes were started in London last year compared with 25,000 in the mid-1970s. The forecast is that performance will drop still further. The Government are now trying to hush things up hoping that nobody will notice how bad they are. In mid-June, The Guardian reported that, although the Government were committed to another survey in 1986 of the condition of the nation's housing stock, they intend to fiddle the definition of unfit property to make it appear that the situation is not getting worse.
In the Department of the Environment the Minister is seen as the personification of a human punchbag because of the way in which he keeps getting put up to deal with these unpopular subjects. I hope that he will confirm or deny that story which appeared in The Guardian in June. In the six years since the Prime Minister came to office, her Government have made no attempt to discover what the real housing need is, despite repeated requests to do SO.
Indeed, it has been left up to the Royal Family. I admit at once that the Duke of Edinburgh is not a person I have always associated with housing need. However, the inquiry into British housing, chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh, found that housing need is a national scandal. On all the international comparisons, we come out bottom of the league. On the number of homes produced per 1,000 inhabitants, we are bottom; on housing investment as a percentage of GDP, we are bottom; on gross fixed residential construction as a proportion of GDP, we are bottom. That list emerged from the Duke of Edinburgh's inquiry, and in each case we came below countries such as Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Iceland and Ireland as well as the richer western economies.
In 1983 the Conservative manifesto claimed that the Government would make Britainthe best housed nation in Europe".It is about time that they explained what happened to that commitment and why that promise has apparently been abandoned.
Class VII, vote 1, relates to general subsidies to local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) pointed out, this item has been reduced drastically since 1979 when general subsidies to local authorities amounted to £1,300 million. This year they have been cut to £400 million. But in real terms the cut has been that much greater, and the mechanisms have been draconian increases in council house rents and savage cuts in housing programmes that have reduced the rate of creation of new debt.
In a surprisingly frank piece of drafting in the introduction to class VII, vote 1, it admits that the purpose of driving up rents and slashing investment was to drive people into becoming home owners. It states:The underlying downward trend of entitlement to section A subsidies reflects the emphasis on increasing home ownership through the sale of council dwellings and lower capital expenditure on new public sector provision.There is no other justification for that than an ideological one.
§ Mr. Chris Smith
Will my hon. Friend also note that one of the results of the way in which the Government have forced public sector rents up over the past three or four years has been that throughout the country most housing 1300 revenue accounts are now in surplus? That means that rent payers are subsidising the ratepayers. Is not that a gross misuse of rent funds?
§ Mr. Banks
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend.
The figures in the Estimates are only gross Exchequer subsidies. But according to some sources, services on council houses in many areas result nationally in council housing making a net profit and receiving no subsidy at all. Will the Minister confirm or deny that? A number of Conservative councils — Wandsworth is one — have pushed up rents as a way of transferring money from the publicly rented sector to subsidise those in the private sector as well as ratepayers generally. That is a gross abuse of housing revenue accounts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley said that council rents have been forced up. Since 1979, rents have risen by double the rate of inflation. In that year, average rents in London were £7.93, but by 1984 they had risen to more than £17—an increase of more than 125 per cent. Rising rents contribute to inflation, but that does not seem to concern the Government because in their mind it appears that inflation is unimportant when its effects impinge mainly on council tenants.
The Government will no doubt say that the increases were necessary to catch up on the Labour years when rents fell behind, but they have gone much further than that. Until there was a marginal fall in the last couple of years, they pushed up rents so far that they accounted for a higher proportion of male manual earnings than at any time since the war.
The Government's traditional response has been that rent increases do not matter very much in the council sector because the poor are protected by housing benefits. A total of 65 per cent. of council tenants in Newham receive housing benefits, but the shambles of that system means that the poor have never been protected. Still less will that be true in the future because the Secretary of Slate for Social Services plans to take £500 million of that benefit away from the poor and the old.
General subsidies also include help towards the cost of managing and maintaining council estates. The effect of cutting back, combined with block grant penalties and rate capping, has been to pressure councils into reducing the number of caretakers and the regularity of maintenance — the very factors that the Department of the Environment has identified as being central to good management. Indeed, the Secretary of State for the Environment had the gall to stand up at the Institute of Housing conference in Harrogate last month and tell local authorities that they had failed their tenants. He announced that he was setting up a new unit, to be called the urban housing renewal unit, to privatise the estates. In fact, the Government have set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Government are obsessed with home ownership at the expense of everything else. They are fond of quoting surveys that show that most people want, and expect, to be home owners. That is hardly surprising, given the choices on offer. Many people now see home ownership as their best bet, and no one denies that owner-occupation has a dominant role to play. However, those who are excluded from home ownership, of whom there are large numbers in London, should riot be made to pay such a heavy price.
1301 I never miss the opportunity to draw the Minister's attention to the housing problem in Newham. The council, together with the Newham Chamber of Commerce, the Newham Voluntary Agencies Council, the Newham Council for Racial Equality, the Newham health authority and the GLC, wrote on 5 July to the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry, the Environment, the Home Department, Education and Science, Employment and Social Services. They made out an undeniable case for partnership status for the London borough of Newham. Indeed, the Minister knows that we have an undeniable case, So why does his Department still deny us the undeniable?
There is a severe shortage of homes in my borough. It is currently estimated at almost 3,000. Homelessness is now higher than ever before. More than half the privately owned homes in Newham are unsatisfactory, either through disrepair or a lack of bath or inside toilet.
One tends to associate Labour boroughs with high concentrations of council tenancy, but in my constituency more than 50 per cent. of people are owner-occupiers. However, the houses that they occupy are in grave need of repair — and that terrible problem is being exacerbated by Government policies.
Nearly a quarter of council accommodation is situated in the 112 tower blocks, and more than 800 families with young children who live in those blocks are waiting to be rehoused. We desperately need assistance from the Minister. He knows what is going on in the borough of Newham. He knows the problems associated with Ronan Point and the TWA blocks. What extra assistance will he give to the Newham council to deal with the problems that he knows exist? He has been to the borough and has seen them for himself. When may we expect to be given the partnership status that we so desperately need?
My last point is on class VII, vote 2. It is only a small amount in terms of overall subsidies, but it brings me back to a point which came up during the passage of the Local Government Bill on Monday—when the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) said that he supported the guillotine motion because he wanted to brush out of the way the embarrassment of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils. Let me bring it straight back to the House. In class VII, vote 2, section B1(2) deals withDiscretionary grants and loans towards the cost of arrangements to facilitate public sector tenant mobility under section 46 of the Housing Act 1980.It provides £75,000. This is the code of the national mobility office — four and a half persons in a semi-quango running the national mobility scheme — which the Government propose should take on the Greater London mobility scheme and the seaside and country homes scheme.
The Estimates show just how absurd that is as a proposal from a Government who believe that the national mobility office is the appropriate body to take on these major functions. The cost of the two GLC schemes is at least 10 times that of the present office of the national mobility scheme. Can the Minister tell us what will be the cost of section B1(2) in 1986–87, since the Government have already made it clear that they will pick up the bill 1302 for the Londonwide mobility scheme and for the seaside and country homes scheme. How does that square with the Government's claim that abolition will save money?
§ Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)
We are all very grateful to the Select Committee for picking out a number of matters and I do not intend to comment on more than a few, but perhaps I could start with gipsy sites. We all know that gipsies arouse strong feeling. When I have visited a gipsy site I have been given advice in what might be described as unparliamentary language. I thought I had to put my camera in my case rather than somewhere else. When one talks to the neighbours one is often approached in unparliamentary language as well. Nobody denies there is a difficulty about gipsies and travellers, but we need to get it in proportion.
As the Select Committee points out, there are roughly 10,000 travellers — about 20 traveller families per district or borough—in England and it should not be beyond the will of the boroughs to make provision for gipsy sites. Many authorities which are very hard pressed—I include my own in Lambeth—have honoured their responsibilities and some have neglected them. But there is no longer any excuse for dereliction of duty because gipsies are not popular. The fact that sites are not provided does not make the problem any easier. It simply shifts it somewhere else and in an unplanned way. The seasonal pattern of settlement by travellers needs to be looked at. My observation in Lambeth is that they tend to come into the city in winter and move out during the summer. There may be seasonal variations in other parts of England. It would be worth while looking at whether seasonal camp sites for travellers might meet part of the problem. I hope the Government will get the recalcitrant local authorities to do their duty, particularly since the Government are paying 100 per cent. of the cost.
I make no apology for mentioning a constituency point about the urban programme. I represent a borough which is in an inner-city partnership. Last year we had a net benefit, because the Government pay 75 per cent. of the cost of the inner city partnership, of about £10 million. That seems generous, but of that £10 million half went to voluntary organisations. My borough disperses a good deal of money among voluntary organisations. Only half of it went to what might be called statutory schemes. The net benefit to Lambeth council, which is in an inner city partnership, was £5 million.
Last year, penalties imposed on Lambeth council amounted to £15 million. For every pound that was being put in the collection plate, £3 was being stolen from the vestry. This borough is one of the third most deprived in the country and it is now engaged in a battle with the district auditor as to whether its conduct of affairs in Lambeth has been in order. I hope the Minister will have some regard, even at this late stage, to the financial responsibilities of boroughs such as Lambeth.
The urban programme imposes a very heavy burden as programmes become time expired and need to be picked up by the local authority. I hope the Minister's department will recognise the great burdens that are placed on these authorities and the fact that they are being fined. Last year my borough was fined £3 for every pound net which went into its coffers. If one sets this against the aid which one sees in the Estimates going to the London Docklands development corporation—£50 million with 20 per cent. 1303 going on administration expenses—it does not appear that the same discipline applies there. The same kind of discipline does not apply in Islington as in Lambeth. I am sure that the results of expenditure by the local authority within the inner city partnership in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) are that houses are selling at £250,000. The contrast between the expenditure which the docklands corporation is liable to undertake and the penalties imposed on almost every single partnership authority shows that there is no justice as between the two.
Mobility means being able to move from one part of the country to another, which is a matter close to the hearts of many local authority tenants. When people talk about the right to buy and own their own homes, they are talking not merely about ownership itself but about the incidence of ownership, the freedom to be able to move from one part of the country to another in order to be near a relative or to obtain a job or simply because they choose to move. I have every sympathy with them, but the Estimates show that there is very little consistency in the help offered.
Last year there was a one in 450 chance of a local authority tenant moving under the two mobility schemes mentioned in the Select Committee report. The average Government contribution per move was £28.92 for local authority tenants. If one were a housing association tenant and that housing association was not a charity, the contribution to mobility costs would be nil. If, on the other hand, one was a tenant of a charitable housing association and was able to claim the discount and buy a house in another part of the country, the maximum contribution to the tenant of the charitable housing association would be £24,000, 60 per cent. of the maximum cost of £40,000. There can be no justification for such wide inconsistencies as between one group of occupants and another. Bearing in mind that people attach great importance to being able to move from one part of the country to another, I hope that the Government will see what can be done to improve the chances of transferability.
We have an enforced mobility time bomb ticking away when, towards the end of July, many thousands of young people in London in receipt of help with bed and breakfast from the Department of Health and Social Security will be forced out of accommodation because the Government are intent on saving money by abolishing this benefit.
I turn to class VII Vote 1 and I take as my text part of paragraph 14 of the Select Committee report which says:It seems certain that there is a very large backlog of housing maintenance at the present day and, against that background, it seems to us imperative that the available resources are appropriately distributed between the private and public sectors. No one knows at present if that is being done.We do know something about what is being done. First of all, we know that the Estimates before the House are wholly inadequate to preserve, let alone improve, the housing stock in both the public and private sectors. The Department of the Environment has engaged on a policy of economic lunacy. Those are not my words but the words of many Government Members used in debates on capital expenditure. That Department and its Secretary of State has become a housing Nero fiddling while Britain crumbles.
I use the word "fiddling" because that is exactly what it has done with capital receipts. The Government introduced a right to buy. They argued that the money could be reinvested in housing, that money gathered in was 1304 the local authority's own funds. Now we find that £6,000 million at least stored in the coffers of local authorities cannot be spent in order that the Chancellor may balance his books. That money belongs to the local authorities, and was provided from private funds. I can give some examples of the idiocy of the Government's policy.
A couple of weeks ago, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), I went to Sefton, which is a Conservative local authority which takes its housing responsibilities seriously. In parts of the borough, the local authority is selling houses to Barratt and Wimpey to try to get some help from the private sector, as the Government have urged, to improve some of its housing stock. It is not always the older housing stock that needs improving most —sometimes the newer housing stock needs it more.
When the work is done by one of these firms, that is private expenditure and the Government are in favour of it. When the local authority sells some of its property or sites, the money has come from building firms, banks, insurance companies and institutions and is therefore private. However, the moment that it passes into the hands of the council, it becomes subject to a surcharge of 80 per cent., so that 80 per cent. of it cannot be spent. That is economic lunacy.
I can give another example, this time of a Labour authority that I visited recently, Gateshead. It is an inner-city partnership authority, recognised for its needs in housing and for its area's dereliction and unemployment. It receives no housing subsidy from the Government but it does receive money for environmental improvement. The people of Gateshead cannot understand why the Government are giving them money, through a vote for environmental improvements such as putting up trees and putting in colour paving, projects of which I am in favour, while, because of the restriction of the housing investment programme, they cannot spend money on properties. The council can put down pink paving stones but it cannot put roofs on houses.
The Government have an economic rain dance, but the only economic effect is that the rain is coming through peoples' roofs. Gateshead authority has £30 million tied up in capital receipts. What on earth can be the justification for urging an authority to engage in environmental improvements and then preventing it from spending its money on problems such as those at the Newcastle flats where there is the particularly difficult and expensive job of providing bathrooms and internal WCs?
I can give yet another example, this time the Tory-controlled Rushmoor council. It is one of the councils that opposed the abolition of the GLC because it has such a large stock of ex-GLC homes that are in need of major renovation. I have the minutes of a council meeting. There is now a new classification of the housing investment bid. One can make a bid for what one thinks one needs, and one can make a second bid for what one thinks one can get. One is called the proposed programme and the other is called the constrained programme.
I shall take Rushmoor's proposed programme because it seems a fair estimate of what needs to be spent on the renovation, construction and insulation of dwellings. The programme for 1986–87 would cost £12 million. The minutes say:The constrained programme would not allow the Council to carry out its policy of carrying out the Prospect Estate remedial work to 100 units per year for 1986/87".1305 It says that there is no way that it can discharge its responsibility under the present constrained programme arrangements. However, there is a way that it can do so, because it has £12 million locked up in capital receipts. There is a Tory local authority that, given the chance, would be able to spend money and undertake its responsibilities but is prevented from doing so. Therefore, my comment that the Government are fiddling while the housing stock crumbles is justified.
The Select Committee said that it was not sure of the scale of the problem in the private sector. However, I have a fair idea. I now know that there are 250,000 private owner-occupiers who are mostly poor and with very few capital resources, and who were left in the lurch once the Government ended the pre-election boom in improvement grants. We know their needs. We do not have the English figures, but we know from the Welsh figures that most of the people who pick up repair and improvement grants have little money in the bank and no income. That boom has come to an end. There is little opportunity of those people being able to get improvement grants even under the Government's new means-tested and mean scheme, which has had a pretty widespread thumbs down as to its possible success.
I am sure that every hon. Member has people coming to his advice bureau every week, and some of the circumstances are tragic. Last week, a retired man came to see me. Simply because he is an owner-occupier, he is not entitled to supplementary benefit. He gets only his retirement pension. He has suffered a stroke, and water is pouring through his owner-occupied house. That case is not untypical and there is no way in which we can help that man and many like him, given the present constrained state of the housing investment programme. That is not just bad policy but immoral, particularly in the case of those who were led to believe that they would get grants from Government.
The Government's policy is not merely a fiddle but is incompetent, as the Controller of Audit put it in his speech at the Institute of Housing conference. He puta price on the waste and inefficiency resulting from present controls on local government capital spending. The figure is a staggering £50 billion … If I were asked to design a system that would produce more waste and inefficiency to control capital expenditure, it is not immediately certain what additional complications I would build in".The system is not just dishonest, it is inefficient. The Government sometimes say that they do not know how much money there is in capital receipts. I have an answer to a parliamentary question yesterday. I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what the total of capital receipts from the sale of council houses in the last financial year was, and I was told £1.3 billion.
Last year, local authorities were not allowed to spend that £1.3 billion, which was taken from private sources. They were allowed to spend 40 per cent. of it and £600 million of it was sequestrated — sequestration has become not merely a function of, but an obsession with, the Government. If the same rate of capital receipts continues in 1985–86, local authorities will be denied £1 billion in capital receipts, from the payment of mortgages and the sale of council houses, which they could spend on improvement and repair. That is equivalent to 100,000 jobs for a year being thrown away by local authorities not being able to spend their own money. That figure was 1306 arrived at without trying to use the additional figures of the extra jobs that would be created as a result of the multiplier effect.
It is illogical, a breach of faith, and a denial of the use by local authorities of their own funds, to use capital expenditure in this way and at the same time to cut the allocation of money from central Government and the housing investment programme. The Minister gave the House some figures yesterday. I have calculations of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. In real terms, we are getting about 30 per cent. of the capital expenditure of the local authority housing programme that we were getting in 1979–80. For the first time in over a century, we have a Government who disown their general housing obligations.
I found some election material for battles between Disraeli and Gladstone. At one election in the 1870s both campaigned about sanitary housing. They recognised that they had an obligation to attend to general housing needs. Since then, almost all Governments have recognised that responsibility. They have not always discharged that obligation but they recognised it. Harold Macmillan recognised it; Wheatley and Nye Bevan recognised it. Last year the Government pretended that they recognised that obligation when they said in a Public Expenditure White Paper that they had three policy objectives:to increase the level of home ownership; to encourage the repair and improvement of existing stock; and to concentrate public resources within the housing programme on capital provision for those in greatest housing need.This year the Government's main aim in housing policy is to increase home ownership so that more families can achieve their ambition of owning their own home. Good luck to them, but nothing is being done about other housing responsibilities.
Cuts in improvement grants and in the general funds available for capital spending have been made and the Government say that they intend to carry out a survey of local authority needs. We do not need a survey because plenty of material has already been provided by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. I have three well documented reports containing the figures. Paragraph 7.10 of the document "Defects in Housing: Part I: 'Non-traditional' dwellings of the 1940s and 1950s" published in July 1983 states:We estimate that the average cost of works to non-traditional dwellings, for both repair, or in severe cases demolition and replacement, will be £10,000 per unit. This results in a likely total cost £5,000 million.A second report was produced in March 1984 called "Industrialised and system built dwellings of the 1960s and 1970s" which said in paragraph 7.15:The cost of dealing with the defects problem is obviously difficult to quantify. Nevertheless, judging from the regularity of which certain items appear for different types and systems, it seems that the average unit cost will be around £5,000 … the total cost could therefore be up to £5,000 million.In March 1985 the AMA produced another report. It produces them every year so the Government do not have to digest too much at a time. That report was about the repair and modernisation of traditional-built dwellings. In that, the association says that the total cost for England —not for Great Britain—is £6,000 million.
The figures may seem large but they illustrate how people have to live with damp, water dripping through the roof, far too expensive heating systems and cockroaches breeding. When the Government impose a moratorium on spending they cannot freeze the condition of the housing 1307 stock. A house is not like a crashed car that one can put in the garage until one has enough money to repair it. Houses rot, the cockroaches breed and the condition of the properties becomes worse. They become more damp. Not only the houses but the society which occupies them disintegrates.
The Select Committee says that no one seems to know what is being done. It is nearer the truth to say that everyone knows that almost nothing is being done to the publicly owned housing fabric.
It is not that the Government are ignorant of the problem. Ministers visit housing estates and talk to local authority representatives. As the Minister for Housing and Construction is so fond of saying, the Opposition do not have a monopoly of compassion. We do not say that the Government do not care, but that they have the means to tackle the problem. The greatest indictment of them is that while having the ability to solve the problem they refuse to budge because of their monetary obsession.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)
I begin by adding to the visible embarrassment felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) by complimenting him on his report and excellent speech. The Government welcome the debate which he initiated because it gives us the opportunity to review in detail my Department's expenditure. As the details of administration become more complex, it becomes harder for hon. Members and Ministers to scrutinise in depth all the figures in the Estimates. It is of enormous value when a Select Committee with its special knowledge and expert advice takes on the task of preliminary scrutiny and examination. As my hon. Friend said, the work is not sensational, but it is important because the sums involved are substantial and are spent in sensitive areas.
I propose to concentrate on the Select Committee's recommendations. I am aware that I might not reply to all the points. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), for example, fired a metaphorical 12-bore shotgun at my Department from a considerable range and the scatter was broad. I shall have to answer many of his questions by letter. Some of the questions, although aimed at my Department, hit other Departments and it is for them to reply. I shall say a word later about the macro economic issues which he raised in a reflective passage of his speech.
I shall deal briefly with what the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) said in his closing remarks. Last year a record sum of £1 billion was spent on renovating public sector housing stock in addition to the £1 billion from the revenue account which was spent on repair and maintenance. The hon. Gentleman did not mention that. The main difference between the two parties is that the Opposition see a predominantly public sector solution to the acknowledged difficulties, whereas Conservatives are anxious to harness private sector resources. We think that by that means we can make faster progress in tackling the problems.
Ministers and others have to tread carefully on the subject of dogs. I share the Select Committee's anxiety that a solution should be found quickly to the current absurdity of dog licensing. As the Committee and my hon. Friend said, we have consulted widely about the alternatives to the present system. The response has been wide and varied. Some argue that it would be best to 1308 abolish the dog licence. Many others are worried about the nuisance caused by dogs and believe that a higher licence fee would encourage more responsible dog ownership and finance measures to deal with the problems caused by the irresponsible.
Some who favour the retention of the licence fee want the fee to be determined nationally—the view expressed by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). Others agree with the view in the consultation paper that there should be some local discretion.
The Government have been considering the response to the consultation paper. We shall announce our conclusions as soon as possible. We shall take on board comments made in today's debate. I know that hon. Members think that we are taking too long to make a decision, but the issue is both complex and emotive. It is easier to criticise the present arrangements than to establish a new system. The Select Committee did not come down in favour of any of the options under consideration.
We are anxious to find a sensible and lasting solution, but I emphasise that any option, apart from the straightforward increase in the fee, needs primary legislation before it can be implemented. We are aware of the Select Committee's anxiety that expenditure which they rightfully describe as wasteful should end.
A question has been tabled to the Home Secretary about details of a pilot scheme testing new byelaws to reduce the nuisance of dog fouling. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering a pilot project to test the effectiveness of byelaws requiring people to clear up excrement deposited by their dogs in certain public places. Appropriately, the experiment will begin in the London borough of Barking.
I leave dogs for animals in general, the London zoo and the question of grants to voluntary bodies. My Department agrees with the view of the Committee that it is bad practice that payments should be undertaken without specific statutory authority, except when a sudden need arises and in respect of which legislation will shortly be introduced or when the requirement is short-lived.
For the Zoological Society of London, the Government fully accept that statutory cover should be provided for the short and long-term financial assistance which, it has recently been agreed, will be offered to the society. An early opportunity will be taken to introduce legislation seeking parliamentary approval to authorise this, but the House will be aware of the pressures on time, particularly those of us who have been up late for two nights on the Finance Bill. Although I hope that some progress will have been possible by the time that the Select Committee considers the Estimates for 1986–87, I can give no guarantee of that.
As for the Department's grant-giving to voluntary bodies, the Committee recognises that the range of departmental responsibilities to which grants relate poses a difficulty in drafting suitable legislation, but we are now confident that most, if not all, of the Department of the Environment grant-giving could be covered by a widely drawn power and, again, a legislative opportunity is awaited.
With regard to payments to international bodies, my Department is discussing with the Treasury what action is needed to give cover to this expenditure and how it might best be obtained. I note the warning of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green about what might happen if the position continues to be unresolved.
1309 A number of issues were raised about housing. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) asked me to give figures for expenditure on the scheme for home ownership for tenants of charitable housing associations. The estimate of the cost in 1984–85, the first year of the operation of the scheme, was £10 million and the outturn was £3.45 million. When we announced the corporation's ADP on 21 January, the Minister for Housing and Construction gave the estimate of the likely cost in 1985–86 as £17 million. The scheme is now going well and we are currently considering whether any more resources can be carried forward from last year's underspend. We have given no figure yet for last year.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) asked when a decision would be made on allocations in respect of the Housing Defects Act. Additional allocations to authorities which have particular difficulties in meeting their obligations will be made shortly under the Act.
I was asked a number of questions about home improvement grants. The Committee attaches consider-able importance to ensuring that resources for the improvement and repair of the nation's housing stock should be appropriately distributed between the public and private sectors. We accept that it is important for available resources to be directed where they are most needed. This involves making some decision about distribution between the two sectors.
It is up to local authorities to divide the resources that are available to them and, with their statutory responsibility for housing in their areas and the knowledge of local circumstances, I believe that they are best placed to decide on local needs and priorities. That is why we allocate the capital resources as a single block to each authority, which they can then allocate as they think fit. In allocating resources between authorities, we consider, among other things, the condition of the housing stock in the public and private sectors.
We already have a good deal of information from the English house condition survey, which is scheduled to be repeated in 1986, and I can confirm that information will be available on a comparable basis to the proceeding survey. As the hon. Member for Norwood said, we are in the process of supplementing—by means of a special inquiry into the repair and improvement needs of the housing stock in local authority ownership — our information on this subject. We expect the first results from that inquiry to be available at the end of the month.
We shall then have a more up-to-date view of the national need for improvement and repair in the two sectors. However, while that may inform our decision on the allocation of resources between authorities, the individual authorities will continue to be best placed to decide on distribution at a local level.
In our allocation procedures, we shall take into account the different roles of local authorities in the two sectors. For their housing, authorities have the same responsibility as any landlord to make sure that the property is kept in good repair and that necessary improvements are carried out.
In the private sector, the primary responsibility rests with owners. They clearly recognise that, as the great majority of the more than £9 billion a year spent on home improvements is already financed largely by savings or by 1310 borrowing from the financial institutions. An important effect of the 1982 Budget initiative was that householders were made even more aware of the benefits of improving and repairing their homes and securing the value of their property.
The private sector organisations have also realised that there is much that they can do to encourage and assist owners to carry out repair work. For example, the National Home Improvement Council has set up neighbourhood revitalisation services in several areas, and the Anchor Housing Trust's "Staying Put" schemes are especially geared to helping elderly people to maintain and retain their homes. We want to encourage the private sector to help itself in that sort of way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr Chapman) reminded the House of the growth in expenditure on home improvement grants — up from £200 million in 1981–82 to £900 million in 1983–84 and about £730 million in 1984–85. More than 250,000 grants were paid in 1983–84 and about 200,000 last year. There has been a shift in priorities, both for local authorities and individual home owners, who are giving greater priority to maintaining the housing stock.
I am glad that the Committee recognises that it is not easy for local authorities concerned to find suitable gipsy sites. As the Committee rightly says, proposals to establish a site arouse considerable opposition from local residents. There has been a gradual increase in site provision since the grant aid was introduced in 1979–80, and a number of studies have been carried out within the Department to consider whether any other steps may be taken to speed site provision.
These have enabled us to produce booklets on the management of gipsy sites and on the question of defining a gipsy. Copies have been made available to the House when published. We are also preparing a leaflet about private sites. However, we shall certainly take another look at the problem on the lines that the Committee recommends
It has been said that authorities have shirked their duty in that respect. There is a remedy in the courts and some local authorities have been taken to court by representatives of gipsies who believe that the Act should be upheld. The duty to provide sites is mandatory, not discretionary. The record shows that we are prepared to take account of unfair trading on conscientious authorities in the discussions that we have with individual authorities about the designation of their areas.
The Committee considered the difficulties people living in rented accommodation have in moving from one part of the country to another. The Government provide assistance to those who need to move, through the national mobilty and tenants exchange schemes. These two schemes are shortly to be brought together, providing opportunities for increased rationalisation and effectiveness.
Under the national mobility scheme, local authorities make available I per cent. of their annual lettings for people moving into the area from outside the county, plus one more letting for each of their nominees who is housed elsewhere. The Select Committee commented that the 1 per cent. of lettings available was unduly low and thought that consideration should be given to raising the figure to 2 per cent. or more as a contribution to helping those moving for employment.
1311 I share the Committee's concern about the difficulties that people have in obtaining housing when they move for work. Indeed, last year I asked the national mobility steering committee to consider increasing the 1 per cent. proportion, but the local authority associations opposed the proposal, and it was rejected. The steering committee agreed, however, to reconsider the proposal in a year's time, and I hope that it will take note of the Select Committee's views.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) asked what our proposals were. I believe that it would make sense for the national mobility office to assume responsibility both for the Greater London mobility scheme and for the seaside and country homes scheme. As he will be aware, a committee is looking into that. When that committee has reported and a decision has been taken, we shall be better placed to take decisions about financial responsibility for the scheme.
My Department is informally exploring further ways of encouraging local authorities to meet the present 1 per cent. target, but any move to make the scheme statutory would be stongly resisted by the local authorities, and I fear that it would disrupt the present smooth running of the scheme, which operates by consensus and co-operation.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones
On the subject of mobility, it is all very well for the Minister to point out the difficulties involved in moving to a statutory scheme, but so long as large numbers of authorities, particularly in areas such as Scotland, fail to participate, it cannot help but lack effectiveness. Has he any proposals to apply a little more persuasion on those authorities?
§ Sir George Young
I know that the Chairman of the Committee this year is devoting considerable time persuading the relatively small numbers of local authorities which have not joined to join. We are talking of a handful in England and relatively few in Scotland. We hope to make progress by persuasion and consent.
A number of comments have been made about the urban programme and about the desirability of targeting the programme. The Government's intention is to concentrate the help provided by the traditional urban programme on the areas with the greatest need. Included will be some areas that are not designated under the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978, but the programme should not be seen as a long shot for grant aid by every undesignated district. I accept that as we concentrate resources more effectively we should avoid abortive work by discouraging from bidding areas that are unlikely to be successful. Part of the problem is that the programme operates through a circular which is sent to all authorities. This becomes a less appropriate way in which to operate as the number of authorities receiving approval falls. It may be that we should offer invitations explicitly to priority areas rather than issuing a circular to every authority. We shall be announcing proposals for consultation with local authorities in the last couple of weeks.
The designation of Newham has been referred to on several occasions. The previous Labour Government did not designate it, so the crime, if there is one, has been committed equally by both the Labour Government and the present Government. Newham has within its boundaries the London Docklands development corpora-tion, which is injecting substantial sums of public money into the infrastructure. That is an advantage that other London boroughs do not have.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The Minister knows that only 6 per cent. of Newham's population live in the docklands area. There is a distortion of the local economy that is of no great assistance to the remaining 94 per cent. of the population, which badly needs the resources that partnership status would provide.
§ Sir George Young
The LDDC is providing jobs, which I hope are of interest to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. It is providing housing as well. About 40 per cent. of the houses that the corporation builds go to those who live in the area. The fact that very few live in the LDDC area at present is irrelevant. Very few people live there because the area comprises mostly docks. The one thing that I can say about the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West is that for once he resisted the temptation to have a dig at the LDDC. I regard the fact that he did not mention it this evening as a cause for hope.
The Select Committee commented on the international garden festival. It rightly observes in its report that the financial outturn did not meet expectations. I accept that conclusion and I can assure the House that we have already begun our own assessment of the project. When our inquiries are complete, we shall report the findings to the Committee. It is important that the lessons are properly documented to provide guidance for similar future projects.
I think that everyone will agree that the festival brought new life and newfound confidence to Merseyside. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet for his remarks about the festival. The development corporation is worthy of the highest praise for the way in which it mounted the project. When I visited the festival last summer I found it difficult to believe that such a high quality environment had been created in such a short time from dereliction. I shall report to the Select Committee in due course on the lessons to be learned.
What did we get for the money which was expended on the festival? Liverpool now has an area of landscaped parkland of which it can be truly proud. It has a festival hall that can be converted to leisure and sports use as well as a riverside walkway. There are landscaped sites that are ready for high quality residential and industrial development. A number of jobs were created during the two and a half years of construction. Expenditure by visitors to the festival amounted to about £9 million, which benefited local hotels and guest houses.
Now that the festival has ended, I hope that the corporation will succeed in persuading the private sector to take on and develop the site. Whatever happens, Merseyside will have had the benefit of hosting a unique event and of gaining the many assets and benefits which came from it.
The administration costs of the London Docklands Development Corporation have been referred to during the debate. This issue must be placed in the context of the task that is faced by the corporation. Anyone who has visited the docklands recently, will, I am sure, have been impressed by the progress that has been made, especially on the Isle of Dogs. The area has been transformed. Work on the structures for the railway is everywhere evident.
The first phase of the distinctive Heron Quays office development has been completed. Construction of the Daily Telegraph's new printing works is well advanced 1313 and many other formerly derelict sites are now alive with construction work. I congratulate Christopher Benson and his team on the corporation's excellent record.
§ Sir George Young
No. I must make progress in fairness to those who wish to participate in the next debate.
At the same time, I share the Committee's view that we must keep a close watch on the LDDC's administration costs. The corporation, in conjunction with my Department, has started work on a review of its administration costs. The work started before the Committee's report was published.
We must take into account the fact that the LDDC must have regard for about 40,000 local people, whereas very few people live in the Merseyside docklands area. The LDDC has provided a marketing effort and the business support and advice necessary to attract more than £820 million in private investment to the docklands, whereas the MDC is only just beginning to gear up its activity. A substantial part of the corporation's broad definition of administrative costs goes to areas which other bodies examined by the Select Committee do not include as administration. This covers business development and support services, site marketing, community sport and estate management.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) addressed himself to the Property Services Agency and fraud and corruption. I assured the House last year that Ministers were determined to enforce the highest possible standards, and that remains true. The PSA has given top priority to implementing the Wardell-Touche Ross recommendations and those on other maintenance matters that have been raised by the National Audit Office in reporting to the PAC. The PAC took evidence earlier this year on progress and detailed in the evidence, which has been published, is the action that we have already taken.
As for the maintenance of the Government's estate, I share the Committee's concern about the backlog and the need to ensure that the funds that are available are used as economically and effectively as possible.
I accept both of the recommendations which the Committee has made on increased delegation and standards. We must ensure that common standards are applied throughout the area for which the PSA retains responsibility for maintenance. We have introduced a uniform classification of maintenance priorities and have started a programme of district management reviews, which will consider all the activities of the district works office. These measures will ensure that consistent standards are being applied.
I accept in principle the recommendation that we should increase the amount of delegation to Departments, though the way and extent to which this will be done needs to be 1314 considered carefully. In the current review of our relationships with other Departments we are trying to find a clearer definition of roles. The starting point is that the PSA has a clear task to fulfil as central manager of the civil estate. That means retaining responsibility for the structural maintenance of the properties on the estate. These are valuable public assets, and the PSA has the staff with the necessary technical expertise to know what needs to be done and how to specify and control the contracts so as to secure the best value for money.
We recognise that there is a good deal of sense in not merely making local managers and Departments aware of costs, as the property repayments system does, but giving them an appropriate share in the decisions that have to be taken between conflicting priorities. We hope that some of the experiments that have started on internal decoration will show that it is sensible to delegate this task to Departments where they do not affect the structure of the property or require technical expertise. Whether increased delegation will of itself produce better maintenance standards is another matter, because Departments are subject to the same constraints as the PSA. However, it will make for a more logical division of labour.
We shall pursue the issue of purchase of freeholds with the Treasury in the light of what the Committee has said.
The Committee dealt with the property repayments system at some length. As the report states, the system has been operating for two years. It is, however, such a major change in the way that Government accommodation is handled that it is still a comparatively new system and subject to review and development. It has been helpful to have the Committee's ideas during the formative stage of the process. It involves substantial operating costs, but the Government expect these to be more than offset by extra value for money.
The first area to which we should look for results is in the figures for the areas occupied. These have been reducing in recent years as staff numbers have been cut. The PSA has been seeking to rationalise the estate to reduce holdings to a minimum. However, some broad issues are raised about the role of the PSA by the Committee and it is not quite clear whether introducing commercial accounts would be in the interests of the PSA as it has been set up. We accept the Committee's recommendation that this matter should be considered and that the Treasury should be involved, but the Committee should not expect a quick solution to what I fear may be a rather difficult set of problems.
I shall deal by correspondence with the other issues that have been raised. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their comments on my Department's expenditure.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
The Questions necessary to dispose of the first group of motions stand over to half-past eleven or at the conclusion of the debate on the final Estimate, whichever is the earlier, under the Order of the House of 4 July.