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Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:35 pm on 10th January 2005.

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Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Team PPS), Home Office 6:35 pm, 10th January 2005

I can assure Derek Conway, on the basis of dealings I have had with my right hon. Friend the Minister on animal welfare issues, that my right hon. Friend will be assiduous in considering the animal welfare implications of the Bill—as he has been in the case of other Bills that have come his way.

I welcome the key provisions of the Bill, which are intended to drive up local environmental quality. The Bill will also play an important part in tackling antisocial behaviour in places such as my constituency. I want to focus on the aspects that will benefit constituents who have raised problems with me over many years.

Gating orders are an urban issue. Planners seem to have designed short cuts and public access routes to facilitate easy escape from the police rather than easy access to local facilities. An example is the alley backing on to the Fairway in Worcester, which links Otley close to Tolladine road. The pathway is unlit and contains two 90-degree turns, so people cannot see from one end to the other. Certain individuals have used that footpath to push over brick walls, damage fences and urinate into people's gardens. That is unacceptable behaviour, and gating orders might enable us to end such problems.

I am, however, acutely aware of the potential conflict—raised by my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping—between those who suffer from antisocial behaviour, who are victims of crime, and law-abiding people who just want to go from their homes to local facilities. I would like to know how the Minister expects local authorities and crime reduction partnerships to deal with that conflict. Who, ultimately, will have priority—victims of antisocial behaviour, or those who argue on libertarian grounds that they should have the right to use a footpath? If time limits are imposed, allowing gates to be closed in the evenings or whenever it gets dark, who will be responsible for the prompt closing and opening of the gates?

Gating could perhaps be used as a way of tackling antisocial behaviour on the part of older youths abusing children's play areas. There is a play area in Barley crescent and Tolladine road, and another in Great Oaty gardens, Warndon Villages. They are designed for children of five, six and seven, but tend to be occupied late in the evening by teenagers and older young people. Those whose homes back on to the play areas are subjected to the throwing of bottles into their gardens, and to fireworks and noise. Playgrounds are set on fire, and unwanted waste is generated. The play areas also attract individuals who seek to capitalise on the presence of groups of young people who may be particularly vulnerable to the selling of drugs and other illegal substances. The detached youth team in Worcester has worked hard, but the local council has failed it in not recognising the problem and in taking so long to establish a strategy.

I think that we would all accept that the antisocial behaviour and crime that abandoned cars tend to attract and promote are a real problem. A notice placed on a windscreen is like a green light for vandals, who think, "No one cares. Let us have some fun and damage that car." I welcome the fact that we will have speedier action on such behaviour.

In Worcester city last year, 414 abandoned cars were dealt with by the local council, so the issue affects areas that are perceived to be nice and middle-class and middle England, as well as more challenging areas. Therefore, I was dismayed to read a month or so ago that the local Conservative ruling group on the city council decided that dealing with abandoned vehicles was not a priority area for action. The Conservatives are trying to put over a party political argument in their motion, but it is one that my constituents will fail to understand.

Nuisance parking is not a recent phenomenon but it is a growing problem. For example, it is dangerous to sell cars on busy highways such as the London road going in and out of Worcester, and cars parked on the grass verges of streets such as Windermere drive are an eyesore. They reduce and devalue the amenities of the land in that area.

Litter cleaning notices will be a much welcomed, more flexible approach. We can start to enforce more responsible behaviour, so that wider communities are not disadvantaged by irresponsible individuals. I have walked Teme road and Avon road with the chief executive of the city council. Those areas are a disgrace and certain individuals are letting down the neighbourhood. Although one-off measures such as bulk waste or refuse collection are used to make an immediate clear-up, within a few months the area goes back to its normal state because there is no regular enforcement.

That is why I welcome the fixed penalty notice scheme and the different treatments that the council can apply. If the litter and waste are seen to be detrimental to the amenity of the locality, the local authority can take action, rather than having to wait to see whether an environmental health hazard is posed by all that litter and waste. The work of good local councillors such as Geoff Williams and Roger Berry in those areas can be supported by the Bill.

On graffiti, Worcester city has had the benefit for a number of years of a local benefactor, Mr. Cecil Duckworth and the services of his Duckworth Trust in helping to clean up the city and to rid it of graffiti. He is particularly keen to see graffiti dealt with and the problems caused by chewing gum highlighted because those are the two main problems that his group of workers has been working on. He was surprised, as I was, at Liberal Democrat opposition to provisions in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to restrict the sale of spray paints to those aged under 16. It is rewarding to see the Liberal Democrats' conversion on that matter, which I believe is what we heard this evening. I welcome the pressure that will be put on local authorities to ensure that the Anti-social Behaviour Act provisions on spray paint sales are enforced.

On the issue of future changes to local government structure, the Minister needs to be aware of changes that will increasingly need to be made to introduce more local community involvement. In Worcester, we have a two-tier local government structure, which has become increasingly outdated and needs to be changed, but the move to a unitary authority would create a larger local authority body responsible for the enforcement of many of the matters that are raised in the Bill. Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider, as the Bill makes progress, how powers can be delegated to the equivalent of parish and town councils in urban areas or to local area forums.

In summary, I welcome the measures, which are long overdue. I believe that they will help local government to reconnect with local communities, so that my constituents no longer hear the excuse that legislation does not allow local government officers to deal with the problems that they see day in, day out.