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Environment, Housing and Construction

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th November 1976.

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Photo of Mr John Cartwright Mr John Cartwright , Greenwich Woolwich East 12:00 am, 26th November 1976

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It demonstrates that co-operative forms of activity have a measure of support on both sides of the political argument. That is something very much to be said in their favour.

I was sorry to see no mention of homelessness in the Gracious Speech—an omission also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller). I appreciate that this may have arisen because of the pressures of parliamentary time, but there are surely some items in the Gracious Speech which could have been given a lower priority than the question of settling, once and for all, responsibility for homelessness. I hope that the Government will take the earliest possible opportunity to make clear their view that responsibility in this respect should devolve on housing authorities and that, at the same time, the Government will provide the resources to go with that responsibility.

I also welcome the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the problem of the inner cities. Many of us who represent London constituencies—I refer to both Labour and Conservative Members—have sought to argue for some time that the streets of London are not all paved with gold. There are massive problems still to be solved in London, and we welcome the encouragement given to the solution of these problems by the Secretary of State.

I support some of the comments made by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) about the way in which in many inner city areas, our lives are becoming eroded by vandalism, litter and a general rundown atmosphere. This problem should be tackled jointly by central Government and local government.

I welcome the commitment in the Queen's Speech to the relaxation of controls on direct labour organisations. I have never been clear why there is always such a doctrinaire reaction from Conservatives whenever direct labour is mentioned. I believe that the system has a tremendous practical contribution to make to housing programmes. I can draw from my experience of one of the largest direct labour organisations in Greater London. That department has had over 40 years' practical experience of direct labour and has made an enormous contribution to housing and to the infrastructure in that borough. I accept that there are some direct labour organisations whose efficiency record is not as good as it might be, but there are also some private building firms which are not tremendous models of efficiency. Some of us have experienced housing contracts which have fallen through when a building contractor has gone bankrupt, and we know all about the subsequent problems that are left for us to sort out. I hope that we shall examine the direct labour proposals on their merits, and that we shall hear no more doctrinaire reactions from the Opposition.

I also welcome the fact that in referring to devolution the Government have also made clear their intention to publish a document on devolution to the English regions. There is a tremendous case for devolving central power to the regions of England and for taking over the ad hoc agencies that now exist at regional level in England and providing some democratic control over them. However, if we do that, clearly there must be some change in local government.

I do not believe that the people of this country will accept a third tier of government, with all the extension of bureaucracy involved in that. Therefore, I accept that if we are to have a regional tier, there must be changes in local government tiers under it. After the upheaval of the 1972–74 period, I accept that we cannot lightly and easily launch out on a further local government reorganisation. All that I say to my right hon. Friends is that I hope that we shall at least get clear our aim. If it is our final objective that we want a tier of regional government with, below it, a most-purpose tier of district authorities, we ought to settle that objective and ensure that in all our decisions and policies we are working towards the achievement of that objective.

What we want in regional and local government is not another reorganisation. We need a simplification—a system easier for people to understand, simpler to operate and, I hope, somewhat cheaper to run than that which we have today.

If we are considering local government and regional government structures, I hope that we shall not make the mistake of the Conservative Party and look at local government finance in isolation from structure. The point was clearly made in the Layfield Report. If we are looking at structure and finance, we have to make up our minds about what sort of local government system we want. Do we want genuine local democracy or local authorities that are merely acting as the agencies of central Government?

I suggest that the crisis in local government today is not just a financial one. It is in some ways a crisis of confidence, as people in local government and, I suggest, in this House have failed so far to make clear and to think through what sort of local government system and local government objectives we want to see.

All that I say to my right hon. Friends is that I understand their need to maintain overall economic management. However, I hope that in considering regional and local government structures and powers they will take every opportunity of trying to devolve more powers downwards from the centre to regions and local authorities to put local government on a more democratic basis than it is at present and to breathe new life into our local authorities.