HC Deb 26 April 2002 vol 384 cc573-93

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

9.33 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)

This debate is about the Government's determination to improve the quality of life in communities up and down the country. On one level, improved quality of life means personal prosperity and better life chances, such as health, skills, education and job opportunities. However, having a better quality of life in one's own home is not enough if people are afraid when they open their front doors.

I want to focus on the quality of life as it relates to people's experience of the areas in which they live and the contribution that the quality of the urban environment makes to that—in particular, what happens on the streets and in our town centres. What people think about their area is fundamental to their confidence and sense of well-being. It is also fundamental to the regeneration and renewal of our towns, cities and villages, to their economic success and well-being, to their social success and to the sense of pride that people have in their communities.

The Government are determined to achieve three key objectives: to make local communities cleaner, to make them safer and to give people a sense of ownership of their surroundings so that they feel they have some control over what happens in the streets around their homes. The objective of creating cleaner environments and communities is not just a matter of aesthetics; there are broader strategic goals in ensuring that our streets are free of litter, graffiti and vandalism. Cleaner streets create communities that are more secure and more stable. They also play a major role in the quality of life and the ability of a town or city to attract the inward investment that creates new jobs and gives people the chance to achieve personal prosperity.

Conversely, rundown streets, public squares and parks that are abandoned to muggers and drug dealers, and unkempt shopping centres and estates littered with abandoned cars are familiar scenes in too many areas. They foster criminality and antisocial behaviour and actively deter investment and confidence in our towns and cities. Public squalor undermines private affluence. As a leading criminologist, Professor George Kelling, wrote: Vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that 'no one cares."' The Government recognise that and I am pleased that much excellent work is taking place around the country, so making the public realm cleaner and safer and thereby contributing to the quality of life of those communities on both a social and an economic level.

We have taken action to deal with litter collection, one of the most basic of street services. Earlier this month, we doubled the fines that wardens can issue for littering offences. Litter encourages other environmental crimes, such as graffiti and fly tipping. Taken together, those problems make many residents uncomfortable and ashamed about the areas they live in and fearful of walking the streets at night. They also open the way to wider crime problems and often remind people of other problems in the area, in particular drug abuse. I am sure many hon. Members will have heard constituents talk about litter in general before focusing on the problem of needles and drug paraphernalia in their area, including the fears that that generates.

We are piloting schemes in which nine local authorities in different parts of the country can spend the fines that they receive from littering offences on environmental enforcement services. Three other local authorities, again right across the country, will join that scheme shortly.

Abandoned cars are another bane of the urban environment. We recently set out plans to give local authorities the power to deal more effectively with that problem, and they can remove them within 24 hours with immediate effect.

We have also recognised on a positive level the benefits that a quality environment can bring to local communities and the strategic importance of a high-quality environment to provide an impetus for regeneration and renewal. The Government established an urban green spaces taskforce that I chaired. It is due to report next month. There has also been a cross-cutting review of public open spaces, chaired by my colleague Lord Falconer, which will also make proposals to improve the quality of the public realm.

We are already seeing how towns and cities at a local level are seizing the initiative on those fronts. In particular, they are taking action to ensure that our parks and green spaces are not urban wastelands, but add benefit and value to the local community. For example, the regeneration proposals for Eastside in Birmingham will successfully incorporate new green spaces. A new city park will cover an area that mostly comprises abandoned and rundown warehouses. There will be improved access and circulation space in the new development, which will be linked with plans for a new residential development. We aim to get people and money circulating in an area that is very run down.

On a smaller scale, Groundwork, through the Barclays SiteSavers programme, has turned an area of disused land attached to Tewkesbury adult learning centre into an attractive garden and wildlife area that is accessible for people with disabilities—one of many excellent examples of the scheme turning derelict sites, which can be a haven for criminality, into community assets. I see that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) is in his place, and I hope that he knows the scheme and appreciates its value.

One of the big issues of public concern is community safety. The management of the public realm and the local environment is crucial in that regard. Our second key objective is therefore to make local communities safer. Fear of crime, as we all know, can have a pernicious effect on people's confidence and their quality of life. We can improve people's quality of life substantially by making them feel safer, and we can actually make them safer through better management of streets and public areas. That type of work needs to go hand in hand with the work done by the local police force.

We are working to improve street lighting to increase safety and allay people's fears about walking along the streets after dark, and we have recently agreed with local authorities to undertake a national condition survey to help compile a national inventory of lighting. Public-private partnership schemes for street lighting are under way in some areas, including Manchester, Walsall and Sunderland. The £170 million CCTV camera fund and the Home Office's safer communities initiative—worth £20 million in 2002–03—will also help to make neighbourhoods safer.

In addition to these initiatives, designing development better from the outset can help reduce fear of crime, make crime harder to commit and increase the risk of detection. Designing out crime is an increasingly important and relevant issue, and we had have two Adjournment debates on the subject already in Westminster Hall. If hon. Members want a concrete example of how it has helped to turn a community around, they can consider the Northview estate redevelopment in Swanley, Kent. In the last two years, burglary has fallen by 73 per cent. and violent crime has gone down by 64 per cent. Community spirit has grown and tenants are transferring back to the estate. There are many ways in which the Government, and my Department in particular, are helping to foster good design through guidance, planning statements and our detailed work with the building industry.

A further good example of the way we are encouraging the designing out of crime is provided by our home zones schemes. These have been extremely popular and have been taken up by communities up and down the country. They transform the way in which residents can use their local streets. The road space is shared between drivers of motor vehicles and other road users, and planned, designed and built or rebuilt carefully to make sure that local people can maximise use—older people who want good, level pavements with street furniture, children who want play spaces, and drivers who want decent car parking close to their front doors. They also make sure that community safety issues are tackled—good-quality fencing, secure entrances and the ending of rat runs, and making sure that people have an environment that they can manage, but also one that they can enjoy.

In January this year, I announced the 61 successful bids—from 57 local authorities up and down the country—for home zones funding from the £30 million challenge fund announced by the Prime Minister last year. There was intense competition for the funds—a sign that the scheme had struck a real chord with local communities. One of our pilot home zones schemes in the New England area of Peterborough is already showing good results. That area includes a large amount of Victorian terraces and more modern semi-detached housing. About 1,450 households are to be involved in a phased traffic management programme that will cut down on rat running and help to reduce crime. Indeed, similar schemes in other parts of the country are remodelling areas where there is old terraced housing and where straight streets become rat runs for cars.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I heard my hon. Friend's reference to the home zones fund and other matters. When she visited some of the mining communities a few months ago, including Shirebrook in my area, she will have seen not just abandoned cars but houses abandoned by people who are little more than Rachmans of this modern age. Promises were made that money would be available to make sure that we redevelop some of those old colliery villages to improve the quality of life. Can she say anything further on that today?

Ms Keeble

Specifically for my hon. Friend's area, we agreed financing for work to be done to redevelop the area through the Meaden valley partnership. I have continued to have discussions with people involved to make sure that the work is progressing, and I understand that they have done extremely well in producing the plans, in getting the partners involved and in sorting out the finances so that those particular areas—including that in my hon. Friend's constituency—can be dealt with. He will also know that, separately from his area, which has been a model of regeneration and of how partners can be pulled together, the Government have announced their intention to consider market renewal in a number of areas of low demand. We made an announcement on that some time ago.

The type of issues that my hon. Friend drew to my attention on my visit are exactly the reasons why we must make sure that there are jobs, that the built environment is dealt with, and that people do not have derelict houses and rundown streets. I found the problems staggering when I went round the streets with my hon. Friend and spoke to people about what it is like to live in some of those areas. Work is under way, and I assure him that I follow through closely what is happening with the Meaden valley partnership to make sure that there is progress. I am grateful to him for raising that point.

We can tackle crime partly through housing and streetscape and the issues raised by my hon. Friend, but also through pulling together the community, as well as working with the police. We need to get residents, local businesses and agencies fully involved in the fight against crime so that crime prevention and reduction are not solely matters for the police. One way of doing that is through the neighbourhood and street wardens schemes. The Government have allocated some £43.5 million for those initiatives to tackle the whole range of safety and environmental issues, and 120 schemes are going live across the country this year, including one in Bolsover, as my hon. Friend may be aware. They are helping to care for and manage the physical appearance of our streets and open spaces, as well as reducing crime and fear of crime, and deterring antisocial behaviour.

Neighbourhood wardens can be the eyes and ears of the police, the local authority and the community. They act as a visual deterrent, and their presence on the streets can reassure local residents. Wardens are involved in activities such as security surveys, property marking, neighbourhood watch schemes and providing victim support. They are already helping to build community confidence and foster social inclusion in 85 areas across England and Wales. In a very short time, they have established themselves as key public services.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

On that point, are not the people that my hon. Friend is describing exactly the kind of support officers that the Government envisage introducing through the Police Reform Bill? Is it not all the more regrettable, therefore, that last night the unelected Lords decided to try to remove from the Bill those very proposals for strengthening our communities?

Ms Keeble

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He is right to suggest that there is a relationship between the wardens and the support officers who are intended to work with the police, although they are not exactly the same. Wardens have proved a remarkable success, and they have done spectacular work to tackle crime and turn communities around, more than justifying their appointment. Having spent a great deal of time visiting and talking to wardens and those who work with them, I know that in most of the places where they work particularly well they work closely with the police, and each group very well understands the role of the other. It is a great shame that they have been depicted as being in conflict with the police.

Let us consider some of the success stories. In Darlington, since wardens began patrolling in May 2000, the number of burglaries has dropped by 17 per cent. Wardens in Manchester, working very closely with the police as part of a package of anti-crime measures, have helped to cut crime by a third. If we are to tackle crime, it is important that we look carefully at the lessons to be learned from such initiatives.

Having spent time talking to wardens and people in the local communities and seeing the detailed work that wardens do, I know that they have achieved improvements that come under the banner of "community safety", to which values and quantities cannot easily be attached. For example, in east Manchester, where I spent time walking around with the wardens late at night, I saw that they have helped to make it possible for old people to go out in winter to evening activities. The wardens will take people from their homes to bingo or to the social club, and escort them home afterwards, which the police are unable to do. Such action is important because it makes people feel secure and allows them to go out on the streets. In a sense, it enables the community to police itself. I also spoke to an old person in another part of the country who said that when she saw the uniformed wardens outside, she felt safer and much more confident about going out, just to do simple things like shopping.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

May I respond to the point about enabling communities, which is crucial to the debate? As someone who worked as a professional involved in the built environment, I am aware of the criticism that architects, engineers and those involved in physical infrastructure works have not taken any heed of communities. The failure to engage with and listen to communities, and in particular what happened on the estate where young Damilola Taylor died, is an indictment of us as a society. We must begin by understanding that the built environment is a fundamental part of how society works. Quality can be determined only by the end users of that environment—those who live in the communities.

Ms Keeble

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to make sure that housing estates and streets are built to be safe from the outset, and about the importance of that being understood by everybody involved in planning and building. That has been the subject of great debate in the community, and my Department has produced a great deal of documentation setting out how it can be achieved.

If my hon. Friend looks at Castle Vale, a housing estate in Birmingham, which I know is not his part of the country, he will see that some of the earlier phases of its redevelopment were built to more traditional designs and have had high rates of burglaries and break-ins. The buildings are not completely secure from the front, so people can get over gates. The newer phases will implement some of the design principles promoted by the Department, so the housing will be more secure from the front. In addition, it will look extremely attractive, with gardens and open spaces in the back which people can use safely. By making something safer, one can also make it more attractive and improve the quality of the whole area.

My hon. Friend made an extremely important point about involving the community, which I shall deal with towards the end of my remarks. For the moment, I shall just say that where the fight against crime has been linked with good environmental management and community involvement, the results have been spectacular. For example, in the east Brighton new deal for communities area, where the community is involved in designing the services, crime figures are down by 15 per cent., domestic burglaries are down by 28 per cent. and vehicle crime is down by a third. That is thanks in part to a safety team that includes wardens.

In the Bradford new deal for communities area, the level of violent crime in particular is bucking the national trend with a reduction of 32 per cent. In the new deal for communities area in east Manchester, apart from the reduction in crime which I mentioned, 26 per cent. of residents said that they felt safer, and the number of people who fear being attacked fell from 86 to 55 per cent. Those are the real achievements of bold, imaginative schemes that engage sometimes cynical communities to make the streets safer. In the process of securing those material benefits, the schemes attract more investment and jobs to the area.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

We all know that if we target resources on an area, that usually has an impact on crime figures. Is the Minister confident that those initiatives are not displacing crime to neighbouring areas? She is focusing on communities that are receiving resources, but not on what is happening next door, and that is my concern.

Ms Keeble

That is a fair point, and it is a particular concern for people in areas where CCTV is being installed. The evidence in most of those areas is that many of the criminals, as well as their victims, come from the area, so tackling crime does not always displace it. To achieve a reduction in crime, one has to deal with its causes, and the Government's commitment to do so—to be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime—is therefore particularly important.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said about wardens, and we hope to have them in Croydon. The more co-operation there is between local authorities, who administer park wardens and traffic wardens, and the police, the more we can extend the eyes and ears of the police and involve the community. If we reduce rat running, we not only make the streets safer for our children, but make it more difficult for criminals to get in and out of communities. We need also to reduce pedestrian rat running, and by thinking carefully about the design of estates, we can make it more difficult for graffiti vandals to enter and then escape quickly.

Ms Keeble

My hon. Friend is right. Careful work has been done in Croydon to tackle problems of low-level street crime. That effort is essential to the development of the town as a shopping and leisure centre, and innovative work has been done to find ways to encourage good management of public areas.

Croydon has been especially successful in dealing with public transport issues. One of the big barriers to using public transport, especially buses, is fear of crime. That is why we encourage local authorities, local transport authorities and companies to improve the quality of the areas around bus stops, where people feel a particular fear of crime. The quality of the Croydon tram system is a great credit to the local authority. That sort of quality is key to making sure that people feel safe using the tram and moving around the town centre.

Many of the schemes that I have mentioned focus on residential areas, but notable successes have also been scored in town centres. Town centre management partnerships between the public and private sectors are making major urban communities safer and cleaner, and helping to regenerate local economies. In Coventry, thanks to a retail crime initiative, the introduction of a quick-clean hit squad and the greening of the city centre, there has been an increase of more than 3 per cent. in the number of visitors, together with an improved socio-demographic profile, additional spending of almost £4 million, which is a large sum, in the local economy, and private sector refits and refurbishments worth up to £3 million.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

The Minister will he aware of the initiative taken some time ago by the Labour council in Coventry to create a city centre company that is to some extent separate from the council and has the sole responsibility of concentrating on the city centre. That initiative has had a great impact on the city.

Ms Keeble

The hon. Gentleman is right. Such initiatives, which can take several different forms, have transformed many city centres. Another excellent example of regeneration work is in Newcastle, where careful work with the public and private sectors is producing a city centre that is second to none in terms of the quality of its environment. It offers high-quality paving in an attractive pedestrian mall, which is steam cleaned at night and swept constantly during the day; public art high-quality lighting; excellent use of heritage building; and partnerships between police and the leisure industry to ensure that the clubbers' paradise is relatively safe.

Many of the schemes that I have mentioned are effective because they benefit from full and active community engagement. If we are to tackle public realm issues and make places cleaner and safer so that businesses want to invest and people want to live in them, we have to focus from the outset on the needs and aspirations of local people and ensure that they are involved in shaping and managing their local environment. Those ideas underpin all the Government's efforts through their agenda for local government and in regeneration and renewal.

First, we are making local government more open and accessible through our changes to council structures and our work on different methods of voting. Secondly, and in many ways more radically, we have introduced new structures that directly involve local people in decision taking, especially people in disadvantaged areas, which have been the scene of the greatest voter apathy and the lowest turnouts in more traditional elections.

Local strategic partnerships bring together local residents, public sector agencies, local government and the voluntary and business sectors. Through consultation and local consensus, they set the strategic aims for renewal in the area and ensure that they are achieved. Our new deal for communities boards, which include representatives from the local community and the voluntary sector, also take decisions on regeneration.

The success of the new deal for communities in engaging local people is reflected in the generally high turnout in elections for community representatives in those partnerships and boards, compared with turnout in local elections. In Sheffield, there was a 52 per cent. turnout for the new deal for communities partnership elections, compared with 26 per cent. in local elections; in Bristol, turnout for new deal for communities partnership elections was 54 per cent., and in Newcastle it was 41 per cent.

Getting local people to take responsibility and to identify their own priorities fosters civic pride and helps to improve their quality of life. Often, issues relating to the environment and maintenance of the public realm are high priorities for the community boards.

Lawrie Quinn

Does my hon. Friend agree that often the perpetrators of the blight on our built environment and the cause of the sense of lack of security felt by the wider population are under-25s and younger people? They are not inclined to participate in community activities or to vote—they feel disfranchised, as though they are not stakeholders in the brave new world my hon. Friend describes. At the risk of sounding cynical, may I put her on the spot and ask how we might re-engage, or engage for the first time, that core group? They are our future citizens, but they are also graffiti artists, public transport fare dodgers, and the cause of great fear among the older population.

Ms Keeble

If I had the answers to how to involve young people in politics and the democratic process, I would be well ahead of the game. In fact, many of the new structures have engaged a wider cross-section of the community than has been involved before. Let me cite a few striking examples. Among other things, neighbourhood and street wardens do a lot of work in schools. They have been able to involve young people—often younger than the ones my hon. Friend describes, I admit—in local activities centred on the environment. That has been important.

The employment profile of those who have become wardens is telling. A warden in Islington said that he spent a lot of time talking to young joyriders—people who were doing a lot of the things that my hon. Friend is worried about, such as stealing bikes, driving them around the area, and then dumping or setting fire to them. When I asked him how he managed to do a job that some might describe as challenging or even dangerous, he replied that he had been a steward at the local football club for about 15 years, so he knew a thing or two about talking to young people—quite difficult young people at that.

Community warden posts seem to attract people from diverse backgrounds. That helps them to engage with the general public in maintaining the public realm. We have not analysed the profile of members of local strategic partnerships and new deal for communities boards, but in view of my hon. Friend's comments, I might undertake such an analysis. Having met board members in one or two areas, it seems to me that we have been able to engage people who might not have become involved in more conventional politics or democratic structures, in part because as board members they deal directly with neighbourhood concerns about which everyone feels strongly.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I shall see whether we can carry out some sort of study of the profile of people who stand for new deal for communities boards and similar posts, to learn whether we are managing to engage with a wider than usual range of people.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

Is not one of the reasons why many 16 to 18-year-olds are not interested in politics that they do not have the vote? Perhaps the Government should consider lowering the voting age.

Ms Keeble

That is a debate for another day. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) was talking about 18 to 25-year-olds, but we can talk about the full age range. I shall examine the profile of those on the new deal for communities boards to ascertain whether we are managing to engage with a wider community. That would be helpful in evaluating the success of the schemes.

There is also an issue about the involvement of the business community.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield. Attercliffe)

Perhaps the reason why some young people do not participate in elections is that they are cynical about the actions of their local council and the way in which they are treated. The Lib Dems in Sheffield have recently cut the youth service budget once again, which will have an effect on the community. That is something that we should consider. At the same time, they have given £1 million to their publicity budget, presumably to help get themselves re-elected. They have also given all the senior officers on the council a £30,000 pay increase. Perhaps actions of that sort breed cynicism and explain some young people's approach to politics.

Ms Keeble

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We must ensure that we do not alienate young people by sometimes looking in two directions at once, which might be part of the problem in Sheffield.

It is important to recognise that community involvement does not mean the involvement of the residential community alone. The Government's business improvement districts, a programme announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last year, will enable authorities and businesses to work together to deliver cleaner streets, better pedestrian environments, new green spaces and improved security. The role of the business community involves looking after the environment of town centres and becoming involved in the wider regeneration debate, not only by investment but by support, advice and mentoring, as well as all the other things that the business community is extremely well equipped to do. Its role has been very important.

The Government believe that everyone has the right to a high-quality living environment. People have the right to walk the streets without fear of crime or without encountering litter, graffiti, abandoned cars and drug paraphernalia or without running the gauntlet of antisocial behaviour. They have a right to a public realm that enhances pri vate comfort, stimulates community pride and boosts local economies.

We are taking action to ensure that our towns, cities and villages have cleaner and safer environments, and to ensure also that local communities have that sense of ownership and pride that is the best defence against urban decay. This approach will make our towns and cities places where businesses choose to invest and where people choose to live.

We still have much to do but we have made a start. There are now lower crime rates in some of our most disadvantaged areas; there are more people living in some city centres, thus stemming the flight to the suburbs; there is better management of our public realm; and in some instances, there are truly inspiring developments in town centres. Above all, there is a better quality of life for local communities.

10.14 am
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

We believe that, judging by the Government's atrocious record on such issues since they came into power, this debate should have been entitled "The Decline in Quality of Life since 1997". The timing of the debate is yet another feeble attempt by the Government to create a platform for Labour party press releases prior to the local elections next Thursday.

True to form, the Minister has this morning issued a press release, which we believe is a clear and serious breach of the guidance for civil servants during local elections. I shall quote from that guidance, which states: It is important therefore that civil servants take particular care during this period"— that is, the run-up to local elections— to ensure that they conduct themselves in accordance with the Civil Service Code … Particular care should be exercised in relation to the announcement of sensitive decisions with a local dimension … particular care should be taken over official support, and the use of public resources, including publicity, for Ministerial announcements which have a hearing on matters relevant to the local elections".

Ms Keeble

That slur on the press office of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is outrageous. Staff prepared the press release as professional press officers, and they have acted in a completely proper way. It is disgraceful to imply that they have in any way breached any code for civil servants during this period.

Mr. Moss

I am not accusing civil servants. I am accusing the Minister. Presumably she decides which press releases go out and which do not.

The guidance continues: The period of sensitivity preceding Local Elections is not fixed in relation to any particular date, but the general convention is that particular care should be taken in the three weeks preceding the elections". In this case, that is from 11 April 2002. That was endorsed in a reply by the Prime Minister to a written question from the hon. Member—

Geraint Davies

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that at a time when people are concerned about graffiti and street crime, for example, and everyone is talking about them, the Government should suspend all activity in the run-up to local elections? Is that not completely ridiculous?

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman displays the fact that he is completely ridiculous. If he reads the guidance, he will find that what I have read out is exactly what it states. The Government will still be in power, whatever the outcome of local elections. It is incumbent on the Government, with all their resources, not to involve themselves in publicity and press releases about local issues—yet that is exactly what the Minister has done

Geraint Davies

My constituents would certainly want me to continue the fight against graffiti and local crime, and to improve the quality of life, irrespective of elections—and also irrespective of the silly things that the hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman should remain in his seat. Yet again he has missed the point. I am arguing that the Minister issued a press release as a member of the Government. What the hon. Gentleman does in his constituency is up to him. That does not breach the code. However, the press release issued today certainly does. The Minister should give the House an explanation when she winds up.

All we heard in the Minister's—

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss

No, I am moving on.

All we heard in the Minister's contribution was the usual list of Government initiatives, schemes and interventions, many of which have been announced over and over again. Of themselves, these do not deliver on quality of life. The key is to measure—

Mr. McCabe

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) to refer so extensively to a press release that the rest of us have not seen? Would it not be appropriate to read it out?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

The press release to which the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire has referred is a public document. Therefore he is in order in referring to it.

Mr. Moss

If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) wants to see the press release—I do not intend to read it out because that would take far too much time—he can go behind the Chair, collect it from the Opposition Whip and read it himself.

The key is to measure outcomes, and on that basis, the Government's record since 1997 has been woeful. The national health service is far worse with longer waiting lists and increasing litigation against a declining service. Our transport system is entirely inadequate. There is increasing congestion on our roads, and the rail system has become worse under Labour. Crime is still the No. 1 issue in many of our communities, and the electorate no longer believe Government statistics on crime.

Under Labour, despite soaring taxes, our streets are becoming more dirty and dangerous. Precious green spaces are under threat. Our rural economy is in tatters and there is no end in sight to the misery endured by our rural and farming communities.

Under Labour, council taxes have increased by more than three times the rate of inflation, with little or no improvement in services in many local authority areas. Only Conservative councils are delivering value for money, public services and the cleaning up of our streets.

Despite the Minister's platitudes, violent crime is soaring throughout the country. Before the 1997 election, Labour promised to be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. However, under Labour, there have been 500 fewer police officers in England since 1997 and 39 per cent. fewer special constables.

Street crime is soaring. Labour has hit the police with red tape and bureaucracy, taking police off our streets which, combined with their plans for more interference from Whitehall, has resulted in plummeting morale in the police force. The latest crime figures for the year ending 31 March 2001 show that in the past three years violence against the person has increased by 20 per cent., robbery by 42 per cent. and violent crime in total by 21 per cent. across England and Wales. A comparison between the last nine months of 2001 and 2000 shows a 26 per cent. increase in street crime across England and Wales and a 39 per cent. increase in London alone.

There are, however, enterprising initiatives to combat crime by Conservative-controlled councils. Kent county council has introduced rural community wardens in partnership with Kent police. Wardens are the eyes and ears of the police in the countryside, linked with local shops and businesses, neighbourhood watch schemes and county council services like schools and youth groups. Westminster city council has launched a city guardian initiative to reduce crime, antisocial behaviour and breaches of public safety.

Adequate street lighting is crucial to the fight against crime, particularly theft and assault. Conservative councils spend more on street lighting; they spend £66 a year per street light compared with £61 in Labour councils and only £60 in Liberal Democrat councils—[Interruption.] Labour Members may scoff, but those figures were worked out under best value indicator 95 introduced by their Government. I shall come to other indicators later, but according to any indicator, Labour-controlled councils do far worse than Conservative ones.

The fact is that our streets are becoming dirtier, and there is a clear link between urban decay and crime. In a speech in Croydon before the election, the Prime Minister promised to tackle abandoned cars and urban decay, claiming that such issues were at the heart of the government's rights and responsibilities' agenda. Yet our streets are becoming dirtier, thanks to the Government's incompetence and poor administration by Labour councils. Dirty streets, graffiti, fly tipping and abandoned cars are all symptoms of urban decay, which has worsened under Labour. The degradation of our neighbourhoods fuels more crime.

Geraint Davies


Mr. Moss

A survey by William M. Mercer found that London is the dirtiest capital in Europe.

Geraint Davies

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is the hon. Gentleman in order to make derogatory remarks about Croydon without accepting an intervention from a Member representing the area?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Whether to include such an intervention in the debate is at the discretion of the Member giving the speech.

Mr. Moss

I made no derogatory remarks about Croydon whatsoever. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) just does not listen. I simply said that the Prime Minister had made a speech in Croydon; I made no remarks about urban decay in Croydon itself—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker


Mr. Moss

A survey by William M. Mercer found that London is the dirtiest capital in Europe, second only to Athens. Worldwide, London was ranked as low as 41st, a fall of six places from 2000, when it was 35th. The Government's second survey of national sustainable development indicators found that violent crime, traffic and waste problems were all worsening.

One key issue, as the Minister herself pointed out, is abandoned cars. The number of malicious vehicle fires has risen year on year, and by 68 per cent. in England since 1997—a key indicator quantifying the problem of burnt-out abandoned cars in local communities. The European Union end-of-life vehicles directive, which will come into effect in April, will mean that the cost of disposing of cars will soar. The Local Government Association estimates that it will now cost £200 to £300 to scrap a car, so most scrap yards will not accept cars without payment. The LGA says that it simply does not know how many more cars are going to be dumped in future.

Our debate on local communities should cover the new menace of fly-tipped fridges. New EU regulations on the disposal of refrigerators, which the Government signed without fully understanding the implications, have just come into effect, increasing the costs of disposal. Not only are there currently no facilities in the United Kingdom to dispose of fridges according to the new requirement, but the Government have imposed extra costs on councils that could run to more than £100 million a year. The whole debacle is down to ministerial incompetence; no doubt the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on it will be devastating.

According to Audit Commission figures, local residents are more satisfied with waste collection services, street cleanliness and recycling facilities delivered by Conservative councils. For Members who take a keen interest in such things, I should explain that best value indicator 89 shows that residents in England whose services are provided by Conservative councils are more satisfied with the cleanliness of their streets and neighbourhoods: 68.4 per cent of residents in Conservative-controlled areas are content, compared with 56.9 per cent in Labour-controlled areas. Similarly, best value indicator 90a on waste collection shows that residents are more satisfied with waste collection services provided by Conservative councils: 86.3 per cent are satisfied, compared with 82 per cent. in Labour areas.

Mr. McCabe

Can the hon. Gentleman offer the House an explanation of why the Conservatives are so much better at dealing with rubbish?

Mr. Moss

I am talking about the best value indicators covering a range of council responsibilities, which were established by the Department and voted for in the House. I am simply demonstrating to hon. Members that all the indicators, as measured by the Audit Commission, show Conservative councils scoring better than Labour councils. That is what the hon. Gentleman does not like.

Mr. Sanders

Is it not the case that Liberal Democrat councils do better than Tory councils, which is why the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned them?

Mr. Moss

I am happy to give the figures for Liberal Democrat councils, which I omitted—[Interruption.] I was asked a question, and must endeavour to respond. On clean street satisfaction, Liberal Democrat councils scored 63 per cent., compared with 68 per cent. for Conservative councils; on waste collection satisfaction, Liberal Democrat councils scored 84 per cent., compared with 86 per cent. for Conservative councils; on recycling satisfaction, Liberal Democrat councils scored 66 per cent., compared with 70 per cent. for Conservative councils. Need I continue?

Mr. Sanders


Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman has had enough; good.

To reduce graffiti and vandalism, Wandsworth borough council has expanded the use of closed circuit television and decoy sites to detect perpetrators, and is developing a voluntary code with retailers to stop the sale of spray cans and marker pens to juveniles. To tackle litter, it has doubled the number of litter bins on local streets to 1,400, all of which are emptied at least once a day.

I shall now turn to the subject of green spaces and the Green Paper. The Government are forcing local authorities to oversee the construction of millions of houses against local wishes. They have established a series of rigid national housebuilding targets across the country, which are then fed down via regional housebuilding targets to local authorities. Conservatives are opposed to excessive greenfield development. That is not nimbyism; we want to protect our green spaces in the north and the south, in our urban areas and in our countryside. We would abolish regional planning guidance and housebuilding targets, and give those powers back to local councils.

As for the planning Green Paper, local residents in London and the south-east are to be robbed of their say in local planning decisions. The consultation document outlines the Labour Government's desire to strip local communities of planning powers in a number of areas. We accept that the planning system needs to be reformed, but abolishing south-eastern residents' say in local planning is a retrograde step. Local people will be robbed of their say on large developments such as new airports, incinerators, pylons, large housing estates and power stations. Labour has also given the green light to greenfield destruction on a massive scale.

Mr. Betts

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Green Paper places great emphasis on the need for full and proper consultation, and that notices stuck on lamp posts by planning authorities should not be seen as a means of consulting the local community? There is also an emphasis on the need for prior consultation before the planning process begins, to make sure that that work goes on in a more relaxed and meaningful way, and to avoid confrontation when the local community suddenly sees a planning proposal at the last minute and rejects it.

Mr. Moss

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more and better local consultation is necessary. That is what we propose. The opposition to the planning Green Paper has not come from the Conservative Benches alone: the Confederation of British Industry and other bodies, having studied it, are beginning to have serious doubts about it.

As for transport, we have more traffic and more congestion. Just days after the 1997 general election, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions said: I will have failed if in five years time there are not … far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it. We certainly intend to do so. Despite record fuel taxes, traffic on British motorways has risen by 11 per cent. since 1997, and by 5 per cent. across all roads.

There is also the problem of London Underground. Before Labour was elected, it promised to improve the Underground … and guarantee value for money to taxpayers and passengers", but delays on London Underground have almost doubled since Labour came to power. Delays have risen from 4.5 per cent. in 1997–98 to 8.4 per cent. in the last recorded period.

Mr. Syms

We spoke earlier about the press release from the Department, which mentions a 30 per cent. fall in public disturbances and street violence in a particular area of Newham. Will my hon. Friend take into account the fact that according to Metropolitan police figures in Newham over the past 12 months, street crime has gone up 21 per cent., possession of offensive weapons by 28 per cent., burglary by 12 per cent. and sexual offences by 30 per cent? The press release does not set the figure in context.

Mr. Moss

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. It seems that not only are the Government in breach of the code in terms of issuing press releases at this sensitive time, but they cannot even get their press releases accurate.

London Underground's most recent annual report revealed that the tube had failed on all seven of its performance targets. It failed to meet the required customer satisfaction standards for safety, security, information given to passengers, cleanliness of trains, the helpfulness and availability of station staff, number of train miles run, and the time taken for passengers to reach their destinations.

Not long after the 1997 election, the Prime Minister said: railways are not a top priority". That is from the record of a Cabinet meeting on 8 May 1997. Punctuality and reliability have declined under Labour. The percentage of trains arriving on time has declined from 89.7 per cent. in 1997–98 to 79.1 per cent. in 2000–01. The Minister for Europe, has admitted:

we have the worst railways in Europe. We started transport investment far too late. Since their election, the Labour Government have spent less in terms of both public investment and public expenditure than the last Conservative Administration. Total managed expenditure on transport as a proportion of gross domestic product totalled 1 per cent. on average between 1997 and 2001, 41 per cent. less than the under last Conservative Administration, who spent 1.7 per cent. of gross domestic product.

Geraint Davies

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are more people travelling on the tube than ever before? We now have the Croydon tram, which is moving 18 million passengers a year, and many more people are travelling on the railways. There are difficulties, but tens of billions of pounds will go into the tube in the next few years.

Mr. Moss

The trend in increased use of the railways started under the Conservative Administration as a result of privatisation. That is what led to a substantial increase in the use of the trains.

On toll taxes—

Lawrie Quinn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss

No, I have only a limited amount of time and I want to press on. I am moving on to toll taxes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Poll taxes?"] No, toll taxes. Ken Livingstone is looking to introduce congestion taxes in central London by 2003. Other councils in England are entering into pilot schemes for congestion taxes or workplace parking taxes.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is working on multi-modal studies examining the possibility of motorway tolls across England. That was revealed in a consultants' report the other week. The Government's 10-year transport plan makes it clear that before introducing such taxes we shall need to take account of the conclusions of the multi-modal studies". Only this morning it was leaked that the Prime Minister's transport troubleshooter, Lord Birt, is proposing the increased use of road tolls to fund expenditure in the transport sector and to reduce congestion.

We believe that toll taxes will merely divert traffic to less suitable roads, increasing congestion and pollution. Residents outside the tax zone will suffer as drivers will drive and park away from the centre of town in residential areas. In London, even Transport for London has admitted that traffic will rise by 8 per cent. in Southwark and 6 per cent. in Lambeth as a result of the diversion of traffic. Toll taxes will not lead to an overall improvement in air quality. Even Ken Livingstone admitted: We expect there to be no significant improvement in air quality directly as a result of congestion charging. I now turn to the social services. It is becoming clearer with every day that Labour's mismanagement of the NHS has plunged both the care of the elderly and care homes in particular into crisis. It is clear to anyone with any common sense that a thriving care home sector is crucial to the overall well-being of the health service. There are patients lying in hospital who are fit enough to be discharged, but who remain in hospital solely because there is nowhere for them to go and no money in social service departments of local councils to care for them in their own homes.

Why is that? Under this Government, a combination of ineptitude and mismanagement has seen the closure of some 50,000 care home beds since 1997. At any one time more than 6,000 hospital beds are occupied by patients whose discharge has been delayed. The Department of Health states that 680,000 patients have their discharges delayed every year. The fact that patients remain in hospital when they could and should be elsewhere means that, through no fault of their own, they occupy precious beds that would otherwise be given to patients requiring operations. No wonder the waiting lists remain stubbornly high. Not only is there a queue to get into hospital under Labour, but Labour has brought us the queue to get out of hospital.

That speaks volumes about the Government's approach to health more generally. They will never deliver the necessary reforms because they have a deep-rooted antipathy towards private providers. They use the private sector when it suits them, both at home and abroad, but as the Chancellor's statement last week showed, they are totally wedded to a health service funded exclusively from general taxation. They talk about working with the private sector, but in care home provision there is a long-standing relationship between public and private sectors, and the Government are making a complete hash of it.

Geraint Davies

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss

No. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman several times already.

Despite the bleak picture, Conservative councils are delivering better quality services for lower taxes. Since 1997 the average band D annual council tax in England has risen by £287—that is, 42 per cent.—under the Labour Government. They have turned council tax into a stealth tax. Vulnerable people such as pensioners on fixed incomes have suffered the most, yet on average across different tiers Conservative councils charge £135 a year less on band D bills than Labour councils, and £159 a year less than Liberal Democrat councils.

Labour claims that the average council tax is lower in Labour councils. The fact that average council tax bills, rather than the average band D bills, tend to be lower in Labour areas has nothing to do with the spending decisions of those Labour councils. It is merely a reflection of the fact that property values tend to be lower in Labour areas. Peter Kellner has stated: Homes in Labour areas tended to fall into lower council tax bands and this was why the average council tax was lower… The proper way to judge the figures was to compare like with like—Band D figures, council by council". He went on to state that Labour's claim is as misleading as it ever was … On this issue, Labour is wrong and Tories are right. That is a quote from The Sunday Times in 1995. [Laughter.] It is still appropriate. Perhaps the hon. Members who are guffawing, and have been guffawing for most of the morning, would care to write to Peter Kellner to see whether he stands by his quote. The position has not changed since then.

Mr. Betts

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. Let us take two local authority areas, Labour and Conservative, that have the same average council tax. House values are likely to be slightly lower in the Labour authority area than under the Conservative authority, so band D will always be different because of the different sorts of houses. It is the average that has to be considered, as it is the amount raised from a given number of properties in an area that is the true test for comparison between councils.

Mr. Moss

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on that count. The only true measurement is achieved by comparing the same band; Peter Kellner has endorsed the view that we have taken all along.

Liberal Democrats claim that council taxes have risen faster this year in Conservative councils and at the lowest rate in Lib Dem councils. Although the Government have turned council tax into a stealth tax—they have hit the shire counties hardest—Conservative councils still charge an average of £159 less on band D bills than Liberal Democrat councils. Across every tier of local government, we deliver better local public services at a lower cost.

Conservative councillors are making life better through neighbourhood initiatives. According to Audit Commission data—best value indicator 3—Conservative councils have the highest satisfaction rate among local residents. Some 68 per cent. of residents are satisfied under Conservative councils, as opposed to 61 per cent. under Labour. In case the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) wants to leap to his feet, I must also point out that 65 per cent. are satisfied under the Liberal Democrats. People are most satisfied with the Conservatives because we tackle problems such as crime and graffiti and improve the whole range of public services—and still charge lower taxes.

It is on that basis that I recommend that people vote Conservative in preference to voting for the other parties in next Thursday's local elections.

10.41 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I welcome this debate, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber do, but what a contrast between the two opening speeches. We heard from my hon. Friend the Minister a constructive presentation of a range of issues. Her speech was very different from that of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). I say to him that I am one of those Labour Members who live in a Tory-controlled local authority area, so I see at first hand the sort of services that the Tories provide to my constituents—a point to which I shall return later. None the less, I am sure that all of us welcome the opportunity to debate the quality of life in our communities and constituencies, and the good and bad points in that regard. The debate will certainly cover many issues.

As a London Member, I represent the most densely populated part of the United Kingdom. London's population is well over 7 million and it is growing. Many people who come to the UK come to London, and many remain here as residents. Like all hon. Members, irrespective of the side of the House on which they sit, Londoners rely on the many services that make London a pleasant place in which to live and work. London is a city with many different standards, both rich and poor. Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Mr. Colman) and for Battersea (Martin Linton), I represent the London borough of Wandsworth, so I see at first hand what happens in a Tory-controlled borough, which we are often told is a flagship borough.

Before I deal with that point, I want to mention a number of other issues. Under this Government, unemployment has fallen considerably. Areas such as mine had very high youth unemployment under the Tory Government, but thankfully, due to the current Government's policies and the money that they have put in, although some youngsters are still unemployed, the number has been enormously reduced. We can see real confidence among young people when we meet them and hear them say, "Yes, it is a bit difficult, but I really believe that I'll get a job."

What concerns me in the area that I represent—I accept that this is a problem not only in London, but in many other parts of the country—is that I regularly see at my advice surgery men and some women who are in their late 40s and early 50s, but who are out of work. Many of them have great skills, but sadly, they are not the skills of today—the modern technology skills that we all know are in demand. Such people come to me and say, "I've got a lot of skill, I am middle aged, and as far as I'm concerned, I've got many years of my working life left. I want to work and not live on benefit." Although the Government have done a great deal to help such people, priority must be given to ensuring that adequate training schemes are available to help men and women in that age group to retrain, so that they can do what they want: re-enter the employment market.

We all know that so much depends on a person being in work, because their income affects their quality of life, the housing that they can afford and the social life that their families can enjoy. There is a great diversity of skills and talents, but if the community that I represent is to thrive, we cannot afford to allow people's talents to go to waste. I make that point very forcefully to my hon. Friend the Minister, because I do not believe—I am sure that none of my colleagues believes—that a person's age should determine whether he or she can find employment. That applies not only to London, but to anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Like many other cities and towns, London has ethnic communities. I represent a large Asian community, many of whose members have lived in this country for many years. In many cases, their children were born here. It is estimated that more than 30 per cent. of London's population is of an ethnic background. Such people play a major role in many aspects of life in our society and community, and their quality of life needs to be protected and developed. Good housing and community facilities are important.

Many members of the ethnic community are elderly and are entitled to expect facilities for community and cultural activities—day centres most especially. I say to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire that in the London borough of Wandsworth, which has a large Asian population, I get no help whatever in trying to get modern day centres and luncheon clubs for the ethnic communities in my constituency. He read out a long list of services that Conservative-controlled authorities are supposed to offer to the local community, but as a local Member of Parliament, I see the lack of any constructive help on such key issues. It would have been interesting if he had commented on the difficulties that Labour Members such as my two colleagues and I, who represent the London borough of Wandsworth, experience in dealing with a Conservative-controlled authority when we try to protect services for our communities.

There are some excellent day centres in my constituency, but sadly, not enough. We tend to forget that ethnic communities have their own forms of worship and want to be able to follow them, as they have a right to do. That can be difficult when dealing with Conservative-controlled authorities such as Wandsworth.

It is important to develop and encourage business opportunities, especially for young people, who often have good ideas but find it difficult to get started. That affects the quality of life in a community. When areas are run down, shops shut and businesses close, and it affects the whole community. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to that in her opening remarks. I am therefore in favour of helping young people to set up local businesses. When I talk to them, they say that the high rents and rates that local businesses have to pay determine whether they remain in business. Perhaps that affects cities such as London more than other parts of the country.

I am currently dealing with the case of a young man who has a Chinese restaurant in my constituency. He has a 15-year lease on the property, on which he has been paying rent of £14,000 a year. The rent is up for review and he has been told that he will be asked to pay £23,500 from June this year—an increase of £9,500. He cannot possibly afford that substantial extra sum of money. The negotiations with the owner will determine whether he can remain in business. Young people talk to each other; my constituent talks to other business people in the area where he owns the restaurant. We need to consider the image of setting up in business that such cases present to young people.

I believe in encouraging young people. Many young people who live in London have an excellent education and a lot of skills, and they need encouragement to start a business. They also need the security of knowing that they will receive a fair opportunity to develop it and will not be told after a year or so, "Sorry, you're not meeting your overheads. We will therefore have to cease loaning you money", because that means that the business will close.

Lawrie Quinn

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Enterprise Bill, which is in Committee, will go a long way towards supporting start-up businesses and tackling some of the problems of potential bankruptcy that he describes?

Mr. Cox

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. To their credit, the Government are pursuing the matter, and the measure will help the sort of case to which I referred. People face genuine difficulties in setting up businesses, but the Government are taking the matter seriously and introducing measures to help.

London has an ageing population, and the borough that I represent has approximately 40,000 retired people. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire made almost never-ending criticisms of the Government, but they have done a great deal for retired people through their policies and benefits. I am sure that pensioners in the hon. Gentleman's constituency would agree.

We all accept that the weekly pension is important, but so is quality of life. More than 13 per cent. of London's population is over 65. When one visits day centres or goes out campaigning on issues—I am not talking only about elections that may be due in the near future—and speaks to retired people, one is soon filled with their ideas and hopes. They include a decent place in which to live. Again, it is difficult in the London borough of Wandsworth to find such places for retired people.

We need a great deal more sheltered housing that provides security and allows people to keep their independence. We need more pleasant open spaces with good provision in the areas where retired people live. Again, it is difficult to get that in the borough that I represent. In a few moments, I shall comment at length on another aspect of housing in Wandsworth because I may want the help and support of my hon. Friend the Minister.

Many hon. Members may agree with my next comments on a key aspect of the quality of life that people can enjoy. Retired people often tell me that when they go out shopping or walking, they would like to know where there are benches on which they can sit and perhaps meet their friends and have a chat. It is difficult for retired people to find benches in the areas where they live or go for a walk. Such provision would be of great benefit without costing an enormous amount of money. Lack of toilet facilities is more of an issue for local authorities than for the Government, but local residents often mention it to me. Many retired people would like more such facilities. Some might claim that those are not especially big issues, but they contribute to the quality of life for many people.

My hon. Friend the Minister rightly spoke at length about crime and a range of related matters. Sadly, under all Governments, we hear about appalling crimes in our society. It is not a political issue, and it is regrettable that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire tried to make it one.

It being Eleven o'clock, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. II (Friday sittings).

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