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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

SCOTLAND

The Secretary of State was asked—

Post Office Network

1. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers on the future of the post office network in Scotland. (92535)

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that he will acknowledge the concerns across the country about the future of the Post Office, but is he aware of the growing dismay about those politicians who claim to support postal services while actually wanting to privatise them? That is, of course, the policy of the Liberal Democrats.

I entirely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman—whom I almost called my right hon. Friend—makes. However, the problem is worse than he says, as the Government have made available thousands of millions of pounds through the budget of the Department of Trade and Industry to help support and sustain the post office network. Of course, it is also Liberal Democrat policy to abolish the DTI and spend its budget elsewhere.

When my hon. Friend discusses the future of post offices with his ministerial colleagues, will he ensure that their importance in urban areas—and especially poorer urban areas—is fully taken into consideration? What support are the Government giving to such post offices to enable them to compete?

My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally important point. Post offices have a key role to play in deprived urban communities, just as they do in rural communities. The urban post office network has benefited from the £2,000 million that has been invested in recent years. That money has enabled the Post Office to become part of a global banking network and to compete in the modern age. The reality is that customers will determine the Post Office’s future—we cannot expect that the post office network in 10 or 20 years’ time will be like the one that existed 10 or 20 years ago.

It is appropriate today that the House should mark the passing during the recess of Hector Monro, who represented the Dumfries constituency for some 33 years and held several ministerial offices. Hector was a great servant of this House, of his constituents and of Scotland—and never more so than in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing. He will be sorely missed.

Does the Minister agree with the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, and the many Scots who have signed its petition, that the post office network in Scotland has an important social value? If so, why have the Government systematically removed business from that network?

First, may I associate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and colleagues on this side of the House with the warm tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to Hector Monro? My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) has spoken of the warmth with which Hector is still remembered in the constituency for the work that he did for the south of Scotland.

The hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) asked about the nature of the post office network, but I remind him that the Government have provided financial assistance, in the form of the investment of taxpayers’ money, that amounts to well over £2,000 million. That speaks not of a Government who are withdrawing support from the Post Office, but of one who continue to support it. I contrast that with the fact that 3,500 post offices throughout the UK closed in the 18 years of Conservative Government.

May I draw my hon. Friend the Minister’s attention to Auchterarder sub-post office? When the VisitScotland tourist office there closed, Donald Ramsay, the sub-postmaster, had the foresight to enter into negotiations and secure 90 per cent. of its business in his post office. Does my hon. Friend agree that local post offices might be able to take advantage of similar opportunities when tourist offices and the like are placed under threat? Will he join me in congratulating Mr. Ramsay on his foresight in embarking on that new business venture?

I am more than happy to pay tribute to Mr. Ramsay and to my hon. Friend, who I know played a part in negotiating the arrangement that has brought the tourist office into the post office. I look forward to VisitScotland opening an office in Port Glasgow so that the same synergy can be established there. My hon. Friend has given the House an example of how the Post Office can enter into new entrepreneurial ventures that will help sustain it. That stands in sharp contrast to those hon. Members who go around collecting petitions about the future of post offices, while supporting policies that would see them close.

State Aid Rules

2. What recent discussions he has had with Government Departments and EU member states on the effect of future state aid rules on Scotland. (92536)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, although as Secretary of State for Scotland, I have not discussed future state aid rules with representatives from other member states.

The Secretary of State is aware of the great anxiety in Shetland because of the complaints being investigated against various economic development projects that are claimed to have breached state aid rules. I hope that he and his Department will do all they can to work with the Scottish Executive and others to allow a satisfactory resolution of those complaints. Looking to the future, does he agree that what is needed is a system that allows for clarity in the prior approval of schemes and that recognises the economic fragility and peripherality of communities such as Shetland?

The hon. Gentleman is right—I am aware of the concerns on the islands at the moment, given the ongoing disputed state aid issues, and I know that as the local representative he has taken a close interest in those matters. Indeed, I understand that I even featured in The Shetland Times this week, such is the level of his concern. As he said, those matters are being explored in detail with Shetland Islands council, the public body concerned, the Scottish Executive and our Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Discussions are ongoing with the Commission to try to resolve the outstanding issue, but I should be clear that the principal responsibility lies with the public body in question—in this case Shetland Islands council, which is why I hope that we can find a resolution to these matters.

Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor is to be commended for many things, one of which is his view that EU state aid rules and regional aid rules are best repatriated, and that this is a classic example of where very little is added by having state aid rules and regional aid handled by Brussels? Far better to have it returned to member states.

Clearly, the whole House is minded to pay tribute to the work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

A review of EU state aid is under way. I am glad to say that the thinking not just of the Treasury, but of the whole British Government—and, indeed, the Lisbon agenda—figures prominently in the ongoing review by the Commission. We want to see less but better targeted state aid and I believe we are making real progress in Europe towards that end.

As state aid was the given excuse for the restructuring of Caledonian MacBrayne, does the Minister feel that the £16 million currently being wasted on restructuring would have been better spent on fare reductions, especially considering that some articulated lorries spend £1,000 on a return fare to the outer Hebrides? Should not every opportunity be taken during the restructuring to relocate Caledonian MacBrayne’s headquarters to Stornoway, Tarbet, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale or Castlebay, or all those ports? [Interruption.]

A very strong case for Gourock has just been put by my hon. Friend the Minister. Whenever I buy tickets for the MV Isle of Mull, I tend to buy them from Gourock and not from Lochmaddy, so I have a certain sympathy with his view.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, this is of course primarily a matter for the Scottish Executive, who are aware of the strength of feeling both on the outer and the inner isles on the future of Caledonian MacBrayne.

Given that the UK is the member state, is the Secretary of State satisfied with the existing arrangements with the Scottish Executive in relation to state aid rules, in particular their compliance? Is not this yet another example of a failure to have clear working arrangements in place between London and Edinburgh?

I feel that the hon. Gentleman is stretching the point to return to a familiar theme at Scottish questions. As I sought delicately to suggest, responsibility lies primarily with Shetland Islands council, but of course we stand ready to work both through DEFRA and Scottish Executive Ministers to find a resolution to the dispute.

Wind Turbines

3. If he will assess the effects of Government policy on wind turbines on migrating bird populations in Scotland. (92537)

Planning consent to site wind turbines is devolved to Scottish Executive Ministers for larger projects and to local authorities for others. In all cases, the relevant authority must comply with European obligations, including those arising under the birds and habitats directives.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Although I welcome the progress—albeit slow progress—that the Government are making on renewables, may I express concern that often bird life and habitats are overlooked in the planning and decision-making processes? Does the Minister share my concern that the proposal by British Energy and AMEC on the Isle of Lewis does not fully explore the whole issue of the impact on migrating bird life, about which the Scottish population—a bird-loving population—have real concerns?

When the hon. Gentleman started to talk about endangered species in Scotland, I thought for a moment that he was talking about the Scottish Tory party. If the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) wants to debate that, he is very welcome to join us at Scotland Office questions.

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point—there is often tension between the global environmental gains to be made from renewable energy sources such as wind farms, and local environmental considerations, and it is important that they are balanced. That is why the European habitats directive must be taken into consideration before planning consent is given, and I am sure that he welcomes that EU regulation, as he welcomes all EU regulations. However, that highlights the need to take these decisions on a case-by-case basis based on the evidence, and not to adopt a strategy of calling for a moratorium on all wind- farm developments in Scotland. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may say that no one is saying that, but the Scottish Tory party is saying it.

I certainly hope that bird habitats will be taken into account in the very exciting development on the Beatrice platform, which is run by Talisman, whose headquarters is in my constituency. People there are working out how to maximise the use of offshore wind—in fact, the turbines will be very large and one of them will be extremely large—but does my hon. Friend agree that such developments should not be jeopardised by any over-concern for wildlife, which, obviously, has to deal with the existing offshore platforms in the North sea in any case?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the potential of deep-water offshore wind farms to get us beyond some of the tensions that occur when the local environmental impacts stop the global benefits of renewable energy. Of course, the trial on the Beatrice field is just beginning and we must consider its results with very great care.

While it is obviously right that the interests of migrating bird populations should be taken into account, does the Minister agree that the siting of wind farms can provide a useful stream of revenue for farmers and landowners in respect of their properties, which might otherwise be financially unviable?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an excellent point. Of course, wind farms have many possible benefits, not just the global benefits of reducing our carbon emissions and helping us to meet our targets. However, people in more and more farming communities recognise that if their farms are to be viable and sustainable, they must diversify from agriculture into other forms of income generation, and this is one of them.

Age Discrimination

4. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure the enforcement of anti-age discrimination measures in Scotland. (92538)

This is an important and enlightened measure, which came into effect earlier this month, and whose enforcement will be, as in other strands of discrimination legislation, mainly through employment tribunals and sheriff courts.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he share my disappointment that some sections of the business community have used the opportunity of the introduction of this legislation to complain about burdens on business? Does he agree that they would do far better to welcome this legislation as a real opportunity to ensure that all sections of the community get a fair deal?

I am in sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. I think that any modern business would want to be able to recruit and retain staff on the basis of competence and skills, rather than their age. This is a classic example of the sort of measure that will undoubtedly benefit the United Kingdom’s businesses in the long term. There is no contradiction between running a business efficiently and running a business fairly.

I very much welcome the legislation. However, an estimated 56,000 Scots between the ages of 16 and 21 earn less than their older colleagues, solely on the basis of their age. Does the Secretary of State agree that such age discrimination is probably illegal and certainly unacceptable, and that it is time for the lower minimum wage rates for younger workers to go?

Mr. Speaker, forgive my concern for the crocodile tears expressed about youth unemployment and the minimum wage. We considered the matter very carefully in government after 1997. Of course, the Conservative party then claimed that 1 million jobs would be lost as a consequence of what they judged would be a dangerous and reckless policy. In fact, the only people who ended up losing their jobs because of the manner in which we introduced the minimum wages were the Conservative MPs who opposed it. The serious point behind the measures that we took and the fact that we introduced a different rate for young workers was our profound concern to avoid significant youth unemployment, which is still too common in continental Europe. The virtual eradication of long-term youth unemployment has been one of the Government’s most significant achievements. I believe that our measured and sensible approach to the introduction of the minimum wage has played a significant role in that success.

The Opposition fully support the new regulations. However, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there has been a failure to convey to businesses, particularly small businesses in Scotland, the detail of the regulations? What proposals does he have to remedy that?

I do not accept that suggestion. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will come into force next year, will of course have a key role in education about and promotion of the regulation, but in the meantime sources of information are available to both small and large businesses to make sure that there is effective implementation of the regulation henceforth.

Immigration

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he will be aware that the population of Scotland has now risen for three consecutive years, that the population of Glasgow has risen for two years and that last year the population of Dundee rose for the first time in a generation. Will he and the Secretary of State make representations to the Home Secretary that, no matter what he does in managed migration from the new EU-accession states, he should do nothing that will jeopardise the fragile recovery of Scotland’s population?

The hon. Gentleman mentions the increase in Scotland’s population as though the figures fell out of a clear blue sky without any effort by the Government and the Scottish Executive to bring them about. He should pay tribute to the First Minister for the fresh talent initiative that has helped to attract some of the brightest and best young people to come to study in Scotland and to stay in Scotland. The strength of the Scottish economy, which is benefiting from the strength of the United Kingdom economy, makes Scotland a very attractive place. What would happen if Scotland broke away from the rest of the UK? Can we imagine anybody wanting to come to a Scotland governed by the Scottish National party, as the country would be economically unviable and would not attract any—

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend discuss immigration with their colleagues, will they seek to ensure that asylum decisions are taken much more quickly? A great deal of distress is caused to families who have put down roots once a decision goes against them. The quicker that asylum decisions are taken, the better.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and the new asylum model is designed to make sure that the initial decision is taken much more quickly and that any appeals that subsequently follow also happen more quickly.

May I make a point that I have made on previous occasions? Our immigration policies will have to be about the economic needs of Scotland as the host country and the UK in general, but asylum policy must never be about that. Asylum policy has to be about whether an individual has a well-founded fear of persecution and we must make that judgment, and make it quickly. If the person meets the criteria, we will welcome them and integrate them into Scottish society. If they do not, they will have to return to the country from which they came.

Does the Minister acknowledge that immigration into Scotland has been very beneficial right across the economy? Does he accept that those who have come in under the skills initiative and who were given the indication that they would have a right to permanent residence after four years, but who are now being told that they will have to wait five years, have effectively been misled? Will he make representations to the Home Office to make sure that those who applied for a four-year time limit will be allowed to qualify for it?

I do not know the answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will certainly look into it on his behalf.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very serious point. While we welcome immigrants to Scotland, we have the right to specify the particular skills that we wish to come to the UK in general. That is what the managed migration policy and a points-based migration policy are about, so that we can have an independent body that recommends what the skills needs of the UK are and then respond to that. I will get back to him on the particular point he mentions.

Scottish Airports (Security)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he accept that there is a need for an assessment to be made following the new regulations that seem to be in force across airports in Scotland? As part of that assessment, will he look at the position at Prestwick, which seems to have a far more efficient service than those that operate in other airports in Scotland?

I assure my hon. Friend that we keep the security regime at all the UK’s airports under constant review. It is determined on the basis of level of national threat, and clearly there have been changes both to the threat level and to the security regime implemented at our airports since the events of 10 August. However, it would be remiss of me both in relation to Prestwick and the operation of other major airports, including Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, not to take the opportunity to place on record my personal gratitude as Transport Secretary for the work that was done in Scottish airports during August. It is significant that the level of performance not just at Prestwick, but at other Scottish airports, was outstanding in what were very demanding circumstances.

When the right hon. Gentleman is having these discussions, will he make sure that his colleagues are aware of the excellent work done by the staff and management at Inverness airport, not just in security, but in developing new routes and services that are bringing substantial benefits to the economy of the highlands and islands?

I am not quite sure with whom I am due to be having conversations—perhaps with myself. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am fully aware of the level of service that was provided at Inverness, as well as at other airports. I know that he has been pursuing the matter of the route development out of Inverness airport for some time and that he continues to raise it with the Government.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to congratulate the management and staff at all UK airports—particularly those at Glasgow airport—on their work during the recent security threat. Will he also welcome the recent announcement by BAA of the significant investment at Glasgow airport, which will enhance the security at that airport and also make it easily accessible for people to travel from?

As a regular traveller through Glasgow airport, I am fully aware of the outstanding service that was provided, although the support for the new security regime has not been universal. When I was travelling with my four-year-old son a couple of weeks back, he had to take off his wellington boots at the security comb. He asked, “Why do I have to take off my wellies?” and the security guard replied, “Because your dad’s making everybody take off their wellingtons.” [Laughter.] Notwithstanding that one rather sceptical voice, I am happy to place on the record my admiration of the staff and management at Glasgow airport.

Devolution

Since 4 July, 161 devolution issues have been intimated to the Advocate-General. Of these, 102 related to civil proceedings and 59 related to criminal proceedings.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating the new Lord Advocate on her appointment? Will he also confirm whether the Advocate-General was consulted on that appointment and whether there are plans to distinguish the office of chief legal adviser to the Cabinet in Scotland on Scottish legal affairs from that of chief prosecutor?

I am very happy to join the hon. Lady in welcoming the new Lord Advocate, who is the first ever woman to hold that post. The daughter of a coal merchant from Govan has risen to the top of the legal and political establishment in Scotland. That is a great tribute to her talents and abilities. As the hon. Lady knows, the role of the Lord Advocate as head of prosecutions is enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998. The independence as such is enshrined in that Act. Other arrangements, such as whether the Lord Advocate is a member of the Cabinet in the Scottish Executive, are matters for the First Minister.

Business Environment

This Government’s strong macro-economic policies have delivered the strongest Scottish labour market in decades, with record levels of employment. The Government's monetary policy framework has delivered the longest period of sustained low and stable inflation since the 1960s.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of recent research that shows that the success of the Nordic countries is, above all, due to their long-term political and economic stability. Does he agree that that is what Scotland needs as well, and will he ensure that he resists the calls of those who would jeopardise tens of thousands of Scottish jobs by plunging us into years of constitutional uncertainty and chaos?

I find myself in full agreement with the hon. Gentleman and I pray in support not simply the research carried out by the Government, but the most recent headlines in Scotland. Only yesterday, on 9 October, The Scotsman led with the headline:

“Scottish output growth fastest in 6 years”.

The Herald led with the headline: “Scotland’s economy going strong”. Of particular significance in that story was a quote from Andrew Wilson, the deputy chief economist of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who said:

“Solid result. Good news for manufacturers generally.”

Clearly, the consensus that the Scottish economy is strong and strengthening extends even to those who previously belonged to other parties.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the relative economic success of the Republic of Ireland, with its low corporate tax rates? Is that not a lesson that the Scottish economy would find hugely advantageous—if corporate tax rates in Scotland were cut to the level of those in the Republic of Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten that corporation tax has already been cut by this Government. His point about Ireland has to be taken somewhat cautiously. If we look, for example, at the competitiveness of western Europe in computing and IT, there was a time over the past 20 years when we could secure what is inherently mobile international capital investment by having reduced rates of corporation tax. That level of investment in Ireland preceded the rise of not just China, but India, Vietnam and other economies in the far east. The economic restructuring that has taken place in recent years suggests that there is no single silver magic bullet. The determination to provide the economic stability that we have provided, together with education and training, also has a key role to play.

Economic Policy

In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with the STUC, has he been able to offer it reassurance about his support for the manufacturing sector, which is so important for the Scottish economy?

Yes, just a few weeks ago I met with the STUC general council and we discussed at length the interests of Scottish manufacturing. Immediately preceding that meeting, I had held discussions with Scottish Engineering, and it again placed on record its determination to continue to support modern manufacturing strength for Scotland.

COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT

The Secretary of State was asked—

Decent Homes

15. What progress has been made towards meeting the decent homes standard in the north-east of England; and if she will make a statement. (92550)

In the past four years, 57,000 homes in the north-east have been brought up to decent homes standards, with 48,000 new kitchens, 31,000 new bathrooms and 48,000 new central heating systems having been installed.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Can she advise the House whether the principles enshrined in composite 10 at the recent Labour party conference will be used to ensure that the Government reach their aim of having decent homes for all, including those tenants and councils who rejected private finance initiatives, arm’s length management organisations and stock transfers?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s continued interest in these matters, and I respect his contribution to the debate on them. However, he knows, as do other Members who are present, that we have a pledge to try to meet the ambitions, right across the country, of every tenant in council or social housing to have a home of a decent standard. If we were to go down the route of not levering in the money from the private sector that we could through housing associations, that could cost the Exchequer an extra £12 billion. That is £12 billion that we could spend on more kitchens and more central heating—on homes of a decent standard—and my hon. Friend and other Members should agree that that money could be better spent.

Does the Secretary of State realise that many people in the north-east will not have a chance of having a decent home if the regional housing board continues with policies, done at the behest of her Department, to restrict the number of houses built in areas such as Alnwick and Berwick to about 60 a year, which will mean that there is no social housing and still higher prices for the remaining houses in the private sector?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have an ambition to build more than 200,000 extra homes a year by 2016. In order to achieve our ambition, and to meet the housing aspirations of people throughout our country, we need to have a system in place that will provide the extra supply that we need—more homes in every region. Within that general framework, we aim to give as much flexibility as we can for local authorities to build on brownfield land rather than greenfield land and to decide the appropriate places where homes can be built. But the bottom line is that we must have extra homes if people’s housing aspirations are to be met.

On meeting the decent homes standards, will the Secretary of State tell us when she will announce the successful bids in round 6 of the ALMO—arm’s length management organisation—programme?

I can tell my hon. Friend that we will announce the extra money very shortly, and I hope that many more millions of people will be able to benefit from the modern kitchens, central heating and new bathrooms that that money will buy.

Further to the matter of the 200,000 new homes, the question is: where? Is it not the case that the drive towards decent homes in the north-east, and in the north generally, is being undermined by a stealthy transference of regeneration funding to the south of England? Why has English Partnerships’ spending in the south risen sevenfold, to some 59 per cent. of its budget, which is a massive swing away from its previous funding pattern? Is that not further evidence that commitment to reviving cities in the north is taking second place to the dash for concrete in the south?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman at all. If he were serious about providing the extra homes that people need and ensuring that they are of a sufficiently decent quality and standard for them to live in, he would back our housing market renewal pathfinders, which are regenerating communities throughout the north and giving people a decent place to live. But ultimately, we need the extra homes for people to live in if we are to meet their housing aspirations. Young couples today find it difficult to take their first step on to the housing ladder. If we are to stabilise the house price affordability ratio, we need to deliver 200,000 more homes, and we need those homes in the places where people want to live.

Flood Plains (Building)

16. What plans she has to revise planning guidelines for building on flood plains; and if she will make a statement. (92551)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
(Angela E. Smith)

We expect to publish a new planning policy statement 25 later this year to strengthen and clarify planning policy on development and flood risk.

As part of the revised guidelines, will the Minister give the House a commitment this afternoon that the question will be dealt with of insurance cover for houses on functional flood plains that are prone to flooding? Thirsk, particularly Finkle street, has been flooded twice in less than five years, and a particular business and a number of residents have been told that there is simply no insurance cover available. Will the Minister plug that loophole with the guidelines? [Interruption.]

I do not think that the hon. Lady recognised the pun that she made, but it was well appreciated on the Labour Benches. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, Baroness Andrews, is looking at this matter, which will be discussed, and I can assure the hon. Lady that her comments will be drawn to my hon. Friend’s attention.

Recently, Heywood experienced the equivalent of one month’s rain in a few hours, and it was the second serious flooding episode that the town has had. Does my hon. Friend accept that local planning authorities need to enforce stricter regulation of new housing developments that are trying to link into existing drainage networks, which cannot carry the capacity? That is part of the problem.

It is clear that planning policy guidance 25 has had quite an impact, and according to the Association of British Insurers it has proved very relevant when looking at development. The new statement will strengthen the current guidance, but I should point out that there is a statutory duty to consult the Environment Agency on all new developments, and that will inform any planning authority’s decision.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that two rivers meet in my constituency, and that the flood problem goes much further than that? The situation is not helped by the fact that my constituency is constantly being asked to take more and more houses; indeed, the problem has been made even worse by the regional spatial strategy proposal to build thousands more. That will not help the area, which is a totally inappropriate place for those houses to be built; it will be very environmentally damaging. Will the Minister go back to Labour’s pre-election pledge to end the predict-provide approach to house building?

I sometimes wonder about Conservative policy. The Conservatives share in our demand for, and recognition of the need for, more housing, but wherever they are, they say no to more housing. We have to ensure that local planning authorities have all—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may not want to listen, and choose instead to go on a party political rant, but there is an important point to be made about the hon. Gentleman’s comments on flooding. It is important that local authorities have all the relevant information from the Environment Agency, which is now a statutory consultee, when looking at the development of a particular area. We believe that PPG25 is good, and we have strengthened and clarified it through planning policy statement 25. That addresses the questions, and the hon. Gentleman cannot just say no to any housing anywhere.

When the German Government looked at exactly the same problem of developments on flood plains and developments that put under pressure the existing drainage system’s capacity, they came to a very specific conclusion: that they needed to change planning and building regulations so that all new developments were required to incorporate rainwater collection and water recycling in the structure of the development. Will the Minister consider doing exactly the same in the UK?

It might help if I refer my hon. Friend to our plans to issue a new planning policy statement on climate change before Christmas. Such matters are being discussed to determine whether they can be addressed through building regulations and planning policy.

Planning Regulations

I thank the Minister for that response. She realises that it is extremely important for her Department to deal with investigations into planning regulations quickly. In the past, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sat on such cases for a great deal of time, and in the case of the livestock market in Shrewsbury, the cost to local council tax payers is £2 million in lost revenue. Will she do everything possible to speed up the adjudication on the proposed transfer of Darwin house to our council because it wishes to build a Darwin museum in Shrewsbury?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I cannot comment on individual cases and that there are restrictions on what we are able to say about planning cases that are going through the system. However, I can tell him that we are committed to passing cases through the system as swiftly as possible. We have introduced much tighter deadlines on both ministerial planning cases and the time taken for planning cases to go through appeal. I hope that that will assist his case.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that people feel that there is real injustice in planning inquiries and decisions. Applicants always have a right of appeal, but objectors have no right of appeal. When will she consider changing the regulations so that there is fairness on both sides?

Ultimately, we think that planning decisions need to be taken initially by local authorities, which are the democratic representatives of local communities. A right of appeal is built into the planning system because people have a right to appeal about how their own land should be used. However, we should also recognise that we should not have additional layers in the planning system that could cause planning decisions to drag on indefinitely and not provide proper certainty on, and democratic accountability for, decisions that are taken.

Why do not the Minister and the Government have more confidence in the decisions of local authorities? We elect them and they speak for their local communities, so why can they not make decisions about where buildings should go?

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, local authorities draw up their local plans. They hold consultations with their local communities and have to take decisions on planning applications that come forward. There will always be cases that have an impact that goes much wider than individual local authorities, and it is right that they should be considered through call-in processes or other processes. I have to say to Conservative Members that often what lies behind their anguish about local decisions is the fact that there is a local decision that they do not like because they do not want new homes to be built in their areas.

I appreciate the efforts that the Government have made, but the fact remains that it takes four months to conclude a written appeal and almost a year to conclude an oral appeal. Those are inordinate lengths of time. Would not one way of dealing with the situation be not to create additional layers, which the Minister has quite rightly turned her face against, but to appoint more planning inspectors so that such cases can be dealt with much more quickly?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We have tried to increase the number of cases that go through the written procedure because that process can be much swifter for all concerned. We have also invested additional resources in the planning inspectorate, which is dealing with increasing numbers of appeals. Just as there are increasing numbers of planning applications, there are increasing numbers of appeals on planning applications, which obviously increases the inspectorate’s work load. We have already put in train a programme of work that is reducing the time taken by planning appeals on housing so that decisions can be taken much more swiftly.

Does the Minister recognise that a crisis of housing affordability is affecting hundreds of thousands of families throughout the country? Will she take steps to amend planning policy guidance note 3 to empower local authorities to place a duty on developers to pay more attention to the affordability of the housing that they build and less to the profit margin that they will receive from it?

I agree that we need to do more to address the affordability pressures that are faced, especially by first-time buyers throughout the country. As a result, we need to build more homes. More than 200,000 new households are being formed each year, largely as a result of more people living alone, but we are building only about 160,000 new homes a year, which is unsustainable. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to reform the planning policy guidance on housing. We have already published a draft for consultation, and we will publish a revised version later in the year to support more housing, including not only more shared ownership and affordable housing, but more market housing.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what representations she has had from the major supermarket chains—or, indeed, the Treasury—in respect of the possible changes to and relaxation of PPG6? Does she agree that the changes made by the previous Government, including the introduction of the sequential test, have been an important factor in assisting the regeneration of our town and city centres, and that if the guidance were to be relaxed to allow more out-of-town shopping development, it could have a serious impact on our city centres?

My hon. Friend is right to say that planning policy guidance on town centres has had a big impact on city and town centre regeneration. There has been a lot more investment and development in town centres, and in the centres of our big cities, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds—

And Sheffield, of course—particularly Sheffield. In those cities we are seeing a huge urban renaissance as a result of the guidance. We have no proposals to change PPG6. I have not had any representations from supermarkets; I do not know whether there are any in the Department, but the matter has not been raised with me personally.

It is a fact that since her appointment the new Secretary of State has overruled an average of one in five decisions made by her own planning inspectorate, and just now we heard what sounded like an attack by the Minister for Housing and Planning on the Secretary of State’s nimbyism. If she has so little faith in the planning system, why should anyone else?

Planning inspectors make representations to Ministers on a small number of cases, and Ministers take decisions based on the evidence that is put to them. It is right that they do so, and it is right that they should be democratically accountable for the decisions they take. We need more new homes across this country, but we also need to ensure that they are of higher quality and are built to good design standards in communities that are sustainable. We shall continue to take those decisions.

Referendum Questions

18. If she will meet Stoke-on-Trent city council to discuss the provisions under section 45(8) of the Local Government Act 2000 relating to questions which may be asked in a referendum. (92553)

We will shortly set out our approach for future local governance in the forthcoming local government White Paper. In the light of those proposals, I shall, of course, be happy to work with Stoke-on-Trent city council on the necessary provisions.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply and for the interest that he takes in Stoke-on-Trent. As he well knows, we in Stoke-on-Trent have a system whereby the council is run by a council manager and an elected mayor. My concern is that Stoke-on-Trent city council has asked to go ahead with a referendum, pending the enactment of the legislation as a result of regulations. We urgently need the regulations under the 2000 Act to be introduced. Will my hon. Friend meet Stoke-on-Trent council to discuss how the matter can be resolved?

I commend my hon. Friend on her vigilance on this matter—indeed, she wrote to me on 31 July raising a similar point, and she has made several other representations. My answer to her question is, yes, of course I shall do so. It is important, not only for the governance of Stoke but for the future prosperity of that fine city, that we get the arrangements right. That is why the matter is receiving my individual attention.

Low-cost Housing

19. What progress has been made towards the development of the £60,000 home; and if she will make a statement. (92554)

The design for manufacture competition is making excellent progress. Preferred developers have been selected on all 10 sites in the competition, and construction work is now under way on four. We anticipate that the first show home will be completed by November.

We have 1 million more homeowners in Britain since 1997, which is to be welcomed, but I regularly meet people in Dudley who are working hard but struggling to make ends meet on average incomes or in low-paid jobs, some of whom are living at home with their parents. They are desperate to buy a home of their own. They need a Government who are on their side, helping them to get on the housing ladder, which is why the expansion of the programme that my right hon. Friend has outlined today is so important. When does she think that people in my constituency will be able to buy a home at a lower cost?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right that there is a real need, for young couples in particular, to be able to gain access to the housing market. The £60,000 house competition was designed to reduce and keep a lid on construction costs while driving up quality standards, particularly for smaller, two-bedroom houses. That should generate a cultural change across the industry and keep prices down while delivering higher standards. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will benefit not only from that change in the industry, but from the other low-cost home ownership schemes that the Government are developing. He will know that we aim to help more than 100,000 households over the next few years, in the run up to 2010, with specific help through low-cost home ownership schemes.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments, but I understand that the £60,000 relates to construction costs, and that there will be a variation in prices according to local housing market conditions. Can she reassure me that, even taking those local adjustments into account, the houses will still be affordable to people in the market who cannot get on the housing ladder?

We are certainly encouraging all developers to think about how they can reduce construction costs and drive up quality. Of the 1,000-odd houses that will be built through that type of competition, some will go on the market for £60,000 or thereabouts. People will have access to them through the shared equity scheme, and they will be able to buy a share of the house for such a price. However, it is important to point out that that will not be the only way for people to get their foot on the housing ladder. There are other Government policies designed specifically to help first-time buyers, and to enable people to get a foot on the housing ladder, including, for example, the homebuy scheme, which was recently re-launched by the Government. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of couples will be able to benefit from that scheme.

I am enthused by what I have seen of the prototype £60,000 homes. They address some of the problems that I have experienced with planning applications for new housing developments in my constituency, which all too often are poorly designed, lack ambition in terms of environmental sustainability, and are submitted with minimal public consultation. When will the “How to Win at Housebuilding” toolkit for local authorities and other social housing providers be introduced, so that they can be given better guidance on how to tackle some of those issues?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the competition was launched by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, there was huge scepticism about whether it was possible to design a spacious, high-quality, eco-friendly house with a construction cost of £60,000, but he showed that that was possible. Now, we are building eco-homes that have the “lifetime homes” standard and are very spacious. We hope that, through the competition, local authorities can hold their own competitions, asking developers to build houses to the same design standards. I hope that that toolkit for local authorities will be available before Christmas.

The Secretary of State referred to her Government’s low-cost home ownership schemes, and in particular the homebuy scheme. Can she explain why the grand total of homes sold under the social homebuy scheme, according to her parliamentary answer in Hansard on 4 September 2006, is just one?

I accept that we need to do far more—[Interruption.] We need to build more social homes. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman confirmed that he will match our real-terms spending commitment to build more social houses. We need to examine, together with registered social landlords and housing associations, why more people are not taking up the option of a social homebuy scheme, and we are determined to make the scheme attractive to people who want to buy a part of their social home. Over the next few months, and in the run-up to the pre-Budget report and beyond, we will develop a shared equity package that will make the scheme much more attractive, both to registered social landlords and to tenants who may want to make use of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to do more. I would be grateful if he confirmed that he will match our spending pledges.

This is laudable, but there are such disparities in land values that it becomes a drop in the ocean. When will the Government do something about taxing land values to even up the opportunities to build the houses that meet local housing needs?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a strong theoretical abstract tax argument, because taxing land values is a decent way of raising money in a way that is fair to lots of people. He will know, too, that there is a priority and an imperative from Government to have infrastructure development which supports housing in all its forms so that we do not build housing in isolation from thinking about economic prosperity and links to our towns and cities. That is why the Department for Communities and Local Government, together with the Treasury, is working to develop a planning gain supplement that will be based on land values and on the planning permission associated with that, so that we can use some of this resource to support the necessary infrastructure needs.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that affordability concerns not only the purchase price but running the house afterwards? How many of the £60,000 houses meet the target of a 40 per cent. reduction in energy use and a 40 per cent. reduction in water use; and how much reduction is there overall if, as I believe, none of them meets that target?

The environmental standards that have applied during the two years that this competition has been running have increased throughout that time. The houses that are being built now are of a higher standard than those that were built two years ago, and we are constantly raising the bar. The next phase of the design for manufacture competition will specifically ask bidders and developers to come forward with plans not only for homes that meet the 40 per cent. reduction but for carbon-neutral homes. Our ambition is that, through the way in which homes are built and developers think about constructing them, homes will become much more eco-friendly so that we can meet our carbon reduction emissions targets. However, we will of course continue to do more.

Brownfield Sites (Planning)

20. What recent representations she has received on the definition of brownfield sites in planning guidance. (92555)

The Department has received a range of representations as part of the consultation on the new planning policy statement 3, which was published in draft last year.

During the Commons debate in the summer, the Minister was sympathetic when many of us said that our constituents believe that brownfield sites should be ex-commercial sites, not the gardens of houses and bungalows, which when built on as so-called brownfield sites completely change the nature of residential areas. In the light of her sympathetic comments, what progress has she made in redefining brownfield sites?

As we said during the debate, we need to build more houses across the country. We also need safeguards against inappropriate development. Many councils have already used those, but we are already strengthening them as part of the draft policy statement that was published last year. We must recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the definition of brownfield land was introduced in the mid 1980s. I quote:

“It is difficult to imagine how urban gardens could have been separated out in terms of available technology and cost.”

It talks about it being a statistical definition. That quote is from the hon. Gentleman’s party’s campaign document, so it is perhaps inappropriate for him to call for us to change the statistical definition.

Development on brownfield sites is often more difficult because of the former uses of those sites. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the excellent development occurring in my constituency at Warburton on the old railway engineering works, where the historic buildings are being conserved? A difficult site with only one access has been developed and 300 houses have been provided at a high environmental standard. Will my hon. Friend ensure that those lessons are spread?

My hon. Friend is right. There are some excellent examples of development on brownfield land to high environmental standards but also with affordable housing. English Partnerships often plays a leading role in working with local authorities to bring former industrial and commercial sites back into use so that we can build new homes for the future.

Council Houses

Since 1997, about 235,000 new social homes have been provided, funded by the Government and by planning gain. The majority have been built by housing associations.

The Minister has not answered my question, which related to council houses. Will she confirm that, after nine years of a Labour Government, only about 4,000 council houses have been built? Even the Thatcher Government built 350,000 council houses. Why are this Labour Government so hostile towards council housing? Why will they not follow the Labour party’s conference policy to restore the building of council houses?

Let us be clear: local councils can build houses. They can use their own resources, prudential borrowing, private finance initiative schemes and section 106 agreements. We provide most of the Government funding for new social housing through housing associations because they can lever in an extra 40 per cent. of borrowing, which means that they can build 40 per cent. more homes with the same amount of money. That represents better value for the extra money that we put in. We are also looking at ways of giving councils more flexibility to carry out more building. In regard to the hon. Gentleman’s comparison with the early 1990s, construction and land costs were lower at that time. However, that was because the Tory Government of the time had pushed the housing market into a deep and damaging recession. I do not think that that is a housing policy worth returning to.