Orders of the Day — Greater London and the South-East

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:54 pm on 1st April 1993.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 11:54 pm, 1st April 1993

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on securing the pole position for this slot. I often wonder whether this is the way to do it at this time of night. Government policies in London and the south-east are certainly an important subject. I hope that the Government will examine carefully the possibility of giving us an all-day debate on London and the south-east so that perhaps more hon. Members can participate and we will have a little more time to discuss the important issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow talked about decline in the east end. That is something that I know well, coming from an east end constituency. He mentioned begging and sleeping on the streets. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) mentioned the same situation.

The housing crisis in London is critical. I know from my own constituency case-load that housing has become the predominant issue with which I must deal. It now takes up perhaps 60 per cent. plus of all the constituency cases with which I deal. Indeed, one need only see the number of people who are homeless or in bed-and-breakfast and temporary accommodation to realise how dire the problem is. The hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) mentioned that people are able to purchase their own homes and how good that was as a Government policy. He must realise that more than 1 million people are living in homes with negative equity, of whom the largest concentration will be in London and the south-east.

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) attacked the London county council and the houses it had built. I must remind him that that council built some of the finest public sector housing in the world, and it is acknowledged as such. It gave people the first opportunity in London to have decent, sanitary housing. It was a matter of great pride that the Labour party played such a prominent role in achieving that for Londoners—at a time when Conservative politicians also supported the housing policies of the London county council. Since I am old enough now, I remember the days when rival leaders of the two main political parties used to vie with one another to brag about who built the most homes. I would willingly see such a contest being entered again, rather than having the situation which exists in the east end, around London and in other parts of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned begging—the young people who beg on the streets of London. It is a disgrace. When I go round the streets of London, I feel ashamed to see so many young people begging. It always comes back to me that it was the present Prime Minister, when he was the Minister for Social Security, who cut off all benefits for 16 and 17-year-olds. He need walk only a few yards from 10 Downing street or the Palace of Westminster to see some of the appalling impact of that dreadful decision to cut off benefits for young people.

We had much discussion from my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), about unemployment in London. Since the slump began in April 1990, unemployment in London has risen from about 200,000 to approaching 500,000. The increase in unemployment in London has been greater than in any other region in the European Community. That is a reflection of the way in which the Government's mismanagement of the economy has led to the United Kingdom performing much worse than all comparable countries in the current difficult times.

It is a reflection of a longer period of neglect by the Government. We look back to 1979 when the Conservative party gained office. At that time, unemployment in London was substantially below the national average. It stood at 2·7 per cent. in June 1979, compared with a national rate of only 4 per cent. under the Labour Government. Since that time, through both downswings and upswings in the economy, London's position relative to the national average has deteriorated. In June 1979, London's unemployment rate was 67 per cent. of the national average. By 1985, it stood at 81 per cent. of the national average. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, London's unemployment rate rose above the national average in October 1991, for the first time since records have been kept, and now stands at 11·7 per cent., compared with a national rate of 10·4 per cent.

It is evident that under Conservative Governments, London has been allowed to slide into long-term decline. London has been hit hard by the current slump because the problems that developed in its economy in the 1980s were allowed to fester and grow. Therefore, London was in no position to weather the renewed onslaught of recession.

I shall touch on just a few of the problems. There was a devastating loss of manufacturing employment in the 1980s. From 1985 to 1990, half of all the maufacturing jobs lost in Britain were in London. As a result, London has a warped, unbalanced economy. It relied too heavily on the boom in the finance sector, which gave the impression that all was well. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, when the finance sector caught cold, London suffered severely.

Other problems are transport chaos, collapsing rail services and clogged roads. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, the air is unfit to breathe. Those are major deterrents to international businesses considering locating in London, as well as to tourists. London's chronically inefficient labour market fails to supply enough workers with high-level skills, yet traps thousands in poverty. During the boom in the late 1980s, when London employers were desperately short of labour, there were never fewer than 200,000 people unemployed in the city. Low-quality Government training programmes offer no solution to the problem. They dump people on the labour market with low levels of skill, where there is already an over-supply of labour. They fail to offer routes upwards to higher levels of skill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned how the impact of unemployment hits different communities in a different fashion. Unemployment in parts of London is as bad as anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Among young blacks, for example, unemployment in parts of the inner London boroughs now touches 70 and 80 per cent. So it is not surprising that there is so much social unrest. There is no justification for crime or for people taking the law into their own hands, but if we cut off large numbers of people from having any stake or say in the way in which society is run, it is not surprising that social problems proliferate.

My hon. Friends all mentioned transport in London. It is crucial. We have the most expensive urban transport system in Europe. The frustration of everyday travel in London is apparent to all of us who use public transport in the city. The frustration of bus and railway workers has reached boiling-over point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow mentioned the destaffing of British Rail stations. He mentioned Walthamstow Central station. I could also mention Forest Gate station, which I use daily. As a result of destaffing, there is violence and vandalism. My hon. Friend mentioned fare evasion. Yes, fare evasion is happening all over London. British Rail and London Underground are losing millions of pounds in fares because stations have been destaffed. There is no economic sense in that, if one thinks about it for a moment. It certainly leads to higher levels of vandalism and violence. That is why many Londoners, particularly women, are frightened to use London's transport system, especially late at night.

Privatisation of British Rail will inevitably lead to station closures in London and the south-east. In preparation for privatisation, workers on London buses are being told that if they want to keep their jobs, they will have to take big cuts in wages. I should like to see Conservative Members be prepared to accept that proposition with any degree of equanimity. No wonder the frustration has boiled over into industrial action, which started a few minutes ago. It will lead to great inconvenience for all people who want to use public transport in the capital city.

Although people do not like being inconvenienced by strikes, the majority of Londoners will support the action taken by transport workers in the capital. They know what those workers have to put up with. In the end, if one is ignored and treated with contempt one can only take action to demonstrate one's strength of feeling. All right-thinking Londoners will be on the side of the workers taking industrial action tomorrow. They have been forced into action by Government policies. The transport policy in London is driven by ideology.

I remember that the Prime Minister was once rejected—I might add, wisely—by London Transport as a bus conductor. It seems to me that he is now trying to gain his revenge by dismantling the whole transport system within the capital city.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd)—who I congratulate on launching his petition, which will be signed by many Londoners, calling for a new directly elected authority—mentioned the Confederation of British Industry figure of £10 billion annual cost arising from the congestion in London and the south-east. The answer is not to build more roads—we will come on to that in the debate that follows this one. The way to deal with congestion in London is to improve public transport. That is obviously the thing to do.

The Government have said that they are in favour of a number of schemes, but we have not seen very much action in terms of getting those schemes up and working. There is the Channel tunnel fast rail link—ha-ha; fancy calling it a fast rail link; it will not be built until the next century. It has made us the laughing stock of Europe. Then there is crossrail, which is so desperately needed in London, and the Jubilee line extension. How many more times will the Government dine out on the announcement that they have given their approval to the Jubilee line extension? When is it going to happen is the question that Londoners want answered. A prosperous economy requires a modern, efficient transport infrastructure. Frankly, if we do not recognise that, we will not recognise anything at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) mentioned the east Thames corridor, which will be started in Stratford. We welcome the announcement and we will enter, with the Government, into the consultation process, because we think that there are many things to be gained for London and the south-east from this initiative, but there are also many environmental considerations and other matters that have to be taken into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West also talked about the governance of London. He said that 31 March marked the seventh anniversary of the end of the Greater London council. We are the only capital city in the world without citywide government. We have no elected strategic body, but we have myriad unelected quangos and indirectly elected bodies trying to deal with London's strategic needs.

My hon. Friend mentioned the London Forum—another bunch of largely Tory business men. There are so many business men with Tory inclinations being appointed to these quangos that I am not really surprised that British business is so bad. If some of these business men spent a bit more time running their businesses instead of trying to run the affairs that ought to be run by locally elected members, Britain would be in a far better situation than it is in today.

The launch of the London Forum took place last Monday at a breakfast that I understand cost the taxpayers £15,000. Some breakfast! Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us what was on the menu.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West also mentioned the police authority—another strategic body that has been set up by the Government. We welcome this announcement. Again, we will join in the consultation process. I was on the GLC when it set up its police committee and proposed an elected police authority for London. We were denounced. Indeed, there was not a great deal of support for it among certain leading members of the Labour party at that time. But, of course, now it has come into our own election manifesto, it is supported by senior police officers, and it has been partially embraced by the Conservative Government. We welcome that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West also mentioned the county hall. It was a studied and deliberate political insult to London to allow a Japanese leisure group to propose turning county hall into a luxury hotel. The London School of Economics wanted to use it as its new base, but that was rejected by the Government. In many ways, it is symptomatic of the entire direction in which this county is going—failing to support one of the world's most eminent academic institutions and flogging it off to the Japanese to turn into a hotel. But there is a long way to go before county hall is turned into a hotel and I will use whatever influence I have to get a commitment to secure it as the natural home of a new strategic authority for London.

I say from the Dispatch Box tonight that it remains a firm commitment of the Labour party in government to establish the Greater London authority. London needs an elected voice, a body to stand up for and speak for Londoners, to restore our sense of identity in the capital city. The Greater London authority will do just that, and the next Labour Government will make the setting up of a new authority a real political priority.