§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick rose to call attention to the need to protect our urban and rural environment against current threats to it; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, nothing is easier than to philosophise about the environment. But when you look into the causes of physical threats to it you are overwhelmed by a mass of contradictory evidence presented by warring scientists, ruthless propagandists, self-protective industries and defensive governments. However, we must do our plain man's best. But before proceeding, perhaps I may say that we are all looking forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro, who I am sure will speak out of his experience of that most agreeable environment in Cornwall.
§ More and more people are becoming more and more alarmed about the manifold threats to our environment—threats which may range from a disturbance of our tranquility to a nuclear disaster bigger even than at Chernobyl.
§ Let us look, to begin with, at the minor disturbances. There were, it is true, several reasons for the national rejection of the proposal to allow all the shops to open at will on Sundays. But surely a major reason was that the British Sunday might cease to provide the traditional relaxed environment which contrasts so sharply with the tense environment of working weekdays. Now we have residents of inner London battling against the proposals to turn Battersea power station into a gigantic fun park and Waterloo Station into a terminal for the Channel Tunnel. They fear the crowds and the traffic.
§ When we return from abroad we see Britain with new eyes. We notice its shabby, run-down and 916 neglected areas. Thus the Prime Minister was appalled by the litter on the motorway verges, and then Mr. Richard Branson, that lively, charismatic self-made millionaire, was persuaded to preside over a government-appointed committee that hopes to recruit thousands of young people who will tidy up Britain, rewarded by a modest wage. Some of my friends, and many others, greeted that proposal with not unjustified derision. Surely, they said, much of the litter remains ungathered because local authorities, crippled by Government financial edicts, have had to sack 25,000 or more street-cleaners and dustmen. The Branson scheme, they suggested, was a mere political gimmick, simply applying cheap cosmetic to the ravaged face of Britain.
§ Yet, to be fair, there is a bit more to it than that. It was the brain-child of Mr. Kenneth Baker, who proposed to increase the funding of some voluntary bodies so that they could organise the clearing of derelict urban sites and improve river and canal footpaths, etc. I give the scheme a single cheer. But I should like specifically to ask the Minister whether it is true that the 15,000 jobs that will eventually be created are not new jobs but part of the 225,000 jobs to be created by the Community Programme. Is it also true that there is very little new money being put into the scheme—probably a mere £½ million?
§ We have to recognise that concern about the environment is worldwide. It is one of the most remarkable phenomena of the latter part of the twentieth century. There is a growing realisation that we are capable of destroying our environment, either bit by bit or in one big bang. Yet although there have always been enlightened people who have been concerned about such matters, we have tended to look upon many of them as consisting mainly of bicycle-riding lentil-eating, sandal-wearing cranks. But today we are all cranks, even if we do not share the full apocalyptic dread of the crusading Greens. Yet Chernobyl has upset even those of us who have defended the nuclear power station. This is not the time to discuss that tragedy and its consequences for the industry. We must know more about the causes of disaster, more about the real possibilities of similar disasters, and more about the real possibility of safeguards.
§ The Government and the authorities must understand that we live in a different world after Chernobyl. The kind of assertions that have been made in the past about the virtual impossibility of such accidents are no longer acceptable. They have a very hard task to regain their credibility. They must not believe that public anxiety will disappear with time. Every nuclear incident will get the maximum publicity in the media, and every minor incident will remind us all of what might happen. Soon, this country and other nations will have to decide whether we add to our nuclear capacity, perhaps decommissioning those power stations that we already have.
§ The Green movement is not yet a political party in this country, but even here it is a mass movement, with 3 million adherents and many fellow travellers, whose votes could affect the results in 50 constituencies. Parts of the movement are highly emotional, hopelessly idealistic, often unfair and sometimes 917 reckless in their tactics. Yet one must acknowledge that pure reason will get them nowhere, for governments dealing with environmental problems must be pressed into doing things that they profoundly dislike—such as spending money, impeding economic growth, or getting business to behave in unprofitable ways.
§ One may take the case of Durham. For 30 years, the people of Durham have been fighting to get their beaches cleared of black pit waste and of raw sewage. They have had not just sympathy from the highest quarters but promises as well. However, the beaches remain defiled. No wonder they are welcoming this month the Greenpeace ship "Beluga", and the opportunity to publicise their plight further.
For a moment, let us look on the cheerful side. There are some improvements in our environment. We must rejoice that the Thames is less of an open sewer than it used to be and that the bolder and hardier salmon can live in it again. Then of course, we, and most of our friends, have stopped smoking, and smoking is prohibited in many unlikely public places, such as in the Labour Party Conference. Smoke-abatement laws have removed from our cities and from London the kind of fog that killed 4,000 people in the early 1950s, and it is now worth while to clean the exteriors of the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey. Yet the atmosphere is not nearly so good as it seems. The haze that cuts down our view of the countryside on fine sunny days is produced not by nature but by polluting man.
§ The noise is getting worse, and traffic is getting ever more threatening. Will the Minister tell the House what is the policy of the police on traffic in central London? I refer not only to private cars but also to heavy vehicles and long diesel trucks that sweep through with no risk of prosecution for excessive speed. Is the concern of the police only to keep the traffic moving? Every morning there are reports of hold-ups on one or more of the motorways into London because a truck has jack-knifed or has met with some other disaster. Is that because those vehicles are badly designed, or because they are incompetently driven at excessive speed, or could it be a combination of those factors? Our British roads seem to be more congested and less well-controlled than those of some other countries.
§ When I said a moment ago that smoke abatement, with all its conspicuous benefits, has still left us with problems of pollution, I was thinking of acid rain—or acid deposition, as it is now fashionable to call it. It is a subject that requires a whole debate, so I will confine myself to a single question. The current number of Catalyst, that new and most useful journal of policy debate, is concerned wholly with choice and the environment. In it, the former Minister, Mr. Patrick Jenkin, deals with international pressure on the United Kingdom to reduce the acidification of lakes and streams, and damage to coniferous trees, particularly in Scandinavia.
§ Mr. Jenkin argues that it is not just a question of cost that is holding us up, but scepticism that the benefits could justify the cost incurred. Yet he believes that the United Kingdom could improve its image by agreeing to join the club of nations which promise to reduce 918 sulphur-dioxide emissions by 30 per cent. of the 1980 figure. Mr. Jenkin says that it is more than probable that we should achieve the required reduction without any further measures. What do the Government think about that matter now? Was Mr. Jenkin's assertion based on the belief that a larger proportion of our electricity than currently seems probable after Chernobyl will now be produced by nuclear means? As a lot of pollution has been attributed to the motorcar, will the Minister tell the House what point we have reached in the control of exhaust emissions? There is a European Community draft directive, several times revised. The last news we had of the directive was that Denmark was still blocking it because it was well below the American standard, and the Greece was blocking it because it wants more money to deal with the damage done by pollution to the classical buildings in Athens. Where does Britain stand? May we be sure that there will be adequate supplies of lead-free petrol by the time controls take effect?
§ I shall not try to deal with the question of the countryside in view of the conservation measures in the Agriculture Bill that is now passing through your Lordships' House. I will simply refer to a story in the Observer that there is a report claiming that the Government's policies for protecting the countryside are ineffective. It is alleged that that report has been suppressed. Will the Minister tell the House whether that is a fair representation of the report and, if so, why it has not been made public?
§ The concern for the environment cuts across party lines. This week, the Evening Standard, not a Labour paper and not an intemperate paper, wrote pretty roughly about the Government and the London Green Belt. It is, the Standard said, under greater threat than ever, despite Mr. Ridley's promise to maintain the policy of the previous Minister for the Environment and preserve it against all major planning development. The Standard said that half a dozen major schemes have been brought forward, several of them near the M25. The Standard alleges that what has spurred the developers is Mrs. Thatcher's contempt for any kind of conservation that appears to stand in the way of growth. Yet, the Standard adds, there are 20,000 acres of derelict land in London. Can we have another assurance about the Green Belt?
§ There is then, for a million or more of Londoners, the question of aircraft noise which for those of us who live in the Richmond area seems to be getting worse, particularly at night. I hope that my noble friend Lord Jenkins will deal with that point.
§ Finally, I quote the Emeritus Professor of Economics at Leeds, Mr. Arthur Brown. He recalls how Galbraith's 1958 phrase about the contrast between private affluence and public squalor so influenced public opinion in America that between 1967 and 1975 they sacrificed between one-tenth and one-twentieth of the increase in material output that they might have privately enjoyed in order to abate environmental pollution. We have spent considerable sums, too, but I imagine they represent nothing like that proportion of the material improvement.
The professor makes observations about the reductions in public expenditure over the past half-a-
dozen years. It is highly relevant, he says, because improvement or protection of the natural environment, the built and the human environment is dependent upon public expenditure. He adds,
The downward pressure on such expenditure, along with related financial policies has produced a major increase of unemployment which with the consequential increase in the incidence of poverty has a powerfully adverse affect on environmental character.
§ The question of public expenditure is only part of the problem, but it is an important part. A government who, in today's conditions, make a 5 per cent. tax cut their primary objective are putting private affluence before the abatement of some of the current public squalor. Although we all enjoy having more money in our pockets, the Government should understand that they may well be wrong in thinking that that is always the highest priority of the people of this country. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 7.3 p.m.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for opening this debate and I look forward to hearing the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro because I have had the pleasure of hearing him preach. I am sure we shall enjoy what he says today and I wish him every success.
In January 1986 a document was published by the Association of District Councils called Rural Economy at the Crossroads. On the cover was a signpost showing nine different ways that one could go. Today I shall chose only four and I hope they will be useful. One subject that I choose which is not on the signpost is farming. At present farmers can build anything they like—houses, sheds, outhouses—without any permission from the local authority. I think that is unfortunate and it is about time there was some control over what farmers build. They are building very ugly places in many cases. They are building houses which they then sell to people who are not necessarily farmers. Futhermore, they have no chance of getting another piece of land easily. Moreover, the PSA has a system whereby farmers rent their barns, and so on, without repairing leases. I have been into this several times and I believe it to be accurate. Therefore, many lovely barns are falling down. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who rescued a beautiful old barn by making it possible for people at Bristol who have a model farm to fetch it at no cost and rebuild it there so that it will last for the future.
District councils have very good relations with voluntary organisations and that is particularly helpful in the rural areas. I gather that they combine on housing for the elderly, usually in small towns. The voluntary organisations do everything they can to keep the elderly in their own little houses or cottages for as long as possible.
One difficulty is that when a house in a village becomes vacant and is auctioned the price is always above that which anyone in the village can pay. Therefore, there is practically nothing left for the young married couples in their home village. That is a great pity. I am not saying that the people who buy the houses are not nice people, but they are not local people and they do not fit in with the local economy or the wishes of the local people themselves. There is no community spirit.
920 Another difficulty is the lack of village corner shops. These are of course in danger from supermarkets. The Association for Village Shopkeepers and the Council for Small Industry in Rural Areas have helped county shopkeeper associations and said that the village shop and the post office are used by pensioners and mothers with small children who cannot get to a supermarket, and that they often remain the social centre of a village. It is becoming increasingly difficult for village shops because items are much more expensive in their shops than in the supermarkets. For example, pork pies are 35 pence in the village shop and only 22 pence in the supermarket. Ajax is 32 pence in the village shop and 25 pence in the supermarket. These are often used as loss-leaders in order to attract customers.
As regards post offices, there are now 22,000 and there are rumours that up to 1,600 are to be closed. The biggest blow has been the switch of pensions and family allowance payments to banks. However, many people still do not have bank accounts. For example, the village in which I live is 10 miles from a bank. If people have bank accounts that is a long way to go. Fortunately, I have a kind publican who is willing to change cheques, and that is very helpful. When the Wages Bill comes in it will be still more difficult—it will be difficult, I know, for other reasons—for those many people who do not have bank accounts.
In February 1986, the Daily Telegraph published an article headed "Vanishing Villages" and urged that £20 million should be given to halt the decline. Councillor Nick Wilson, chairman of the ADC Economic Development Committee, said that the rural areas are being forgotten by the Government because they do not have a strong enough voice. He suggested a more locally based approach to rural problems; districts themselves to do more to encourage economic development in their areas; the Government to recognise special needs in the rural areas; and pointed to the district councils' role in reversing the decline.
I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Vinson, who is chairman of the Development Commission—England's rural development agency. He is involved in 200 county towns. In April 1986 he stated in the Daily Telegraph that £38 million was needed to stop the developing crisis in the countryside where 10 million people—22 per cent.—of English people live. In the past 10 years the number of farm workers has fallen by 30 per cent., and in the past five years 500 schools have been closed.
The noble Lord in his report said further that money would help to convert old buildings to be used as workshops and small factories. It makes no sense to open a new workshop in a village when the local authority is closing down the only school. His programme covers 28 counties which have areas needing special assistance.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for mentioning various points. I shall not take them up, but I was interested in what he had to say. I should just like to quote what the Prime Minister said on 28th May 1986 in connection with conservation and development and the British approach. She stated:There is no reason why a modern country should not develop modern institutions, good transport systems and proper housing in a way which fits in with those things we need and want to conserve.921The British Government intends to meet the challenge and to preserve the rest of our heritage".I hope that through this short debate today we shall try to carry out that wish and that in the future more interest will be taken in the rural areas which give us such great pleasure in this country. I have lived in many countries, as some people know. Always when I come hack to rural England I think that this is a heavenly place to live.
§ 7.22 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of Truro
My Lords, there is a great deal of knowledge and expertise on all sides of the House and we have had two speeches that have born witness to that fact. I should like to express gratitude to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness who have kindly welcomed what I am hoping to say.
The subject of the environment is constantly before us. Because there is so much knowledge it would be inept for me to speak in any detail about any one particular aspect. But it is before us this very week. For instance, on Monday we were looking at the Agriculture Bill; later today there is the special development order; and on Thursday we are debating the protection of children legislation which has to do with the consumption of tobacco. All those things take place against a background of world conservation strategy, the Royal Commission on Pollution of the Environment and the many other publications, inquiries and statements of public policy. We all ought to know a great deal about the subject.
The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, touched on various areas of concern. I should not wish to go over that ground again, nor indeed that covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers. But we have to see those things in the context of the population explosion in the world at large and of waste of natural and artificial materials, and we have to remember the need for what is called sustainable development; in other words, the constant lessons that we have to learn from nature about the whole process of recycling, remembering that we are ourselves part of nature.
If I may say so with respect to noble Lords, I think also that we need to remember that there is built into the whole relationship of man and his environment a need to have respect, reverence and even humility towards nature. There is a fine quotation that often appears in these documents and reports to the effect that we are not inheriting the earth from our fathers but borrowing it from our children.
But there are one or two dilemmas in the situation. I should like to illustrate them as far as the rural scene goes from Cornwall from whence I come. If one stands outside the front windows of my house one can see for at least two or three miles to the horizon. The terrain slopes gently down towards the River Fal and before you there is a belt of trees where there is represented every possible shade of green. The eye can wander through an arc of 180 degrees from left to right and back again and there will be no sign whatever of human habitation. It is therefore a tremendous privilege to be living there.
There are one or two other houses within a mile or so that have a somewhat similar view. But it has to be said that that illustration is a paradigm of the whole 922 notion of privilege. It is a wonderful thing to have such a glorious and spectacular view, but every time that I look at it I feel slightly guilty because so few people are able to share it.
Already the landscape for human beings to wonder at and to enjoy, if not always to profit from, and the countryside as the natural habitat for flora and fauna of all sorts are at grave risk. But in spite of that there is an even more serious conflict between what might be called, simply put, the amenity and productivity of life (that is to say, the employment, the living standards and the human dignity of our people). For instance, in the United Kingdom rural industries contribute some 10 per cent. of the gross domestic product. Of that 10 per cent., oddly enough, agriculture and forestry represent only 2 per cent. Mining and quarrying represent 5 per cent. and tourism and recreation some 3 per cent. of that 10 per cent.
The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, said that the number of people working on the land had reduced over the years. My researches indicate that since the last war fulltime workers on the land have dropped from half a million to one-third of that number. One can imagine what such figures mean when translated into Cornish terms, as it is a county full of small rural communities.
Noble Lords are probably aware of the British response to the World Conservation Strategy. That strategy evolved at a Stockholm conference in 1972. The response was contained in a report entitled The Conservation and Development Programme for the United Kingdom which was published in 1983. It had a number of valuable proposals for discussion and implementation at national and local levels covering the management of cities, conservation in rural resources use, marine frontier management, overseas policies and education for conservation. I am quoting from the chapter headings of the report. All those things do not of themselves help us a great deal over the dilemma that I have described.
Some of us in Cornwall are attempting to make a tiny contribution towards balancing the need to conserve the countryside on the one hand, and on the other to sustain human beings. Cornwall is its own greatest natural asset. It has to be enjoyed even when its riches are tapped for production. I do not bemoan the great St. Austell moonscape—those china clay mountains—because they have been skilfully landscaped and are indicative of the employment and dignity that they have brought to many thousands of people over the years, and still do.
However, there are still 9,000 unemployed people between the ages of 18 and 25 in Cornwall. There are probably more than that with the recent closure of the Geevor mines. That is the group at which the little party of people with whom I am associated is attempting to look. We do not wish to patronise those people. We do not want to try and find something for them to do. We would rather look at what needs to be done and see in what ways that group of mobile young people between the ages of 18 and 25 can respond.
We are thinking in terms of setting up some teams of those young people to promote Cornwall both up country and perhaps abroad, to provide trained and enthusiastic guides for tour operators, families and 923 individuals visiting Cornwall, to run adventure playgrounds, seaside sport and nature trails, and so on, for children coming into Cornwall, and to help tidy up the countryside—the footpaths, beaches, and so on.
Such a project will take a great deal of planning, organising and funding. In all probability there will be help from the Manpower Services Commission and the Development Commission. We shall have to see what comes of it. There will be some resistance in the guise of conservation even to that programme. Many people coming to Cornwall to retire or to work will perhaps be among the first to hesitate to welcome more visitors. Landowners and farmers who have done nobly for the environment will be a little nervous; hoteliers will complain that the season is too short, but Cornwall is a self-conscious and proud county, and newcomers quickly sense a rare solidarity among its people.
There is a need for a training programme to be undertaken by the tourist board, which has a limited budget in Cornwall, by the mass media and by other public and private institutions. In the past few weeks, the Church of England has produced a report, through its board of social responsibility, entitled, Our Responsibility for the living Environment. I recommend that to noble Lords. It has many valuable things to say.
Of course there are factors in the situation over which control is limited; for instance, the whole matter of the disposal of surplus foodstuffs, the common agricultural policy of the European Community and the personal tastes of the British housewife. In Cornwall, we know as well as anyone the dangers of economic undercutting from overseas. While public education must be part of an ongoing programme for resolving those tensions and promoting the balance between amenities and production, some intellectual initiative would be welcome and some research on the British landscape such as has not been done substantially since the last war. There should be research by qualified people, including the environmental science professions, land managers, and so on. We could do with a higher proportion of graduate farmers.
Government have their part to play and so do the local authorities; but at the end of the day it is for the whole community. The good earth is for everybody to enjoy, and I believe to reverence.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I shall start by congratulating the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Truro on a a very interesting and informative first speech in the House. It has been a long time since I visited that part of the world. I know that there are many people from the Midlands who pay glowing tributes to Devon and Cornwall. From some of the points that you raised it was obvious, my Lord Bishop, that you and your colleagues are trying to play your part—
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I apologise. I was merely noting that the noble Baroness had departed from the convention of addressing the House rather than individual Members. I am very sorry to have held things up.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I apologise to the House. I thank the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Truro for his contribution.
The downward pressure on public expenditure, together with related financial policies, has produced a major increase in unemployment which, with the consequential effects of poverty, has had powerful adverse effects upon the environment of our inner cities.
The inner city problem is the old slum problem reborn—old and worn-out housing and abandoned and derelict industrial buildings. In the West Midlands, 8,500 acres of derelict land were reclaimed between 1979 and 1984, but the total of such land rose from 11,500 acres to over 14,000 acres.
Merseyside, the North-East and many other regions recorded similar experiences. I think that all will agree that all derelict land is unsightly and depressing. Decaying factory buildings are eyesores and, as the City of Birmingham knows all too well, are also prone to fire-raising by the squatters who tend to inhabit them during the evenings. They impoverish the character of our cities, leading to a further loss of commercial and industrial activity because they have to compete against green-field sites.
Anyone who wants to invest money looks at both and decides against the inner cities. It is important for us to recognise that fact if we are to increase our manufacturing base. Dereliction is clearly a serious problem in our inner cities, which cannot be left untreated. If the Government are sincere in their efforts to resuscitate the inner cities, they should consider speeding up the granting of ministerial permission on derelict land grants to enable local authorities, with private enterprise, to deal much more comprehensively with those sites and to create new communities.
While I welcome the garden festival ventures in Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent, they are only land reclamation schemes; they are icing on the cake, but the cake is growing stale and mouldy. The regeneration of the physical environment and decent housing are a fundamental part of enabling local people to fulfil their potential. A lack of such things is ultimately a denial of social justice in a developed economy like ours.
Following the riots last year in several city areas, the Prime Minister announced a review of urban policy. Riots unfortunately took place in Handsworth, Birmingham. However, last week Birmingham City Council was told that the Government will not help with the cost of rebuilding Handsworth after the riots nor will they exempt the city's expenditure on Handsworth from financial penalties for overspending. So much for the Prime Minister's review, which appears to refuse with one hand to give any help and threatens to take it away with the other.
Those inner city areas are also areas of low-income groups and the highest pollution. This pollution is largely the result of traffic going about its business through the cities and from the city centres to the suburbs. Despite major advances in engine technology, motor vehicles remain one of the principal contributors to atmospheric pollution. The extent to which the exhaust gases of lorries, vans, coaches and 925 cars contribute to the problem of pollution in the environment is almost totally unqualified.
I understand that the Government are fully aware that motor vehicle exhaust emissions can be substantially reduced by fitting autocatalyst convertors but that they are hesitant about enacting legislation because of the cost. A former transport Minister has said that the cost would be in the region of £400 to £600 a vehicle. This is at variance with an estimate of £100 that I heard mentioned by a notable speaker at a conference on the international environment in Birmingham recently. Like my noble friend Lord Ardwick, I should like to ask the Minister to be more forthcoming about tighter emission standards as envisaged by the recent EC draft directive. Are the Government going to take any action on tightening up emission standards? The Government have been surprisingly tardy in encouraging the introduction of the sale of unleaded petrol. This was, I believe, initially a British initiative within the EC. It may have been a British initiative, but perhaps the intention was to do nothing about it.
My next point relates to motorways and trunk roads. The first motorway was the construction of 100 miles between Birmingham and London; though I should perhaps say, so that there can be no doubt, from London to Birmingham. This was completed in 1959. The motorway was designed to carry 28,000 vehicles a day over the Northampton section by 1979. In that year, the actual movement of vehicles was 70,000—a little removed from 28,000. No doubt the Minister can give a much more up-to-date figure of the increase.
It is not only the volume of traffic that has increased. The weight of vehicles has increased, as has the length of vehicles. As my noble friend Lord Ardwick said, more accidents are occuring on our trunk roads and on our motorways. I should like to congratulate those responsible for the information given on radio every morning warning those who intend using motorways or trunk roads of the latest breakdown or the latest spillage. One marvels at the kind of loads that lorries shed on the motorway. Within the past six months, on the M.6 motorway interchange in Birmingham, spillages have included a load of marmalade, a load of metal pipes that were rolling all over the place and a load of bottles of milk. It is amazing what falls off the backs of lorries.
Even more interesting is the information given on the radio about contraflow operations. These seem to be a daily occurrence. The manufacturers of cones used on motorways must have a very flourishing business. I trust that they are all of British manufacture. It could be argued that increased capital spending by British Rail would alleviate the delays and the inefficiency arising from motorway repairs. However, as we all know, that is unlikely to happen when the most important person in the Government attaches something approaching leper status to trains.
I should like to conclude with a few remarks about holes in the road. The noble Lord the Minister must, when he meets friends, find that they wish to talk about various subjects. Yet more often than not, I would think, someone wishes to talk about holes in the 926 road. The Government cannot pass the blame to local authorities for lack of maintenance. All of us are aware that central government have direct responsibility for the financial management of the road network comprising our trunk roads and motorways. The noble Lord might find it a useful experience, if he has the time, to make spot checks on our trunk roads in order to measure the depth and width of some of the holes. That might not be so glamorous an occupation as a Minister from the other place visiting a Spanish resort but would no doubt be equally useful.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Viscount Mersey
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for initiating a debate that cuts across party lines.
It is my unique privilege to be the first from this side of the House to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro on an excellent maiden speech. I share particularly his views about the dynamism of English China Clay's Cornish Alps, as I think they are known. I wish to confine my remarks to Liverpool, a proud city founded in 1202—a city of magnificent buildings, a great port whose ancient emblem is the Liver Bird and whose goddess is Minerva. And yet, as noble Lords have already said, it is a city with problems, with unemployment up to 80 per cent. among the blacks of Toxteth and with the problem, too, that many of its fine buildings have decayed into slums. The only paint that those buildings have seen in the past 20 years is the green, yellow and red of the Rastafarians.
As noble Lords will realise from my name, it was in Liverpool that my family made their mark in the 19th century. That century saw an influx of entrepreneurs into a thriving community—great Liverpool names like the Swires, the Holts, the Brocklebanks, the Booths, the Ismays, the Inmans and the Harrisons. In among those giants tiptoed my great great grandfather John to set up shop modestly as a pawnbroker. Liverpool was so vibrant in those days that he was soon able to buy his own ship and made his fortune by exporting turpentine to America.
Liverpool must have been an exciting place in those days, perhaps like Silicon Valley today. His son, John Charles, was called to the Bar and rose to be president of the Admiralty, Probate and Divorce Division. He sat briefly in another place as Member for Liverpool, Exchange. He was then ennobled and is best remembered for presiding over the inquiry into the loss of the "Titanic". He had an ability to worry at a problem and for that reason was known as the little terrier of Toxteth. Like all noble and learned Lords, the little terrier was impartial. He would therefore doubtless be pleased to see in this House today a balance in the Mersey dynasty. Obviously one of his great grandsons—myself—is a Tory. But his other great grandson is of a different political persuasion. I refer to my noble kinsman, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede.
I put it to noble Lords that a balanced impartial approach to Liverpool's problems is the only one that will work. I am not here to make a party political speech. I am not here to knock Derek Hatton. I am here to knock the party political feuding that has 927 bedevilled Liverpool and has caused it to decline steadily since 1912. Noble Lords who have seen that great city, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, has obviously done, will be struck by the large areas that have simply been left as derelict bomb sites since the Second World War. They will be struck, too, by the fine Victorian terraces and squares of Toxteth, apparently never repaired since the First World War.
We cannot say that such long-term neglect is the fault of Left-wing socialism. Liverpool has had councils of every political persuasion. The problem is feuding. The problem is that too many good men and true start their remarks about Liverpool with those defeatist four words, "The trouble is that". Anyone who starts a sentence that way is doing a cop-out. He is passing the buck; for instance, "The trouble is that the Liverpool blacks hate the whites" or "The trouble is that Militant has bankrupted the city". A person speaking thus is ending all hope of progress in Liverpool and I think that, subconsiously at least, he is inviting us to switch to a more hopeful town, like Basingstoke or Milton Keynes.
As His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales said so ably on 14th June:Those involved in assisting community initiatives really must try and stop feuding and recognise that a multiple approach is called for".Indeed, our success in urban renewal is the result of multiple approaches and multi-party approaches. The highly successful London Docklands regeneration was masterminded by the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, who is surely as multiple a Peer as one could wish to find in this Chamber. The equally successful Glasgow eastern area renewal scheme—the acronym of which is GEAR—is much praised by the present Government, and rightly. Yet it was started in 1976 when the socialists were in power.
There is much to be said for authorities with multiple powers: the London Docklands Development Corporation and the Scottish Development Agency. Indeed, Liverpool has one of them too: the Merseyside Development Corporation. Its most spectacular achievement is the rebuilding of the Albert Dock. I was there on a Saturday three weeks ago. It was a hive of activity. The Maritime Museum was packed, as was the Museum of Emigration. There are 50 or 60 new shops all doing a brisk trade in quality goods. Indeed, they make the goods on offer at Covent Garden tatty by comparison.
In the dock itself, a weird assembly of crews was practising for the fancy dress raft, race to take place on 29th June. Across the dock we saw taking shape the new Tate Gallery of the North. Beyond that again, we saw workmen laying the cobbles of a splendid new riverside walkway to stretch from the garden centre along three miles of waterfront. The architect in charge, Mr. Jorrisen, forecasts that Liverpool will be the great new tourist centre of the North-West, and indeed the enthusiasm on the banks of the Mersey is so catching that I regard Mr. Jorrisen's forecast as much more than a pipedream.
I am generally much more hopeful about the future of Liverpool than is the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher. My only regret is that Merseyside Development Corporation's sphere of activity is not larger. A few 928 hundred yards inland one finds oneself in one of the worst areas of urban blight on God's earth. There is worse housing in the world, as anyone will know who has seen the shanty towns of Delhi or Bombay. But, as I see it, the Indians are making the best of a bad job whereas the Scouses are making the worst of a good job—by which I mean a solidly built stock of perfectly good Victorian housing. There is hope in Delhi but defeatism in Liverpool 8, in Toxteth.
Surely the way forward in Liverpool is to extend the area managed by the MDC. I should like to ask my noble friend whether there are plans for so doing. The potential of Liverpool is greater even than the potential of London Dockland. In Liverpool, the aim is to graft excellent new buildings onto excellent old buildings. Hard by the Albert Dock lie the stately Cunard and Liver Buildings. In the city centre there is the great Grecian temple of St. George's Hall, which Queen Victoria thought worthy of ancient Athens. To its north stand a series of neo-classical buildings all dedicated to culture, the arts and education. They include the finest picture gallery in the North: the Walker. Nearby is the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and the Everyman Theatre. A more recent building is the Cavern Walks built by the Liverpool architect David Buckhouse in honour of the Beatles.
This sounds almost like a Michelin Guide, but the truth is that Liverpool has so much going for it. It is a port on a hill with some of the finest buildings in the land. It is thus all the more depressing and annoying to note that a European Commission recently listed 102 great cities in order of excellence. Frankfurt came top and Liverpool came 102nd.
There is something peculiarly exciting about Liverpool. Perhaps it is the cheek by jowl nature of the good, the bad and the ugly. Gilbert Scott's Anglican cathedral almost backs on to the awful Granby Street, dominated by ganja and violent crime. How are we to get rid of the bad? Certainly it will not be by political feuding. As I hope noble Lords will agree, this has not been a political speech but I hope a patriotic one. The approach has to be multiple and then Liverpool can and will make it. I remind noble Lords of the unique loyal toast by many a worthy Liverpudlian: "God bless the Queen, the Duke of Lancaster."
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Phillips
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for giving us the opportunity to call attention to the current threats to our urban and rural environment. I should also like to express my appreciation and thanks to the right reverend Prelate for his splendid maiden speech. When he described the wonderful forests I felt that the words of the poet were certainly true: where everything is lovely and only man is vile. I often feel that the real threat to our development is mankind himself—and the Government will be glad to know that I am speaking generally and not for once calling upon them.
During this week we have had several appeals from various people to do something about our urban environment. This morning I heard on the radio that someone who was going around the world for charity had had all his belongings stolen when he was in New York. It was interesting to hear him say that he had 929 been the victim of theft on only two occasions—in New York and in a major city in Australia. He said that when he travelled through the poor countries of India and Africa he was safe and nothing happened to him.
I feel strongly about this. As the noble Viscount who has just spoken is proud of his city. I am very proud of mine. I am a born Londoner. I still live in the borough in which I was born and I am sure that I shall continue to live there until I die. I like my neighbours. But there is no doubt that the London I grew up in is not the London that we now have. I do not know where to apportion the blame, nor indeed whether we should attempt to apportion any blame, but I so agreed with His Royal Highness Prince Philip when he described the day when one could leave one's car unlocked and one's door open. For some reason the press seemed to castigate him for this. I thought that he was making a very sensible and intelligent speech—and he is a very sensible, caring and intelligent man, though not perhaps one of the darlings of the press.
What is disturbing as one walks through the city of London—whichever borough one chooses—is its shabby, rundown and derelict appearance. This was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Fisher when speaking about her part of the world. We have heard of the holes in the road, but the broken pavements are incredible. How blind people cope in these conditions I do not know. There is the indescribable dirt. I know that I shall get a lot of letters, but I must say this. Dogs do not do very much for our urban environment.
I feel particuarly strongly sometimes about the animal movements and the conservationists. I am chairman of a small urban development in my borough. We received permission to have what would have been a beautiful park on a part of Wormwood Scrubs. All of a sudden up came the wildlife conservationists. I asked them what wildlife there was in Wormwood Scrubs, apart from the prisoners—and we could not do anything about that. I said that if it were rats, I was not too bothered; I cared much more for children. But I am afraid that they spoiled that scheme. The right reverend Prelate made a valid point about this. There is conflict, unfortunately, between the interests of one group and those of another. They sometimes prevent schemes which could be of benefit to us all.
As one travels through my borough, which is a very typical borough, one sees closed schools. There is nothing more depressing than a closed school. One also sees closed hospitals (which people have fought to keep open), as well as closed churches, some of which are boarded up and others of which are used perhaps to manufacture soap. As a good Catholic, I shall not pass any further comment on that! However, there is decay and general degradation which should never be the lot of a city like London.
The Prime Minister has encouraged people to come to Britain. She has encouraged people to come to London in particular. I sometimes wonder what we offer people who come to London. What does Trafalgar Square look like most days? It is full of empty beer cans and all kinds of dirt. People cannot 930 get buses if they want to move about; they cannot cross the street very easily because cars race about and lorries thunder through. The general feeling about this great city is that it is not a place in which one wants to be for too long. It is very sad and it is something for which we all have responsibility. No one group—and certainly not governments—can be held wholly to blame for the situation in which we find ourselves at present.
I noticed the other day—and this has been referred to already—that the chairman of the Green Belt Council uttered a warning about intrusion into the green belt. In this respect I should like to make an appeal to the Minister. I know that we have been promised that the green belt will be protected, and I should like to underline that promise. The green belt is a marvellous lung for those of us who live in London. Please do not let the property developers get into it and build hundreds and hundreds of what are laughingly called "starter houses" which are so small that you could not do much else other than start in them. Please leave for those of us who live in the city the joy of walking in it and the pleasure of good pavements and good houses, with schools and churches nearby. We who have built this city over centuries should still be allowed to enjoy our urban development. I am not quite sure to whom I am appealing—perhaps to all of us. However, it is important that we look at the situation now because if we do not, there will be nothing of which we feel proud for us to leave our grandchildren.
§ 7.52 p.m.
§ Baroness Robson of Kiddington
My Lords, I should also like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for his very interesting maiden speech. Perhaps I may also say how interesting it has been to listen to this debate. I have been transported from the beautiful countryside of Cornwall to the centre of the Midlands and up to Liverpool, and I should now like to come back roughly to London.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for having introduced the debate. He managed, when opening the debate, to cover so many aspects of the problems of our environment. As there are many speakers in the debate, I have chosen to deal with only one aspect of the environment, and that is as it relates to London. Perhaps I should have been speaking in a debate called, "The need to improve our urban environment and protect our rural environment".
It is perhaps difficult to protect the rural environment around London to which the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, referred; namely, the green belt around London. It looks as though it will be a tremendously difficult problem for us to preserve it. The most marvellous piece of legislation that was ever passed was the creation of the green belt around our urban cities. However, there has been erosion of that green belt. At present there is tremendous pressure on the use of the green belt by big development consortia. There is the consortium which is asking for planning permission for the proposed new Tillington Hall New Town and there is the Country Properties' development at the Golden Triangle. All those pressures will increase; they will not diminish. We 931 must be enormously vigilant to ensure that we do not destroy what we so proudly once created.
It is really an anachronism that this pressure is being brought to bear while at the same time—and various figures have been quoted in the House tonight—in our cities there must be something approaching 250,000 acres, according to the Civic Trust, of idle land. According to the Civic Trust, that does not take account of empty or under-used buildings.
We must positively try to redress the balance between investment in the development of green field sites and the rehabilitation of run-down or derelict cities in urban areas. To do that we must tackle the situation both in a fiscal manner and by the introduction of new administrative measures. I believe that the Government have an opportunity immediately to take one step. It may not sound very big, but I believe it would have an effect on the development programmes. If the Government would be prepared to remove VAT from the refurbishment and rebuilding of buildings which are under-used in the inner cities, it would go a long way towards helping to promote greater energy being put into the development of those buildings. Perhaps at the same time, instead of allowing building on a green field site free of VAT, why not put VAT on building on green field sites and thus help us to encourage the redevelopment of our inner cities?
The recent Audit Commission Report on local government expenses stated that there was not enough encouragement for local authorities to help themselves. They said that local authorities should be able to generate more funds internally and work with private companies without circumventing central government public expenditure control. However, at present the Government control the total amount of capital spending by local authorities, from whatever source the money comes, and they have thereby reduced in real terms the total amount of investment. For instance, the London boroughs currently hold nearly £1 billion of receipts from assets which they are not allowed to spend, and they have acquired many of those assets by obeying the Government's encouragement to sell council houses. If we want to revitalise the inner urban areas we must use that money in the place where it has been raised, and together with an input of private finance, I believe that we could achieve a tremendous turn-around in the dereliction of the inner cities.
It is desperately important that when it comes to planning, the power to take the decisions must be devolved as low down as possible—to a very local tier of government—if it is to be environmentally beneficial. I am a great believer—as I think we all are in this House—that the local people living in an area are more likely to be sensitive to the environment around them than those taking decisions in Whitehall departments.
On a previous occasion, when we were discussing the Sizewell nuclear inquiry report, I suggested that all planning inquiries should be on a two-tier level; and I make no apology for voicing that opinion again. It would make it easier for local people to have an input, without having to spend too much money in these lengthy inquiries, if we divided the planning inquiry 932 into two stages. The first stage would be purely to justify the proposed development; to come to the conclusion that a development of some kind is needed. Then the second stage of the inquiry would be held where the development should take place. This is where local people would be able to have an easier input, and this is important.
Although I have just said that decisions should be taken as locally as possible, it is also worth considering whether we need a Secretary of State for environmental protection with a seat in the Cabinet. That department should include planning, national parks, historic buildings and ancient monuments, the control of pollution, resource conservation, and material recycling. It should also have within its orbit the Nature Conservancy Council and the Countryside Commission, because too often at the moment there are different areas of conservation, and it does not make for a coherent programme. I hope that the Government will consider those suggestions.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, after the rousing speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, I feel that I have to declare my Merseyside connection. My mother was entirely Welsh in origin but my grandfather on the maternal side was the official port gauger for the docks of Liverpool. I can therefore claim a certain indirect connection. He was also incidentially the first person, so far as I know, to take a doctorate in literature by examination of the University of London in his spare time.
This debate has come at a slightly awkward moment for those of us engaged on the environmental clauses of the Agriculture Bill, and who are looking forward with some apprehension to the massive Housing and Planning Bill, which I believe comes before us early in July. Nonetheless I am sure that it is much to be welcomed as it provides an opportunity to touch on certain considerations which affect both the urban and rural areas, and all of us have indicated that we have certain causes particularly close to our hearts that we are anxious to draw to the attention of your Lordships' House.
For my part I am concerned about the structure on which a great deal of our environmental protection depends, and that is our planning system, which, in recent years, has come in for a good deal of criticism. The Government's declared aim, expressed a few days ago by the environment Minister, Mrs. Rumbold, is,to simplify and improve the efficiency of the planning system without deteriment to careful control.An admirable sentiment, but not too easy to put into practice.
One must agree that the planning system to which we have grown accustomed over the years has led to unnecessary complexities and to some long delays, but I have a great deal of sympathy for the views expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington. Are we not now in danger of going to the other extreme by over-centralising and so depriving local communities of the chance to put their own case effectively?
We have examples in major projects. The Channel tunnel and the second Severn Bridge, or barrage, if it 933 comes about, may be cases in point. Consultation for the former seems, in a formal sense, to be confined to those willing and able to enter into the list of petitioners in Parliament on a hybrid Bill. This is a quite daunting undertaking. It is not at all clear to me how local people are going to make their own community interests fully apparent to those who are primarily concerned with major financial and construction enterprises.
London docklands is another case in point. The procedures that seem to be likely to be embarked upon appears to be more daunting than the traditional public inquiry, with all its disadvantages. For private citizens, whose life can be significantly affected by proposed developments, the chance to make their voice heard is extremely important. Whether we ought to rethink the whole structure of planning policy on the lines suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, I do not think we can enter into tonight, but that there is a feeling of unease and questioning, on a broader basis than the Government perhaps realise, is of importance and should engage our attention, although it is doubtful whether we can do this on the Housing and Planning Bill coming before us. There is so much else in that Bill that it would be difficult to attempt a real reconstruction of our planning system just yet.
The Government have already made certain alterations, in their enterprise zones, and simplified planning zones, both of which have their justifications but unless they are handled with a strong sense of social and environmental responsibility they can diminish rather than enhance local values. They need the most careful scrutiny and examination in practice.
Faced with the challenge of unemployment and the urge to invest in enterprise at almost any cost, there is a strong temptation for both local and central government to let other considerations slide. Fortunately our traditional planning procedures, with all their faults, retain a strong hold. There have been two encouraging recent examples in the London area. Not long ago there were apprehensions that Wimbledon town centre conservation area might have been de-designated—an ugly word, but I believe it is the correct jargon—to enable the Borough of Merton to develop land to the detriment of the conservation area, but land in which the borough itself has a direct financial interest. Fortunately, the Minister, as I understand it, has now seen fit to call in this planning proposal for his own determination after public inquiry.
Another encouraging sign has been that in Westminster many of us are glad to learn that the public library and the adjacent attractive area in Great Smith Street, in close proximity to Westminster Abbey, the precincts and Dean's Yard, is unlikely to be demolished. The proposal was to build yet another office block there, together with a deep underground car park which would have hopelessly congested traffic in that particular locality. I understand that the Westminster City Council is to be advised not to proceed with this development. This has been achieved only by a massive campaign of protest by the Victorian Society and other bodies, to which Westminster City Council has now given its ear.
934 It is an articulate area—and that does not apply to all other neighbourhoods—and it has some doughty champions, including the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, who played an active part in this campaign. At least it is encouraging that, if people care enough and can organise themselves adequately, the worst ravages can be prevented.
But difficulties remain. I want to draw attention tonight to one particular one. Your Lordships will be surprised to hear that it is in the Principality of Wales. On our Heritage Coast adjacent to the Pembrokeshire National Park, we face an example of economic development which is desirable in itself but which threatens to take a most damaging advantage of a planning loophole of the kind referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers. Above Marros beach, on a conspicuous Heritage Coast headland, within recent months a network of farm roads has appeared. I have seen aerial photographs of them and also of the 28 chicken houses recently erected. They are large chalet type structures, but just small enough to qualify on agricultural grounds for exemption from planning control. They are for free range poultry, but sited on a headland so windswept that the birds often prefer to remain indoors.
A steep pathway has been bulldozed down the cliff to the beach below. It can hardly be intended for the hens. Indeed it is not, because now the developer wants planning consent for housing for the people required to tend the poultry and to take over the poultry enterprise: a consent that he could never have hoped to obtain had he not first put up agricultural structures free of planning control. Now, of course, he can appeal to local sentiment because he is providing jobs—most desirable—but nobody is going to tell me that in South Carmarthenshire and the adjacent county of Pembrokeshire he could not have found sites for these 28 very conspicuous structures. Whether the chalets will ultimately be turned into holiday accommodation for visitors is not clear, but it is not entirely impossible.
This developer wishes to repeat the performance at Laugharne, the Dylan Thomas shrine currently being visited by the former President of the United States. Mr. Jimmy Carter. But I am told that, fortunately, Carmarthen District Council is now fully alerted and is to apply to the Secretary of State for Wales for an Article 4 reference on the Laugharne proposition. What disturbs me particularly is that this developer has been partly financed by the official Welsh Development Agency. On another site the enterprise would have been admirable and much to be commended, but as it is the whole affair is a very sad example of how not to attempt to do good exploiting a planning loophole. This use of a planning loophole is apparently being encouraged in certain areas in North Wales as well as South Wales as a way of moving into an area to which otherwise one would not have access, by first putting up agricultural structures for which planning consent is not required as long as you keep them just below the limit of size.
I hope very much that, having drawn attention to this, both the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office will take it on board to see what can be done to make certain that this sort of exploitation is not repeated.
935 There are many other matters which concern those of us who are interested in conservation areas, listed buildings and so on but most of these will come up in the legislation that will be before us in July. I should say in advance that many of us are very much concerned with the proposals in that Bill for the relaxation of the conditions for Grade II buildings. We are also very much concerned about the landscape conservation orders that are coming up before us tomorrow in your Lordships's House. In a recent press release Mrs. Rumbold referred to these as being confined to national parks. If this is really so—this is by way of giving notice to the Minister about what may be raised tomorrow—most of us would consider that to be quite unacceptably narrow.
There are many other matters of business coming before the House tonight so I shall conclude by thanking my noble friend Lord Ardwick for giving us a chance to air some matters about which it is quite clear that many of us in this House are deeply concerned. This is an unusual parliamentary opportunity to draw attention to them.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, I feel a little nervous at following three such excellent speeches from three noble Baronesses. Indeed, this debate is dominated by the female sex because we have also heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, and my noble friend Lady Fisher, and we are about to hear from my noble friend Lady Nicol. I think that this is appropriate because women for the most part have to live with the consequences of misplaced male ingenuity. That is their life, and that is the life of all of us because we all live with the consequences of our misplaced ingenuity.
There may be one or two of your Lordships who are old enough to remember, as I am, when progress was automatically a good thing. The words "progress" and "good" were virtually synonomous and one knew that the future was bright, even though one might arrive at it from different avenues, by, on the one hand, the sudden perfection of the perfect market economy which would operate to the benefit of all concerned, or, on the other hand, by the development of a Socialist peaceful revolution which would give us all that we wanted. One way or another we were sure that we would arrive at a wonderful condition in due course. We did not quite know when, but we knew we would get there somehow.
I am afraid that the generation growing up now has lost all that. They do not have the confidence we used to have that we would arrive eventually at a condition in which the good would prevail. It is not with us any more. So we are now concerning ourselves not with the ultimate good, but with how we can modify and mitigate the bad, how we can make things less bad than they are, rather than how we can bring them to some ultimate perfection.
My noble friend in his felicitous opening speech has given us an indication of the width of this subject. So could I: in this context I should like to talk about theatres; I should like to talk about the consequences of nuclear development. I should have said that if there was one threat above all since Chernobyl that we 936 are all conscious of, it is the threat of nuclear development. At one time I thought it was possible to separate opposition to the bomb from support for nuclear energy. That conviction or belief has recently been badly shaken. I now gravely doubt whether man can survive the consequences of his own nuclear ingenuity and I fear that he may succeed in destroying himself not by the consequences of nuclear war but by the incidental consequences of trying to use nuclear energy for a purpose which some people might argue must ultimately, possibly accidentally, lead to disaster. Human beings are fallible. They are fallible in the Soviet Union; they are fallible in the United States; they are fallible here, and mistakes can be made.
My noble friend reminded me that at one time my main concern was not with these disastrous things which we have to try to handle but with the relatively minor nuisance (but not minor to those who lived under it) of aircraft noise. He and I share in common, because we live not too far from each other, the consequences of living under the flightpath to Heathrow. He said that I would deal with aircraft noise. I am not sure that I shall deal with aircraft noise because I have been trying unsuccessfully to deal with it ever since 1958 when I moved to Putney. I tried to deal with it in another place as the Member of Parliament for that constituency, but I was not very successful, I am afraid. At one time we used to have a measurement of aircraft noise called the noise and number index. I wonder what has happened to it? I wonder whether it has gone the same way as the RPI, whether, because it produces inconvenient results it has been decided to concentrate on some other form of measurement which will not point to the truth so clearly. The noise and number index indicated that the great nuisance of aircraft noise was to do with the amount of noise; you could put up with a single noise in one hour, but what you could not put up with was a noise every minute. That is why the people living under the glide path at Heathrow suffer so much.
I want to assure the right reverend Prelate that I listened very closely to his remarkable maiden speech. I heard all of it from below the Bar because we have a rule that if a maiden speech has started, one cannot come in and sit down in the middle of it in case the "maiden" is so nervous as to be upset. There was no chance of that happening so far as the right reverend Prelate was concerned. He occupies a very strong Bench, but he will add further strength to it, and we shall all wish to hear more from him in the future.
My Lords, how are we going to deal with this problem of aircraft noise? How are we going to deal with the even greater problem of nuclear weapons? Frankly, I do not really know. It is a minor problem on the one hand, a major problem on the other. What it really boils down to is that all sections of the human race must be determined to get the situation under control and not allow the consequences of our own ingenuity to destroy us. We must decide consciously on a world basis to take hold of the situation and ensure that we are in charge and are not simply carried along by the consequences of what we can do. We have arrived at a point, as the "green" people tell us, at which we must not necessarily say that because we can do a thing we must do it, that it can be done and therefore we have to do it. We used to think that way 937 at one time and we cannot get out of the habit. Because a thing could be done all societies used to say "It is there, so we have to do it". The mountain had to be climbed, the experiment had to be conducted.
We have reached the point at which we must say, "No". Whether it is chemical warfare, nuclear warfare, or the minor injury of aircraft noise, it must be brought under control. It must be controlled not necessarily in the interests of those who are flying in the air or those who are conducting experiments, but in the interests of the people who are living under the glide path, the people who are going to suffer the consequences of the nuclear experiments, the people whom we in this House, indirectly perhaps, regard ourselves as representing.
I welcome this debate. My own contribution to it has not been as informed and as particular as some of the contributions have been. I hope that does not mean that I have nothing informed or particular to say. However, in spite of what my noble friend said, I have allowed myself to be urged along on to the wider path, and I hope your Lordships will think no worse of my contribution for that.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Lord Walston
My Lords, first of all I should like to express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for giving us the opportunity to have this extremely well-informed and highly interesting debate. He has given an example of how to protect his environment by placing himself originally between two noble Baronesses and behind yet another one; so his environment has been well protected and it is good that he gives us that example!
I should also like to add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate for his stimulating, well-informed and sensitive maiden speech. He certainly does not present any "sly shade of a Rural Dean"; rather, he presents the robust reality of a realistic rural Bishop, which for us in this House is an enormous asset. We look forward very much to hearing his wisdom on his own area and many other areas, too, in the future.
It has come out in this debate, far-ranging as it has been, that this problem of protection of the environment, rural and urban, is almost entirely a question of balance. For instance, the right reverend Prelate talked about the conflict—conflict or balance; one has to hold the balance in a case of conflict—between amenity and production and rural employment. That is a real conflict between groups at Wormwood Scrubs: a difficult balance to hold. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins conflict between groups at Wormwood Scrubbs: a difficult balance to hold. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, talked about aircraft noise. That involves the balance between the amenity of those living underneath and the convenience of those who have to get from one place to another speedily. The whole question of environment is surely a question of balance.
There are many other balances. For instance, there is the balance between cost and benefit. Protection and enhancement of the environment is a costly matter. Are the benefits that are going to accrue, not only to the present generation but to those of the future, worth 938 that particular amount of expenditure? There is the balance between those who want to enjoy the quiet environment, as the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, mentioned—those living in a rural area—and those who do not have the advantage of living in a rural environment but who want to have the opportunity of going there and enjoying it, of picnicking there, of camping or hiking there, very often to the detriment of those who actually live there.
There is the balance between preserving the old and encouraging the new. That is something which has not been mentioned but we must remember it. For instance, what would we think of Rome today if there had been environmentalists in the 16th century who had preserved all the mediaeval and older parts of Rome and we had none of the beautiful buildings which appeared there because the old ones were razed to the ground? What if the environmentalists had been busy at the time of Capability Brown and he had not been able to level his hills, make his lakes and build his bridges?
There is a further balance that we have to bear in mind, the balance of convenience and efficiency against that of conservation. The City of London, which is not a place for which I hold any brief, was created primarily for the convenience of merchants in the first place and later, in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, for finance houses. Yet, in order to create that environment where they could prosper and work comfortably and efficiently, the City of London destroyed more Wren churches between the wars than any of Hitler's bombs did during the whole of the war. That is again some form of balance.
Then there is the balance between a quiet countryside and good communications and access. Should motorways be built? Should bypasses be built? They destroy some of the things that people fortunate enough to live in the country have enjoyed for generations, and yet they add to the enjoyment of those who do not have the privilege of living there. They enable them to get there; they enable them to get to other places too.
There is the balance between the official flotation of industry and creating overcrowding in the South-East and dereliction in the North-West—and in the North-East, too, for that matter. All these are matters of concern, matters of environmental importance, which cannot be decided as they were until relatively recently purely by the free play of the markets. They cannot be decided solely by the gentlemen in Whitehall who know best. They cannot be decided by the pressure groups who happen to have got a great movement going to preserve some particular type of rare bird and who ignore all the interests of the other people who live near or by that particular area.
I think now that in some cases, but by no means all, the pendulum may have swung rather too far in the opposite direction from the old laissez-faire way. There are inordinate planning delays which cause not only a great deal of hardship to people and loss of money but a great many lost opportunities. The Piccadilly Circus problem still has to be solved. And there are preservation orders on some houses of interest, in good state and of considerable attraction but in which nobody wants to live and which the owner cannot afford to preserve properly.
939 I believe that some of these things have gone too far. But for all that, having made that caveat, I think there is still a great deal to be done; there is still much on which money must be spent and to which thought must be given: effluent control, exhaust gases (which have been mentioned), acid rain (also mentioned), nuclear wastes. These are matters of very pressing importance indeed; and there are also the environmentally sensitive areas (which we shall be discussing tomorrow): the national parks, the areas of outstanding beauty. All these are steps in the right direction. I am not blaming the Government for this at all; but all the steps that have been taken so far, although good, useful and even admirable, have been too small. The steps have not been great strides; they have been hesitating, little steps. If we are to preserve and improve our rural and our urban environment, we must go farther and we must go faster.
May I make one suggestion to the noble Lord who is going to reply? In my view, the old regional economic planning councils played an enormously useful part in achieving a balanced form of long-term planning in their regions. One needs a body which is more widely based than are our normal local governments; which is closer to the actual problems of the area than central government can ever be; which can take a long-term view without an eye on elections coming up and on popularity; but which looks overall and can look at a wider area than any single local authority; which can look at matters such as location of industry, long-term planning of communications, including the siting of airports; whether there should be more international airports in the North or in the North-East; housing; whether there should be a new town here or whether it is better to have substantial housing estates on the outskirts of existing towns, public and private; whether you should enlarge certain villages. All these things must be looked at on a longterm basis and on a regional rather than a purely local authority basis.
Similar plans and decisions must be taken for industry, too. I believe that as well as encouraging and expanding those authorities, those bodies that are already in existence, the revival of some form of regional planning is the most effective way of protecting both the urban and the rural environments against current effects.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, it is customary to say that this has been a wide-ranging debate. I think that perhaps this evening, the cliché is actually true. We have ranged from inner cities to Cornish landscapes and back again. I must thank my noble friend for giving us this opportunity because many of the things that we are discussing tonight loom very large in people's minds and another opportunity to discuss them is very welcome indeed. Perhaps I may also add my compliments to the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech, which was excellent. I think that it is an interesting reflection on the state of mankind's minds that when he described as the height of privilege an absolutely empty landscape, there was a murmur of approval all round the House. I think that it is rather sad that we should have reached the stage where to get 940 out of sight of our fellow beings is our one aim in life. But that seems to be what we all want.
My remarks can be only a summary because it is a vast subject and we have very little time. But there is no doubt about the public concern and the growing awareness of the need to conserve our environment. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Walston, feels a little defensive about conservationists. I am equally sorry that he chose Rome as an example because I seem to remember that it was burned to the ground—which got them off to a flying start; and there was not much that the convervationists could do about it at that stage.
All governments have contributed to protective legislation. In an idle moment, I sat down and made a list of the protective Acts which Labour governments have brought in. Perhaps I could make a pact with the Minister. I shall not read out my list to prove the green virility of the Labour Party if he will promise not to read out his, which I am sure that he has. Let us just accept the fact that all governments have introduced legislation which has been useful in protecting the environment. The Royal Commission on Environment Pollution has now produced 11 reports and has given us plenty to go at. If we are looking for ways in which to do it, we have plenty of guidance. But the need for action is greater than ever, and today I want to concentrate on the United Kingdom's problems not because we can ignore world problems or the fact that we contribute to them—and demands on world resources which we make too must be considered—but because we have our own problems and they are the ones which press hardest upon us.
Our greatest problems are because of overpopulation. A number of speakers have made this point. It is that and it is the high expectations that we have now introduced into our population; we expect a very high standard of living accommodation, of feeding and of environmental surroundings. But our most immediate problem is the one caused by the waste products of a very sophisticated society. I shall come on to litter in a moment. It is visible, it is the one which upsets people but it is perhaps the most superficial of all the problems that we have to deal with.
We have chemical wastes, nuclear wastes, sewage residues and motor vehicle emissions; and we have learned to live with the need to deal with these. The only way we shall not be able to have them to deal with is if people are prepared to live with reduced expectations—and I cannot see that happening. Our problems could be lessened because some of the processes producing chemical wastes are capable of being reorganised to produce less waste at a cost. Discharges to sewage systems could be more tightly controlled, making sludge less toxic and easier to dispose of; and that is one of our greatest problems at the moment. Vehicle emissions are being controlled and I am happy to be able to say to my noble friend Lady Fisher that we hope to have lead-free petrol in full use in the early 1990s and certainly by 1997 which I think is the very latest date for it.
But the noise and the visual intrusion of traffic are still with us, and particularly that of the very large lorries, and so is aircraft noise. It is no coincidence that this year a noise council has been formed to try to deal 941 with the problems caused by noise. It is being more and more recognised as a pollution in its own right, and the Environmental Health Institution is very concerned with it. Agricultural pollution is at least being recognised as a very serious problem, and legislation exists which could be used to control it. Overall we could, as a nation and as individuals, look to our attitudes of over-consumption of energy and natural resources—including, incidentaly, packaging. We are hopelessly over-packaged. We buy items which have packets within packets, wrapped in plastic bags, for one item. That contributes largely to our litter problem that we are all having to deal with.
Last month, the Government's response to the World Conservation Strategy was published: that is six years after the original document came out. The document to which the right reverend Prelate referred, I think, was a document which was produced by a combination of voluntary and statutory bodies. It was not the official government response. The one we are dealing with at the moment—this beautiful object—is the official government response, which has just come out.
The response itself and the speeches which the right honourable Minister in another place made at its launching are hopeful and we do not quarrel with them. What worries us is that in the application of existing legislation and in Government proposals for the economy there is direct conflict with their stated conservation aims. I shall give just a few examples of that, although I have not very much time. The response admits the need for continuing research in environmental science: yet money for such research is being cut year by year, and many of the institutions who have made past contributions to environmental science are to be privatised—which almost certainly means further reductions in non-commercial research. This document draws attention to the value of environmental science in the control of pollution and in other ways.
The noble Baroness, Lady White, was very anxious about this and about the White Paper Lifting the Burden, and its offspring which has just arrived Building Business, not Barriers. Both documents undermine the planning system which has been the backbone of environmental protection in urban areas. We have heard cries from all sides tonight for protection of the green belt and we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, about the need to control farm buildings. However, if we are to introduce controls for farm building we need also to remember that controls on industrial building are about to be relaxed; and I think this is a very dangerous road for us to follow.
The Food and Environmental Protection Act, which we all hailed last year as a step forward in the control of farm pollution, is likely to fall short of some of the most useful protections because, in spite of promises made at the time of its passing, we understand that adequate staffing to enforce the provisions has not been appointed and is unlikely to be so. If I could return just for a moment to the question of litter, which has been having a lot of publicity lately because of a certain amount of litter on the way from Heathrow, I saw today an extract from the Code of Practice for Routine Maintenance, issued by the 942 Department of Transport at the end of 1985 and which came into effect on 1st April this year. I will read only small extracts from it because there is quite a lot all in the same vein. It gives directions for highways authorities on how to maintain roads, and it says:Kerbed rural all-purpose trunk roads shall not be swept more than once per year unless … there are special circumstances".It also says,Urban kerbed all-purpose trunk roads shall not be swept more than twice per yearandrural unkerbed roads will not be swept at all unless a particular need arises.I wonder whether the Minister from the Department of the Environment is aware of what his friends in the Department of Transport are doing. On the very next page—and this is even worse—it says:All litter bins shall be removed from all-purpose trunk road lay-bys and notices erected advising road users to take their litter away.In view of the fuss that is currently being made and the appointment of Mr. Branson to clear up the country, it seems to me that the Department of Transport needs to be reminded of the present priorities of the Government. That document goes on like that, and there are other pages which I will not read.
I could give many more examples of inconsistencies but I have reached the end of my time, and so I shall simply say that we have now to support all our fine words in legislation with action—not for political reasons but for reasons of survival. The Church of England report, which I have read with much interest and great pleasure (and I am delighted that the Church is taking an active interest in this side of life because I believe it is its right to do so) seems to imply that we have a choice between protection of the natural world and meeting the needs of mankind. In reality, there is no choice. If we destroy the natural world, we destroy ourselves. It is time to stop making speeches and take action. To borrow the slogan of the World Wildlife Fund in its local British wildlife appeal, "Tomorrow may be too late."
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, for a debate today of great interest to so many noble Lords and for the opportunity to hear an extremely well-informed and constructive maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro. If I may add another word of congratulation, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, actually triumphed in a difficult situation in imposing a structure on a speech which was almost complete from start to finish and which will certainly be far more cohesive than anything I shall be able to produce from the cobbled-together bits that I have in response to points made in the speeches we have listened to.
I am glad of the opportunity of explaining the action which the Government are taking to deal with many of the threats to our environment to which noble Lords have referred. One of the most characteristic features of the 20th century has been the change it has brought in how we see the planet on which we live. That is not surprising, because, for the first time, we can actually see it as a planet from outside, thanks to satellite technology. What we then see is that it is what we have 943 always been told it was—one single finite object on which all of us live, all of us move and all of us have our being. Natural resources are more clearly finite and therefore more clearly precious than they have ever been; and our environment is more clearly common to all of us than it has ever been.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, has pointed out, the explosion at Chernobyl has driven that lesson home. In that context, I should say that that is why discussions are now under way in the International Atomic Energy Authority to make more effective international arrangements for disclosing information on nuclear accidents. Noble Lords should also be aware of the existing bilateral treaty arrangements with France. An agreement is currently being negotiated with Ireland and representations have been received from the Federal Republic of Germany and from Denmark. So conservation and preservation of the natural environment is not simply a local activity; and to treat it even as simply a national activity still does not fully recognise either its scale or its importance. What we do to the environment in one country can, and quite often does, affect what happens to it not only there but in other parts of the world as well.
That is why this Government welcome the publication of a World Conservation Strategy by the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the World Wildlife Fund. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred to that and she also referred to the United Kingdom's response to this strategy, which was published last month. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate and to the noble Baroness for their references to this, as it explains our approach to conservation in the United Kingdom fully. I will not now attempt to summarise it but the whole of it is relevant to this debate. Copies are available in the Printed Paper Office, and I commend it to your Lordships, who can have it free, as a very clear and full exposition and, as the noble Baroness said, elegantly presented.
I am also glad to see that the World Resources Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development have together produced the first of what is intended to be a series of annual reports, aimed at providing a valuable contribution to the information base on the world's natural resources and what is happening to them now. I think that this is a constructive and useful step and, had it been published a week earlier, many of your Lordships would have drawn from it this evening.
Conservation and protection cannot be considered on their own, because they have an important interaction with other policies and other priorities. The economy of a nation is as much an organism of interacting parts as is its ecology, and in both good health comes, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, sagely pointed out, from a proper balance.
So the first thing to be said about today's subject is that policies to improve or preserve the environment must be made and seen as part of the overall strategy for future development. The balance between production and conservation, for instance, means this. We cannot afford to create an environment in which 944 we cannot subsequently afford to live; and that echoes the theme of the right reverend Prelate's speech. The guide to the World Conservation Strategy put it very well when it said that:The aim of the world conservation strategy is to help advance the achievement of sustainable development through the conservation of living resources".The concerns which have been expressed today go wider than those about living resources. There is much of our physical and built environment that is also precious. But the underlying point remains valid; we need both conservation and sustainable development and we have to strike a healthy balance.
The British approach to environmental protection is to take sensible, balanced measures which recognise the interests of all the parties concerned and which will endure. We also recognise that in many situations prevention may be better than cure. But complete protection from environmental damage will not always be technically feasible or economically practicable.
I want to turn now to how this approach is being put into practice. Several noble Lords have spoken about their concern to see more done to control pollution. The noble Baroness said that we must be most careful about our waste products. It reminded me—I think I am right in saying this—that the way in which cheese mites preserve cheese is by producing a level of waste products which stops them from eating any more. We do not want to get into that position ourselves. Our policies are based on the concept of finding the best practical environmental option. This means that we compare the potential impact of alternative ways of dealing with pollution, and choose that which secures the best overall result when costs and benefits are taken into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, directed our attention to sulphur dioxide. Emissions of this have fallen by 42 per cent. since 1970 and by more than 20 per cent. since 1980. Noble Lords have suggested that we ought to join the 30 per cent. club. The club's 30 per cent. target is entirely arbitrary, and the 1980 base year gives a country like the United Kingdom no credit whatsoever for the reduction in emissions before that year, during which time some members of the club were actually increasing their emissions and producing a higher threshold from which to reduce. We expect our actual performance to equal or better that of a number of those countries which have signed the club protocol. Had it been a "40 per cent. since 1970" club we should have been a founder member.
The Government hope to achieve a 30 per cent. reduction on the emission level of 1980 by the later years of this century, and I remind your Lordships again that that reduction will be from a level already reduced by 24 per cent. since 1970. We are not the uncaring villains, therefore, that people sometimes paint us. Nitrogen oxide emissions, which have changed little over the past decade, will also be reduced. The aim is a 30 per cent. reduction on a similar timetable. In reply to the noble Lord's direct question, the reduction in sulphur dioxide will result from continuing steps to control the emission from power stations, from a continuing increase in the efficiency of use of energy and from an increase at a responsible rate, as he suggested, in our nuclear power capacity.
945 Pollution from motor vehicles has come under criticism from the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, and others this evening. It has also come under increasingly tight control. During the 1980s, more cars travelled further on British roads than ever before. That includes, no doubt, the road linking London with Birmingham or, for the avoidance of doubt, Birmingham with London. Yet their total emission of lead to the atmosphere was falling even before the maximum permitted amount of lead in petrol was reduced from 0.4 to 0.15 grams per litre at the beginning of this year—a reduction of over 60 per cent. We are also taking steps to ensure that lead-free petrol will become increasingly available in this country in the late 1980s and hope that this form of pollution will be phased out altogether by the end of the century.
I should also say to the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, and the noble Baroness that we should also see an improvement in other emissions from motor vehicles. Agreement reached last year by the EC environment ministers on the framework of a permissive directive for tighter standards for gaseous emissions from cars is still subject to outstanding reservations by Denmark and Greece. We hope that these can be lifted soon. So far as the United Kingdom is concerned, although we do not intend to impose any standards which effectively require expensive three-way catalysts, considerable improvements on current standards should be possible in the early 1990s, using cost-effective technology. An appropriate standard can be decided nearer the time, in the light of research now under way.
I am not competent to judge the comparative costs, which the noble Baroness suggested were advertised at the conference. I will read Hansard with care, but I think the noble Baroness will find that she was comparing one system, which is fuel efficient and improves fuel efficency, with another which is fuel expensive and therefore has a different environmental impact; and again we come to the question of balance.
I will draw my colleagues' attention to the regulations about the cleansing of roads, but I would just say without special information that, having driven over a great many unkerbed rural roads for many years, both before and after the issue of this guidance, one does not see the rubbish on the roads. One sees it in the hedgerows, and sweeping a country road, unless there is a special circumstance which is provided for in the regulations, would often be an interesting but not a useful method of employment of the person driving the sweeper. However, I am not expert in this and will write to the noble Baroness.
The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, was also concerned with the aircraft noise climate around Heathrow and suggested that it is worsening. I sympathise with anybody who believes subjectively that nights are getting noiser, but I assure him that that is not the case in that area, because I have to tell him that, objectively tested, there has been a considerable improvement. The area within what is described as the 35 noise and number index contour—the generally recognised indicator of the onset of annoyance; whether it coincides with the noble Lord's onset of annoyance, I do not know, but that is the recognised criterion—was 826 square 946 kilometres in 1974. In 1984, the last year for which information is available, it was down to 433 square kilometres and the population within the area affected had reduced from 2 million to under 800,000. That is a considerable improvement, but it will not have improved the sleep of the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, and he is now about to tell me so.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, it was not the quality of the noise with which I was so much concerned, as the number of night flights which has increased and is apparently increasing. They have been counted.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for his clarification. The noise and number index embraces number as well as noise, but as to night noise I have no special information. I will leap over the legislation, which the noble Baroness invited me not to mention, and undertake simply to write to the noble Lord on that technical aspect.
From air, I turn by natural progression to the question of water, where I think the Government also have a good record of cleaning up our rivers. In 1958, the extent of our tidal and non-tidal rivers and canals classed as grossly polluted amounted to 7 per cent. of their total length. By 1980, it had dropped to 2 per cent. Ninety per cent. of all river and canal length in England and Wales, and 99 per cent. of all river length in Scotland, are now in good enough condition to supply drinking water and to support fish. Looking at some of them, your Lordships may be surprised. Thirty years ago the tidal Thames was virtually devoid of life, whereas now it supports more than 100 species of fish, some in abundance.
Action to improve rivers will continue and particular effort is being devoted to cleaning up the Mersey, which is of interest to a number of your Lordships and which is one of the most grossly contaminated major estuarine systems in the country. Britain will host an international conference on the North Sea in 1987.
After those references to water and air, it is natural to turn to the land, and its uses. Land use control is provided by the town and country planning system which has to balance two very different objectives—to provide for developement and to protect our natural and built environment. The development control system has reduced the natural rights of individual property owners to use their land to its full economic potential. It is right, therefore, that the procedures for operating the system are based upon judicial principles so that the rights of individuals can be properly safeguarded. But some of the procedures have become too cumbersome and time consuming, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, said. The Government have taken steps to simplify and speed up planning where this can be done without undermining the principles on which it is based. The announcement I made on Monday about our proposals to simplify the Use Classes Order illustrate this philosophy. They will remove from planning control changes of use which have no significant environmental effects, but retain more effective and efficient control over the remainder. I believe noble Lords will find that these are sensible and practical proposals and that the fears of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, will prove unfounded. We are also taking steps to make 947 considerable reductions in the time taken to process about 80 per cent. of all appeal cases.
I sympathise very much with the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, that local people are the best custodians of their environment. They can see both sides of the balance more clearly than we can. That is why I am concerned to see that the strategic guidance we provide, for instance, to replace the structure plans of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils, shall be general in nature and provide a matrix within which local authorities can prepare their unitary plans with reasonable freedom. I have to remind the noble Baroness, Lady White, however, that some decisions have far more than a local importance and are proper for the Secretary of State to call in, as I am sure she will agree, and that others have regional and even national importance and are the proper concern of Parliament.
I am profoundly relieved to hear, and I heartily endorse, the view of the noble Baroness that the Housing and Planning Bill is not a vehicle for the fundamental restructuring of the planning system. I shall draw the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales to the chickens she refers to on his heritage coast.
The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, also shares my interest in public inquiries. We do keep procedures under review; but of her proposal for a two-stage system I can only say that at present I fear that very heavy penalties in length of time would result from the difficulty of distinguishing between strategic and local matters and seeing that they were not inexhaustibly rehearsed on both occasions. I am not qualified to judge her proposal on value added tax, which I shall pass on. I shall comment only by saying that I foresee hideous difficulties in fitting it into the European formula, but that is not for me.
The noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, expressed a concern, shared I think by all, for the green belts, and about the Government's attitude to them in particular. I believe our record on this ought to speak for itself. There are now some 4½ million acres of green belt, and more than half of it has been approved since we came to office in 1979. Green belts not only check urban sprawl and provide open space around and between settlements for people like the noble Baroness to walk and simply breathe in; they also provide a means by which pressure for development in city areas can be focused back into the inner city where it is so badly needed. There was one quotation from a most regrettable leading article in the London Standard on Monday. I shall not waste time on rebutting a travesty of the Prime Minister's position that was published there.
But even in the green belts we must achieve a balance for the health of the system we want to preserve. We are committed to preserving the green belts but it would be dangerous and destructive to the local communities to stop all new initiatives in the green belts and to leave them to stagnate. I can tell my noble friend Lady Vickers that that is why we are encouraging the redevelopment of redundant farm buildings in the green belt. It is far better to have a well maintained building in active use supporting a rural community so that we have a live green belt than to let 948 it fall into disuse, disrepair and ruin with others while the rural economy—and the green belt—decline with it. The change in agricultural methods and the decline in agricultural population mean that we have to do something if there is not to be this sort of stagnation.
I should like to return briefly to the point I made about the importance of making use of land for development in inner city areas. Many noble Lords will have seen an article in The Times last week by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. It mentioned the importance of releasing surplus land for regenerative projects. We agree that this is vital. That is why we set up the land register system, which records unused and underused publicly owned land throughout England. Without the register we should not even know the extent of the wasted resource. The register shows that some 110,000 acres of land in England are under-utilised of which around 5,700 acres—not 100,000 acres as stated—are in London.
But even so it shows that there is still considerable scope for development in London. Since the register was set up in mid-1981, 148,000 acres have been registered and 38,000 acres removed, of which 27,000 have been sold or otherwise brought into use by the owner. That is not a completely negligible amount of land to have removed from sterilisation. And the process of development within our major conurbations has been made simpler and quicker within the past few months by the removal of a whole tier of planning authorities in the metropolitan counties and Greater London. We have reduced by a third the number of hurdles a developer potentially has to jump in order to get into this land and develop it.
The noble Lord's approach to this whole subject was a touch pessimistic. I apologise if I go on a couple of minutes longer, but I have actually an awful lot of spare time—I shall not use it all. The noble Lord's approach was I think a little less than cheerful. I hope I said a few things that may cheer him up. He should certainly have been cheered up by the right reverend Prelate with his constructive and intensely loyal commitment to Cornwall. I was deeply interested in his description of where his roots were and the equally intense loyalty of my noble friend Lord Mersey. Where there is positive enthusiasm there is more than hope; there is the expectation of success.
I think your Lordships would prefer me not now to start banging the rather large and impressive drum I have for the things we have done in the urban environment. The figures are impressive but your Lordships have not teased me too much on this. I believe that I should leave it on the record—it is already in Hansard—rather than detain your Lordships before the next debate.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for a fascinating and very wide-ranging debate. I believe that the Government have the correct philosophy, and it is a philosophy of balance and care. For as long as I am attacked from one side for too much development and from the other for too little, then I shall think that we are not going too far wrong.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord the Minister for his detailed answers to the questions that I and other noble Lords have raised. 949 However, I must add that his reply on the subject of the green belt fills me with dismay, as I am sure it fills others with dismay, and he failed to repeat the undertaking that has been given previously by the Government that there would be no major developments within the green belt. But perhaps that can be read into the noble Lord's words, which I shall read tomorrow in Hansard.
I want to thank also everybody else who has taken part. I was very worried about this debate because I saw that it was starting too soon after the last race at Ascot and rather before the kick-off of the World Cup game. I hope that everyone here has felt well rewarded by this debate because I understand that we have missed another glorious triumph for England, who have beaten Paraguay by three goals to nil. In any event, perhaps noble Lords will be able to watch the highlights later.
There is one other point I want to make. My noble friend Lady Nicol spoke about the burning of Rome. Many years ago our beloved late Baroness, Lady Stocks, wrote a play on Nero, in which the final line was:This is not just slum clearance; this is town planning".
§ My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.