§ Mr. Michael Neubert (Romford)
I beg to move,That this House, while welcoming the general improvement in people's living standards and the increasing freedom which they enjoy in their everyday lives, believes these advances must now be more closely matched by a quality of life in which clean air, pure water, unpolluted beaches, graffiti-free buildings, litterless streets, reduced noise levels, efficient waste management and recycling of material resources and support for the maintenance of our historic heritage, together with other enhancements of the natural and urban environment, will all assume much greater importance; and calls on the Government, through the necessary minimum regulation, education and encouragement of individual self-discipline, to continue to play its full part in developing a healthier, safer and more attractive environment for all our people, in town and country alike.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
My hon. Friend mentioned clean air. Did he read the medical briefing in The Times on 1 November, entitled, "Dose of blocked flue"? In that article, Dr. Thomas Stuttaford described the problems of blocked flues in people's homes and the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. He said:Minor degrees of carbon monoxide poisoning provide a wide variety"—.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman may well have an opportunity to make a speech later. This is an intervention.
§ Mr. Field
I am coming to a conclusion, Mr. Speaker. The article stated:Minor degrees of carbon monoxide poisoning provide a wide variety of vague symptoms: headaches, muscle weakness, dizziness, breathlessness, and an intellectual deterioration accompanied by a poor memory.Does my hon. Friend agree that that is something from which the Opposition are suffering?.
§ Mr. Neubert
This may be one of those occasions that have a large number of unusual features. My hon. Friend's intervention, even before I began my speech, is one of them. I missed the report in The Times,and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing it to my attention. I shall go to the Library as soon as the debate has ended and bring myself up to date.
It is almost 40 years since I joined the Conservative party and began in active politics. In all that time, I cannot recall anything to match the intensity of the events of the past few weeks. The leadership contest in the Conservative parliamentary party has taken up every waking minute and hour, and it has dominated the media. Yet on Wednesday 14 November, the very day on which the challenger declared his intention to stand for the leadership and battle was joined, it was business as usual in the House of Commons, including the ballot for private Members' motions.
1110 As chance would have it, I was first in line to sign the ballot book, and I took the opportunity to sign my name against No. 1. When No. 1 came out first in the ballot, enabling me to initiate today's debate, I realised what a simple system it was. When I came to sign the ballot book for the private Members' day next Friday, I did not make the same mistake—I signed against No. 87. I am happy to leave the debate to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and other hon. Friends while I keep my programme of engagements for that day.
When it came to choosing a subject for debate, it was difficult to concentrate on policies when personalities were so much the order of the day. With a parliamentary day at my disposal, I thought that to raise the subject of people's local environment would be worth while. I am pleased that a number of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members are present to support my choice, and I look forward to hearing their contributions. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his attendance and participation in the debate. He has achieved significant progress already in his time at the Department.
Another reason why I thought that my choice of subject would be appropriate is that in the six days of debate on the Loyal Address the environment did not feature. The choice of subjects was a matter for the official Opposition, so in raising the subject today I am repairing their omission. I am giving the House an opportunity, at the start of a new Session, to debate the many important issues.
The importance that the Government attach to the environment is demonstrated by the passage of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the publication this year of the White Paper "This Common Inheritance." Its importance was underlined by our new Prime Minister who, speaking for the first time as premier outside No. 10 Downing street, referred to an "open society", and to the importance ofa better quality of life for all citizens.An uncharacteristic lack of modesty on my part allows me to point out that his words echo some of mine in the motion, which was printed the day before he made that speech. That shows the unity of purpose and outlook that characterises the Conservative party—Front and Back Benches alike.
On that historic occasion, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred also to the general uplifting of standards that the people of this country have enjoyed over the past eleven and a half years. That cannot be taken for granted. There could not be a starker contrast than that between the benefits of private enterprise, free-market capitalism as embodied and personified by this country's Conservative Government and the prospect of starvation in the Soviet Union, where the socialist state system has held so much sway for the past 70 years. That situation is a cause for great concern, compassion and fellow feeling for our fellow human beings, but we should not allow that to blind us to the system that has brought the Russian people to that catastrophic pass. We have the luxury this morning of indulging in a debate on the quality of life, whereas mothers in Moscow are worried about life itself and whether they will have sufficient food to allow their young children to survive the winter. Let us be clear about the benefits of the society in which we live and the principles that activate our policies by comparison with state socialism.
1111 My motion is not so much a subject for debate as an agenda for action. It mentions a number of issues that I shall raise, but it does not pretend to be exclusive. No doubt it will be added to by my hon. Friends and others with issues that they consider important, but the motion does serve to highlight some of the principal concerns of the public, particularly in our towns and cities—and most notably of all in our capital of London, where I have the privilege of representing Romford, which is on the city's outer, eastern edge.
Clean air and pure water have long been regarded as everyone's birthright, yet increasingly we see that even they cannot be taken for granted. Members of Parliament, and certainly myself, often find it difficult to point to any legislation that can irrefutably be said to have conferred benefits on the human race. I have always had the greatest confidence in pointing to the Clean Air Act 1956, which undoubtedly benefited the people of this country. It transformed the atmosphere in our cities and removed that Dickensian miasma of life-threatening industrial smog that was such a killer on many past occasions.
Even that achievement of the Government is now put at risk by the increasing freedom, brought about in turn by increasing prosperity, of people to own and drive their own cars, pumping poison into the atmosphere and polluting the street scene for millions. I will give credit where it is due to the Government as I progress through my speech, and I acknowledge that the differential price of lead-free petrol has produced a rapid increase in its use, and thus has significantly reduced the level of pollutants in the atmosphere. That is an example of the role that the Government can play—though as I shall make plain, I do not look to the Government for every contribution in achieving that which we would all like to see. However, in respect of lead-free petrol at least, Government action has proved beneficial and effective in a short time.
London Transport has made a major contribution by banning smoking on the underground. That action was forced upon it by public outrage at the loss of life in the King's Cross fire rather than by health considerations. It followed up that decision with the announcement the day before yesterday that smoking is also to be banned on London buses. That is good news for the 4 million passengers who use London Transport's fleet of 5,000 buses. It has the environmental advantage, as well as the health benefit, that the travelling public will no longer find themselves ankle-deep in cigarette cartons, Cellophane, fag ends and ash—all the detritus of modern pollution that much dismays visitors from other countries, where the public transport systems are often spotless.
London Transport has always suffered the handicap of being first in the field with its underground. Some of its stations and tunnels were constructed in the 19th century, but now it has the chance to come up to date and to run not only an efficient transport operation but one that looks as smart as the transit systems of other countries. One that comes to mind is Washington DC. A clean transport system will be a great asset to our city, and that is the kind of standard we should try to set.
I touch on a theme that will recur in this debate, in referring to the higher expenditure that better environmental standards will incur. However, that investment will be well worth while and advantageous. Self-interest will 1112 determine the need for high expenditure. It will not be an idealistic dream, but a matter of self-interest. The alternative will be a fall in traffic as people are turned off the idea of using public transport; they will abandon it for other forms. We shall find ourselves in a vicious spiral, until the subway system becomes dirty and dangerous and a risk to all who use it. I pay tribute to London Transport for its courage in leading public opinion away from the belief that smoking is an embellishment to the atmosphere and in banning it completely from its transport systems.
There is certainly a need for greater investment in our water supplies and water industry. The River Thames, which flows past this place, was at one time a lethal ditch; if one fell into it there was little point in being pulled out. Today, the Thames supports 60 varieties of fish. It is an attractive part of the townscape, which has encouraged the development of residential and commercial properties on both banks. That again proves that there is commercial self-interest in creating a pleasing environment. The Thames is once more worthy of the capital through which it flows.
The National Rivers Authority, which was created by the legislation to privatise the water industry, will be one of the strongest independent environmental protection agencies in Europe. We can look to the National Rivers Authority to maintain the quality of our waterways. We have never had any problems about private water in Romford because we have always had a private water supply, supplied by the Essex Water company. Having been the Member for that constituency for more than 16 years, I can testify that in all that time I have had to take up complaints with the water company on only four occasions. So I have every confidence in the private water industry. In the next 10 years it plans to invest no less than £28 billion—£5,000 a minute. That will do wonders for the quality of our water. By comparison with most other developed countries, British water is already of a high quality, but this investment is needed to ensure its continuing quality. The higher charges which will result from the need to finance such investment will be well worth while if it ensures the quality of such a vital contribution to life.
The Government have taken action to safeguard marine waters around our coastline, and to reduce pollution of beaches. Swimming in the sea and bathing from our beaches never used to entail any risk to health, nor should it have done. However, it is now a source of disease and often of viral infection. Apparently, to be affected one does not need to ingest such infections as they can be absorbed through the skin. Therefore, it is imperative for us to clean up our act in that respect.
In 1987—the European Year of the Environment—the European Commission launched the blue flag beaches award scheme. At present we have 29 such beaches, but that is not nearly enough. We must give encouragement so that more reach the same high standard. I am confident that the planned huge investment in sewage treatment will achieve a much cleaner coastline environment.
Seaside resorts and coastal towns, depending as they do upon tourism for their livelihood, have an interest in being clean, tidy and healthy. But my motion is very much prompted by the squalor of our inland towns and the inner cities—notably London. Earlier in the year I went to Singapore, which is a small, highly successful and prosperous island state. Despite being a hive of economic activity, and having a limited amount of space, Singapore 1113 is like a garden suburb. The streets are clear of all litter and refuse. Traffic congestion is limited in the town centre, and the wide avenues, with well-planted shrubberies and grass verges, are immaculately kempt and are free from all rubbish. The contrast could hardly be more stark. For those who persist in the view that the east is synonymous with primitive living conditions and the west has more civilised standards, it comes as a shock to find that the reverse can be the case. One realises how far our standards have sunk in that respect when one returns to England and drives from Heathrow along our urban roads, which are strewn with every kind of rubbish, to Westminster.
My constituency of Romford, which is otherwise an agreeable place in which to live and work, has not escaped this modern decline. In recent years we have had a problem with litter in the town centre, to such an extent that the local paper, the Romford Recorder, has embarked upon a tidy town campaign. It persuaded the previous council to introduce "operation clean sweep" and new equipment to combat the rising tide of rubbish and filth in the town centre. It had some success, but the problem is unrelenting and fresh impetus is required. I look to the new council to carry on the good work and to bring Romford town centre up to the standard that it deserves if it is to continue to prosper.
There is a growing contrast between conditions within buildings and their external surroundings. I recently visited the social security offices in Romford and was most impressed by the high quality and comfort, by the well-furnished offices, the civilised surroundings awaiting visitors and the improved working conditions for staff. After my visit, I stepped outside the door and was appalled by the scene—refuse, dirt and degradation immediately outside the door of brand new offices. I should say that the rubbish had been there for months.
I welcome the introduction of the draft code of practice on litter and refuse by my right hon. Friends in the various Departments responsible because I believe that this scourge of modern life is now likely to be met by adequate measures. Public authorities are frequently among the worst offenders.
In Romford, it is a question of self-interest for people, especially traders, to endeavour to clean up their act. Romford has become a boom town in recent years, with growing developments of commercial and retail property. It attracts people from all over the area—from east London, Essex and even across the river in Kent. Romford has a wide range of shops to attract people, who can do all their shopping in one visit. However, shoppers will increasingly be put off because standards are not being maintained.
Romford now faces competition from other developments: a £350 million Lakeside development in Thurrock; Eastgate in Basildon; The Royals at Southend; and the £100 million Exchange development in nearby Ilford. All those developments are imaginative and modern, and will prove irresistible to shoppers. Business will be lost to Romford unless we tackle the problem adequately, and ensure that our standards are as high as those anywhere else. Therefore, taking the required action is simply a matter of survival for the town's commercial livelihood. I shall be pleased to play an active part in supporting their efforts.
Many other towns suffer from the same blemish. I welcome the fact that the code tackles the problem of public authorities which allow their land to become an 1114 eyesore. I wish the code all success. I hope that it will receive prominence and will be put into effect forcefully, and as quickly as possible.
I have observed that, although many Conservative-controlled London boroughs have given priority to the question of the environment—for example, my former London borough home, Bromley, which was the first with its clean and green campaign—some Labour-controlled inner-city authorities, despite high expenditure, give low priority to street cleaning. I can only conclude that that is a deliberate party-political policy. By creating squalid conditions for their people, they are encouraging the sense of underclass which underpins their political support.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)
That allegation needs to be refuted. I cannot speak for any particular inner London borough, but I remind the hon. Member that Sheffield, a Labour authority, is the recycling city of the United Kingdom. It is leading in this activity.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)
With Government help.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I am not denying that. Cardiff, again a Labour authority, is taking a similar position in Wales. It does not become the hon. Member, in a debate such as this, to pin a party-political label on the good and the bad. He will find both good and bad Labour and Conservative councils.
§ Mr. Neubert
I am open to reports that other cities under Labour control have done better, but I can judge only as I find. Being a Member of Parliament for a London constituency and working in London, I observe the street scene in London and can only notice the relative differences between Conservative and Labour authorities there. In London, the worst examples are Labour authorities. This cannot be for lack of money. It is simply that they have put a low priority on this activity. It is open to them to give it a higher priority if they wish to refute my allegation. I realise it was a serious and provocative allegation in what would otherwise be an all-party debate, but it was necessary to make it because it is simply not necessary for such squalor to continue in our inner cities. Living in the heart of one of our modern cities does not mean that people should have to endure the living conditions forced on them when local authorities do not carry out their duties.
Help is at hand. I have here a booklet containing a code of practice that will make it possible for lack of implementation of such policies to be challenged by individuals. An aggrieved citizen will be able to seek a litter abatement order and, given the increasing interest in the environment, I am sure that there will be no lack of aggrieved citizens ready to act. The code of practice lays down definitions of litter and will be innovative in two ways. First, it will define standards of cleanliness achievable in different types of locations—an important part of my motion. People who live in towns should not have to suffer a less attractive environment than people in the country or in more rural areas. The code sets a common universal standard for Britain as a whole.
Secondly, the code is concerned not with having a regular rota of cleaning and with how frequently streets are cleaned, but with the achievement of a level of cleanliness. In other words, if a street does not need to be 1115 cleaned so often, it should not be. Attention will be targeted on those streets that need continuous sweeping or cleaning. Expressed in its simplest terms, the code of practice says, "If it's not dirty, don't clean it." As I have explained, that is not the problem at the moment. I look to the code of practice, to which no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will refer, for some help in dealing with the major problems of graffiti, litter and refuse in our streets.
I shall pass quickly over how to reduce noise levels because the House recently had an opportunity to discuss this matter. However, my experience in politics and public life has shown me that noise is of utmost importance. I support the aims of the Noise Abatement Society. I wish success to anybody who aims at reducing noise.
Complementary to clearing our streets of litter and refuse is efficient waste management and recycling of material resources. The throwaway society has become a contemporary cliché, but people are now realising the folly of such a policy. Modern ways of over-packaging and over-presenting products cause people to be angry because not only is this wasteful, but it causes extra litter. Fast-food outlets are very much in sight here because people realise that fast-food containers threaten rain forests—it is as serious as that.
Efficient waste management is coming very much to the fore. I am glad to say that some local authorities—the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) may have some sterling examples—are active in this. He mentioned Sheffield, but I shall mention three Conservative authorities. East Sussex has developed a solid fuel that is waste derived, and that will greatly benefit the environment. It recycles six different products, and is very much to the fore in these matters. Test Valley has recently appointed a recycling officer and the money saved by recycling is going back to the community. That incentive should be encouraged. Devon county council has been designated a recycling county and it now recycles 10,000 tonnes of waste a year, which is about 2.5 per cent. of its total waste every year.
The Government have set the demanding target that, by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of recyclable household waste should be recycled. I shall be interested to hear how they are planning to achieve that. We must appreciate that these resources are valuable. For example, water, unmetered and unlimited at the tap, is a precious natural resource that should not be profligately used, as it has been, without thought for the future.
§ Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)
My hon. Friend spoke of the code of practice and mentioned that it includes graffiti. I rushed out to get a copy of it. One of the things that concerns me in my constituency is that there is far too much graffiti, but I am not sure that the code of practice deals with graffiti in as much detail as I would like. I have leafed through the White Paper as carefully as I can, but I am not sure of the effect that it will have on graffiti. This is one of the most important issues in the environment of Wanstead and Woodford and probably in the constituency of my hon. Friend. Will he comment on it?.
§ Mr. Neubert
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need to remove graffiti from buildings. I, too, did not find much promise in the code of a solution to this problem, 1116 but I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister has heard what my hon. Friend has said and will comment on it later. I commend London Transport for its vigorous prosecution of the mindless vandals who destroy the appearance of so much of its rolling stock by spray-painted graffiti. The public should support it in every effort to remove this anti-social behaviour.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
Do not some of the recent prosecutions of people going in for this wholesale destructive painting of underground trains and other areas show that small groups of people manage to destroy much of the landscape? The vast majority of people are not involved and they disapprove, and they could help the authorities to police the underground by saying when they notice people spraying graffiti so that the vandals are caught before they make it look as though it is a widespread habit.
§ Mr. Neubert
Those are salutary words. I am pleased that I have the support of the House when I say that we must look to the public to support the action that the authorities are taking because this is a social question. It is a matter for peer groups. Parents and teachers must inculcate in children a concern for the environment and consideration for others. Some youngsters find spraying graffiti attractive, and this must be rigorously deterred.
To conclude my list of items for action, I intend to raise my head above the level of the gutter and the pavement and talk about that part of our environment that is represented by our stately homes and gardens. Our historic heritage is part of our life. With increasing leisure and mobility, people are able to enjoy a heritage that is unique to this country.
The National Trust has been one of the most remarkable success stories of the post-war years. Many millions of people have access to properties that are no longer exclusively accessible to the wealthy and the aristocracy. I am happy to say that I am a life member of the National Trust. I very much support all that it does to preserve our heritage.
The Historic Houses Association, under the presidency of the Earl of Shelburne, covers properties that are visited by no fewer than 11 million people a year. Those houses are owned and maintained by individuals at their own expense. The responsibility for looking after them can be ruinous. Apart from natural disasters, such as the 1987 storms and those that we suffered earlier this year, regular repair and maintenance can be extremely expensive, particularly because of the need to use appropriate materials and techniques. Some of the owners have found the costs too hard to bear; they have been beyond their resources. During the past 10 years, 250 properties have been sold. That is no surprise, but it is a matter for regret. In the main, those properties will probably no longer be open to the public, or even be used as residences, for which purpose they were designed and built.
Some owners have established maintenance funds. They provide the owners with no direct personal benefit. The funds have been established to finance restoration and repair and to improve visitor facilities. Nevertheless, the income from the funds is taxed at 35 per cent. The Historic Houses Association believes that to be a deterrent to the maintenance of this part of our heritage. Moreover, if 1117 owners sell works of art for this purpose, they have to pay the full capital gains tax. Value added tax also has to be paid on repair and maintenance work.
A country confident of itself and concerned to maintain its heritage should be alarmed about such a trend and ought to seek to arrest it. Other countries make major tax concessions for this purpose. Although this may not be a popular theme on Conservative Benches, given our unique heritage I believe that the Government ought to be prepared to do more to help the owners of these properties. The Government may believe that the owners ought to look after them, but that is unrealistic. The owners recognise the public value their houses and believe that the Government ought to make a contribution towards their upkeep. A balance has to be struck. The Government have provided help in the past, but there is scope for further Government help. As prosperity increases, more and more people will want to visit these houses.
There are many other aspects of the environment to which I could draw the attention of the House. The Government's role ought to be limited to implementing the minimum amount of regulation. They should also encourage the education of young people about the importance of the environment. Environmental policy is a subject in the new national curriculum. Like so much else, however, it comes back to the individual. It starts in the home and continues in school. Parents and teachers need to work in partnership to bring about greater awareness of the need not to foul our own nest but to maintain a pleasant, attractive and healthy environment.
There may be a need for even stricter regulation. There is a hint of autocracy in Singapore. I should not be averse to the introduction of a regulation that requires property owners to be responsible for the appearance of their property and even for the pavement in front of it. It is all a question of discipline and good order. Evidence of health hazards has shocked us into taking action. They have made us more aware of the importance of the environment. It is not just a question, however, of safety or health considerations, or even of legal requirements. An attractive, well-ordered and tidy environment is part of our birthright and part of our responsibility as members of the community. We should all endeavour to play our full part.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on his good luck in winning first place in the ballot and even more on his choice of subject. I thank him for giving the House this opportunity to debate the wide range of issues that he included, helpfully, in his motion. My hon. Friends and I were fascinated to hear of his experience when travelling from what he thought was the civilised west to the less civilised east but finding standards in Singapore which, constrasted with what he found when he returned to Heathrow, were much higher, thus leading to his belief that the balance was in favour of the east.
What interests my hon. Friends and I is that this is not just a matter of hemispheres, of east versus west, or of the east compared with the west. It just so happens that 'what the hon. Gentleman left in the east was a socialist society and that he returned to a conservative society when he landed at Heathrow. Therefore, we welcome his example. We understand the problems that he faces in Romford. 1118 The poll tax and the other policies and philosophies that he so ardently supports have led to much of the dirt, muck and mire that we see in our streets, because local authorities have had either to contract out their cleansing services or to cut them. We are most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has told us about two experiences that we shall certainly note and quote on future occasions. I assure him that he will get full attribution when we do so.
I shall concentrate on the gulf between declared Government attitudes on green issues and Government decisions, and I shall give three examples from my experience. The first is a general point; the others are specific. They demonstrate that an important change is taking place because of the loss of control over the local environment by the local community and its switch to central Government. Increasingly, ministerial administrative diktat, without reference to the House of Commons, can overrule the rights of the public, local control and local environmental considerations.
The first general change was made by the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). Among a series of disastrous decisions—one of which is the abomination of a tower that one has to look at across the Thames—he made a very important administrative decision that did not need the approval of the House of Commons. He said that, in future, the presumption in planning applications would be switched in favour of the developer, the applicant. We live under a regime where it is presumed that land is suitable to be developed, unless those who oppose the development can prove that there is good reason why it would not take place.
That change did not attract the attention that it deserved. It massively switched the balance of advantage from the local community and those who protect the environment to profit-seeking, often parasitic, developers who have only one interest—to make a quick buck and then to withdraw from the area, leaving local people to live with the consequences of their greed.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)
The presumption is in the process of being changed. The right hon. Gentleman is therefore no longer correct, because an application must be considered according to the current structure plan and local plan. Under a current local plan, there will no longer be a presumption in favour of building, but if the proposal is outside the local plan the presumption will be against all development.
§ Mr. Williams
I shall give an example of a Minister doing the opposite under a local plan. I am glad to receive the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of the sanctity of the local plan. The hon. Gentleman says that the system will change. I am delighted to hear it, but why is it not changing now? Such a change needs not legislation but a Minister to issue guidance, and the emphasis would be switched back to the local community. If the Government believe that a change is necessary in a week's time, it is necessary now. I hope that it will be announced that as from today the balance has been restored to the local community. Councils are increasingly reluctant to refuse marginal planning applications. They fear that, because of the prejudgment of the Department, appeals will go against them and they will have to pay the applicant's costs for counsel, architects and so on.
That change weakened the protective function of local authorities and was an important alteration to the 1119 framework. If the Government will now admit that it was a mistake, I should be the first to applaud that admission and to welcome an urgent change in the guidance given to local authorities.
In many ways, the second problem is far more important constitutionally. Ministers exercise an Executive function and, because of their role in Departments, a quasi-judicial function. The Secretaries of State for the Environment, for Scotland and for Wales make decisions on planning applications.
Let me demonstrate a new and invidous situation that is dangerous constitutionally. It cannot be challanged in the courts or it would have been, but it has shades of Crichel Down and it worries me when I see this clear confusion of functions within Departments. West Glamorgan health authority had about 12 acres of land, much of which was being used for allotments. The Welsh Office issued a circular stating that health authorities had to dispose of any land surplus to their requirements at the best possible realisable value. In other words, they had to get the best added value. The same circular said that this would normally mean applying for planning consent for the land. If it was refused, they were told to appeal to the Welsh Office, which had issued the circular telling them to sell the land. What chance did my constituents have? Allotment holders, who had been there many years, waged a campaign on behalf of the whole community to keep this green wedge in the heart of a built-up section of Swansea. All the residents in the area, the local authorities, the city and the county opposed it. To their credit, the protests continued for a long time, but—surprise, surprise—eventually the health authority, in keeping with the circular, appealed to the Welsh Office.
It does not take much imagination for hon. Members to guess the outcome of the appeal. But where is the quasi-judicial independence? At some time, every hon. Member present has written to a Minister about planning and has received a reply saying, "I note the points that you make, but I cannot comment on them because in the event of an appeal I exercise a quasi-judicial role." We all know that it is the constitutional reality, but that independence is distorted by the Department telling authorities not only to sell land but to apply for planning consent and to appeal to the same impartial Minister if it is refused.
Hon. Members will gather that I do not regard the Welsh Office as the most competent administrative centre in Whitehall. In England, as far as I can gather—the Minister's office was most helpful in trying to get information for me at short notice—there has been one instance of an education authority being told that it must sell land that had been preserved for school use. That had never happened in Wales, but within days of taking office the Secretary of State for Wales issued such a directive to West Glamorgan county council. It was opposed by local residents, even local Conservative councillors, the county and the city, and petitions were handed in. The Secretary of State admitted in a parliamentary answer that he had received only one representation in favour of it, two and a half years ago, from a developer outside Swansea. The then Secretary of State wisely sat on it for two and a half years. In a letter, the developer said that the land was needed for development and to create building jobs in Swansea.
1120 In the two and a half years since that application was made—this touches on the point of the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen)—more than 400 building plots have been released on planning consent in west Swansea. Most of them are still empty—so much for job creation —because developers are unable to go ahead with the released plots. The Land Authority for Wales has even said that more plots are not needed in that part of Swansea.
Almost two years after the initial application, the local plan was approved in April. In that plan the site was marked clearly for future school development. The builder who had originally applied for use of that site, however, did not appeal against the local plan. Given that the Welsh Office considered that the site should be used for residential rather than school development it did not make any such suggestion during the consultative period on the local plan. At the very time when there could have been a proper inquiry and democratic discussion about the local plan and the allocation of the land, the Welsh Office and the developer kept their heads down and said nothing.
In July, just three months after the local plan was approved, the Welsh Office turned round and issued a directive to the West Glamorgan education authority to sell the six acres. The Welsh Office has imposed a deadline of 22 December on the education authority, after which the Welsh Office will enforce its decision.
The local authority, however, will turn down any application for the residential use of the site as it is clearly marked in the local plan for school use and as such it is desperately needed. It will do so on the basis of the local plan approved and lodged with the Welsh Office in April. Subsequently, an appeal will be made to the Welsh office and the Secretary of State will put on his judicial wig—in that respect his need is not as great as mine. The Secretary of State, having told the local education authority that the land must be sold, will then purport to make an impartial judicial decision on the planning application. That application does not command the support of the local people; only one supporting representation has been made and it comes from outside the area. The dangerous thing is that the Secretary of State is not just judge and jury, but prosecutor, too. In fact, in terms of Swansea, he is seen as the villain, the prosecutor and judge and jury. He is not exactly popular, as I am sure hon. Members will understand.
When the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) was at the Ministry of Defence I had many courteous and helpful discussions with him, but I regret to say that the MOD is also disposed to use administrative diktats to override local opinion. The House will be beginning to assume that Swansea is suffering from a persecution complex, but a recent decision of the MOD may have a serious environmental impact on the area.
We were all astonished at the recent press reports about a £100 million refit of a nuclear submarine which was suddenly decommissioned. However, Swansea has just had a new status conferred on it by the MOD. It has decided that that city is to have a Z-berth—a berth for a nuclear submarine. No chance was given for a sensible discussion of that decision; the Ministry just announced it. To be fair, that does not mean that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces reached his decision without reference to outside advice. He put that suggestion to a committee. That nameless, faceless committee—anonymous for security reasons—consists of 23 members. 1121 Seventeen members are either former military staff, former MOD staff or existing MOD officials. The odds are slightly in the Minister's favour, particularly as I gather that the other half dozen committee members are almost certainly representatives from the nuclear industry.
Public opinion appears riot to count and the only check on the MOD decision is a committee appointed by the Minister, largely staffed by his men. The MOD has been challenged about that, but it states that it always follows its advice. That is hardly surprising given that the advisory committee is made up of the Minister's own men. They consider the proposition and it is not subject to any democratic appeal or meaningful representation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and I welcomed a deputation who came up from Swansea with a petition about the decision. The Minister refused to see them, so they went with us to the MOD where we intended to hand in the petition. At the MOD the Minister had the cheek to send down a message to say that he would see the two hon. Members, but not the people who brought the petition. Not surprisingly we told him that we could do without that type of meeting.
Swansea docks are in the heart of the community and they represent the dividing line between the two Swansea constituencies. A nuclear reactor is now to be stationed in those docks. One does not want to be theatrical about it, but it is hard not to be when the MOD is decommissioning its nuclear submarines as fast as it can. Given that it wrote off overnight a £100 million refit because of faults with the reactor, one is left with the suspicion that something must be wrong.
What rights do we have in Swansea to oppose the MOD decision? Absolutely none. All that we get are assurances from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that, in his opinion, the reactor is safe. If it is that safe, he should have it in his constituency. The city council, the county council, the citizens of Swansea and my hon. Friend and I do not want it, but the Z-berth will be imposed on us. The Government are willing to write off £100 million, but what assurances are we given about protecting the environment? We have been told that there will be a 550 m security zone.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) will not make the point for himself, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Romford is not a suitable place to berth nuclear submarines.
§ Mr. Williams
I would not want the nuclear submarine to get lost in the sea of rubbish which it would encounter if it tried to go down Romford high street. The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) was gallantly trying to protect his hon. Friend, but he had no need to because I was not attacking him. I was attacking the present Minister of State for the Armed Forces.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
The present Minister of State for the Armed Forces also has a landlocked constituency, so the same argument applies.
§ Mr. Williams
If the Minister tried for either of the Swansea constituencies, he would not be elected. Perhaps he can afford to be so insensitive about the issue because his constituency is not affected. As a former Parliamentary Private Secretary to an ex-Prime Minister, the Minister knows his way round Whitehall and he should understand 1122 the way in which the system works. I was not attacking the hon. Member for Romford, who gave me the opportunity to make this speech.
I gave three examples: of a hospital site, of a school site and of a decision about a nuclear submarine berth. I have tried to show that Ministers may make the right sounds on environmental matters, but that their actions and decisions belie their green pretensions.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for giving the House the chance to discuss this important subject. No one but he could do justice to the whole range of issues, and I congratulate him on the way in which he canvassed the various subjects to which other hon. Members will want to return. Some hon. Members have long-term interests in some of the subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen)—I am pleased to see that he has flown in—has been dealing with derelict land for many years. He shows that continuity of interest which is so important, and the House is grateful that he has been able to adjust his diary to be here today.
The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) has given us some interesting ideas. Epsom and Ewell is not a nuclear-free zone, but one must remember that submarines tend to go by water and not by land. No one could accuse Conservative Ministers of a NIMBY syndrome on such issues. The House will remember that Lord Pym, when he was a Member of this House, agreed to medium-range missiles being based in his own constituency. Such toughness has led to some of the changes in eastern Europe to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford referred.
It is only when we allow the media to see what is happening in different countries that we discover what an environmental disaster state socialism has been. It has also been an economic disaster for the people and a military disaster.
I want to raise some important environmental issues in my own constituency of Eltham. That area is well known to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford because, early in his 40 years of distinguished service to the community, he was the youngest mayor of Bromley. At that time he would occasionally have driven into London through my constituency and, for all I know, he may still go through it on his way to east London.
He will have noticed that there has been an environmental improvement for 21,000 of my constituents as a result of the building of the Rochester way relief road. I am grateful to the Rees Jeffries Road Fund for funding an appraisal of the operational, environmental and economic impact of that important road. As many hon. Members will know, the A2 goes through the middle of my constituency, which lies in the southern part of the borough of Greenwich. The road has had traffic jams since 1381 when Wat Tyler came up from Canterbury with his band of friends. He was held up at the Well Hall roundabout for four hours and had to camp overnight on Blackheath so that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) could give an annual address on the back of a flat-top lorry.
It is worth noting that the missing three miles of road between Falconwood to the east and the Blackwall tunnel approach to the west had been a planning disgrace, an 1123 environmental disgrace and a transport disgrace. For 40 years, there had been a gap and the reason was that, traditionally, my constituency has been a marginal seat.
It was felt that building a necessary bit of road might swing the votes of 200 people, which could decide whether there was a Tory or a Labour Member of Parliament. That in turn could decide whether there was a Tory or Labour Government and that could decide whether we made progress in the European Community, depending on which side of the fence the Labour party was sitting in a particular year when an election might take place. The missing road was being held hostage for the political fortunes of the country.
Fortunately, there were some local people who were willing to fight. In 1974, when I was first adopted as a prospective parliamentary candidate, I began to go for walks with mothers with prams along the Rochester way at 5 pm on a Friday. We had a police escort and, of course, if the police had told us not to do it, we would not have done it. We were a law-abiding community group and, as a Conservative Member, I would not dream of getting involved in some of the ludicrous arguments that we noticed this morning on television when we heard the results of the Paisley by-elections. The Labour party and the Scottish National party were discussing whether to break the law.
We believe that the law should be obeyed and we are grateful that the present leader of the Opposition agrees. I wish that he would say so to Councillor MacParland, a Labour councillor on Greenwich council, who is the prime organiser of the Greenwich campaign against the poll tax. Let us begin to see some steel and determination from the Labour leader even if he is at risk of being replaced by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith).
From 1974 to 1978, we had great difficulty with the local council, which was Labour controlled. However, I agree with other hon. Members that we should be as non-partisan as possible today. I give the council its political label for those who will read the report of the debate later. It was only in 1978 that Greenwich council realised that the people of Eltham were keen to have the road. The council needed a fig leaf to cover its change of policy. It asked the Greater London council to carry out an assessment of the environmental impact of a new road and to see what damage the old road was doing.
The three-mile stretch of poor road was adversely affecting 25,000 people. The economic analysis showed that the new road would not quite pay in cost-benefit terms, but the reason for building it was the environmental improvement for local people. At Deansfield school, on the old road, children were exposed not only to the traffic dangers of 42,000 vehicles a day going past, but to the lead, to the fumes, to the smog, to the smoke and to all the poisons that are part of the cost of our present motor engine.
I look forward to two developments. In the long term, I look forward to the development of the electric engine for shorter journeys of up to about 50 miles. Being able to use cars that are pollutant-free as they go through the areas in which people live will be an important development.
In the shorter term, I hope that many more people will switch to lead-free fuel. It is good that my hon. Friend the 1124 Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) helped to push up the sales of lead-free petrol from less than 1 or 2 per cent. to 31 or 32 per cent. That was a great achievement, but we must realise that almost three times as many people could use lead-free fuel.
I have recently disposed of a 13-year-old Ford Fiesta. The adjustment to lead-free fuel took two minutes at Ryan's Van Hire of Romford. I dropped in without an appointment for 10 minutes on the way to opening a lead-free fuel pump.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I had an appointment to attend the opening. That old car could use lead-free fuel three times out of four. If that Ford could do so, many other cars, especially new cars, could do so as well. I hope that, when people take their cars in for winter servicing, they will check with the garage, with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which has a help line, with the Royal Automobile Club, with the Automobile Association or with the Department of Transport. They will then find out whether they are wasting 10p a gallon and whether they are contributing to throwing into the air tonnes of unnecessary lead, which falls on our faces, is breathed in, falls on our food and is a potential development hazard, especially to children.
Last night I was privileged to give the St. Andrews lecture at Holy Trinity church in Barnes. I discussed the idea that we could do a great deal more to improve the environment if we halved the distance between our homes and our places of work. That may not be possible for all Members of Parliament but, in time, people who travel for an hour or so by train or car to get to work and back ought to be able to change their jobs or their homes. People would spend less on train fares, cars and petrol and their well-being would be greatly enhanced. They could probably double or treble the amount of spare time that they enjoyed. I think that it is that kind of well-being that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford was anxious to promote in initiating this debate.
We should accept the need for mobility, for improvements in public transport and for some capital investment in public transport, not all of which can be underground. I welcome the large increase in investment in public transport, which has come about largely because of the change in people's travelling habits in and around London.
Between 1982 and 1987—a period of unparalleled growth and economic prosperity—the number of people commuting to London by car each day fell from 190,000 to 160,000. That fall should have been noted and welcomed by the environmental campaigning groups, but either they did not know of or they chose not to notice the information being put out by the Department of Transport during my time there.
The number of people commuting by rail increased by 20 per cent. during the same period, and that led to reinvestment and to the further improvement of the service, although it also caused overcrowding. The same applied to London Underground which unfortunately has not yet reached the London borough of Greenwich. We hope that the link to the east of London will come through the Greenwich peninsula, even though that will not directly help my constituents. I hope that massive capital 1125 investment will continue, especially as the number of journeys on London Underground each day increased by 70 per cent. during the five-year period to which I referred. Again, that development was not noted or welcomed by Transport 2000 or Friends of the Earth.
The Rochester way relief road was built because local people wanted it. I cannot say the same about the approach road to the east London river crossing. I think that I was the first person to point out, in 1983, that an approach road through Eltham would only damage local people.
The bridge itself may or may not be necessary to those north of the river. I know that Newham is strongly in favour of the bridge and of the construction of a decent road, as well as a rail link, to connect Newham to the channel ports and the rest of Europe. I pay tribute to the way in which Labour Members who represent Newham have argued in favour of that opportunity for economic development. But I want them to know that in Eltham the approach road will do only damage. There is no gain to Eltham. There may be some gain to Thamesmead, which needs jobs and needs to be linked in as far as possible. But in Eltham the approach road would be an environmental disaster, not least because of its potential effect on Oxleas woods. Before I became a Transport Minister, I was a leading member of the campaign to avoid or minimise the damage. While I was a Minister, I continued to convey the representations that I received, although Ministers are not allowed to take decisions about their own constituencies —a necessary and wise protection against corruption and special dealing.
Since I left the Department, I have been able once more to say openly what my constituents have been saying and what I was saying before. I object strongly to the suggestion by some environmental campaign groups that there has been a U-turn in my behaviour. I ask them to stop spreading lies because it does not help.
The person in the best position to help secure protection for Oxleas woods and Eltham is me. I have focused on a matter with which Greenwich council has failed to deal. Incidentally, I should like to tell the House of a coincidence. Greenwich council cut off funding o the objectors at the second inquiry into the bridge. The objectors came to me. I took up the matter with Greenwich council, which decided to spend £67,000 on representations. The announcement was made by Councillor John Austin Walker, who happens to be the prospective Labour candidate standing against the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) and by Councillor Clive Efford, who happens to be the prospective Labour candidate standing against me in Eltham. If we are to take a bipartisan approach to trying to reduce the impact on the woods, the local Labour group had better stop giving the impression that it is spending £67,000 of local residents' money to help its candidates at the forthcoming election.
§ Mr. Alan Williams
One interpretation is that the prospective candidates will be able to do what the sitting Member of Parliament has failed to do.
§ Mr. Bottomley
It is true that, as councillors, they can divert £67,000 of local residents' money for purposes that they choose.
There is a second coincidence. When Greenwich council last appointed members to the district health authority, it did not just pick Councillor John Austin Walker, the 1126 prospective Labour candidate for Woolwich, and Councillor Clive Efford, the prospective Labour candidate for Eltham; it appointed Mr. Nick Raynsford, the prospective Labour candidate for Greenwich. If there is one reason for changing the system of appointments to health authorities, it is Greenwich council's behaviour.
In 1982, Greenwich council decided to increase the rate burden on local residents by 59 per cent. in one year. That is the equivalent of a property revaluation of 50 per cent. under the old system, and we saw what damage that did in Scotland.
If we want to protect and improve our environment, we had better start working together. People had better not fall into Greenwich council's habit of turning everything into a party-political issue. The council changed its mind two or three times on the Rochester way relief road and I expect they will do the same with the approach road.
Part of the £67,000 that Greenwich used could better have been spent on an independent analysis of whether the slip roads off the approach road to the east London river crossing—at the Shooters hill interchange—could be dropped. If those slip roads are not needed, the money can be used to cover over the road as it cuts through the woods. If, as was decided at the first inquiry, it is necessary for the road to go through the woods to serve those north of the river—the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) may have a view on that—we ought to cover it over. That will be decided following a decision on whether the slip roads are needed. Department of Transport engineers believe that they are necessary. I ask Greenwich council to switch some of its resources to an independent assessment of whether those slip roads can be dropped.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I did not intervene when the hon. Gentleman was complaining about the appointment of Greenwich councillors, although I could have done, as the Government made great play of appointing the chairmen of the regional health authorities and of ensuring that they were all good loyal Conservatives. That sort of think tends to happen. Having said that, I entirely support the hon. Gentleman's campaign to avoid the destruction or deterioration of Oxleas wood—a very historic part of London.
§ Mr. Bottomley
In defence of regional health authority chairmen, I should point to the record of the chairman of South-East Thames regional health authority. I am having a dispute with him because of the authority's ludicrous decision to spend £50 million on moving its neuroscience department from Shooters hill to Denmark hill. There will be no economic gain from the move, which is merely intended to tie in neuroscience with psychiatry. However much that may please my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), it is a ludicrous waste of resources.
To the best of my knowledge and belief, however, the chairman of the regional health authority has no publicly expressed politics. He was a distinguished permanent secretary. He gives much of his time to voluntary groups. He has done much to promote mobility for the disabled and he chairs the authority in a distinctive and distinguished way.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I do not think that he is a Tory at all. I give a public warning that that £50 million is not available and will not be spent to maintain hospital services in the south and the east of the borough of Greenwich.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. He confirms that, even though people north of the river are desperate to have the bridge and a road to link to the bridge to bring Newham into the road network, there is support north of the river to minimise the impact on Oxleas woods. I hope that Newham would be willing to contribute with Greenwich to the assessment of the slip roads.
Normally, covering a road by constructing a tunnel would treble the cost of a road. I suspect that, in the case of Oxleas woods, only an extra £10 million or £12 million would be necessary to cover the road if the slip roads are not necessary. If Greenwich council, with Newham's help, carried out a study which confirmed that the slip roads were necessary, my case would become more difficult to argue. However, so far we do not have any information.
I was shocked and horrified to discover that Greenwich has spent so much money in so many ways, but it has not assessed the slip roads. If we deal with the specifics, we will provide arguments that lead to progress. That is what happened with the Rochester way relief road.
I want to consider briefly the conclusions of the independent study on the effects of the Rochester way relief road. As I have said, the road was built for the benefit of local people. I believe that it is the only major trunk road to be opened in inner London, within the old London county council area, in the past 10 years or so. It confirms what I used to say at the Department of Transport—that roads are built only if there are significant advantages for local people. I cannot say that about the approach road to the east London river crossing, but in general that is true.
The conclusion of the independent study entitled "An appraisal of the operational, environmental and economic impacts of the Rochester way relief road" includes the fact that most of the objectives set down in advance were realised in practice. It is interesting that the traffic model did not predict the significant reduction in traffic on Shooters hill road. That unexpected reduction in traffic may influence whether the slip roads are needed in Oxleas woods for the link to the road to the east London river crossing.
The study states that the impact on the urban landscape has been achieved at the cost ofsome disruption during construction and some considerable sacrifice in terms of lost homes and businesses and some loss of open space. Nevertheless, it has been designed and built in such a way that very little additional severance has been created either physically or visually.In South-east London, far too many people suffer from the effects of traffic and many of us are part of the problem. One of my constituents asked me whether he could help in the campaign about the impact of the road on Oxleas woods. I told him that he could and that he should tell me how many cars were in his road at night and how many in the middle of the day. I was told that nearly all the cars moved. We are all part of the problem and we need to find ways of reducing our impact on the environment.
Part of the solution is to park and ride. Preferably, people should park as far outside London as possible instead of driving in and crowding the roads. It would be 1128 far better to allow British Rail to carry people as long a distance as possible. Part of the impact of the improvements to the railway station and to the roads in Eltham has been that the commuters' cars are being parked all day in unsuitable residential roads.
I hope that in the various transport Bills that are to be introduced this Session we can find ways to enable local authorities to say that, apart from residents, no outsider should be able to park on a residential road near a station for longer than three hours. That would allow plenty of time for shopping and it would be good for local trade. However, it would stop someone coming in selfishly at 7.30 am and avoiding the station car park. It would stop that person leaving his car in that residential road all day, thus making life miserable for local people who have to drive around and then find it difficult to stop to shop or trade.
An associated problem is that, unfortunately, there are vandals and delinquents around. Eltham station car park is half empty partly because people can park free—it is free parking to them, but it has an environmental cost to others —in nearby streets and partly because of car break-ins. I shall be asking British Transport police and the Metropolitan police to set up a study group with Greenwich council with a plan for action to cut by two thirds within 12 months the number of break-ins in the Eltham station car park.
We should also spend more time dealing with drug dealers. Whether they peddle hard drugs or soft, they generate crime on an almost unbelievable scale. One drug dealer may have only 20 clients, each of whom may spend £200 a week on his habit. The client will not earn that money, he will have to take about £2,000 worth of goods to the people who handle drugs to get his £200. To get £2,000 worth of goods a week, he will probably have to do £40,000 worth of damage. If we multiply that £40,000 a week of damage caused by people trying to fund their habits, we are talking about more than £750,000 of damage to the community from one drugs dealer.
Anyone in Eltham who notices drug dealing or using should contact the police. That is the way to cut crime and to have confidence in the station car park. It is one way of improving the environment, and it would also cut down the number of juveniles who are led into persistent delinquency and to crime.
The Rochester way relief road study also revealed that the traffic flows have been virtually as expected. No extra traffic has been generated. Many of the arguments about the impact of building roads were wrong and many of the arguments used by people like me have been right. It is possible to design roads to make local improvements without tempting people to throw away their rail season tickets and get back into their cars to commute.
If we can persist in those approaches, we can reduce the number of people commuting long distances by car. However, I call for partnership. I got myself into hot water on the day of the launch of that good magazine Auto Express when I said that I would not spend any money to help people to divert from rail to road. There was an uproar. The British Road Federation and others asked the Prime Minister to sack me. Well, they were successful two or three years after that, but not on that issue. No environmentalist contacted me to say that I said the right thing. I was told, "Don't worry about the car lobby, you're doing the kind of thing that will help protect the local environment." My shoulders are broad enough in that 1129 case, but we must persist to find the right way of improving the environment with the help of individuals, local councils and Government.
I hope that we can continue to work together and that we shall have a debate similar to this in two years in the hope that this debate will have helped to reinforce the good work that many are doing and woken up those who have been apathetic or ignorant about the problems.
§ 11.6 am
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
This is the first specific debate on the environment under the new Administration. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on choosing this subject and on his motion. I agree with everything he said, but I have one reservation. I am not sure whether his interpretation of the phraseand calls on the Government, through the necessary minimum regulation",would be my interpretation of that phrase. The difference between the rest of the House—and I generalise here—and my colleagues and I is that we believe that there is sometimes a need for local government and authorities to be specific and to intervene to prevent things.
In certain matters, relying on education, encouragement, exhortation and financial incentives is not enough. I am not saying that I assume that the hon. Member for Romford rejects intervention in all cases. I am sure that he does not. However, the difference between us is that there are times when he would say, "No, we must leave that to people's judgment, to education and to the market." I believe that environmental damage is too harmful and we must be far more interventionist in two ways: first, by using economic levers to encourage or discourage, and, secondly by occasionally saying, "I'm sorry, you're not allowed to do that."
I have also a reservation about this week's changes on the Government Benches. I told the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) that, had I been a Tory, I would have voted for him not just because he is a south Londoner and out of geographical loyalty, but because, of all the people standing for leadership of the Tory party, he had a better understanding of the concerns of ordinary people and a greater commitment to social equality and justice. I look forward to that being regarded as a change in his Administration compared with the Administration of his predecessor.
However, there is one respect in which I already have a great reservation about the new Administration. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will retain his position after the reshuffle, so I do not impute to him any blame at all. In his pronouncements on the steps of No. 10 Downing street the new Prime Minister said that, among other things, he was committed to an improved quality of life for all our citizens. One word that has disappeared from the Prime Ministerial vocabulary since the handover is "environment". His predecessor's sudden interest in the environment has disappeared. In the priorities that the new Prime Minister has made clear, the word "environment" has not even once passed his lips.
In the Tory party's desperate need to shake off the political albatross of the poll tax—I do not blame the Tory party for wanting to get rid of that legacy of the previous regime—it has chosen somebody to go into the Department of the Environment, not for environmental 1130 reasons, but to deal with the poll tax. For the foreseeable future, the Department of the Environment is the Department for sorting out the poll tax. That is sad.
However hesitant and restricted he was, the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, now the chairman of the Conservative party, at least tried to paint Government policy green and make sure that green issues were more central in all Departments. He was having trouble with the Department of Transport and the Department of Energy, but he was trying. There is a danger that, because of the trouble of the poll tax and because the poll tax is the responsibility of the Department in charge of housing, local government finance and environmental issues, the Tories' green period may already be over. It will have been a very brief green period. That is to be regretted.
I fear that, as we approach the next election, concerns about the global environment—for example, global warming, harmful emissions or nuclear waste—will be further from the front of the new Administration's shop window as other, more domestic and short-term matters are put forward. I am not saying that somebody should not sort out the poll tax and get rid of it before the next election. Everybody seems to offer advice to the new Prime Minister and his Ministers. I join the Leader of the Opposition in offering advice to the Prime Minister. If he decided to abolish the poll tax rather than refine it, he would increase his and his hon. Friend's electoral prospects. Perhaps his hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), who has a thin majority, would benefit from the abolition of the poll tax like no other now that the former Prime Minister is resident in his constituency and exemplifies its unfairness for every resident of our borough.
§ Mr. Hughes
If the hon. Gentleman has survived so far and still has that belief, he is a less intelligent political diviner than I thought. I have not found many people who, even if the poll tax is lower, think that it is wonderful. The only gainers are the people who had a high rates bill and now have a low poll tax bill, and even they, in large measure, say that it is grossly unfair.
§ Mr. Hughes
I shall not give way. Other hon. Members want to speak. It is not a debate about the poll tax.
§ Mr. Hughes
Yes, I did, because it has suddenly appeared on the environmental agenda instead of proper environmental matters. It is in that context that I made the point.
The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) and I have at least two things in common. First, we are both inner south-east London constituency Members, and, secondly, our constituencies are joined by the A2. It begins in my constituency as it sets off from the old borough of Southwark to London Bridge and on its way down to Dover.
I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's comments. Transport is a crucial local environmental issue. I agree 1131 that to have improvements in the fuel that we use—for example, much more lead-free petrol—would be greatly beneficial. I agree also that, if we could reduce journey distances between home and work, we would make a great advance in reducing the amount of wasted energy and unnecessarily consumed energy. In planning terms, I hope that we can build our new settlements near to existing rail lines and road networks and will not need to extend roads or build roads for new settlements in greenfield sites.
Like the hon. Member for Eltham, I am sympathetic to the idea of electric cars. We must remember that, although there is a benefit in the electric car, it still uses energy which must be provided by plugging in a recharging device. That is part of the use of renewable or non-renewable energy sources. It is not a simple equation: an electric car is not necessarily environmentally better than a car that runs on other types of fuel, although it has many attractions, not least that it does not pollute.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
The hon. Gentleman is right. I suspect that we shall see greater improvements in the fuel efficiency of the initial primary generating plant and of energy transmission. As the hon. Gentleman rightly identified—I give him full credit for it—the key point is that, when those vehicles go through his constituency or through mine, they do not emit exhaust fumes. Carbon monoxide, lead, some of the nitrous oxides and the sulphur oxides, are the worst elements.
Electric cars will not have the boy-racer image. They will travel at a maximum speed of 30 mph in town. I hope that they will not tempt people to race off at the lights. Even with our present petrol engines, if we drive sanely we can use 20 per cent. less fuel and bring an instant benefit to our budgets.
§ Mr. Hughes
One of the consequences of the debate is that it is important for the consumer to know the balance between environmental interests and options. The hon. Gentleman referred to consumer education. Happily, according to opinion polls, young people say that environmental issues are their most important concern. It is important that people should be able to make proper choices and realise that they have to decide how they can best reduce emissions from vehicles and also make sure that they are consuming least energy. There is a balance, and it is to do with the size of cars, the size of engines and so on.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
One of the most curious cars that I have seen in the Members' car park is an orange and black taxi that belches smoke like no other car that I have ever seen. Is it right that it belongs to the hon. Gentleman? If so, how does he put his money where his mouth is?.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked that question. I do own a black and orange taxi. It is a diesel taxi, which is preferable to a petrol vehicle. The only problem with diesel engines, as the hon. Gentleman may be aware, is that for the first minute after they start from cold they produce a lot of smoke. I was fearful that it might be more environmentally harmful than that.
1132 The Mail on Sunday carried out an environmental test on my taxi, the car of the former Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), and the car of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), the Labour party shadow spokesman. The hon. Gentleman can check with The Mail on Sunday if he wants—it was about a month ago. My taxi is environmentally far better than either the customised car of the right hon. Member for Bath or the car of the hon. Member for Dagenham. I accept that there is a smoke problem. The taxi is at the garage at the moment having that problem dealt with, but environmentally and otherwise it is far more efficient. I can always give the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) a free ride in it, which will stop him using his car.
If we are really to improve the environment of people in their locality, particularly in urban areas, we must reduce the number of vehicle journeys, the number of vehicle journeys with only one person in a vehicle, the number of vehicle journeys that can be made by other means, and, therefore, the number of environmental disadvantages to people from the number of people who use cars when we should encourage them to use other forms of transport.
The problem is not just that people park so that their vehicles cause an eyesore, but that they park on pavements, which has environmental implications because people fall over and local authorities have to spend money on repairing pavements. Horrendous congestion slows down people's movement, and commuters travelling to work from east London and south-east London become frustrated because there are daily traffic jams and journey times are unpredictable.
We must be tough. One of my concerns when the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson) was at the Department of Transport was that the transport lobby was still winning arguments against the environmental lobby. I hope that matters will improve under the new Secretary of State. Unless we reduce the number of cars in urban districts and the number of car journeys, and increase the amount of public and other investment in public transport by fare payers and others, we will not change that balance.
I am sure that the Minister knows that there are many places in the world where public transport works so well that people never need to use private cars. I lived in Strasbourg for a while and the buses always came when they were meant to. I could go to work on public transport. I lived in Brussels for a while when the metro had just been built. I could rely on it for getting to work on time.
§ Mr. Hughes
I hope that I shall not live in Singapore, although it may be better now that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew is no longer the Prime Minister. I hope that the Department of the Environment will tackle the Department of Transport and make it an environmentally sound Department because as yet it has not been one.
I offer a suggestion that I know has to be passed on; we must be tough and license urban districts and impose additional costs on people from outside the district if they 1133 want to use it. I see that the hon. Member for Eltham does not like my idea. He may have thought about it and rejected it. We must say, "We are sorry, but if you do not need to come in, you will have to pay to do so" in much the same way as the old Greater London council lorry ban operated.
We can take other steps. The Netherlands and other countries allow people to use bus lanes if their cars are full. We should consider such proposals. There are many ways to ensure that one minimises the number of vehicle journeys.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
The hon. Gentleman has raised a serious point that I should have touched on. The problem with the prosperity that we have had in the past 10 years is that many people can afford money but not time. Any suggestion such as road pricing, which means that all one has to do is have a fistful of fivers to buy one's space, will lead to more traffic, not less, on the roads. Local authority workers and Members of Parliament will have their fares paid, small businesses will want concessions and big businesses will be able to afford the costs. The House should realise the loopiness of believing that road pricing will work; congestion is far better because those of us whose time is valuable will switch to public transport because it gives us a better option, not because it is cheaper.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West is itching to intervene, but he can have his chance in his speech. If he will excuse me, I shall not give way to him, as I normally do.
This is an important debate because urban environment and urban life are afflicted more by traffic and related issues than by anything else. Those issues include safety, accidents, injuries, deaths, damage to buildings, collisions and pollution. I do not want to launch, in extenso, into a debate about the options—road pricing is not the be all and end all. We must have a package, one part of which is to start investing in public transport. People will not move from private to public transport until public transport is of a quality that allows them to use it effectively. London's public transport is sometimes a nightmare, and so people will not change to using it but will prefer to make their journey more quickly in a private vehicle.
We should adopt policies such as encouraging people to use bicycles and not cars. My Liberal Democrat colleagues control the London borough of Sutton which is recognised as having led the way in public transport. Its staff are given an incentive for using bicycles, just as company employees have traditionally been given tax incentives to use company cars. We must end the tax incentive on company cars completely, not just partially. I accept that we need a package of policies, but we must ensure that combating the growth in individual motorised transport, which is the product of an affluent society, is one of our chief political targets.
The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has an interest in the issue of empty property and empty land, which constitute an environmental blight in urban districts. Increasingly, the Government have the tools to deal with empty land. During the past 10 years the Government have taken steps to deal with derelict land——
§ Mr. Hughes
I agree that they were not sufficient and there needs to be a change in the way land is taxed if we are to deal with the problem efficiently. It is no good merely having a register and the Government making orders.
The Environmental Protection Act 1990 allows people to complain about litter where the culpable party is from the private rather than public sector. Therefore, if someone has litter on his land and is not doing anything about it, we can take action—I am grateful for that. That should be the case with empty property. If a private property owner is holding on to property and doing nothing, the Government should be able to intervene or give local authorities the power to intervene.
Various methods could be used to help to solve the problem. I am not a believer in expropriating other people's property, but I believe in saying that if someone is not using it and it is an eyesore, subject to the freehold remaining with the owner, control of that property should be taken away if its owner is not carrying out his duty to society. Empty property which is lying waste in inner cities could often be used for housing people.
I hope that the new team at the Department of the Environment and the Government will be tough in tackling the problem of empty land and property in urban districts because it is a nuisance and the cause of many problems, including environmental blight.
I ask the Minister, in a gentle and encouraging way, to seek to persuade his colleagues and the new Secretary of State to accede to the following, often repeated and uniquely London request. London is the only part of Britain prohibited by law from having parish and community councils. I end my speech where the hon. Member for Romford began: one of the best ways for people to influence their local environment is by coming together in a recognised forum which has status to discuss truly local matters, such as how to clean up the parks, rivers and ponds or where to put street lights and seating. Why is it that in London there can be no proper forum for such discussions, whereas in every other part of the country—England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland —people can have a local parish or community council to deal with such issues?
I hope that the new team at the Department of the Environment will seriously consider legislation. I was the last person to present relevant provisions to the House in the previous Session in the form of the London Local Government Bill, which was printed, and has been approved by the relevant parish and local authority organisations. It has been presented before by other colleagues and parties. I hope that the Government will seriously consider legislation because people are most effective in campaigning about the environment on their own doorstep where they know exactly how they are affected.
Today's debate is about the local environment. Global and local environments are interrelated, but most people feel that they can affect most the local environment. If we encourage them to do that, we shall at the same time encourage them to act to help to save the global environment. I hope that the Government will give a positive response to the request that we should give people such encouragement.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for providing us with an opportunity to debate such a far-reaching and widely-couched motion. It is the sort of widespread, blanket environmental discussion that this House does not have often enough. It is a pity that some Opposition Members have spoken exclusively about road safety to the exclusion of the issues of the wider environment. The House debated road safety only a fortnight ago, and some of the matters raised by Opposition Members this morning could have been conveniently fitted into that debate. Indeed, their speeches would have been more appropriate to that debate than to this far wider debate about people and their local environment—which, as we would expect, my hon. Friend has couched in broad terms.
Unfortunately, but understandably, the majority of hon. Members in the Chamber today are from the London area. However, the motion goes far wider than London, so I hope that the House will forgive me for introducing a different aspect from an exclusively rural area 250 miles away in the west of the country. I wish also to call on my experience in my youth, many years ago, when I represented the inner city of Liverpool.
§ Mr. Steen
I am grateful for that encouragement.
Concern about the environment is moving further and further up the political agenda. it is becoming quite fashionable, and to talk about green issues is in vogue. People are aware of the problems caused by the hole in the ozone layer, and everyone is talking about global warming and the destruction of the rain forests. They are critical issues and people are right to be concerned about them. The Government are also right to be taking some action —although most of us would agree that it is not enough —to minimise pollution. However, what affects people most is not global issues but the local environment—the point made in my hon. Friend's motion.
People's own areas, their neighbourhoods, their villages and their towns are all important. All hon. Members know that when we knock on doors, whether in or out of election time, and talk about macro-economic issues, people become boss-eyed and say, "Come and look out the back, we have not had a litter collection for a fortnight." The understandable interests of people relate to their backyards and their immediate environment. Those hon. Members who can say to them, "We will get that litter cleared up", rather than talking about major world issues, can be assured of their votes.
The environment is all important, and people are concerned about any changes. All hon. Members receive hundreds of letters when any change is proposed in the immediate environment in which people live. Whether for better or for worse, most people perceive all changes to be for the worse. Bypasses or new housing estates are far more likely to provoke letters than is the hole in the ozone layer. During the past three months, my postbag has contained hundreds of letters about planning and environmental issues and about local life in the villages and towns of Devon, but only half a dozen about the tropical rain forests and the ozone layer. The local environment is immediate and critical to most people.
1136 The environment must change if it is to survive. It cannot be locked into a time warp. People's needs change, and the environment must change with them. It is easy to say that if the environment is to change to meet changing needs, we must ensure that we have correctly anticipated the needs of tomorrow. That is really the trouble. A few months ago I spent a day at the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, trying to get a grasp of how it forecasts demographic change. I came away unconvinced that anyone really understood where the population would go, why, and when. For example, in the 1970s the OPCS forecast the need for many hundreds of thousands of houses to be built in the south. Of course, such a forecast becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those houses have been built in the south because the county structure plans took account of the forecast that more people would be living in the south. Every time the OPCS forecasts that there will be a growth of population in a particular area, and every time the statisticians in the Department of the Environment say, "Yes, there will be that growth", the planners allow new building and the growth follows it.
In 1988, the Government said that 165,000 new units would be needed by the turn of the century in the south-east. They have now decided that demand is declining and that only 40,000 will be needed. I do not think that the OPCS has any more idea than anyone else of how many houses are needed and exactly where. It is an expensive operation. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister could tell us how many hundreds of statisticians are employed by the Department of the Environment to work out population forecasts. The counties all have statisticians working out where populations will live. They get it wrong.
I understand that single flats and small houses are currently being built, on the basis that more old people are living longer and there are more single people and single mothers. That particular boom has passed, yet it is still current policy. In fact, what is now needed are three-bedroomed houses for the babies of the baby boomers. That is the current demand. The system is so slow to respond to current circumstances that builders are still building single flats for the elderly and for single mothers. Not only are the figures wrong, but so is the size of the units.
In 1992, people will be coming to this country from the Community and from eastern Europe, and, a little Liter, Britain will have some of the Hong Kong Chinese. We cannot consider population trends in a time warp; we must consider movements in world populations which will affect the lives and the local environment of many people. We do not have either the numbers or the type of buildings right. There is conflicting evidence from academics and statisticians about the demographic and social trends. Dr. Ermisch's report "Fewer babies, longer lives" is an excellent analysis of the probable trend.
Having determined that there is great confusion about numbers and movements, we must recognise that there will be changes and that we must deal with the problem of where to put people who want new homes. A former Minister at the Department of the Environment suggested that there should be a free market and that people should be allowed to build wherever they wanted. He forecast that there would be 394,000 more houses in the south and said that if he could possibly allow it, the number should be doubled. He suggested that if buildings could be built wherever people wanted, it would reduce inflation and 1137 cause the economy to boom because there would be no housing shortage. That would tackle high mortgage repayments, which are the largest single vehicle for inflation. He said that if everybody could buy a house at half the present price, Britain's economy would boom, and that the reason why it was not booming was the housing shortage.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
One can change the system of house financing to overcome both inflation and shortage by altering mortgage tax relief, without removing all planning controls. The Minister to whom the hon. Gentleman refers can have had no concern for the environment if he suggested that people should be allowed to choose where they build without control. That would impose the biggest blight of all on the environment.
§ Mr. Steen
That is why I do not agree with the Minister who made that suggestion. Such a policy would have a profound effect not only on environment but on this country's inflationary tendencies and interest rates. I do not go along that line, but it is worth mentioning.
Local plans provide the only opportunity for residents and interested parties to draw up a blueprint for future development that will protect the immediate countryside and locality. I am most encouraged by the view expressed by Ministers over the past few years that if effective and up-to-date local plans exist, the Government will honour them and safeguard the right of local people to enforce them. The introduction of local plans and the provision of new housing within them is an important step in the right direction.
Cheap, affordable housing can be built outside the area covered by local plans. Even though the parish, district and county may approve a local plan that regulates development in any particular area, a loophole exists in that low-cost, affordable housing—which we all welcome in rural areas—can be developed outside that plan. Green field sites outside villages and towns will be the subject of planning permission for low-cost, affordable properties of the sort that have become so rare because new council housing has not been built to replace that which has been sold. Villages will be extended, just as they were in the 1950s and 1960s by public housing estates. In my constituency, council housing can be found just outside the villages. In future, villages will be kept sacrosanct, as they should be, by the local plan, with council housing estates located just outside them. Many of those properties will have been sold off or be occupied by a declining number of local people. A new estate will then be built of private housing, in the same way as public housing estates were built in the 1950s and 1960s, for younger people and those who cannot afford to buy property in the villages themselves because second-time buyers and holiday lets have forced up prices. Scarcity, resulting in an inflationary spiral, means that younger people just cannot afford those prices.
Low-cost starter developments should be encouraged, but cheap and affordable housing does not have to be badly designed and constructed from poor quality materials. It is not so much development to which people object, but its design and appearance. Bad design is to be found in estates all over the south and south-west, and that fuels anxiety about the environment. In highlighting that aspect, my hon. Friend the Member for Romford should perhaps also reach a conclusion. The only conclusion that 1138 can be reached is that development is not a bad thing. Villages cannot remain in a time warp or stand still, but where there is to be development, it must be of good quality.
The Government have been wrong to resist testing the quality of new buildings. In the case of a collection of buildings, a panel of designers and architects should be established at each local authority planning level to examine the design of a development and the quality of the materials that will be used, and to offer practical comments, so that the final appearance is much more sympathetically related to the environment.
In addition to all the problems that I have already mentioned, there has been a failure to deal properly with the infrastructure, despite the increasing population in the south of England. One should not provide new homes without ensuring that there are sufficient public funds to finance a complementary infrastructure. The population of South Hams has grown by 20 per cent. over the past 10 years, but there has been no increase in the funds available for police cover, school places, hospital beds, water supplies, or sewage disposal. That influx of people over the past decade has not been accompanied by a growth in public investment. The National Rivers Authority has rightly recommended an embargo on all new development in Dartmouth and Kingsweir. The NRA is beginning to use its teeth, and is saying, "Until you put the sewerage in order, you cannot go on building more housing."
Private companies have been allowed to develop without the support of a corresponding public infrastructure. I welcome the NRA's intervention. The necessary infrastructure does not mean just adequate sewerage provision but recreational facilities, extra police cover, better schools and sufficient doctors. Although planning authorities have tried to grant permission on the basis that the planning gain to the developer will be returned to the community, getting the private developer to cover that aspect will knock up the price of his houses. Property for young people will then be more expensive than it should be, which will in turn add to inflation, as buyers seek higher incomes to pay for their houses.
One or two of my hon. Friends mentioned derelict land. I have been speaking about that subject in the House for the past 12 years, and I apologise for repeating myself. However, it is clearly right that we should find out the amount of vacant public land that exists in our towns and cities and is surplus to requirements. The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) spoke about surplus land in his constituency, and it is true that large areas of underutilised, derelict, vacant land are available which should be used first for building before we start to eat into the green fields outside our towns.
It is paradoxical that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the new Secretary of State for the Environment, who, as a Minister, set up the public land registers in 1981. The registers were set up to identify all land in public ownership in this country which was surplus to requirements. In 1982, I believe that it amounted to about 120,000 acres. To the credit of the Government, about 60,000 acres has already been sold. However, our planning process creates public vacant, dormant, derelict, under-utilised land. So, however much land is sold, more is coming on to the register.
Furthermore, the land register is selective. As a result, much land which should be on the register is excluded because it is the wrong shape or size, or because the public 1139 authority has plans for the land. When a public utility is privatised, its land is taken off the public register because it is private.
Despite all the sales, and everything that has been done to reduce the amount of vacant land, about 90,000 acres of public land has still not been utilised. Academics generally consider that that figure would be 200,000 acres if the limitations and conditions which prevent certain land from being included were lifted.
I suspect that one of the issues that the Minister will wish to deal with in his wind-up speech is whether he will find a way—perhaps in the new planning Bill—to lift the conditions which exclude many acres of public vacant land, so that people will know how many hundreds of thousands of acres of vacant, dormant land are surplus to requirements. The Secretary of State for the Environment must take powers to do something about that.
Since 1978, I have been asking successive Secretaries of State to do something to release public vacant dormant, derelict, or under-utilised land. Every Secretary of State does a little more, but none has been adventurous enough to ensure that that land is used before the green field sites around our towns and cities are spoilt. Will the Minister offer us something a little more practical today than his predecessors have done? They have cried crocodile tears and said that it was dreadful that we had all this waste land and we must do something about it, but no one has done much.
I direct the Minister's attention to a splendid publication entitled "Public Land Utilisation Management Schemes", which I had the privilege of writing some 18 months ago. It illustrated the scale of the problem, and invited the Government to adopt a sensible solution. It is a disgrace that more public waste land has not been developed. It would vastly improve our urban areas if it was. Not only does it mean that rural land outside our cities is being used, when derelict land within them could be used first, but vacant land has a dramatic effect upon surrounding property values. It also affects the neighbourhood, as the tax base on the land is reduced. Local shops do not have the custom that they would have if the land were developed. One would have thought that there would be an incentive to public authorities to use the land, as they would then have a greater rate base, whether it were used for industry or, if it was developed for residential use, from the community charge.
I have mentioned these matters before in the House, and I do not apologise for mentioning them again in such a wide-ranging debate. Their importance cannot be over-emphasised. Unless we get forecasts, planning and design right, we shall damage the character of the local environment and diminish the quality of people's lives.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for his widely termed notion, and I apologise to the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) for bringing the debate back to the area I am most concerned about and familiar with—the capital. The motion states:while welcoming the general improvement in people's living standards and the increasing freedom which they enjoy in their everyday lives".1140 It would be wrong to suggest that there have not been some benefits for some people in eleven and a half years of Conservative Government, but all things are relative. When one considers my borough of Newham, in the east end of London, or indeed, when one considers London as a whole, one realises that everything is relative and that a large number of people have suffered badly as a result of eleven and a half years of Thatcherite policies.
The front page of yesterday's edition of the Daily Mirror carried a picture of the ex-Prime Minister sitting in the back of a car, looking tearful as she left Downing street. A similiar picture appeared in the Daily Mail. I do not think that those pictures should have been published. The way newspapers intrude into private grief in unacceptable and vulgar. I did not like that picture and drew no satisfaction from it. On a human level, I certainly felt compassion for the Prime Minister because I could understand how she felt—but on a political level I felt no compassion for her. Having been ousted from the premiership by her own party, she was weeping a few tears, but at my weekly Friday night advice surgery in Stratford tonight people will be weeping buckets of tears. That is no exaggeration—it happens every week. I take a supply of tissues with me to hand out to constituents who get very tearful when trying to describe their problems with housing, social security, visas, and how to survive from breakfast to dinner—assuming that they are able to get those meals. They describe circumstances which have largely been brought about by central Government policies.
When I see the ex-Prime Minister weeping that little tear on the front page of the Daily Mirror and think of my constituents crying buckets, I have no compassion whatever for her at a political level.
Yesterday we heard the new Prime Minister talking about looking at policies afresh, at his first Prime Minister's Question Time, saying that he was his own man. He said that he did not intend to beat his chest and identify those policies that he was intent on changing, but he made it clear that he intended to change a number of them. Last night, in a speech in Manchester, I believe, he started to talk about a more caring society—an admission that there is something to rectify in our present society, and he is absolutely right to say that there is much to be done and that policies will have to be changed. He will have to answer to the House and to the electorate, and tell them why he supported those policies as a loyal Thatcherite Minister for all those years when he now says that they are to be changed. We need to know that. Enormous damage has been done to my constituency, to my borough and to London by eleven and a half years of the right-wing, uncaring, selfish Thatcherite policies that the new Prime Minister supported so loyally in the past.
I remember Councillor John Major on Lambeth borough council. He was a good chair of housing—certainly a good one for a Tory but he was spending the kind of money that borough councils can only dream about these days. I believe that he presided over a housing investment budget of £100 million. Things have changed dramatically since then.
Now that we have Prime Minister Major, I want to know whether Chancellor Major is completely dead and buried, or whether there will be some renaissance of the progressive figure whom Lambeth witnessed between 1968 and 1971. I should be the first to welcome the change, but 1141 I doubt whether the changes in policy will be so drastic —as one of my hon. Friends said, they may have changed the singer, but the song remains the same.
In those eleven and a half years, my borough has suffered greatly. We are the second most deprived local authority area in England. Unemployment has gone up dramatically. In 1979, we had 6 per cent. unemployment, and by the mid-1980s, it was up to 18 per cent. Thank goodness, it has come down to only 10 per cent., but that is still considerably higher than it was in 1979, and once again it is on the increase. In 1986, the average earnings of Newham male workers were 15 per cent. below the London average, and by 1988, the most recent figure that I have, they were 19 per cent. below. In 1986, women in Newham received average London earnings, but by 1988, these had fallen 7 per cent. below. One can see the same in London as a whole. In 1979, unemployment in Greater London was 3.4 per cent. In September 1990, it was 6.3 per cent. Not once since 1979, all those years of the Tory economic miracle, did unemployment fall below 3.4 per cent., the level inherited by the former Prime Minister in 1979.
As can be imagined, there is much poverty in my borough. In 1989, 35 per cent. of households were dependent on income support. In 1985–86, the DHSS single payment grant for the borough was £2.5 million. That was money for grants for specific vital items of household equipment. There was a change in the regulations in 1988 and the money that was made available to the social fund budget was limited to £1.8 million. We knew that there would be an increase in demand, but the amount of money that could be called on was dramatically reduced.
Newham health authority estimates that it lost £2.5 million between 1982 and 1987. Between 1979 and 1989, the number of hospital beds fell by one third. When one considers the indices which matter to ordinary people, the terms of today's motion fall flat. When I hear about the economic miracle, and all this social advance, I accept that in certain areas and among certain categories of the population, benefits have been derived from eleven and a half years of Thatcherite policies, but it has mostly been by those who can afford the best. The poorest have got poorer in comparison with the rich, as the statistics show clearly.
This gap is shown most markedly in housing and the homeless, in London as a whole and Newham in particular. Some 70 per cent. of all the cases with which I have to deal in my advice surgery—it will be the same tonight—involve housing problems. I suspect that it is the same for virtually every other London Member of Parliament and probably for a large number representing constituencies outside London. People come to my surgery desperately wanting somewhere to live, but there is nothing that one can say. All I can provide is a shoulder to cry on, with my infinite supply of tissues. Unfortunately, I cannot offer them what they really want —the early prospect of somewhere decent to live.
One does not have to have a PhD in housing administration to find the causes of the problem. They are the massive reduction in housing investment programme money, which is down 80 per cent. in real terms since 1979, the attacks on local authorities and the restrictions placed on them in their attempts to deal with housing problems. Make no mistake about it—local authorities still have responsibility for housing. When mortgages go up because of high interest rates and the building societies repossess 1142 homes, people turn to the local authority, which can only put them in bed and breakfast. That is crazy. One would have thought that it would not be beyond the wit of Ministers to devise a scheme whereby local authorities and building societies could get together and work out that it is cheaper for a local authority to pay the building societies to keep people in their homes rather than put them in bed and breakfast accommodation. Furthermore, it costs more to put people in bed and breakfast accommodation than to build new units of accommodation. Those are the economics of the madhouse, particularly in London where the pressure is greatest.
My case is proved by the number of council housing starts in my constituency in the eleven and a half years since the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) became Prime Minister. In 1978–79, Newham started 1,079 new units of accommodation. In 1979–80, it was 431. The figures go down, but I shall not go through all of them. I will take just the last few years. In 1987–88, there were 31 starts; in 1988–89, there were 105; in 1989–90, there were 191, and in 1990–91 the number of starts is estimated to be a big fat zero—Newham will build no new units of accommodation.
On the other hand, applications from homeless people more than doubled from 1,059 in 1981 to 2,347 in 1989–90. The real scandal, and what really annoys me—I have made the point before and I shall continue to make it because the situation is so outrageous—is that the cost of providing temporary housing in Newham has increased from £52,000 in 1983–84 to £5.5 million in 1987–88. That is crazy, given how many units of accommodation could be built for that amount of money if the Government would only sanction such expenditure. The figure for bed and breakfast and temporary housing this year will be £4 million.
In common with other London councils, particularly Labour councils, Newham has been able to decrease that cost by using leased accommodation, which makes sense because there are more vacant properties about both in Newham and in London as a whole because builders cannot sell units or building societies have repossessed them. Four out of five vacant properties in London are in the private sector, not the public sector.
As the sane individual I know you to be, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would think that it would make sense for the local authority to lease from those who cannot sell or those who want to rent so as to accommodate the homeless—but the Government want to stop that, and I want the Minister to explain why. Such a scheme would surely help everyone, but in the Cabinet there is an ideological hangup, which I assume still exists, about letting local authorities be involved in housing. The Government want local authorities to provide basic accommodation and act as the final safety net, but no more than that. The Government's ideological fixation about the role of local authorities stands in the way of dealing with one of the most critical problems of London and of my borough—that of housing.
The problem in London as a whole is similar to that in Newham. In 1979, there were few people begging on the streets of London or sleeping in cardboard boxes. I challenge Conservative Members to rebut that. In 1979, there were 1,200 families in bed and breakfast in London, and 14,000 had been accepted as homeless. In 1990, after eleven and a half years of economic miracle, social progress and Thatcherite policies, there are 3,000 people 1143 sleeping on the streets of London and 8,000 families, comprising some 30,000 people, in bed and breakfast accommodation. There are 32,000 families homeless, and young people denied social security are forced to sleep in shop doorways on the Strand or the subways under Waterloo bridge—what a testament to eleven and a half years of Thatcherite policies. I therefore do not feel sorry for the Prime Minister, weeping a little tear as she moved from No. 10 Downing street to a mock-Georgian mansion in Southwark. When I think of the tragedy that she has inflicted on so many families in my constituency and in London as a whole, I have no compassion for her whatever.
In 1978, London councils built no fewer than 13,000 council houses for rent. In 1989, the figure for London as a whole was just over 1,000. My borough was building more than 1,000 council houses per year when the right hon. Member for Finchley was first elected Prime Minister of this country. When will the Government wake up to this enormous crisis, realise how much misery has been inflicted on so many Londoners and start to do something about it instead of talking about the mythical miracles that we are supposed to have experienced in the past eleven and a half years?
In 1979 it was possible for people to afford to buy their own homes. Now, however, we have astronomical interest rates—higher than in any other European country. Our inflation rate and balance of payments deficit are also higher than in any other European country—some miracle! In 1979, young people could afford to buy their own homes, but the average price of a home in London in 1990 is £85,000, so it is impossible for large numbers of people—indeed, for all those to whom I have referred, the genuinely homeless—to afford to buy their own homes.
Local authorities provide the basic services that people need in their day-to-day lives. When I walk about the streets of Forest Gate, people regularly ask me what I am going to do about litter on the streets, the broken paving stones, the abandoned or illegally parked cars, and about housing—I have never yet been asked what I am going to do about the Gulf. That is not to suggest that the people of Newham are not interested in what is happening in the Gulf—when we have solved their day-to-day problems, we can get down to talking about the situation in the Gulf, but ordinary people will not spend a great deal of time thinking about world events if their streets are not clean, they have nowhere to live and there are no buses or trains to get them to work in the morning. Local authorities deal with many, if not all, people's basic requirements. That is why the local authority role in London, as elsewhere, is so crucial to the lives of our people. Local democracy underpins parliamentary democracy. In those circumstances, one would have thought that there would be a genuine partnership between central Government and local government in dealing with these problems.
I am not a natural consensual Member of Parliament. As a socialist, I bitterly oppose capitalism. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) paid me a tribute when he said that I and my hon. Friends the Members for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) fight hard for the economic advancement of our borough. We regularly invite Ministers to Newham. I have no hang-ups about talking to 1144 Tory Ministers—if I could win benefits for my area, I would sit down and sup with the devil, and having invited certain Ministers to Newham, I feel that I have done just that. I do not understand why I cannot get this point over to the Government—if boroughs do not say, "We don't like you because you're a Tory Government and we're Labour local authorities", why are the Government not prepared to walk half-way to meet us? Why has the old partnership between central Government and local authorities gone? Local authorities used to be allowed to get on with the job they were elected to do—providing basic services. Why do the Government constantly confront, attack and denigrate local authorities? Why do they slander local councillors and use pejorative language, referring to "spendrift Labour councils," including mine, when they know in their heart of hearts that Labour local authorities are struggling as hard as they possibly can to deal with enormous social and economic problems?
I accept that some authorities are not so efficient as they ought to be, and that some of them spend money which could be better spent on other projects, but that is no reason for the Government's wholesale assault on local authorities since 1979. I hope that Councillor John Major will re-emerge at some stage and remember his experiences as a local authority member, and that that will make him change many of the policies pursued by his predecessor, who had no contact with local authorities—apart from the fact that her father was an alderman—and who had no love, affection or concern for local authorities.
The amount of money being taken away from London local authorities amounts to billions of pounds, so it is hardly surprising that they have run into problems over rates increases. Money has been taken away from them regularly by central Government, but unless local authorities are provided with the resources to deal with their problems there will be no respite for the people of my area, or for the people of London as a whole.
The hon. Members for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and for Eltham referred to the way in which London's transport could be improved, and it certainly needs to be improved. We have one of the most overcrowded, overpriced and inefficient transport systems in the whole of Europe. It may even be the worst transport system in the EEC. If London's transport is to be improved, additional resources must be made available. There must also be a strategic plan for transport. It is all very well to say that London boroughs should consider providing cycle lanes, but it is pretty silly to have a cycle lane or a bus lane which goes only as far as the borough boundary and then disappears. There must be a strategic plan, and London needs a strategic authority to deal with planning, transport and other services which can be provided only on a regional basis. London is not a large Birmingham or Manchester, nor is it a small town—it is a region, and if a region is to be properly planned, it needs a strategic regional authority.
Another legacy of eleven and a half years of Thatcherism in London is an empty county hall—another monument to the right hon. Member for Finchley. The Government wanted to turn it into a luxury hotel but—surprise, surprise—the deal fell through. And why was that? It was because high interest rates led to great pressures on the property market and suddenly, no one wanted to be involved in mega-million deals. So the deal fell through, and I am glad that it did. I hope that it hurt those in the consortium a great deal financially, and I hope 1145 that they have learnt their lesson. The Government are now thrashing around trying to find another use for the building. I suggest that if there are to be any policy changes, one of them should be directed towards county hall and the need to restore a strategic authority for London.
The Minister should make it clear that the Government will do nothing with that empty county hall until we have had an election and the people of London, and of the country, have had an opportunity to say whether they want to proceed with Toryism—Thatcherism with a new face and a big pair of glasses—or whether they want socialism.
When the Labour Government are elected, we shall reintroduce a new strategic authority for London. It will be called the London council, and it will be responsible for transport, for planning, for the emergency services and for sewage and waste disposal, because we can achieve the efficiencies and economies of scale by planning those services regionally. That is the sensible way to plan for our capital city—the only capital city which does not have city-wide local government. It is done everywhere else, and it ought to be done here. In their hearts, Conservative Members know that we need a strategic authority for London. If, under the new premiership, they have not the courage to throw in the face of the right hon. Member for Finchley the absurdity of her views and her attacks on the GLC, the next Labour Government most certainly will. That is what Londoners want—and when they have a Labour Government, that is exactly what they will get.
§ Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on his good fortune in the ballot and compliment him on his choice of subject.
During the debate, and particularly during the flights of fantasy of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), I pondered our dependence on the word "environment". As Conservative Members must say now, I have modest origins, but it was not an unlettered household. I never heard the word "environment.' used during my childhood. It was about 1965, when I was at university, before I heard it used. I wondered how we dealt with the concept that it embraces without the benefit of the word in currency. I suspect that we used the word "community" or "society", which had an elitist ring about it, and that we felt that there was some local connection which "environment", in its broader sense, now embraces.
I became conscious of the importance of "community" —the local connection—shortly after becoming an hon. Member and following the welcome abolition of the GLC and the devolving of its powers and responsibilities to the boroughs. Some boroughs dealt with them well, and some less than satisfactorily.
One task that the GLC did well was leisure and recreation, particularly the management of the parks under its control. Dulwich park was one of the GLC's particular prides. When it was handed over to Southwark, one of the first decisions that Southwark took was to close the park on Christmas day. I then became aware of the strength of public feeling on such issues. I cannot recall an event or decision that increased my postbag to the extent that that small decision did. Many local residents, and indeed those from further afield, placed reliance on the 1146 opportunity to walk in the park on Christmas day, as my family and I had many times. It gave the opportunity for kids to try out their new tricycles, hoops or toys and for parents to get them out of the house on Christmas day.
That decision was made by Southwark council, and I am glad to say that it will not make it again. Much of my Christmas day that year was spent at the locked gates of Dulwich park explaining why it was happening to those who were unaware of the change. For that reason, I became conscious that local recreational needs must be represented by the local authority which controls them.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I have only just arrived. London Transport delayed me—but not for three hours. He is making the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made—that poor, hard-pressed inner city areas need a regional strategy to provide recreational facilities. On that basis, I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would support the reintroduction of a strategic authority to provide resources for poorer areas.
§ Mr. Bowden
The hon. Gentleman is rather jumping the gun. I am coming round to the opposite point of view, but he has given me the opportunity to make it more tersely. Local authorities can be efficient or inefficient. Battersea park was a GLC park, but it is much better run by Wandsworth council than it ever was by the GLC.
§ Mr. Bowden
You go and look at it, my old friend. I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A comparison between the way in which Battersea park is run and the way in which Dulwich park is managed by Southwark clearly shows where responsibility is well recognised and delivered and where it is ill-recognised and badly delivered.
It is not only local authorities, the boroughs, that are failing to recognise and meet the needs of the local community and protect the local environment, but the other agencies which may be less accountable than many of the London boroughs. If I were not participating in this debate, I would be at Sydenham hill woods, where woodland is being managed by the London Wildlife Trust with a view to providing recreational facilities for those who wish to enjoy the wilderness aspect of woodland that has been there since the ice age. It is partly the responsibility of Southwark, and partly of the estates governors of Alleyn's College of God's Gift, who are more readily recognised as the estates governors of Dulwich college. Like Southwark, they have an interest in land that adjoins that ancient woodland. An enduring campaign in which I have been involved has tried to resist plans to develop land bordering on that ancient woodland. Southwark sought to develop council housing there, which perhaps was a commendable ideal. I could not but feel that, with such a narrow majority as I have, there might have been a political motive in developing a council estate there, in the often mistaken belief that council tenants automatically vote Labour.
Currently before the planning authorities is a scheme proposed by the estate governors of Dulwich college to develop the site adjoining the ancient woodland. The scheme, quite rightly, has met tremendous opposition from the local community, the local councillors and me. My opposition is especially appropriate as I have the 1147 opportunity to draw to the House's attention that affront to the local environment. If one develops that adjoining land the topography will be changed. The water courses and rainfall tables will be altered so that the balance of nature is disturbed. That issue is part of the local environment, an environment about which we must be vigilant to ensure that it conserved.
The planned Channel tunnel rail link also has wider implications for the local environment. If we are part of Europe and have a fixed link with it via the tunnel, it is logical and sensible to develop a rail link from that tunnel to serve all of the United Kingdom. It is important that we do not merely have a prestige fast route to London to a prestige London terminal at King's Cross. It is a desirable ideal to have a fast, fixed link to serve the United Kingdom, able to convey freight and passengers. That link would also have environmental benefits as freight which is currently carried by lorries on the road and crosses the Channel by ferry causes damage. It is also sensible for those who get on a train at Edinburgh or Glasgow to be able to travel straight to Paris or Brussels without changing at King's Cross. Those who want to travel to the continent from the west country, Cardiff or Swansea should be able to travel direct without having to change at Paddington for King's Cross—crossing London by whatever means they can find.
We have had some limited success in opposing the half-baked, cack-handed plans of British Rail for its original link to terminate at King's Cross. However, reconsideration of those plans has brought attendant damage to the area that was to be originally affected—Warwick gardens in my constituency. When the plans were first proposed they caused great turmoil and anger. Those original plans have now been shelved and will be reconsidered, but, as a result, a blight of searing depth has settled on the community. It is difficult to see how those dispirited feelings can be revived without providing a positive alternative to the original plans.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
To what extent is that blight the result of the old compensation law which means that people whose houses are compulsorily purchased receive only the market value for them—a pretty poor market value? The proposed Planning and Compensation Bill will, I hope, offer a 25 per cent. increase over and above the market value of houses to be so purchased. Does my hon. Friend agree that that should deal with the problem to some extent?
§ Mr. Bowden
The key phrase in my hon. Friend's intervention is "to some extent". I know that the Planning and Compensation Bill had its Second Reading in another place earlier this week. I applaud its provisions because I have always believed that we have been foolishly small-minded about the compensation rules that apply.
If one's land or home is compulsorily acquired one is not only involved in the anguish and agony of having to move, but in a tussle with professionals arguing about what the market value of one's property might be. That has engendered resentment and delay. It would be much better if, as suggested, there was a 25 per cent. premium on the market value. People would then feel that they were receiving a windfall and would greet such a purchase with enthusiasm. I also suspect that the whole process would be 1148 cheaper in the long run because the expensive lawyers, the planning silks, and valuers would no longer argue the case while charging great fees. The only people who make a profit out of such activities are those professionals, but their services would no longer be required to such an extent. The process would be speedier, there would be more satisfied customers and the interests of the public at large would be better served.
However, although new legislation will help some of my constituents in the Warwick gardens area, it will have no effect on the planning blight. The areas in which there is no requirement for British Rail to acquire the homes or the land are most affected by the blight. The homes, quality of life and way of life of those who live there have been damaged by the proximity of the operations.
Under its statutory requirement, British Rail has purchased properties that people wish to sell. Those properties fall within a corridor in which the route and the operations work may go. However, the people who live around that area have no right to have their properties acquired. Whether it acquires adjoining properties is at the discretion of British Rail and it can acquire properties in cases of hardship, if it wishes.
I am dealing with about 12 cases of hardship at present. I am negotiating with British Rail and I hope that we shall come to a satisfactory solution. These cases involve people who have agreed to sell because they are moving away, perhaps because they have a new job. I have two cases in which couples have decided to part on amicable terms and a divorce is pending or has taken place. The couples have decided to sell one property and each partner will buy another property elsewhere, but the sales have been thwarted by the blight on the area. There is a tragi-comic situation of a divorced couple who are obliged to live together in the same house. That could be the substance of a Whitehall farce, but for those involved, it is a tragedy. Such issues arise as a result of an authority—in this case British Rail—not looking at matters with a great interest in the community and in the human environment, but applying the dead letter of the law to a problem that should be dealt with in a human, sympathetic way.
It is especially sad that Warwick gardens has been affected by planning blight. It was first developed about 150 to 180 years ago and it contains a number of fine Georgian and Regency properties. The area went into decline and then became an area of London in which young people with little money, but with a lot of energy, could make their first family homes. They worked with loving care on their own homes and co-operated with their neighbours. Over the past 15 years, Warwick gardens has grown as a community of great maturity. There are young and old residents, there are original residents and those who have moved in from outside. Those involved in the early stages of the professions gave their talents, time and energy to creating and promoting a local community.
At a stroke, with the threat of the Channel tunnel rail link sub-surface junction at Warwick gardens, the neighbourhood has declined. Properties purchased by British Rail have been left vacant and are now occupied by squatters. Properties that had been lovingly maintained are now becoming derelict. If we are not careful, the area may sink back into its old dereliction within 15 years.
Local authorities, statutory authorities such as British Rail and bodies such as the estates governors of Dulwich 1149 college must play their part and bear their responsibilities in ensuring that their work is for the benefit of the local community.
It is particularly apposite that, in one of his first speeches, our new Prime Minister referred toa country that is at ease with itself".Perhaps I may borrow that phrase and adapt it slightly. We want communities that are at ease with themselves. In introducing the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Romford has set the tone and made a keynote speech for the years ahead, in which, under our new Prime Minister, we shall try to ensure that our local environment is such that communities can live at ease with themselves.
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West)
I thank the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for choosing this subject for debate. I was unlucky enough to come second in the ballot for private Members' motions, which is the worst position in which to be because one is obliged to sit here all morning listening to hon. Members talking about the first motion on the Order Paper in the knowledge that one's own motion will never be reached. Thanks to the fact that the hon. Member for Romford has kept the wording of the motion so wide, however, I shall perhaps be forgiven for concentrating on the local environment of the people of rural Wales.
The hon. Member for Romford contrasted the free market system engendered by the Tory Government with what he described as the socialist country of Russia and the starvation that it faces. I dispute his description. The USSR may describe itself as socialist but it is in fact an example of state capitalism. Self-praise is no recommendation, as has been illustrated by the Government's description of themselves as caring. I would also remind the hon. Gentleman that two thirds of the world's population are starving, predominantly under the capitalist system.
The motion is important none the less and, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged at the outset, it is not essentially a party-political motion. But hon. Members should recognise that we have been discussing state intervention or intervention by society as a whole in the actions of some of its members, whether it be in planning, in the disposal of waste and litter or in the removal of graffiti, and that that approach conflicts markedly with the Government's stance.
The hon. Gentleman concentrated on urban areas. I venture to suggest that there are much greater threats to the quality of life than litter and graffiti. They include acid rain, global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, the generation of huge amounts of waste that are simply dumped in the sea or in holes in the ground, heavy metals and nuclear waste. All those factors affect people's immediate local environment—in the long term, in a potentially lethal way. In some places, they have already proved lethal. We have witnessed the dumping of PCBs in the Love canal in the United States, on top of which houses were then built, for heaven's sake. Admittedly, that is an extreme example, but such things will happen more often unless we take action against those who pollute our environment. Other well-known examples are the accident at Bhopal and the toxic algal blooms in the North sea.
As we are unlikely to reach my motion——
§ Dr. Thomas
May I, too, record my regret that we have not reached the hon. Gentleman's excellent motion, which I would have supportedly strongly. I am sure that, while staying within the rules of order, the hon. Gentleman will be able to say something about the agricultural environment in Wales.
§ Mr. Jones
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I certainly hope to make one or two points about that without straying too far from the motion.
I call attention to the problems of rural Wales and to its quality of life, which were hardly touched on by the hon. Member for Romford. That is not surprising, because he represents an urban area and he is probably unaware of the problems of the rural environment. However, I believe that they are equally important, not only for the people who live in rural areas in England and Wales, but for people who live in cities and wish to enjoy that rural environment.
There will be a catastrophic impact on the local environment of Welsh people if farming in Wales is allowed to decline. Farming throughout Britain is under pressure from two directions. First, intensification and modernisation threaten the industry's sustainability. They also harm the natural environment, the social structure in rural areas and public health. Secondly, current methods of farm support—and even this free market Government seem to turn a blind eye to state intervention in agriculture —are discredited by farmers, consumers and taxpayers.
Farmers can continue to maintain the countryside in Wales, an environment which most people want to continue as it is, only if there is support for farmers, not for prices. Price support does not help the consumers of produce or of the environment in rural areas.
Farmers cannot continue to protect the visual and amenity value of the rural environment if prices continue to decline. At last month's draft ewe sale at Machynlleth prices were abysmally low. The average ewe was fetching £15, whereas it fetched £27 last year and £35 the year before. If prices decline and price support is also forced down by the need to reach agreement in the GATT Uruguay round, farming has little future in the hills of Wales.
The price decline of produce, coupled with higher prices for machinery and inputs, huge interest rate rises, the poll tax, reduced services in rural areas—and bus services have been decimated in rural areas since deregulation—have all had an effect. Water connection prices have quintupled since the privatisation of water and telephone connection charges have increased. Post offices are closing and small shops are becoming non-viable. The rural environment in Wales and elsewhere is under serious threat.
If farmers are driven off the land, which, as I have said, is already happening, whole parishes will become wastelands. Faced with that depressing scenario, the Government must consider whether the time is right for an alternative policy for agriculture.
I realise that that is extremely difficult for a monetarist free-market Government, forced into state intervention by the common agricultural policy of the European 1151 Community and by the votes of farmers in rural areas—at least, by the votes that they used to receive from farmers in rural areas—but the Government cannot ignore the problem because it will not go away no matter how much the Government would like it to do so.
People want to enjoy the rural environment. They do not want it to revert to a derelict industrial site. However, what can the Government do? The Labour party believes that there is only one alternative which may be very distasteful to free marketeers. There should be output control, or supply management, which can take various forms, some of which will be more appropriate to certain commodities than to others. Those forms include extensification—or taking a proportion of output out of production—and set aside, which has already been tried in a small way, which involves taking a proportion of land out of production. The latter could have some environmental disadvantages because it alters the visual environment of the countryside detrimentally. The forms of control also include quotas, which are especially effective for commodities when there are only a few purchasers, and nitrogen quotas, which would restrict nitrogen applications. That would reduce yields and pollution, both of which would be beneficial.
Other policies could be pursued to great effect. For example, green premia would encourage low input systems and the positive management of countryside features by farmers. I suppose, in effect, that that is an extension of the environmentally sensitive areas. It would be much more used and much more effective.
Farming is an essential element in the maintenance and creation of environmental value. Integrated policies with agricultural and environmental objectives can encourage farming practices that lead to diverse and high-quality landscapes and maintain ecological systems. Such practices would pay more heed to traditional husbandry methods and less to production intensity. At present, farmers' only alternative to the economic mess that they are in is to increase production or to go out of business, both of which would have a devastating effect on the local environment. A less production-oriented view of agriculture could also recognise the role of small and part-time farmers in rural areas and rural affairs.
The current focus on the agricultural aspects of farming means a policy bias towards the larger farm, despite the clear part that smaller units can play in the maintenance of environmental quality, especially in Wales.
There is a danger that if the role of farming is not shifted in that way towards environmental and agricultural requirements, the decline in the environmental quality of rural areas will accelerate. The need for enhanced agricultural production is declining, and, if agricultural policy remains the guiding principle behind support for rural areas, the justification for public support of rural areas will also decline.
The central importance of the European dimension in rural policy making is inescapable. Farming in each member state will be driven in directions that are determined at EC level, and it is primarily to that level that environmental interests must address themselves. The incorporation of environmental considerations involves a more regional approach to agricultural policy than has 1152 hitherto been the case. That should bring economic and political advantages to communities that are by-passed by the mainstream of development.
It is necessary to ensure that EC legislation is framed in ways that are sufficiently sensitive to be amenable to local implementation, and to monitor that implementation in its adherence to the spirit of EC intentions. I hope that national or regional specialisation of agricultural policy will become easier when the single market is a reality and the credibility of the EC rests less on the continuing operation of the common agricultural policy as the only truly common policy.
Individual countries attempting to set high environmental standards may face the suspicion that they are attempting to restrict free trade and may even encounter threats of legal action. As the single market concept approaches reality, it is vital that the European Commission should continue to take the lead in environmental matters if the concept of European integration is not to be brought into disrepute and clashes with national policies are to be prevented. Common environmental policies must be seen not as an impediment to European integration but as an essential part of it.
An environmental approach stresses the holistic nature of environmental benefits, a characteristic that reflects the wide variety of elements that form the environment and the fact that much environmental activity is essentially co-operative, requiring the co-ordination of individual farmers' decisions. It implies a programme for the whole countryside rather than for discrete areas in particular need of protection. Although there is a clear case for specific local measures to protect limited sites or features of particular environmental sensitivity, such a piecemeal approach on its own is not enough to produce the changed role of farming which is increasingly necessary on environmental and financial grounds. The boundaries between protected and non-protected areas can only be arbitrary, and are increasingly irrelevant in the face of pollution and our growing appreciation of ecological interdependence. The best results will arise from the promotion of major changes in farming systems and in farming philosophies.
A shift from product price support to environmental management payments is capable of simultaneously reducing agricultural output, maintaining farm incomes and farm populations, reducing the total cost of support to society, and providing unequivocal environmental benefits such as reduced pollution, improved wildlife habitats and landscapes, and improved food quality. That is Labour party policy, and it is the only way forward for the preservation and future of farming in Wales and elsewhere for consumers, taxpayers and all those who wish to enjoy the rural environment.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)
I hope that the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) will forgive me if I do not mention all the points he made. Although they are important for his constituents and more widely, they fall outside the scope of my ministerial responsibilities. However, I shall ensure that the relevant Government members see his remarks and, where appropriate, respond.
1153 I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert), who selected well in choosing this subject for debate. He introduced it with a fund of background knowledge about the environment, drawn from acute observations of the issues and his sustained interest in the subject over many years. His speech and those of other Members have touched on all the environmental issues with which our constituents are concerned. That does not deny the importance of the global issues, which are of increasing concern to the Government.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) rightly said that when people are initially asked about environmental issues that worry them, they tend to list neighbourhood concerns and local issues before turning to the global problems of ozone depletion and global warming which, although important, attract their immediate attention less often.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) for his skill and leadership of the Department of the Environment during the past year, particularly in the context of global issues. It was very much this skill and leadership that enabled this country to participate constructively in a number of international environment conferences and to bring some of them, including that on ozone depletion, to a successful conclusion.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) suggested that the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) to the Department of the Environment was a sign of a lessening in the Government's commitment to environmental protection. I assure him that that is not so. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will carry forward, undiminished, our policies to protect and enhance the built and natural environment. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) spoke about planning issues and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West mentioned a number of housing matters. If I cannot answer them all in this debate, I shall ensure that others read the remarks of those hon. Members.
I think that everyone who has examined the issues would agree that although the Government have a leadership role, the duty of the concerned and responsible individual is also important. A range of issues—from litter to energy efficiency, dog control, and recycling—are best tackled by a partnership between central Government, local government, individuals, voluntary groups and businesses. To achieve that, we need a knowledgeable and well-informed public. Throughout our White Paper and the Environmental Protection Act 1990, we stress the importance of public access to information. The active citizen needs relevant information, a certain amount of which is already available from voluntary groups such as WasteWatch, which produce a good national directory of recycling facilities.
The new Environmental Protection Act marks a milestone in that it sets in place the systematic provision of information. It establishes a framework for public information on diverse subjects such as litter control areas, areas of land that may be contaminated, processes that are subject to integrated pollution control and, perhaps most notably, a range of public registers that will contain raw monitoring data as well as licensing information, to which the public will have access free of charge. Our best defence 1154 against exaggerated or baseless scares is a well-informed public, able to make their own judgments about the real risks that we face.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford made much of the problems of litter, and that theme was picked up by other hon. Members. I agree that a littered high street or locality is not just an eyesore, but a health hazard. A littered area also invites disrespect. To put it more positively, if we can improve our neighbourhoods and keep them clean and litter free, that will invite respect. It is a commonly observed phenomenon that people are more likely to throw litter on to an area that is already littered.
The Environmental Protection Act puts in place many new measures and policies to clean up the country. It is a double approach. We must prevent people from dropping litter, but, recognising that some people will always do so, we have improved the means and the duty to collect it. From 1 April next year, local authorities can employ litter wardens, based on the so-called Westminster model. No doubt they will concentrate mainly on getting people to sweep up their litter, and on asking them not to drop it. However, they will also have the power to hand out fixed penalty notices in appropriate cases. I remind the House that the maximum fine for dropping litter has been increased from £400 to £1,000.
Local authorities will be under a duty to keep their public areas clean. They will need to have regard to a code of practice that is currently before the House. The code has been developed with the aid of an advisory group. containing representatives from local authorities and industry. We have also had advice from the Tidy Britain Group. The main change that the code heralds is a switch from input-related to performance-related cleaning standards. Of course, we understand that, in some cases, that will require more expenditure by local authorities. We therefore commissioned a study by Coopers Lybrand Deloitte to estimate, in a sample of 20 authorities, how much extra funding would be required to comply with the new code. As a result of its findings, an additional £50 million has been taken into account in the revenue support grant settlement for 1991–92.
In addition, the public will be given new enforcement opportunities. They can apply to a magistrates' court for a litter abatement order to require their local authorities to keep their areas litter and refuse-free. We are mobilising public enthusiasm in the right direction.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
If a member of the public has obtained a litter abatement order, will it be mandatory for local councils to comply with it, or will they have discretion? I hope that it will be compulsory for local authorities to take action, as some of them are laggardly in dealing with litter.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I reassure my hon. Friend that local authorities will have to comply with a court order. If they do not, they will be in breach of it. I hope that most local authorities will comply in advance, when it is drawn to their attention that they are apparently in breach of their duties, and will send someone round to do the necessary work. If a local authority fails to do that, the court will be able to require that it honours its obligation, and will have regard to the code of practice in assessing the standard of street and area cleanliness required.
1155 My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) is unable to be in his place at this stage in the debate, but courteously gave me advance notice of his absence. He introduced into the debate the subject of roads and traffic, which was taken up also by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made the good point that occasionally more roads and bypasses are needed and that they can improve the local environment and save lives, by taking traffic away from congested urban areas. In my view a policy of outright opposition to all roads would be irresponsible.
My hon. Friend also made the point that the switch from leaded to unleaded petrol is far from complete, but that change is a good example of a market mechanism delivering an environmental result. Successive Budgets produced a duty differential between leaded and unleaded petrol that has made it financially and environmentally worthwhile for motorists to switch to unleaded fuel. My hon. Friend was right to say that many cars being driven today could use unleaded fuel, and I hope that their owners are not being put off by misleading claims that their vehicles would suffer a significant reduction in performance if they changed.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey occasionally exhibits a lack of liberalism. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham that some of the administrative traffic controls that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey suggested would be complex and difficult to enforce. However, hon. Members in all parts of the House acknowledge that we must civilise the car. We should also make provision for a higher volume of traffic, because all the projections that I have seen for this country and others point to increased vehicle usage. That does not mean that we will be driving the same sorts of vehicles in the same way.
No doubt great advances will be made in types of fuel, and the electric car could have a part to play—although, on the face of it, electric vehicles would simply move the pollution from the roads to the power stations, and there is a problem with dragging round heavy batteries that work against fuel efficiency. Doubtless, science and technology will rise to the occasion and we will see in the future different cars, driven in different ways, at different speeds, powered by different fuels, and manufactured from different materials. I am glad that manufacturers are giving greater thought and attention to recycling cars at the end of their lives. Instead of old cars being scrapped, more attention should be paid to how they can be taken to pieces and their useful plastic and metal materials reused.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey also mentioned parish councils. That is well outside my responsibilities. However, he will have noticed that two of the Ministers of State in the Department represent London seats and may be interested in the arguments, if not in the conclusions, about the need for parish councils in the London area.
The right hon. Member for Swanage, West made some interesting remarks.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
I apologise. The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) seemed to be 1156 under the misapprehension that Singapore is a socialist society. In fact, it is a testament to the success of free enterprise. To see how a socialist society deals with the environment, he should look at eastern Europe, from which he would draw very different conclusions. Forty years of state socialism behind the iron curtain have left those countries in a state of environmental catastrophe. It will require at least the next 40 years to clean them up, and to undo the ravages of too great a reliance upon central command and control planning.
The right hon. Member for Swansea, West alleged that the presumption in favour of development was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). That is not the case as that principle has underlined the modern planning system since 1949, when it was put forward in a circular issued by the Labour Government.
The principle simply means that a local authority must demonstrate good reason for refusing development. I cannot comment upon individual planning cases, especially as the ones concerned are in the Principality. However, those responsible will doubtless read the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
I cannot let a debate like this end without mentioning dogs—not because I think that that subject has not been adequately debated in the past, but because the lack of control of dogs has a most unfortunate impact on the local environment. I am glad that we finally have in place a system which promises to deal directly with the problem of stray dogs, and to enforce the requirement that a dog in a public place must wear a collar and identification tag. The duty of enforcement will be discharged by district councils, which are in a much better position to do so than the county councils or the police.
The Home Office has also made available a greater range of strengthened byelaws to deal with stray dogs. Officials in my Department are holding a series of meetings with people interested in dogs, and the problems that they cause, to work out details of what could be called the dogs package for introduction by April 1992. Once that is in place, it will be a big step forward, will introduce a greater sense of responsibility for dog owners, and will help to deal with the undoubted environmental problems that result from irresponsible dog ownership.
My hon. Friend's motion also mentions recycling. I pay tribute to the wide range of local authorities, and voluntary and industrial groups, which are implementing our policy to improve our recycling performance. We have a target of recycling half of the household waste that it is possible to recycle by the end of the century. That requires partnership between all concerned.
Increasingly, facilities are being provided for the recycling of materials such as glass, aluminium, steel, paper and textiles. I am glad that supermarkets are beginning to provide facilities for recycling plastic shopping bags. We must never forget the need not simply to collect recyclable materials, but to ensure that there is a demand for them. In other words, we must balance the supply and demand for those materials. Considerable damage was done to the cause of recycling by the temporary glut of low-grade waste paper caused by the tremendous enthusiasm to collect newspapers without the corresponding adequate means of using them to provide new paper. I am glad that it looks as though at least one 1157 new large newsprint mill will come on stream soon, making use of this paper and bringing about the balance that is required.
Everyone has a part to play in stimulating demand for recycled goods. My Department uses 100 per cent. recycled paper in all its correspondence. I do not believe that the House of Commons does that yet, so I hope that hon. Members will follow the lead of my Department in using recycled materials whenever possible.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Will the Minister clarify a point? Last year, I asked one of his colleagues about this and was given to understand that the Department uses offcuts rather than properly recycled paper. Is that still the case, and if so, will the Department soon have properly recycled paper?.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
The use of offcuts is legitimate, because it is paper that would otherwise have been wasted. However, the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an issue —the problem of defining exactly what recycled paper is. Another problem is that a different percentage of recycled fibres is used in making paper. That is one reason why it is unwise to use fiscal measures to promote the use of recycled paper. In deciding, for example, to relieve recycled paper of VAT, one would have to decide what constitutes recycled paper and in so doing make a number of difficult and arbitrary decisions. The best way forward is to promote the use of recycled paper wherever we can. I agree that post-consumer recycled paper is preferable, but the use of offcuts is also valid.
We need to mobilise public enthusiasm more generally in pursuit of environmental aims, not just by increasing public access to information but by improved labelling. Every day, customers and consumers making purchasers in shops make millions of environmental decisions. We want those decisions to be better informed, so we are working out a scheme for labelling products with environmental information. We should like to take this forward with our partner countries in Europe, in the interests of free trade. If that does not prove possible, or if matters become too delayed, we shall consider a national scheme. Those environmental labels will be awarded on the basis of a number of criteria, including the use of recycled materials in the product, the potential for recycling the materials, and the packaging of the product.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford spoke with authority about air pollution, which he emphasised was, in his experience, of central importance if we are to improve the quality of our urban environment. He will recognise that the types of pollution with which we have to deal are different from that which afflicted us when he first entered Parliament. That was in the last days of the smog problem, which was effectively resolved by earlier legislation, That problem has now been replaced by greater concern about different kinds of gases—sulphur compounds, oxides of nitrogen and low-level ozone. I assure him that these concerns were very much to the fore when we drew up the White Paper on the environment and during the passage of the Environmental Protection Act.
During the discussions on the Bill, all sides agreed that a decisive step forward must be taken by introducing 1158 tighter regulation over emissions, not just to the air but to land and water. That takes the form of our system of integrated pollution control which will extend and clarify the controls that are now exercised by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. In future, we shall require the use of best available techniques not entailing excessive cost to maximise our control over pollution and to render emissions to the air and other media harmless and inoffensive.
We are determined to require new plant and equipment in Britain to use the very best control techniques available anywhere in the world. Under the system of integrated pollution control, authorisations will be required before certain industrial processes can begin. Again, the public will be able to take action in the courts for contravention of any condition. For the first time the public will be given full details of the proposed pollution controls and will be invited to comment on them. Furthermore, they will have access to local authority offices in which will be held the details of the control conditions imposed on those industries and the monitoring data, showing how well they are complying with them. Similar controls will be enforced by local authorities over the so-called part B processes —the less potentially polluting processes and industries.
My hon. Friend wisely coupled his remarks about air pollution with the cost implications. We must never forget that higher environmental standards do not come cheap. We are, therefore, putting in place by means of the Environmental Protection Act a cost recovery system, which is the embodiment of the "polluter pays" principle. It will enable Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and local authorities to recover the cost of administration, enforcement and regulation direct from the industries. That will be a new source of revenue for the regulators, which will ensure that the costs are not simply thrown on to the general taxpayer and chargepayer.
In the water industry, too, the principle is being carried forward of the separation of the regulator from the operator. The cost of the regulator will increasingly fall on the regulated—again, the "polluter pays" principle. The public are rightly requiring ever-higher standards of water purity and treatment. It is only right, therefore, that they should see those higher standards coming through in the form of higher costs, which ultimately must be borne by us all. A virtue of the Water Act 1989 is that it brings transparency to the system of enforcement and cost.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford said that drinking water quality is generally high and gave his own water company as an example. I confirm and endorse his remarks. The new regime established by the Water Act will ensure, for the first time, an effective system of regulating drinking water quality for which there are appropriate back-up powers. It sets out precise standards for drinking water that must be attained and specifies in detail the monitoring that must be carried out. Again, the results are publicly available. The new drinking water inspectorate that was set up in my Department at the start of this year ensures that water companies comply with the new statutory duties. Local authorities, too, have a significant part to play, and the Water Act places a duty on them to keep themselves informed about the quality and sufficiency of water supplies in their areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned the need for unpolluted beaches and inshore waters. He has an inland constituency, whereas my constituency has several miles of beach. I, too, am anxious to improve the 1159 quality of our inshore waters. The controls on litter have an important role, and they will apply in those areas. We must recognise that much litter comes not from people dropping it on beaches but by its being washed up from other sources; some of it originates from ships. It is not only unsightly but is a health hazard to marine life such as seals and sea birds.
There is an international agreement to prohibit the dumping of all plastics and most forms of garbage close to the coast. The Government have introduced regulations that make it an offence for any yacht or commercial vessel to dispose of such waste in the sea.
That is reinforced by a public information and publicity campaign undertaken by the Department of Transport.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
It is highly desirable that dumping inshore and on the high seas should be made illegal. It is one thing to pass a measure saying that it is illegal but another to enforce it. Will the Minister say—I accept that it is not his direct departmental responsibility—what enhanced enforcement powers are being taken to ensure that irresponsible people do not continue to pollute our coastal waters?.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point: regulation is one thing, but enforcement is important. It is difficult to know what is happening on board a ship many miles off the coast. I invite members of the public on shore or on vessels to report breaches of the regulations. The regional offices of the Department of Transport rely on information from the public and from crew members to help to enforce the regulations.
I reassure the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that port authorities are paying attention to the regulations. Recently, I visited Bristol port authority, where I saw facilities and provision for receiving waste from ships when they dock. Ships and boats of all sizes have no excuse for tipping their rubbish overboard rather than taking it into harbour and disposing of it responsibly.
§ Mr. Neubert
My hon. Friend has responded to a series of points made in the debate, but he omitted to refer to graffiti, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot). I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the defacing of buildings, walls and bridges by graffiti is as much a detraction from amenities as are litter and refuse. The code of practice does not appear to mention it, but will there be any action to deal with that modern phenomenon?
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
Graffiti was not overlooked in our discussions about litter during the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill or when we drew up the code of practice. We reached the conclusion, however, that it is a different sort of problem. It would not be altogether fair to require the victims of graffiti to keep their buildings free of it. To place an expensive obligation on the victim approaches the problem in the wrong way.
We prefer to draw to the attention of the enforcement authorities and the courts the means that already exist to take action against that form of vandalism. For example, section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 makes it an offence, punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment, to damage, recklessly or intentionally, any property belonging to another. Under section 3 of the Act it is an 1160 offence to possess anything with the intent to destroy or damage property. The law is already extremely tough when dealing with that nuisance and vandalism.
It is also important to emphasise the need to incorporate in designs the means of preventing or reducing graffiti damage. I have seen new materials and new types of surface that are available to those designing shopping or town centres that are resistant to spray paint or make it easier to remove. A small investment in anti-graffiti measures can bring a considerable return in terms of the environment. A graffiti-free part of town generally stays that way, whereas when a potential vandal sees a place already covered in graffiti it almost invites him to append his signature to it.
I assure my hon. Friends that the omission of graffiti from the code of practice does not mean that we are insensible to that form of environmental irresponsibility.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken. I am not, of course, formally replying to the debate, but contributing to it. If, during the remainder of the debate, other points are made which are my responsibility, I shall ensure that they are considered and responded to where appropriate.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)
I, too, should like to express my congratulations to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on his success in coming first in the ballot and on presenting a wide-ranging motion that enables us to discuss not just the local environment but that of the world. When John Wesley undertook his search for souls in the 18th century, he said:I look upon all the world as my parish.That applies even more so today as we grapple with problems to ensure that our local communities are decent places in which to live.
The motion gives us the opportunity to deal with all matters from the stratosphere to the street. It is however, a sad commentary on eleven and a half years of Tory government that a Tory Member has had to introduce a motion that pleads for advances in the quality of life. It covers just about everything. In that sense, it is a commentary on what J. K. Galbraith so long ago described as the presence of "private opulence" with "public squalor". In the 1980s, that public squalor has become worse because the Government have not given the local environment the priority that it deserves.
§ Mr. Griffiths
The hon. Member for Romford shakes his head in disagreement. However, we are debating his motion today and it pleads for advances in the quality of life.
§ Mr. Neubert
I deliberately tabled a motion that did not rise to the stratosphere as I wanted to emphasise the local environment. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has made political points about the motion. It is the local authorities that have received the most grant from the Government in recent years which have made street cleaning their lowest priority.
§ Mr. Griffiths
The hon. Gentleman says that the motion deals not with the stratosphere but with the local 1161 environment. However, the hon. Gentleman's plea for clean air involves issues that, if they were discussed in one debate, would not have been dealt with in every aspect.
One of the Government's problems in the past decade is illustrated by a tautology in the motion. It calls on the Government to actthrough the necessary minimum regulation".Any good English teacher would say that the phrase "necessary regulation" is sufficient and that there is no need to use the word "minimum" as well. The wording shows the state of mind of the hon. Member for Romford and of his party. The Government do not want to become closely involved, which contrasts with the attitude taken in other countries. The United States is a good example. If the capitalist economy has worked fully and freely anywhere, it is in the United States, yet there are strict regulatory controls there on all aspects not only of industrial production but of the conduct of commerce and of high finance. We do not need adjectives such as "minimum" to govern our approach to the local environment. As other hon. Members have already stressed, the local environment is important to individuals. People write to us at far greater length and on many more aspects of the local environment than on the matters of great moment that we often discuss here.
Clean air is not merely relevant to a debate on the local environment. When we discuss the air that we breathe, whether in the House of Commons, in London or in our constituencies, why is it important to consider the international implications'? A few simply examples will show that it is important to take international considerations into account. Chernobyl showed just how important it is that we should have an international dimension to our thoughts about clean air and a decent environment. In some parts of England and Wales, the farmland is still so contaminated that the livestock cannot be sold in the marketplace.
Let us think for a moment that acid rain. We have heard this morning about the failure of the Soviet-type system to produce a clean industrial environment and regulate pollution. Incidentally, the Labour party has never claimed that it wants to ape the Soviet system, so comparisons are wholly unnecessary. Britain is often described as the dirty man of Europe because of the acid rain that we caused to fall on Scandinavian countries but sometimes wind and weather change, and when that happens, we have our own problems.
The hon. Member for Romford described how when he was a younger man, new to the House, great success was achieved in dealing with the problem of smog. That was good, but it was perhaps easier to tackle smog because one could see it—or, rather, one could not see beyond one's nose when one was in it. Many of the threats to clean air today are not so easily seen. That is why it is crucial that we should focus on the problems of acid rain and low-level ozone which are the more insidious because they cannot be seen.
As in so many matters, the quarrel between the Opposition and the Government centres on urgency and on the pace of change. We believe that we should espouse the precautionary principle. If there is an element of doubt about the harmful effects of a practice or substance, we should immediately take steps to investigate it. If it is proved that there is no cause for consternation, the practice can be resumed or the substance deemed safe. That is better than ruling out action on the grounds that 1162 there is not sufficient evidence. If one waits for evidence to appear, it may be too late to act. It is better to take an urgent look at what is happening if there are doubts about it.
The two major causes of air pollution are the production of energy and the vehicles on our roads. We could make tremendous progress if only we would undertake a full flue gas desulphurisation programme instead of relying on the possible use of low-sulphur coal. Supplies of low-sulphur coal are not necessarily guaranteed. Most of it will have to be imported and the price could prove prohibitive. In a short time, gas desulphurisation could look like a cheap option.
The Labour Government of the 1990s will set up an energy efficiency agency charged with dealing with precisely those matters. We could then reduce significantly our carbon dioxide emissions, a third of which come from power stations. We could also reduce significantly our sulphur dioxide emissions, 70 per cent. of which come from power stations, and one third of our nitrogen oxide emissions, which also come from power stations. All that would help to contribute towards clean air in this country. Combined heat and power schemes, especially those that utilise waste, must also be considered and promoted with the utmost vigour.
I do not want to dwell for too long on transport because many hon. Members have underlined the problem of air pollution and also the danger from cars and lorries on our overcrowded roads, particularly in city centres. However, large lorries can be just as dangerous on narrow rural roads.
Eighteen per cent. of our carbon dioxide, amounting to 28 million tonnes, comes from vehicle pollution. The more that we can do to introduce an effective public transport network in which buses, railways and underground systems are all considered together, the better. Unfortunately transport deregulation has not helped. Large cities now find it difficult to plan large integrated transport systems. For example, since deregulation in Newcastle it has proved difficult for transport schemes like the Metro to link up with the bus services. The result is that huge traffic jams involving minibuses are blocking bridges across the River Tyne. We must pay more attention to public transport investment and to our rail services. We must get the long distance lorries off our roads. We must promote intermodal freight so that containers can be moved off trains straight on to lorries so that the lorries make only local journeys.
Although we need roads where they will provide a direct benefit to the community, some of our plans for the 1,500 miles of motorway and trunk roads must be reconsidered to discover whether they are really necessary. Reference has already been made to the controversy over Oxleas woods. There is a united approach among the local hon. Members concerned about how that problem should be tackled to stop the desecration of that ancient woodland. However, there are similar examples of concern around the country. People are up in arms about the impact on their local environment. That is why it is important to have a proper assessment of the environmental impact of road schemes. It is estimated that 162 sites of special scientific interest would be damaged if all those schemes went ahead. On that basis alone, we should reconsider what we are doing in that massive programme.
1163 Another major factor that produces much justifiable local outcry is the use of inefficient incinerators. It has been a problem in trying to get efficient combined heat and power systems that incinerate waste to work successfully. Emissions from inefficient incinerators have been bad for local communities. We now have European Community standards, but none of the 35 incinerators yet complies with those standards. They have until 1996 to do so. I hope that the Government will give those who run such incinerators—often local authorities—extra financial help to meet the standards before 1996. From the end of this month new incinerators will have to meet those standards. That is good news for members of the public who have often been bedevilled by incineration.
Hon. Members have referred to noise pollution. Hon. Members are often plunged into neighbourhood disputes, particularly when flats are involved. There are several lessons to be learnt. In addition to moves that are already being made to improve heat and noise insulation—the two often go together—there is still more to be done in respect of new houses and the renovation of old properties. We need new standards and proper Government implementation of them. We need also the financial carrot to help people, in particular those who are less well off, to afford to implement the new standards that will benefit everybody.
We also need environmental health officers to implement the law. At the moment, a noise dispute between neighbours can be settled only by the complainant going to court. Neither the police nor environmental health officers can become directly involved. Also, there are difficulties in placing proper monitoring equipment at the right time of day. Noise often happens at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. One will not get environmental health officers at that time because of local authorities' difficulties in financing their budgets. The Government should give environmental health officers the power to intervene in neighbourhood noise disputes.
On noise pollution that is caused by industrial activities, the "polluter pays" principle should be applied, again under Government regulation so that the rules are clear. Factories or rail shunting yards that cause noise problems should be responsible for providing the noise insulation that neighbours require.
Much has been said about pollution of our rivers and beaches, and reference has been made to the standard of our tap water. There is a certain complacency among Conservative Members. Modern pollution problems are more insidious and are often more difficult to track than the old ones were. The lead problem was known for years and lead piping has been progressively replaced. We now know the possible links between aluminium and pre-senile dementia. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are linked to cancer, are to be found in the coal tar lining of many of the older water supply pipes. Pesticide residues are raising problems in relation to the quality of our drinking water and because of the nitrates that pollute them. We must deal with the many problems relating to the intensification methods used in agriculture. The Government are taking steps to deal with the nitrate-sensitive problems, but once again they are acting too slowly, not enough of the difficulties have been 1164 identified and the measures taken have not been severe enough to ensure that there is no abuse through the use of nitrate fertilisers.
Problems relating to the proper disposal of sewage waste have not been adequately tackled. Far too many discharge variations are being allowed, and more than one in five sewage works are unable to stay within the dispensations they have been given. It is no wonder that we have problems with the cryptosporidium parasite, which causes gastroenteritis. Some large scale outbreaks have been detected, but one wonders about incidences where the outbreaks have not been so serious and consequently the problem has not been identified.
As the Minister mentioned, there is a drinking water inspectorate in the Department of the Environment, but it is hard pressed and has only sufficient staff to check the water companies' own monitoring results. The Opposition believe there is a case for creating a totally independent drinking water inspectorate, within a wider environmental protection executive, which would be properly staffed and able to pursue those matters much more freely. Whatever might be said about the quality of our water, people are worried about it.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
As we tot up the cost of the next Labour party manifesto, it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman said how much that scheme would cost and whether there is a Labour party commitment to spend money on it.
§ Mr. Griffiths
If we were to adopt the "polluter pays" principle—the Minister referred to examples of the Government introducing such systems—many of those measures would be self-financing. One of the great failings in the past has been that we have let industry get away with polluting our environment. An article in today's Western Mail, which serves a substantial part of Wales, spoke of a Kent company called, I think, "Clean Drain", operating in south Wales, which dumped 3,000 tonnes of waste directly through a drain into the River Taff. The pollution killed the river's total fish stock of over 12,000. I am pleased to say that the court fined the company £70,000. A scheme involving the "polluter pays" principle would finance many of the schemes to which the hon. Member refers. Many of the issues are governed by European Community regulations, which means that other countries have obligations similar to ours. It should be our duty to ensure, through our elected Members of the European Parliament and through direct Government representations to the Commission, that the regulations are properly monitored in the other countries. There need be no disadvantage to our country. While an element of cost is bound to be involved, both for the Government and for local authorities, much of it will be recouped by using the "polluter pays" principle.
I wish now to refer to our beaches and inshore waters. One in four of our designated beaches do not meet the European Community standards for pollution by bacteria from sewage. I have to admit that both Labour and Conservative Governments have dragged their feet on this issue. However, the Conservative Government are much more culpable because the bathing water directive was approved in 1976, to come fully into operation in 1986.
When the Labour Government left power, the Department of the Environment had prepared a paper on the criteria to govern beaches in the United Kingdom. When this Government came to power, I understand that 1165 they designated only 27 beaches in England and Scotland, and none in Northern Ireland and Wales, as coming within the terms of the directive. The Minister will no doubt correct me if that is wrong. There was uproar in the European Community and among the directly elected British Members of the European Parliament, of which I was one. The Government were threatened with being taken before the European Court of Justice, and Hi the 1980s they produced a revised list of almost 400 beaches that came within the terms of the directive. Although 1986 was the date on which the directive's terms should have been fully met, it was only in that year that the Government finally made a proper designation of beaches.
Britain is currently before the European Court of Justice because the Government envisage the directive being met in about 1995, in most cases. It is possible that the European Court will decide that, given the original 10-year time scale for the directive, the Government will have to speed up the process. Legally, compliance is the Government's responsibility, although in practice the water companies will have to ensure that the standards in the directive are met.
The Department recently appealed to the private individual to report examples of ships dumping waste or sewage at sea. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, more than that is needed, and in particular there should be a proper inspectorate. One of the great failings of the Government has been a lack of the proper inspection to ensure compliance with existing regulations. For example, the issue of street parking was raised by a number of hon. Members including the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). Every week in my constituency I receive complaints about motorists parking illegally. I contact the police, the traffic wardens, and the local authority, but they all say that although they are trying their best, they do not have sufficient staff to enforce the parking restrictions and to ensure that motorists are aware that if they park illegally they will be fined. If there are proper inspections and the law is enforced, and if people know that if they do not respect the law it is more than likely they will be caught, that will help to improve the local environment.
§ Mr. Jessel
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting and important speech, and of course he has the right to continue. However, he may forgive me if I point out that he has already been speaking longer than the Minister, and three other hon. Members hope to catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I do not want to get into a dispute with the hon. Gentleman, but I have been on my feet for 32 minutes, and the Minister spoke for 38 minutes. It was my intention to conclude in six minutes' time, at 10 minutes past 2 o'clock at the latest—and perhaps earlier.
A number of hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), pointed out that a Government Department often plays more than one role, which may be seen by the public to prejudice a particular planning application which could have a significant impact on a locality and which is the subject of almost unanimous local opposition.
Hon. Members may have noticed that I excused myself from the debate for a few minutes this morning, during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West. I was asked to go to the phone to speak to a 1166 lady calling from Huntingdon who had hoped to speak to the Prime Minister, thinking that he might be participating in this debate. She had read about it in The Independent, thought that it was extremely important, and, as it was at the behest of a Conservative Member, imagined that the Prime Minister would be taking part.
The issue that the lady wanted to raise was a planning application for 111 houses on Spring common. Apparently, Baroness Blatch, who is a trustee of that common, was recently elevated to the position of Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment. The Prime Minister's predecessor as the Member for Huntingdon, Lord Renton, who held the seat for 45 years, has written to Baroness Blatch to seek an undertaking about the way in which the application will be dealt with. The lady hoped that the Prime Minister, whose view she has not yet been able to ascertain, will support those campaigning to save Spring common. It seems likely from the remarks of the hon. Member for Eltham that Baroness Blatch will withdraw from any consideration by her Department of the Spring common application, but there should surely be a review of the way in which the Department of the Environment, Welsh Office and Scottish Office handle planning applications.
Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in opencast mining, much to the consternation of people living near the sites of that activity. Labour is committed to maintaining strict control of it and to implementing the Flowers report, which will limit extractions to 3 million tonnes less than the current figure. That subject has not arisen in the debate, so I wanted to mention it now.
I did not get around to mentioning either the question of waste from heat, which, with recycling, is an important way of dealing with domestic refuse, and should be costed properly by comparison with keeping and managing landfill sites.
When the Companies Bill was going through the House, the Government rejected environmental audits. In the United States, companies such as Procter and Gamble produce a company policy, entitled "In Partnership With Our Environment", and they take significant steps to reduce the amount of packaging and to ensure that it can be either re-used or recycled. That is a positive company strategy. We need a similar strategy in Britain. We need the Government to encourage stronger action and more urgency and less of the voluntary or persuasive approach which, frankly, is not good enough.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for his courtesy, as it was apparent from the impressive pile of notes in front of him that he could have continued. His speech was especially interesting on the important subjects of water and air. I remind him that since the Clean Air Acts were introduced under successive Governments there have been great improvements in the quality of air in London. I remember the smog which used to pollute us in the old days. We no longer see that.
I join in warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on introducing the debate and giving us this opportunity. I wish that I could have been present throughout the debate, but I had a previous engagement with my dentist—I should much 1167 rather have been here so that I could have heard the whole of the debate. I look forward to reading the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford.
I hope that when my hon. Friend refers in his motion to "reduced noise levels" he does not mean the noise made by military bands, which are trained in my constituency at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, with which he had some association with last year, when he was a Minister with responsibility for the Army. As a musician, he will know that the noise that they produce is splendid, and that their high standard of excellence is the envy of the entire world. They contribute to the quality of life, to which he also referred in his motion.
The River Thames loops around my constituency and two-thirds of my constituents live within one mile of the river. They greatly treasure the Thames as an amenity, and as a facet of their lives. They are well aware that it is not only important to people in Twickenham, Teddington, the Hamptons, and Wickham, but to greater London as a whole.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley)—a neighbouring constituency—made a major contribution when he campaigned in the mid-1980s against the lead weights used by fishermen, which endangered swans. A large number of swans have now come back to the River Thames. Opposite Hampton, in my constituency, they are now to be seen in large numbers every day in the park, where they are fed by children and others who live in the neighbourhood.
I am worried about the quality of water in the River Thames because of two new factors. First, recent hot summers and low rainfall have led to drought, so that most of the water in the river has to be taken out upstream to provide enough for the water supply, which means that there is not enough water flowing downstream. To maintain a reasonably quantity of water in the river, the lock at Teddington has to be closed, which turns the River Thames above the lock into a stagnant pond. The improvement that we have seen in the river in recent years, which means that salmon have been found as far upstream as Molesey lock, is thus being jeopardised. At the end of his speech, my hon. Friend the Minister said that if points were made in the debate to which he could not reply, he would take account of them, so I ask him to look into both that and at the toxicity of the River Thames.
I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has come into the Chamber, not only because he was a Minister at the Department of the Environment but because of his undoubted concern for rivers in Wales. Too much poisonous matter is still going into our rivers. At Hampton Court, one sometimes sees bubbles in the water coming out of the River Mole, a tributary of the Thames. I suspect that that comes from a car wash a little upstream.
Will the Government look most carefully at the issue of discharges from car washes into rivers? In drought conditions, we are told to save water and forbidden to water shrubs and plants in our gardens because of the water shortage. Yet car washes seem to go on without any constraint. It is wrong, and nonsense, that just because they are commercial activities and part of trade, they can continue to use copious quantities of water, mixed with 1168 pollutants which then go into rivers. The water companies are given too much autonomy in deciding where to apply curbs.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister make inquiries of the Department to see what can be done in drought conditions, if we have fine summers like those in the recent past, to curb the use of car washes so that preference can be given to allowing people to water plants and shrubs in their gardens?
§ Mr. David Bellotti (Eastbourne)
I thank the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) for raising this important issue. I have a number of concerns. The first is pollution of the beaches and the position of my constituency which I guess is similar to that of other seaside towns. We were awarded a blue flag after the water was tested, but some groups suggested that the tests were not taken along the whole length of the beach. That leaves us with the worst of all worlds. If our beaches are polluted, we should like to take action because we are a tourist area, and for the good of our economy must attract people. However, if the beaches are not polluted, we need a clear statement so that fringe groups cannot make difficulties for the local economy. The Government must take an interest in this matter and ensure that testing for pollution on our beaches is clear and respected by all, so that the results are understood. We need a great deal more activity and more truth.
Our local environment has a particular problem about which I hope the Minister will talk to his colleagues in the Department of Transport. One of the greatest irritation is the pollution caused by the inability to move traffic from one part of the constituency to another. There is a solution to the problem, the Hampden Park relief road. Unfortunately, local government does not have the financial capacity to introduce this relief road. Because we have the busiest level crossing in the whole of Europe queues of people have to wait for hours on end to get across the constituency. This causes costs for local industry and causes concern to local people. Furthermore, it pollutes the environment because traffic sits there disgorging fumes. Unless the Department of Transport encourages local government to spend more money, that problem will not be resolved.
The hon. Member for Romford referred to graffiti. The Department of Transport, as part of its expenditure on main roads in my constituency, has built an underpass. Unfortunately, it did not use the material—to which the Minister referred—that deters people from spraying graffiti on the walls. The underpass at Willingdon is regularly redecorated, but the materials used by the Department of Transport have no effect on the problem. I hope that the Minister will encourage other Departments to think carefully about using materials that would lead to less graffiti in our towns and villages.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred to complaints about noise from people who come to his surgeries. A number of people who have come to my surgery at Eastbourne have complained about noise. I took up their complaint with the local authority's environmental health department. It is clear that it does not have the financial resources to employ staff to deal 1169 with the matter. Furthermore, the legislation does not help the authority as much as it should. I hope that the Minister will consider what he can do about the problem.
Eastbourne park is an area of considerable beauty, but the pressure to develop it is considerable. The Minister and the Government should consider whether they favour the developers or the preservation of the local environment. One always has to perform a balancing act, but we want Eastbourne park to be preserved. We hope that in that case, and in similar areas throughout the United Kingdom, the Minister will always favour the preservation of the environment.
Many of my constituents are concerned about the pollution caused by the development of the Crumbles in Eastbourne. The developers were not required—because it was felt that it would not be successful—to provide alternative access from the main highways. Some of my constituents have to put up with large numbers of lorries going down their residential roads to reach the site. The Government must make it clear that when developers cause pollution, whether it be noise pollution or other forms, they must put it right. If the Government believe in the "polluter pays" principle, they should ensure that developers do not allow pollution to be caused by their developments.
The motion is about quality of life. Many of my constituents believe that the quality of life has not improved in recent years. They have sent me here to give the message to the Government that they must do something to improve it.
§ Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on securing the debate. In one well-worded motion he has captured the theme of the 1990s and beyond. He highlighted the areas on which we must concentrate in future years. In particular, he highlighted the fact that we must try to improve the quality of our life.
I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) for their brevity as well as for their interesting speeches. They have cut short their speeches to allow me a little time in which to speak.
The widely worded motion allowed hon. Members to cover many aspects of the quality of life. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford referred to our historic heritage, of which we are becoming more and more aware. One problem caused by increasing prosperity is that people have more leisure time, and they spend more time visiting historic sites. Pressure on our beautiful sites has become intense. It is difficult to know how to cope with the increasing number of visitors to the Lake district, to our cathedrals and to Epping forest. Moreover, how do we cope with visitors to Stonehenge? If we try to preserve Stonehenge from being worn away by fencing it off completely so that no one can get near the site, are we not destroying its point? Yet what choice do we have? I have no answer to that problem, and I suspect that it will be difficult to find one, but it will become increasingly important to do so.
I welcome what the Government have done this year to improve the environment. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 was an extremely important step forward and the White Paper published in the summer was an excellent 1170 addition. Those measures set out a programme of serious, committed action to improve the environment over the decade. In that respect, my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) reminded us that the environment is, for the moment, a fashionable subject. I believe that it will remain fashionable and will not fade for the rest of my life. As the planet becomes more crowded, the pressures on its resources increase, the space available to us reduces and the stresses of living cheek by jowl in a crowded world and at a frenetic pace increase, we shall have to control and husband the resources of the planet ever more carefully.
I welcome what the Government are doing, but as I said when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, and as he said when he intervened on the Minister, the White Paper does not appear to mention graffiti. It may seem a small subject, but in my constituency it is extremely important. It not only makes buildings ugly and dirty, but creates an impression of neglect and of society not caring about appearances. In turn, that permeates other areas of life. I do not want to take it too far, but one could suggest that graffiti left on buildings and walls creates an air of lawlessness and of society not being interested in upholding its laws or values.
The consequences of that impression could be dangerous and far reaching. Graffiti tends to breed, like rabbits, and if something has been written on a wall it tends to encourage people and to remind them, first, that they can write on walls and, secondly, that that is a good wall to write on. The answer to graffiti must be to remove it as quickly as possible. The quicker it is removed, the less likely it is to attract more, and the more likely it is to discourage the vandal in the first place.
Redbridge council has done what it can to remove graffiti on council property as quickly as possible. It offers a reward of £250 to anyone who gives information leading to the arrest and conviction of a vandal. Putting it in context, it costs the council £100,000 a year to cope with the problem of graffiti, which could be spent instead on social services, increased lighting, improved waste collection, or other important areas of its responsibility. It is not available because of people who mistakenly consider themselves artists, but are vandals. Removal of graffiti would be made easier if architects, planners and decorators became aware of the paint that makes graffiti easy to wash off.
Litter is another problem that grows if left alone. If one sees a sofa discarded in the street, the chances are that there will be a mattress nearby, possibly a three-piece suite and an occasional table. To some extent, the problem of such bulky refuse has been reduced by the introduction of civic amenity sites, but the smaller refuse problem of litter remains.
The Government have introduced litter abatement notices against the owners of commercial frontages who regularly fail to keep their frontage clean. That practice should be extended to this country. In some European countries it is obligatory for householders as well as commercial enterprises to keep the frontages of their buildings clean of litter.
If such a practice was introduced here it would mean that we had a new army of litter collecters—the entire population. That would have to lead to a cleaner country, however badly that new army performed its task. It would also encourage a new sense of community because people would have to get together, particularly those living in 1171 blocks of flats, to arrange how to keep the frontages of their buildings clean. Most important, it would bring home to everyone a point that they have so far appeared to evade: that litter is a problem——.
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.