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The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): British Waterways has made tremendous strides in delivering the targets that we set it during my hon. Friend's period as waterways Minister, turning what had been a liability into an extremely important asset. We have significantly increased public investment in British Waterways. It expects to eliminate its safety-related backlog by 2004 instead of 2006. The document "Waterways for Tomorrow" reported on British Waterways' initiatives to work with the voluntary sector and to establish new public-private partnerships in telecommunications, property and water transfer.
Mr. Meale: I thank the Government for their continued commitment to British Waterways, and I pay particular tribute to the strong leadership of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Is the Department any nearer to achieving a single navigational authority for all the waterways in Britain, which would help modernisation?
Mr. Meacher: I pay a warm and well-deserved tribute to my hon. Friend for his close interest in British Waterways and for the fact that, under his stewardship, the inland waterways were turned into the much more dynamic and successful enterprise that they are today. There has been a huge increase in funding--it has almost tripled since 1997--and a long history of under- investment has been reversed. "Waterways for Tomorrow", which the Deputy Prime Minister launched last June, considered several options, including the one to which my hon. Friend drew attention. That is still under discussion with the new, dynamic chairman and chief executive of British Waterways, and we hope to make an announcement before long.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Many of us have unexpectedly acquired waterways in our constituencies, as I have in Redbourn, because of flooding and burst mains, and the only improvement that we want is to return those waterways to roads. That is held up by a shortage of tankers. Will the Minister investigate the
Mr. Meacher: I think that that question goes rather wide of British Waterways. It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman, who inherited this important asset, was unable to persuade his Government to end the huge under- investment that went on for 20 years. However, the point that the right hon. Gentleman made is sensible, and I shall investigate it and write to him.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The Government inherited a £19 billion backlog of council house renovation and improvement work. We have committed ourselves to bringing all council housing in England up to a decent standard by 2010. The resources provided to authorities for housing investment have been increased from £750 million in 1997-98 to £2.4 billion next year.
Ms Winterton: Council tenants in Doncaster are already seeing the extra money that is being invested in local authority housing beginning to reverse the years of under-investment under the previous Government. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is aware not only of the amount of substandard housing in Doncaster but of the particular problems that we face, such as the need to improve former Coal Board housing? Will he assure me that he will consider those matters when reviewing the allocation of the major repairs allowance, so that housing in my constituency can become a right for all and not just a privilege for a few?
Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments about the increases in capital spending. She will know that Doncaster is receiving £12.5 million in the current year and will receive £16.5 million next year. Those are substantial increases on the £5.5 million level inherited from the previous Government.
My hon. Friend is aware of the difficulties in her area and the need for a sustained programme of investment that brings together the resources of the local authority and all other bodies that are able to contribute. I am pleased to tell her that, only last Friday, I discussed with the leader of her local council and the cabinet member with responsibility for housing some of the specific issues affecting Doncaster and ways in which they can best proceed, with the Government's full support, to tackle those problems more effectively.
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Local authority tenants in Sheffield are keen that additional investment be made in their homes and are considering questions relating to the future tenure of their housing. Will the right hon. Gentleman assist their deliberations by making clear any link that exists between future investment arrangements and future tenure arrangements? Are the Government entirely neutral on who owns the
Mr. Raynsford: We have made it clear to local authorities that they have four options to consider in relation to the future of their stock. Those include continuing to administer their housing through a housing revenue account managed by the local authority; the possibility of acting through an arm's-length management company, as set out in our proposals in the housing Green Paper, whereby ownership remains with the local authority but the housing is managed at arm's length; the private finance initiative, under which £600 million additional credits will be made available to allow private sector involvement, but with ownership remaining with the local authority; and large-scale voluntary transfer to a registered social landlord. Those are the four options; all have a different impact and we expect local authorities to analyse the financial implications for themselves and to conclude which is the best option for their area. The Government have no preference and are not pressing local authorities to pursue any one of the four options.
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): I put it to my right hon. Friend that, instead of being given four options, local authorities are being directed towards only one option: stock transfer. At the meeting last Friday, it was made plain to him by the leader of Barnsley council that the council has no money in its accounts for housing improvements because it has been transferred to the major repairs allowance or the housing revenue account. Arm's-length companies will be available to no more than half a dozen local authorities, so some authorities such as mine, which has already held a ballot in which stock transfer was rejected, are between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are being forced down one line by the Government and not being given money for repairs if they want to keep their council housing.
Mr. Raynsford: I am happy to tell my hon. Friend, as I told his colleague the leader of Barnsley council at that meeting, that Barnsley has benefited from one of the largest increases in local authority capital funding of any local authority in the country--it is well above the national average. We want to work with Barnsley council and other local authorities to ensure the best possible outcome. It is right that authorities consider a range of options. I know that Barnsley considered stock transfer but that, by a narrow majority, tenants voted against it. I am sure that Barnsley council, like other authorities, will continue to do its best to use the substantially increased resources that the Government have made available, and that it will choose the option that is best for the interests of its tenants and housing in its area.
Mr. Raynsford: The Government have introduced a series of measures to encourage empty properties being brought back into use. In particular, we have taken effective action to bring empty Government property back into use. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman of our success in that respect: when the Conservative party was last in power, the Ministry of Defence had 14,000 empty properties; that figure is now down to 10,700--far too many, but decreasing. Under Conservative stewardship, my Department, now the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, had more than 1,000 empty properties; last year, that figure was down to 241. The current Government are taking action to produce results and to reduce the number of empty properties in this country.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): May I press my right hon. Friend on the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) about local authority housing? It is important that those authorities that eschew large-scale voluntary transfer are not penalised. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those authorities that do not go through the LSVT option will not be penalised either through rents or access to capital for improvements in their housing stock?
Mr. Raynsford: It is difficult to see how local authorities have been penalised in a year when they have received a 51 per cent. increase in their capital allocations. Next year, authorities across the country are due to receive a further 26 per cent. increase in capital allocations. The Government are increasing funding to local authorities and we want them to reach a sensible choice, bearing in mind the need to improve their stock and to use all available options. We have said that that is a matter for each local authority to decide, bearing in mind the resources available to them and the Government's commitment to increase funding.