HC Deb 15 October 1991 vol 196 cc284-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood].

12.16 am
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

A number of images abide from last week's rather lacklustre Tory party conference. First, there was the Prime Minister's speech of breathtaking banality, which was obviously part of his own personal campaign to whip up apathy around the country. I must confess to a certain degree of liking for the Prime Minister, but I believe that he should not bash on about the passage from Coldharbour lane to Downing street. I lived in Brixton for a lot longer than the Prime Minister did and I can tell him that, where I lived, we used to dream of living in Coldharbour lane because that was where all the toffs hung out. I hope that he will come off that one in the future.

The other thing that I remember from the Conservative party conference was the Secretary of State for Employment, who does his very best—and succeeds—in making Dr. Goebbels seem like an honest statistician. Lastly, there was the chairman of the Conservative party who, I know, likes to be thought of as a nice guy. If the chairman of the Conservative party is a nice guy, the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit)—pardon me —is, in my opinion, a racing certainty for next year's Nobel peace prize.

The chairman of the party said something on to which a lot of us in London hooked straight away. He said that the Tories were looking for ways in which to give London a new voice. I hope that that is true. If a promise appears in the Conservative party election manifesto, I hope that it will have first an abject apology to the people of London for what the Tories have done to the capital city over the past 12 years and especially since the abolition of the Greater London council.

The abolition in 1986 of London's strategic voice, the GLC, was an act of authoritarian arrogance by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). It was she who decided that the GLC—which was, after all, created by a Conservative Government and which was described by her when the Tories won the GLC election in 1977 as the "jewel in the crown"—was to be done away with. The right hon. Lady's act of abolition was a triumph of party-political vindictiveness over both good sense and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Londoners.

As the last chairman of the GLC, I derived great pleasure from witnessing the personal humiliation of the right hon. Member for Finchley at the hands of her own party. I remember how much she humiliated the GLC and, more importantly, all those who worked for it. What happened to her was almost just reward.

The story does not end there. With the announcement by the chairman of the Conservative party that even it is ready to restore a voice for London, the circle is almost complete. It has been a disastrous journey for London, which is now the only capital city in the world that does not enjoy the benefits of city-wide local government. London is acknowledged by all those who know and care about it to be unplanned, unco-ordinated and an increasingly unpleasant place in which to live.

London's transport system used to be the envy of the world, and now it is the laughing stock of Europe. The farce of the fast link from the channel tunnel to London emphasises that. London's roads are a pot-holed patchwork of dirt and danger. Beggars are common place on the streets, the homeless are counted in their tens of thousands, and crime has reached heights not previously experienced this century. What an indictment of a Government whose party chairman is talking shamelessly about restoring a voice for London.

For me, two buildings in the capital encapsulate the waste, futility and shoddiness of Thatcherism in London. First, there is the derelict shell of Battersea power station. It was once a testament to British industrial power and confidence. It is now a shreaking monument of 12 years of shyster government. Secondly, there is the now rat-infested county hall, which was built with the money of London ratepayers to be the headquarters for London's local government. It is now in the hands of the London Residuary Body, a bunch of Tory goons whose dying wish is to turn an elegant building on the south bank into a vulgar hotel. It is fortunate that time is no longer on its side. The London Residuary Body is now as politically dead in the water as the Tory Government that gave its members their miserable little jobs initially.

The Labour party has set out clearly its proposals for London after the general election in a document entitled "London: a world-class capital". Labour intends to introduce a directly elected strategic authority to be called the Greater London authority. It will be a genuinely strategic authority. It will be responsible for transport, the emergency services and the police. The responsibility for the police is something that the police welcome in London. The authority will be responsible also for waste disposal, parks and recreation, land use planning and other city-wide services.

The authority will be based at county hall, or perhaps the Guildhall—who knows. It will certainly take pride of place in the capital city. It will be the true voice of London, and a voice of which we have been deprived for the past five years.

Labour's plans are well documented and available and I do not intend to spend any more time talking about them. Anyone who is interested can purchase the document. Indeed, I shall lend it to Conservative Members so that they can read and inwardly digest. The Liberal Democrats have also produced a series of well-honed proposals for London.

The Government's proposals for London are no more at present than the few casual remarks of the Conservative party chairman. I gather from reading tonight's edition of the Evening Standard that the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) takes strong exception, if the newspaper is to be believed, to the comments that have been made by the chairman of his party. We want to know what is meant by "a voice for London" in the Tory's book. Does the term mean a Minister for London? I should not think so because that would be impracticable, not least because the idea came from Lady Porter. Will there be an elected strategic authority of the sort that the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have proposed? I doubt that because it would be rather like dancing on the grave of Thatcherism. I accept that there are some Conservative Members who would be happy to perform that function, but I see none of them in their places this evening.

Will there be a body rather like the London Docklands development corporation, writ large?

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Heaven forbid.

Mr. Banks

My hon. Friend may well say that. However, I suspect that that is probably the option that a Tory Government would choose. The development corporation would comprise hand-picked Tory business men accountable only to the Secretary of State. The CBI has already discussed that and it probably appeals to Conservative Members and all those who have a profound contempt for public accountability through the ballot box.

Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether the Conservative party chairman—or whoever it is who is doing the thinking about this in the Tory party—was talking about a directly-elected mayor for London. That proposal has been advocated by the Secretary of State for the Environment and I share common ground with him in that respect because I presented a Bill to the House in May 1990 which, among other things, offered a similar proposal. That proposal is worthy of consideration, although I acknowledge the inherent dangers and the radical break with past and existing local government structures that such an office represents.

A number of mayoral models should be examined. I prefer the strong executive mayor directly elected by a clear majority of Londoners, which would obviously involve a ballot, presiding over a small strategic authority of no more than 20 members. If we are talking about strategic authority, we should consider a very small strategic authority considering not individual constituencies, but London in the round.

The mayor that I am thinking of would appoint the directors of the various policy areas and would propose the annual budget for the authority's approval. The mayor would have a veto power over council decisions subject to a council override, probably by an extraordinary majority.

There should be a term limitation on such an office. One can think of certain American cities where Tammany hall politics have come into play, for example with mayor Daly in Chicago. That kind of machine control over our cities is clearly unacceptable. A term limitation of two periods of office might be appropriate.

Given our party system, it is clear that a mayor of London or any other city—if he or she were to be directly elected—would come from the parties. Each party would nominate its candidate and that would be the basis upon which the election would take place. If the process were ever to come about, it would be up to the parties to choose their candidates. The Labour party could select its candidate on a one-person, one-vote basis among all party members in London. That would ensure that there was, in effect, a primary election and that the choice found favour with all our party members in the capital. Those are details and I could elaborate further. However, I am trying to outline a proposal tonight rather than to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is.

There are advantages in having a powerful executive directly-elected mayor for London. That would present a highly visible political figure who would greatly enhance the principles of accountability in local government, something that we all go on about in this House from time to time.

The mayor would have to answer for service delivery. In local government it is not easy to get someone to answer for that delivery because of the diffuse nature of local councils. They are insufficiently responsive in terms of service delivery, and that applies to all councils whatever their political control.

The mayor would be a very clear and powerful voice for London and that is vital given London's unique position as the nation's capital. Because London is the seat of government, we all too often lose out in the capital, particularly in terms of creating a sense of identity and civic pride.

Whenever one puts forward such a proposal one is asked "What will it cost?" The answer is that it will cost a lot less than London is already paying for its various services. The Government have been saying, "Now that the GLC has gone, we are saving large amounts of money." I should like the Government to show me where that money has been saved. All the functions are being carried out, but they are being carried out among a myriad collection of Government Departments, borough councils, indirectly elected bodies, and quangos. Of course London poll tax payers are still having to pay the levies. They have to pay for the police, the fire and civil defence authorities, the waste disposal authority, and the ambulance service. Those services are organised inefficiently. The cost would undoubtedly be less. I am happy to have such a proposal costed if the Government would ever be honest enough to cost the true cost of GLC abolition.

Two thirds of Londoners recently expressed a wish for a city-wide strategic authority. That is an interesting statistic because it is precisely the same percentage of those who voted and expressed their opposition to the abolition of the Greater London council in 1986. Londoners have been remarkably consistent, even if the Government have not. Londoners are quite clear on what needs to be done in the capital city.

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

I find the figure of two thirds quite remarkable. If one asked anybody in the street whether there should be a voice for London, the immediate reaction would he yes. Since the GLC has been abolished I have received no correspondence from ordinary voters saying that they want a London-wide authority. Its replacement is not something which comes from their own initiative, but it is a prompted question which, perhaps inevitably by its form, would get the answer yes.

Mr. Banks

I did not pluck the figure out of the air, like the Government plucked the figure for the so-called savings following the abolition of the GLC out of the air. The opinion polls were conducted by MORI and NOP. I am prepared, on this occasion, to believe them. I accept that the hon. Gentleman has not received any letters. I did not receive many letters from my constituents on, for example, the Gulf—at least not to start with. I did after I voted in the House, but that was a different issue. However, I cannot say that my constituents were not interested—of course they were interested. That they do not write to hon. Members does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest, but the opinion polls clearly show that Londoners want a strategic voice for London. The hon. Gentleman deceives himself if he thinks that that is not a perceived need on the part of the majority of Londoners, of whom he does not happen to be one.

As I have said, Londoners are clear on what needs to be done. The Labour party is clear on what needs to be done.

The Liberal Democrats are clear on what needs to be done in London. The confusion and division in the matter are entirely confined to the Tory party. We want some answers from the Tories about how they see the future of local government structure in London. The chairman of the Tory party cannot say something and then walk away from it, and nor can Ministers walk away from it. The Tory newspapers would not allow a Labour shadow Minister to put forward a proposal for a new voice for London and then not pursue him—they would, and they would want to ask, "What do you mean?" Londoners deserve to be told by the Minister precisely what he believes the chairman of his party meant when he said that the Tories would consider restoring a voice for London. It is an important undertaking. It is one upon which Londoners deserve some answers. I hope that the Minister will start to give answers tonight in response to my points.

12.32 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) on his success in obtaining, so soon after our return from the summer recess, this opportunity to debate a subject that has generated so much heat and so little light. I also seize the chance of expressing my admiration for his position at the top of a recently published list of so-called most impressive Back-Bench Members. I regret that his wit seemed to desert him this evening.

Mr. Tony Banks

My speech was not meant to be funny.

Mr. Yeo

I could see that it was not meant to be funny. It certainly did not succeed in being funny.

I should like to put the hon. Gentleman right about the Conservative party conference. That conference, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) will confirm, was a most notable success story by any standards. Indeed, the progress of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister from Coldharbour lane to Downing street is an inspiration for all Conservative Members. Of course, I would not expect someone such as the hon. Gentleman, whose progress has been from Brixton to Newham via county hall, to be so inspired. Indeed, I suppose that when he publishes his memoirs they will be a metropolitan version of "From Log Cabin to Log Cabin". However, I deplored the hon. Gentleman's attack on my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). When it comes to the big lie, there is no doubt about who is the champion in the House: it is the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), with his absurd parrot cry about the national health service.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West will recall that the government of London was debated in the House on 5 June. Then, as now, the hon. Gentleman showed great interest in the possibility of a directly elected mayor for London. Indeed, his concern with the details of how that election might take place and his interest in the powers of the post suggested that he was not insincere when he indicated his willingness to be a candidate for the post of directly elected mayor for London should such a post ever be established in his lifetime. In that debate, I noticed that there was a possibility of some competition in such an election from the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone).

The prospect of watching those two former giants of the London Labour scene contesting an election together is alluring. It would be a sort of cockfight between a pair of dinosaurs. One can imagine the scene as the hon. Member for Brent, East pledges himself to restore grants to organisations such as Babies Against the Bomb, and to match that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West would no doubt outbid the hon. Gentleman with fresh promises of funds for the South-East London Women for Life on Earth.

It is clear from what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West has said that his party's thinking for London goes no further than the failed solutions of the 1960s. While that is happening, however, this Government are making sure that London and Londoners prepare for a most exciting future in the 21st century. There is absolutely no confusion or division among Conservative Members about the Government's policy for London.

The hon. Gentleman referred to an alleged statement made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), the chairman of the Conservative party, which was reported a week ago yesterday in the Evening Standard. My right hon. Friend made no such statement. The newspaper item was a misreporting of a conversation between him and the paper's political editor. At this stage, the Government have not formed any conclusions. We are continuing to consider how to address the question of the appropriate form of London's government.

The statement made to the House yesterday by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about the route for the London section of the channel tunnel rail link, taken in conjunction with the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment last Thurs-day——

Mr. Tony Banks

I could not intervene earlier because I wanted to find the cutting. The Minister referred to the Evening Standard but I was referring to the front page of The Times of 8 October, which was headlined: Patten plans strategic authority—Tories aim to give London a new voice". I was referring to that, not to the Evening Standard, and that headline does not look to me like an account of a casual conversation; it looks like a fairly specific point, and that is what I should like the Minister to address.

Mr. Yeo

We have all had experience of newspaper reports that are built on other newspaper reports. The remarks on which the article in The Times was based were first reported in the Evening Standard on the previous day and were based on a misreported conversation between my right hon. Friend and the political editor.

Taken in conjunction with the last week's statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment about the appointment of consultants to prepare an appraisal of the east Thames corridor, the statement about the London section of the channel tunnel rail link creates an unprecedented opportunity for stimulus to that area of London. It is an area of opportunity for environmental improvement, as well as for development. I should have thought that, representing a constituency in that part of London, the hon. Gentleman would be enormously pleased about the huge potential benefits of those decisions.

Mr. Spearing

If the Minister looks in Hansard, he will see that I asked the Secretary of State for Transport a question on that very topic yesterday when he made his statement. Does he not realise that the question is, for whom shall such development be made? If he looks at today's edition of the Evening Standard, he will see from its centre financial pages that that newspaper thinks that most of the advantages would be to developers—to friends of the hon. Gentleman and the Government. If the hon. Gentleman judges this matter by what happened with the London Docklands development corporation, he will see that such a development will not help real east Londoners very much.

Mr. Yeo

I am surprised that, even at this early stage, the hon. Gentleman should be so keen to knock what is by any standards a unique and historic opportunity for his constituents to be at the very gateway to Europe. It is disappointing that his thinking is so rooted in negative attitudes that he cannot bring himself to open his eyes to the vision for the threshold of the 21st century for his constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies. Enormous benefits could accrue from the historic choices and decisions that we are now making.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West touched tangentially on the position on county hall. Of course, he will be aware that I cannot add anything to what was said in my Department's decision letter of 5 September, a copy of which was sent to him. The future, marketing and disposal of county hall is a matter for the London Residuary Body to take forward and I have every confidence that it will bring the matter to a successful conclusion. The receipts from the sale will be returned to London boroughs for the benefit of their residents and will supplement the sum, which has already exceeded £500 million, distributed by the London Residuary Body.

The abolition of the GLC removed an expensive and redundant tier of local government. I do not believe that anyone, apart from a scattered few who were directly interested, bemoans its passing. Its successors, largely the boroughs, directly or through joint arrangements, have effected such a smooth transfer that no one has really noticed the change, except perhaps the removal of those offensively inflated GLC precepts. Boroughs are now more directly accountable to their residents and they have benefited from capital receipts from the LRB.

I despair at the catalogue of myths and prejudices about the health of our capital which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends so frequently propound. He appears to have his eyes and ears firmly closed to the good things that are happening all around him. Underselling London undersells Britain. London attracts investment and visitors on a huge scale. It is the most visited city in the world.

The City of London remains one of the three truly international financial centres in the world. Almost 500 foreign banks consider it worthwhile to have branches or subsidiaries here. More than 150 stock exchange member firms are now controlled by foreign companies. The City has diversity and depth in its skills. It remains pre-eminent within Europe in all major international financial market activities—a fact recognised by the arrival of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The only response of the Labour party to this overwhelming evidence of success is to propose the abolition of the City of London.

In transport the Government have developed a comprehensive strategy. Over the next three years London Transport will be enabled to invest approaching £3 billion —an increase of 90 per cent. on the three years up to April 1991. We are opening up docklands and other areas of south-east London with the Jubilee line extension. Services on the City extension to the docklands light railway started in July. The east-west cross-rail will provide substantial relief to central London commuters. We have safeguarded the route of the Chelsea-Hackney underground line. In real terms, London Underground investment last year was more than two and a half times the level in the final year of control by the hon. Gentleman's beloved Greater London council.

Labour's so-called manifesto for London talks glibly of a transport policy for London which takes traffic off the streets. That really means bash the private motorist. One will get around only if one is travelling in the chauffeur-driven limousine allocated to the chairman of the GLC.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is undertaking a major programme of investment and research to maintain and improve London's transport. The extra layer of bureaucracy advocated by the Labour party would blur rather than clarify the lines of responsibility.

The strategic planning guidance with which my right hon. and learned Friend has replaced the Greater London development plan took 11 years to prepare and approve. It provides a lead where it is important to do so in the wider London interest, but it avoids unnecessary intervention. The guidance sets out a concept of London as a city where enterprise and local community lire can flourish, where prosperity and investment will continue to increase, where areas which had declined can find new roles, where movement will become easier and where the environment will be protected and improved.

I come, lastly, to the structure for the government of London which has been widely debated at conferences and in the media in recent months. It sometimes seems that every organisation in the capital has a suggestion to offer about providing London with a voice or a strategic planning body. I do not intend to rehearse the options, but it is absolutely clear that London does not require an extra layer of inefficient and ineffective bureaucracy. There has indeed been a wide welcome for the Government's proposals to move towards unitary authorities elsewhere in the country.

I am astonished at the hon. Gentleman's claim that the extra tier of government which his party proposes would cut the cost of running London. That flies in the face of all experience. If we look at the Labour party's record in areas of London where it has responsibility, we see the gloomy story of uncollected rents—£100 million from the worst nine Labour authorities alone. The borough of Newham has one of the worst records on keeping its properties vacant—7 per cent. were vacant in April last year.

The Government are now examining whether there are any gaps, perceived or real, in the management and provision of public services for London. We wholly reject Labour's proposed Greater London authority. Although its role is ill-defined, it certainly looks like a monster and would make the old GLC look positively cuddly and benign. The new authority would control the fire service, land use planning, tourism, culture, London Regional Transport and traffic movements. It would even be given powers over the police.

Law and order did not feature prominently in the speeches of shadow Cabinet members at Brighton a couple of weeks ago—a rather curious omission from a party whose policies are now almost exclusively driven by market research on what it hopes may turn out to be popular. In the absence of any steer from the Leader of the Opposition or the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), it is useful to have some pointer in a Labour party document about the attitude which the party would adopt towards the police, if given the chance. When the GLC existed, it devoted ratepayers' resources to bodies such as the Campaign to Curb Police Powers and the Gay London Police Monitoring Group. Where the GLC trod, surely the GLA would follow.

Whatever we decide, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly will not create a son of GLC. That would be a complete disaster. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see whether there is any possibility of his dream to be the mayor of London ever being attainable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.