HC Deb 14 July 1986 vol 101 cc683-9 3.32 pm
The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government (Mr. William Waldegrave)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has today launched, in association with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Employment and for Wales, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, a new initiative to encourage more local environmental improvement work by both volunteers and Manpower Services Commission community programme teams. My right hon. Friend informed the House of the general terms of this initiative in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) on 20 June.

The initiative will provide a focus for new projects which improve the environment and create jobs. It will involve a wide range of environmental action. It will include the Government, voluntary organisations and the private sector and will link with other Government initiatives concerned with the environment and with job creation. It will tackle problems of the built and the natural environment, in both town and country, and be concerned with both improving the environment and enhancing people's enjoyment of it. It will aim to provide challenging work and training for those participating. It will also aim to create worthwhile new jobs, both in the improvement projects themselves and in the new enterprises that some projects will help to generate.

The right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has invited a number of established national voluntary organisations to act as agents in launching the initiative. These are the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, The Civic Trust, Community Service Volunteers, the Groundwork Foundation, the Keep Britain Tidy Group, and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. I expect that others will join later. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be holding similar discussions with appropriate organisations in Scotland and Wales.

The agents will promote programmes of work and assist the establishment of local projects. I hope that such projects will have the support of local authorities, local business and local residents. Initially, work will he concentrated on the five important themes of greening the cities, conserving the industrial heritage, tackling litter, helping tourists on the move, and making more of nature.

A new organisation is being established, outside the Government, to promote the whole initiative, to determine priorities, to seek business sponsorship and to monitor performance. This new organisation, to be called UK 2000, will be directed by a board on which participating voluntary organisations will be represented together with a number of independent members. Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, has agreed to be the chairman of this board. The other independent board members who will serve in a personal capacity, will be Jean Denton, head of external relations at the Rover Group; Ernest Hall of Dean Clough Halifax; John Pontin of Bristol 1000; and Stephen O'Brien of Business in the Community.

The Department of the Environment will pay grants to the participating agents and the new organisation to a total of around £750,000 in 1986–87, and at least at that level in the next two years. I am confident that business sponsorship will augment these resources. In addition, the Manpower Services Commission will contribute through the community programme the costs of providing temporary jobs for long-term unemployed people, which it is estimated will amount to £22 million in a full year.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

Given the massive problems of dereliction, decay and neglect, additional initiatives, however modest, are worthwhile. We wish this one success, but it appears unlikely to have a major impact on the environment or the creation of jobs.

Is the Minister aware that there is little of substance in what he has to had to say to the House today? What, if any, additional financial resources, over and above existing departmental budgets, will be allocated as a result of the statement? How many additional places Hill the MSC create as a result of the announcement? Will any extra permanent jobs result?

Why, given that the local authorities are and will remain the major agencies for all the work, have there been no discussions or consultations of any kind with the local authority associations about the scheme?

Has not each of the policy areas—greening the cities, conserving our heritage, tackling litter and making more of nature, whatever that might mean — suffered dramatically because of the massive reductions, now totalling £17.5 billion, in rate support grant as a result of the Government's policies?

Does the Minister recall that the Secretary of State for the Environment, when Secretary of State for Transport, issued a circular, to take effect from 1 April this year, which urged local authorities to remove all litter bins from all-purpose trunk roads? Does he recall that the same circular recommended local authorities not to scavenge roads, not to sweep them and not to remove litter? That was Government policy announced in April. What has changed?

Will the Minister explain to the House what impact the initiative will have, given that the Government have reduced the three grant-related expenditure assessments for refuse collection, refuse disposal and environmental works by 10 per cent. in real terms in the past seven years?

Given that full-time jobs have been lost, particularly in the local authorities, is this not just another example of the Government undermining full-time employment and replacing it by temporary, lowly paid work of a part-time and non-permanent nature?

Finally, is it not inadequate in every sense to meet the real needs of any one of those policy areas to make this announcement today? Is it not totally inadequate to tackle all of them together? Why do the Government not restore some of the cuts that they have imposed on local authorities and let them get on with the job?

Mr. Waldegrave

If that was a welcome from the hon. Gentleman, I should not like to hear what he says when he is trying to send his guests away. However, I was grateful for the way in which he started. No one says that this initiative will solve all the problems, but it will be useful, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that fact.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the rate support grant and GREAs. As he knows, the Audit Commission has shown that there are enourmous savings to be made in local authorities' spending on refuse disposal and collection. We hope that those economies, without loss of service, can still be made.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his Budget speech, announced 35,000 additional community programme places. This takes up 5,000 of those places.

Dr. Cunningham

New places?

Mr. Waldegrave

It is 5,000 of the additional places announced for next year. We aim to focus and use those in a coherent and sensible programme.

In addition, there are the lesser sums that I reported coming from the Department of the Environment—

Dr. Cunningham

New money?

Mr. Waldegrave

—from the Department of the Environment's budget for the grants to voluntary organisations and for the small central staff.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) has written to local authority leaders to urge them to participate in the scheme and to offer discussions about it. I hope that the leaders will take up that offer.

Sir Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

I am delighted that the scheme is getting off the ground, and I am sorry that the Opposition are so damning with faint praise about it. I am glad that the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers—an excellent body—is to be part of the new body.

Will my hon. Friend work closely with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make sure that there is not only a thriving countryside, but a thriving agriculture, without which there is no possibility of the countryside being alive and available to tourists and holidaymakers to enjoy?

Will my hon. Friend work closely with the Council of Europe's Campaign for the Countryside 1987–88, in which, I believe, a member of his staff is taking part?

Mr. Waldegrave

The answer to my hon. Friend's final question is yes. I am grateful to him for emphasising the importance of work in the countryside. Earlier this year my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I jointly announced a farm and countryside initiative, using community programme places. That will run alongside the new initiative; a complementary programme is already in place.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it would have been nice if we had had a general welcome for the initiative. I hope that it will get a general welcome in the country, even if the professional Oppositions have to oppose it.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that while any initiative is welcome and partnership funding is welcome, we have so far heard that there is either no extra money or a minuscule amount of extra money, and that there will be no new jobs or only a minuscule number of new jobs? As long as announcements are all presentation and no policy, they are bound to be criticised. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us how many new jobs will be created and how much of the £22 million is new money?

Would it not have been better, more effective and less bureaucratic to put a new environmental programme into, for example, the urban programme and to use local authorities and their staff as part of the implementation process? Even at this late stage, will the hon. Gentleman guarantee that local authorities will be consulted so that the initiative can be effectively delivered, without bureaucratic and administrative diversion, and so that we can see an improvement in the urban environment and not just a method of publicising the Government's apparent but belated conversion to environmental policy?

Mr. Waldegrave

It ill-behoves a representative of the Liberal party to complain about something being presentation without policy, but I let that pass. It was slightly surprising that the hon. Gentleman should suggest that this small organisation would be a new bureaucracy and that it would have been better to put the money into the local authorities' pot. The new organisation will involve some very able people who are willing to give up time to do some useful work for the community. I hope and believe that it will be a success.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be warmly welcomed in Cinderford, a town in my constituency in the Forest of Dean? Is he aware that Cinderford is sorely troubled by marauding sheep and their droppings, which are deliberately scattered on the pavements and pastures? Can UK 2000 assist in clearing up the mess?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am baffled, because my hon. Friend tells me of the sheep's intentions by using the word "deliberately". I do not think that my hon. Friend's problem will be the first project for UK 2000, but I shall draw it to the attention of the chairman of the board to see whether he has any useful suggestions.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Is the Minister aware that his Government are turning tragedy into farce? They have handed over their responsibility for foreign aid to Bob Geldof and cut foreign aid dramatically. They have handed over part of their responsibility for the National Health Service to Jimmy Savile, and are handing local responsibility for collecting refuse to Mr. Branson to cut the money needed for street cleaning. May we have an assurance that the Government do not intend to hand over responsibility for law and order to Perry Mason, to Kojak or to Boy George? Does the Minister realise that these ridiculous palliatives will be recognised for what they are by the British people?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am not sure whether it is all that clever to make jokes about Boy George, but that is for the hon. Gentleman to judge, with his usual good taste. I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. Some people with flair and imagination will be helping people to work at some of the problems which common sense tells us must be tackled.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Do the things about which my hon. Friend has told us come within local government responsibilities? Does he agree that we do not need more money to be spent, but that we need a bit more competence by local authorities and a bit more attention to their basic duties? On our doorsteps at Westminster, litter is a disgrace.

Mr. Waldegrave

The initiative will tackle matters which go wider than local authority responsibility.

Anyway, I think that it is thoroughly good to have some competition in these matters. I expect that the organisation will come up with some ideas about which local authorities have not thought. There is plenty of room for local authority participation, and I hope that some will participate.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is this not just a further example of Prime Ministerial gimmickry, which seems more likely to be geared to securing a knighthood for Richard Branson than to clearing the litter from our streets? Will the Minister answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)? Instead of indulging in gimmickry, why do the Government not provide extra resources for local authorities so that they can deal with the problems in the inner cities? However, if we are to have it, may I have an undertaking that at least one of the teams will be in Newham?

Mr. Waldegrave

That is usual. The hon. Gentleman says that a scheme is a disgrace from start to finish, but then asks for it to operate in Newham. I thank him for the compliment. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman refusing his knighthood in 30 years' time. Much of the initiative covers areas outside local government responsibility. Local government has plenty of resources, and this will add usefully to them.

Mr. John Mark Taylor (Solihull)

Does my hon. Friend accept that a high proportion of litter on our suburban high streets is discarded food and drink containers? Will he reflect on the undesirability of eating in the streets and perhaps make regulations for fast food takeaways?

Mr. Waldegrave

The Keep Britain Tidy Group, which is part of the venture, has done a lot of work with fast food chains to ensure that litter bins are placed outside their shops. The board will be tackling such practical and sensible ideas.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

How much of the £22 million will come to Scotland, and how many new jobs will be created in Scotland? How many of Mr. Branson's colleagues on the board—I did not catch the names—are Scottish and how many are Welsh? Do the Government intend to set up similar committees to manage the gimmick in Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Waldegrave

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland are discussing the matter with voluntary organisations to see how best to pursue this in Scotland and Wales. Doubtless they will make some announcement in due course.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this initiative, which will harness the undoubted goodwill that exists outside Government and quasi-government organisations towards environmental initiatives. May I ask my hon. Friend to reject the sour attitude of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and others who believe that the only worthwhile environmental initiative is one that employs local government officers?

Mr. Waldegrave

I agree with my hon. Friend. However, I do not believe that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) takes the attitude that my hon. Friend says, because he welcomes the work done by the Keep Britain Tidy Group and others. This initiative is a useful focus for getting some of these groups together, providing some new community programme places and providing a focus for imaginative schemes. I do not see how anybody can think that it is anything other than a good idea.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the Minister not feel that this is a dim and distorted echo of the afforestation programme of the Roosevelt Administration, which did so much, so well, so long ago, but that in fact it will create a minute number of jobs? Will the Minister tell us how many of the 5,000 jobs which he says can be expected to flow from it will be permanent?

Mr. Waldegrave

We hope, as in all community programme schemes, that there are some permanent jobs. I am not making any unreasonable claims. Everybody in this country, in my experience, believes that there is a problem of clearing up the country. There are plenty of unemployed youngsters, so why not put the two together?

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

Is my hon. Friend aware that one reason why the River Skerne in Darlington is so polluted and litter-strewn is that the task of clearing it up falls between the Northumbrian water authority and the Darlington borough council? If this sort of imaginative initiative can cut through those local bureaucracies it will he very welcome to my constituents.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right. There are plenty of local authorities doing a good job, but there are plenty of others which use the sort of excuse that my hon. Friend mentions for not being as imaginative as they could be. I cannot see how anybody can do anything other than welcome an additional player with some additional money in this area.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Is it not the case that all schemes to improve the environment, such as this or other schemes are welcome because it is a good cause in itself? Will my hon. Friend take note of the fact that the scheme must embrace a much wider area than simply litter, because clearly the main answer to that problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) has said on many occasions, is a more aggressive policy on prosecution?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right on that point. However, contrary to what the press has said in the leaks about this, it goes much wider than litter. I hope that we will soon get away from that and see some rather imaginative and different proposals which will take the initiative forward in the future.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call the three hon. Members who have been rising.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Is my hon. Friend aware that if those who are unemployed and work on these schemes are given help to get work that can often be very successful? Under the Bedfordshire rural community council, at one stage 58 out of 70 people on a similar scheme had been moved into mainstream jobs.

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. and learned Friend is right. I have been associated with schemes in Bristol; for example, the Brunel engine shed, which has community programme volunteers working on it, some of whom have got permanent jobs out of it. It is always difficult to predict how many. However, they are valuable schemes in themselves and they often lead to good and permanent jobs.

Mr. Tom Sackville (Bolton, West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that this initiative will be very welcome to the residents of Bolton, and especially to the Bolton chamber of commerce, which has repeatedly called for such an initiative, pointing out that cleaning up our inner cities is good for morale and good for inward investment in the parts of the country that most need it?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend is right. People outside the Chamber listening to the sour response of the Opposition will say that they are listening to an example of the "not invented here" syndrome.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will my hon. Friend ensure that part of the remit of Mr. Branson is to ensure that some of his people go into schools and teach children not to throw litter, as the teachers have abdicated their responsibility in that respect? It would be a good thing if we eliminated the problem at an early stage, through the schools.

Mr. Waldegrave

For better or worse, I suspect that Mr. Branson has rather more pull when it comes to persuading youngsters to do things than have some of the distinguished Opposition Members who are facing me.

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