Redwood `declaring UDI', say officials on fire safety

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The Independent Online
JOHN REDWOOD, the right-wing Secretary of State for Wales, is refusing to involve the Principality in a national attempt to reduce fire deaths, and has failed to implement five important new planning measures in less than a year.

His latest decision, to refuse to issue a consultative document on fire safety measures in hazardous bedsits and hostels even though three people a week die in fires in such buildings, has exasperated Cabinet colleagues. They have already complained privately that the arch free marketeer is out of control. Senior Whitehall officials say he is "declaring UDI". His own officials say he "ploughs his own furrow to some extent''.

Mr Redwood has also failed to issue new planning guidance - covering transport, noise, pollution control, nature conservation, and historic monuments - published by the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, since March 1994. In the past, such "planning policy guidance notes" (PPGs), which set the framework for planning decisions, have been issued jointly by the Environment and Welsh Secretaries, but Mr Redwood is considering whether there is a need for them in Wales.

This follows a report in the Independent on Sunday last week that plans were being drawn up, under pressure from Mr Redwood, to get private bodies to take over the management of more than 50 National Nature Reserves in Wales, including much of Snowdon, as part of deep cuts that threaten to dismember much of the countryside and wildlife protection in the Principality.

Four million people live in bedsits and other "houses in multiple occupation" (HMOs) and one survey showed that 80 per cent lacked fire precautions or escapes. The Labour Party has calculated that people who live in them are 14 times more likely to perish in a fire than those who live in single family houses. Last May, after a fire in Scarborough which killed a woman and a baby, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the Government would investigate instituting licences to control the way they were managed.

In November, after a consultative document seeking advice on the need for licensing was published, junior Environment minister David Curry said: "I share the widespread concern about the poor conditions and fire risks in some houses in multiple occupation."

But Mr Redwood has refused even to issue the document. The official reason given in reply to a parliamentary question last week was that the document "covers England only".

But the first sentence reads: "This paper invites views on the desirability of introducing a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in England and Wales."

Instead, Mr Redwood wrote to Welsh MPs and local authorities making clear his dislike of a licensing scheme.

He said the Government must "avoid creating systems which are over-bureaucratic, costly, or which will adversely affect the market". Yet a survey published this month shows that 86 per cent of Welsh local authorities support a licensing scheme. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers said: "It is ironic that there is a licensing system for premises where dogs and cats reside, but not for accommodation by human beings."

The planning guidance that Mr Redwood has failed to implement represents an attempt by Mr Gummer to tackle environmental concerns. Instead, Mr Redwood is preparing "separate guidance" to replace one landmark policy which aims to use planning to cut down on car journeys by placing facilities near public transport.

The Welsh Office says it is reviewing the four others - stressing the importance of nature conservation, protecting against noise, safeguarding historic monuments and controlling pollution - to consider to what extent they are applicable.

A senior Department of the Environment official said that Mr Redwood was trying to create a more Thatcherite Wales.

The Welsh Office said: "The Secretary of State does not necessarily slavishly follow what goes on in England. He is ploughing his own furrow to some extent and this has been increasingly so with successive Secretaries of State.