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Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): It is helpful to follow the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best). He started the debate on the inner cities, which seems to have slipped as the lawyers have pounded their Benches. [Interruption.] "Spoken as someone who is not a lawyer" might be a better way of putting it.
When I dashed home last Wednesday and turned on "Newsnight", I heard the Home Secretary being interviewed. I did not hear him very clearly, but I thought that he was talking about the inner cities again. He said, if I heard him correctly, that he put all the blame--or a considerable proportion of it--for the state of the inner cities on what happened in the 1980s. That is rubbish.
When I arrived in this country in the early 1970s, I worked in the east end of London. I can tell the Home Secretary that the state of the east end of London then was deplorable. The state of housing--almost entirely council housing--was shocking, as were the streets and transport. The atmosphere and environment appalled me.
Over the years, I have regularly visited many of the estates in that area and in south London. Many have improved--equally, many are still absolutely appalling. One--the North Peckham estate--has been featured recently because of that awful, awful incident. I used to know the North Peckham estate quite well from a number of visits.
There have been successes, which have been largely brought about by co-operation. I do not know of the Cardiff example that was mentioned, but that sounded as though it resulted from a similar approach. By co-operation, I mean co-operation between the community, the Government--to a degree--the local authority, the police, the faith communities and the private sector. I believe that the private sector is key.
My reason for saying that derives from my shock when I became a Conservative councillor in south-west London and looked at some of the estates there. They were absolutely disgusting. Anyone who has been on a train leaving Victoria station going towards Clapham junction will see, as they go across the river, a highly coloured, novel estate--post-war, modern build. In 1978, and for a year or two afterwards, the crime level on that estate was so high that the police only went there multiple-handed, frequently carrying arms. It was a no-go area. Taxis would stop outside and let their passengers out. People walking there had to go in pairs, looking out in case something was dropped on them from above. In the case of a local policeman, it was a Ford Cortina gearbox. I suspect that that "Ford Cortina" ages me somewhat.
That estate has changed completely because of co-operation between the community, both inside and outside the estate. It has changed largely because of the private sector, but even more important has been home ownership. The right to buy turned that estate around. About 55 per cent. or 60 per cent. has now been sold. There is a pride in that community; the crime level on the estate is now so low that it does not have a closed circuit television camera.
Many of these ideas were used up and down the borough. Most of the estates, if not all of them, changed fairly rapidly as the environment changed. Again, that was largely due to our getting the private sector to work for the public sector--collecting rubbish, cleaning the streets, maintaining street lighting and removing the graffiti. We introduced ideas that were new then--we may have been the first borough in the country to use CCTV. There were other things such as building out crime, using colour, cleaning up the parks and introducing park police. One helpful factor was the abolition of the Greater London council. [Interruption.] I hear deep breaths being drawn.
In those days, the GLC was the most interfering, difficult body that any local authority could suffer in London; it either slowed progress or wrecked it. In addition, the Inner London education authority was abolished. Under ILEA, education in inner London was appalling. Its standards were either the worst or the second worst for the whole of its life, but its expenditure and cost to the nation and the people was far an away the greatest.
Perhaps the biggest change, especially in those times, was the fact that Wandsworth was determined to work in co-operation with the police. In those days, the GLC had a police committee, which was effectively an anti-police committee. All the left-wing local authorities--there were quite a few then--had anti-police committees, and the police received no co-operation from the local authorities that needed to co-operate. It was not just a matter of money, bearing in mind that that authority consistently--under whatever Government--received either the second lowest or lowest external grant, but managed, by using decent services, not to penalise its local people, consistently asking them for the lowest rates, poll tax or council tax.
Despite the fact that there is no boundary around the area--other than that drawn on a map--the result was that people liked the authority. The community came with it, preferring good services at the lowest cost. People had been moving out of the area, but they have now moved back; it has become a desirable place to live. Education in the area has improved and there are new schools, new Church schools and new city technology colleges. Competition between the schools has become co-operation. Education in the area has a long way to go, but it is on the way.
In 1978, Wandsworth started on a par with Lambeth, Hackney and Haringey, but there is now a huge difference between them, which results from their different attitudes. As I said, this is not a matter of money because, after all, Wandsworth's total external support is £756 per head and the band-D council tax is £401 this year, whereas--I have mentioned the North Peckham estate--Southwark receives a grant of £1,093 per head but soaks its local people at band-D of £845. Other factors must be considered, such as the different policies of those councils.
As the lawyers were hammering on the Benches earlier, I shall compare crime in Southwark and Wandsworth. It is not good in either authority. I understand that last year there were 600 violent incidents and 500 drug offences in Wandsworth, but there were 1,500 violent crimes and 1,639 drug offences in Southwark. That is reflected in what has gone on in that authority. I wonder what Southwark did, or did not do.
In the early days, Southwark fought the right to buy, tooth and nail. Those who bought their homes were squeezed with extra on-costs. The authority fought the use of the private sector. Even when compulsory competitive tendering was introduced, it continued to use its notorious in-house, poor-quality and expensive services. So its council estates were in poor repair and heavily squatted. They had filthy streets and graffiti everywhere. Maintenance was poor in general. There were drug addicts at every turn; litter and used syringes on every corridor; and old sofas and burnt-out cars throughout the estates. I remember walking through them. Of course, Southwark was politically correct--in education with bog-standard comprehensives and with continued poor co-operation with the police.
Even today, many local authorities fight working with the police and the private sector. For example, Southwark is carrying out many major works and has an in-house engineering team, but there is not a single qualified engineer--I mean one who has a degree--in the whole team and the authority will not use the private sector if it can possibly help it.
I turn now to the Queen's Speech and what this Government have done to help. They have not really helped. They have cut the right-to-buy discount, so people are persuaded that home ownership is not for them. They have introduced best value. Best value involves loads of consultations and reams of consultation documents, which has produced consultation fatigue. It also involves benchmarking groups between local authorities--the awful compared with the appalling. They have talked about beacon boroughs, but an authority can only become one if it is politically correct--never mind the service. Costs arise especially as there are armies of auditors in the Audit Commission being fed on tons of papers, collected by armies of council bureaucrats. There is no best value in that. The aim of best value was to cut out the necessity to use the private sector, so there is a return to in-house teams and standards drop. The Government have introduced a new scrutiny system, but it enables incompetent authorities to hide their incompetence.
I have spent 21 days during the past few months with the Metropolitan police. I have never seen a more demoralised force in my life. It is absolutely pushed to the limit. The figures for the police force in Wandsworth for March 1997 show that it had 596 officers; that figure has now dropped to 570. The figures for Southwark for 1997 show that it had 861 officers; that number has now dropped to 821.
To make matters worse for Metropolitan police officers, they are running round with best value strung round their necks, having to produce figures for auditors--with an unbelievable 59 targets to try to meet--rather than getting on with constructive policing. The Government have also created a Mayor and the Greater London Authority, which have added to costs.