Skip to main content

Communities and Local Government

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sustainable Communities

14. What steps she is taking to promote sustainable communities in areas of high density student housing. (108116)

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

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government recently met my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and representatives from the university, the local authority and community groups, of which the Storer action group was particularly impressive, to discuss the issue. As a result of that meeting, we are now examining a number of measures in the areas of planning, housing, finance and local area agreements to try to find a sustainable resolution to the problems. The problem can be more general, and as part of our work to create sustainable communities, we supported the publication of the Universities UK guide on studentification in partnership with the Department for Education and Skills earlier this year, which outlines good practice to integrate students into the community.

I thank the Minister for that reply and, through her, thank the Minister for Local Government for recently visiting Loughborough to talk to residents and those who are concerned. We have a genuine partnership in Loughborough, where university students and others are working together, and I am proud of that. We want to pursue use classes orders, which are prevalent in Northern Ireland in determining the change of use that turns a particular property into a house in multiple occupation. Will the Minister agree to meet me and other representatives at some stage to pursue that particular point, which may not change the problem that we have at the moment but could help with future studentification problems around the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, and he has played an extremely valuable role. He has lobbied Ministers, including me, and the Minister for Local Government was particularly impressed by the group that he brought together and by his lobbying on the issue. There are differences between the situation in Northern Ireland and the situation in Great Britain. The circumstances here may mean that UCOs are not suitable, but we should discuss anything that could relieve the situation and are happy to meet him. He has made his arguments with some force, and a meeting could be helpful.

There is no doubt that studentification is a major and growing problem in towns such as Loughborough and in many cities in England. I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at proposals, because the Housing Act 2004 did not say very much about that growing problem. A recent UK Universities report stated that the key is joint working, which I welcome, but I hope that the Government examine proposals to strengthen the ability of housing authorities to protect local citizens. The offset to the growth of universities is that many local people find it difficult to get into the housing market.

I recognise that there are a number of problems. Students want decent housing and to maintain a community, and local residents often feel the effects of experiencing a different kind of community. We need to examine housing and planning, and there are some new planning regulations that address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We are keeping the matter under review and are aware of the problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has been particularly vocal in highlighting the issues of concern that we need to address.

In roads in my constituency near the university, half the population turns over every year. When that happens, every other house has a “To Let” sign outside it, which is not a sustainable community. I know that the Minister is aware of the problem from her experience in Northern Ireland, but I wonder why the Government have set their face against imposing similar solutions not only to reduce the size of the population in an HMO at which point planning permission is required, but to require compulsory licensing for all small HMOs as well as large HMOs, which are included in the Housing Act 2004.

It would be wrong for my hon. Friend to assume that the Government have set their face against changes that improve the situation. The original purpose of the HMO legislation was to run fire safety and risk assessments. Different remedies are available in GB that are not available in Northern Ireland. For example, Northern Ireland does not have local area agreements. One of the approaches that we are pursuing, particularly in Loughborough, is that of using local area agreements, and if possible bringing in the universities as well. That is not an option in Northern Ireland. We must consider every possible way of trying to resolve the problem. I would be reluctant always to see students as part of the problem; I hope that they can be part of the solution. We do not want to demonise students. We need to ensure that we have sustainable communities in which everybody feels comfortable.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that sustainable communities, whether in student areas or elsewhere, can be created only if environmental sustainability is taken fully into account as well. She will know that buildings are responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions in this country. Will she come clean and publish the overdue first biennial report on the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which will set out what measures, if any, she has taken to reduce the carbon imprint of buildings?

We will consider that issue. The Government have made several responses. The planning policy statement on climate change, which will be published in draft form tomorrow, will provide an opportunity to consult and get some views on these issues.

Surely it is difficult to maintain sustainable communities in areas of high density student housing if students’ travel arrangements are undermined by the Department’s arrangements for funding passenger transport authorities. The problems in Tyne and Wear have been raised on the Floor of the House on several occasions. They have now been going on for more than a year. The Department has promised to do something about it, but so far has not. When will we hear what the solution is?

If a solution were easily found it would have been found by now. It is a complex situation. I can tell my right hon. Friend that transport is one of the areas examined in the PPS on climate change, so it will be taken into account in that regard.

Overview/Scrutiny Committees

15. What recent discussions she has had with local authorities on the role of overview and scrutiny committees; and if she will make a statement. (108117)

16. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees in holding local authorities to account. (108118)

Prior to the local government White Paper, Ministers and officials had extensive discussions, including on overview and scrutiny, with local authorities and others. We are extending councillors’ scrutiny role so that they can more effectively hold to account those who provide public services to their communities.

I am pleased about the importance that my right hon. Friend attaches to scrutiny of matters internal and external to the council. Does she agree that there are many good examples of scrutiny in local authorities, some of which model their role on that of Westminster Select Committees? In other authorities, however, scrutiny is too lowly graded. It is not properly resourced, councillors are not properly trained, and in many cases the officers being scrutinised manage the officers who give advice to the scrutiny committees. Does she accept that there is a role for her Department and the Local Government Association to play together in disseminating examples of good practice and trying to pull the poorest performing authorities up to the levels of the best?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There are some fantastic examples of local councillors coming together and challenging the council and others in their local area, thereby raising the quality of scrutiny and ultimately of local public services. That depends partly on genuine interest from members and partly on the authority’s willingness to respond. Committees that are independently resourced can be very effective in ensuring high-quality scrutiny. We want to work with the LGA to ensure that best practice in our best councils is spread right across the country.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be interested to know that on some occasions I have given evidence to scrutiny committees of my local authority, particularly on matters such as licensing and use of disorder zones. Just as when we serve on Select Committees we have good back-up from the teams that support us, scrutiny committees must, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, have the necessary resources to do their work. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that in the context of the White Paper she will consider how professional resources can be better supported in local government?

I certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. As we move forward, we want to shift responsibility for target setting and scrutinising proposals from central Government to local government. That will free resources that are currently spent on looking upwards, filling in forms and central bureaucracy, thus allowing local overview and scrutiny decisions to be made at the right level. I hope that the money that will be saved through the complete change of one performance regime can be put into supporting overview and scrutiny committees to do an even better job than they do at the moment.

I bring news from Northamptonshire, where scrutiny is in good heart but under great pressure. It is under particular pressure because of the poor revenue support grants that we have had in the past few years. Given the Secretary of State’s remarks, will she give me encouragement by telling me how much money she intends to give my county to ensure that separate scrutiny support can exist, as she just advised?

I send my greetings to Northamptonshire and I am pleased that it has such excellent overview and scrutiny committees. Of course independent resourcing of scrutiny committees can make committees work better and raise the quality of local decision making. However, I am trying to move away from central prescription to allow local authorities to make the decisions that are right for them. I do not want to replace with one hand what I take away with the other. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that sentiment.

Will the Secretary of State expand on the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees when calling in decisions by bodies such as primary care trusts, if they have to consider decisions such as that made by Devon PCT yesterday to close community hospital beds and reduce the hours for magnetic resonance imaging units without consulting anyone?

Overview and scrutiny committees can be incredibly effective. Indeed, 60 per cent. of executive councillors said that they had a policy decision changed because of overview and scrutiny. I do not know the details of the case that the hon. Gentleman cites, but it would be appropriate for local councillors and people to get involved and use overview and scrutiny committees to review decisions about local hospital reconfiguration or changes, raise the quality of debate, take evidence from different sources and make recommendations. I would expect that to happen in many places throughout the country.

May I inform my right hon. Friend of an example of bad practice by the overview and scrutiny committee in the London borough of Wandsworth? Often, it simply rubber-stamps decisions made behind closed doors. What carrots and/or sticks will the new Bill contain to ensure that boroughs such as Wandsworth follow best rather than bad practice for overview and scrutiny committees?

I completely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s predicament in Wandsworth. Of course, when local councillors are involved in actively scrutinising decisions on behalf of local people, those local people can have their voices heard and ultimately help shape services. In the coming months, we will work with local authorities and others, including my hon. Friend, if he has an interest, to draw up guidance that local authorities can use if they wish to ensure that decisions are made in the best possible way.

Might not the Secretary of State’s time be better spent in reading some of the many reports of overview and scrutiny committees about councils’ No. 1 problem—care of the elderly? The reports were summed up in a letter, which was published in The Guardian last week, from 45 leaders of authorities of all political persuasions. It said that services for the elderly were “teetering on the brink”. That is made worse by Labour cuts to the national health service. Instead of treating local government like her personal Lego set, will the Secretary of State tell hon. Members whether the Government have a plan to deal with the crisis, or is she content to abandon the elderly to the indignity of poor service and neglect?

The hon. Gentleman may like playing with Lego; I do not. I draw his attention to our investment, year in, year out, in local public services. The quality of public services is increasing, as is satisfaction—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has a privilege in getting to the Dispatch Box and questioning the Secretary of State. He must listen to her reply.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Not only has real-terms funding for local services increased by almost 40 per cent. since 1997, following yearly cuts in investment in public services, but our commitment to social care cannot be questioned either, as we are investing in that as well. Rather than mouthing comments from a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman should get real, look at the funding that has gone into local government and say whether or not he would match it.

Thurrock Development Corporation

Over the past few months, the Thurrock development corporation has been securing key sites for jobs and housing in Purfleet, West Thurrock and on the riverside, as well as making progress on major cultural and environmental projects.

I very much welcome that statement, but will the Minister assure me that the Thurrock development corporation will be facilitated by the Government in terms of capital spending, so that it can fulfil its seven-year business plan and strategy? Without the means, the Government’s policies will not be achieved, and I want them to be achieved.

My hon. Friend is right that capital investment is required across Thurrock to ensure the necessary infrastructure and progress. We will provide capital investment to support the development corporation. He will also welcome the fantastic proposal to relocate the Royal Opera house production facility and archives to Thurrock, which will build skills and create jobs as well as supporting new homes and cultural development in the area.

The Thames Gateway, of which Thurrock is a key part, was originally the vision of my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, and the Opposition strongly support it. The hon. Lady must therefore have been both brave and embarrassed, just a fortnight ago, to admit to her Government’s serious mistakes in carrying the project forward. Given that the design and quality problems and the mess of the 37 overlapping public bodies defusing accountability and leadership were identified long ago—not least by the Government’s own urban taskforce last November—why has it taken them so long to get round to sorting it out? How long will it be before a similar apology is due to those caught up in a series of questionable decisions and failed court actions associated with the Liverpool pathfinder scheme?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has decided to talk such complete nonsense and has failed to welcome the new strategic plan for the Thames Gateway. That has been welcomed by local authorities and development agencies across the Thames Gateway, including Conservative local authorities, which agree that billions of pounds of new investment in infrastructure to support new jobs and homes, and raising the quality of design, is the right approach to making the Thames Gateway a fantastic place to live.

Community Cohesion

18. If she will make a statement on her Department's work to support community cohesion since May 2005. (108120)

We have continued to support areas facing particular challenges. Since its launch in August, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion has been undertaking a programme of consultation and visits. It will make recommendations in June next year. The local government White Paper sets out a number of measures to improve cohesion.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that 2007 marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Community Development Foundation, the country’s foremost source of expertise on community development and social cohesion. In recent years, the CDF has delivered and administered the faith in the communities programme on behalf of her Department and its predecessors. In the light of the Prime Minister’s recent comments on cohesion, does my right hon. Friend agree that cohesion must start from the grass roots of communities, but that organisations such as CDF can contribute the expertise and knowledge that will help it to succeed?

Yes, I do. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend as chair of the CDF and to community workers up and down the country who are striving to build cohesion and communities that get on well side by side, share values and understand what difference is, but understand what it is to be British. I understand the contribution of that particular organisation, which builds from the grass roots to make sure that our communities are good places in which to live and work.

I am grateful to Ministers at the Department for meeting me to discuss the challenges to community cohesion in Slough, but they still exist because of the huge changes faced by my community. Will my right hon. Friend look at a proposal submitted recently by Slough council to help with those challenges?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with Ministers for some months, and we are well aware of the problems facing Slough and other councils throughout the country. Next week I shall meet a delegation of local authorities to discuss some of them. We will work with local authorities not just to identify particular local pressures and challenges, but to identify what will help authorities to manage such tensions and spread best practice across the country. I stand ready to consider those issues whenever new evidence emerges.

A crucial prerequisite for achieving and sustaining community cohesion is, of course, equality before the law. Given that no fewer than 100 right hon. and hon. Members signed an early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), by me and by others urging early and undiluted implementation of the regulations on sexual orientation, when will they be forthcoming?

I have already responded to the hon. Gentleman on this point. As he knows, respect for the rule of law is at the heart of British politics. The Government are prepared to legislate to prevent discrimination of any kind, so that people can take advantage of goods and services without the threat of such discrimination. As the hon. Gentleman also knows, however, there are strong views on precisely how that legislation should be implemented in practice. More than 3,000 responses were received to consultation, and we will respond to it in due course, but my main priority must be to establish effective regulations by April so that people with a particular sexual orientation can be protected from discrimination.

The Muslim Council of Britain has defended the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and its involvement in the politics of the far right, including holocaust denial. In view of that, does my right hon. Friend consider either organisation to be a suitable partner in contribution to community cohesion?

I find it surprising that any organisation in Britain today does not recognise the reality of the holocaust. I also find it surprising that members of leadership organisations in the Muslim community, or indeed other faith communities, should choose not to attend holocaust memorial day. I know that a debate on the issues is taking place in those organisations, and I would encourage its continuation.

I hope to see the organisations myself, along with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government—who is responsible for community cohesion—in Newcastle in January to remember the holocaust. I hope that we can work towards a society in which the contribution of all people, of all faiths and none, is fully recognised.

Social Housing

19. What change there has been in the number of households on council waiting lists for social housing since 1997. (108121)

In England, 1.63 million households are on the waiting list for social housing. The number of households on the waiting list has been broadly unchanged between 1997 and 2001-02. There has been a significant increase in the last four years, which reflects the difficulty of affordability faced by those trying to get on to the housing ladder.

In Chesterfield the waiting list has risen from 1,774 to 6,170, while nationally it has risen by half a million. Yet Government policy has allowed the number of social houses to fall by 600,000 since 1997, and the Government steal £3 million of Chesterfield council tenants’ rent every year rather than allow Chesterfield to build new social housing. When will the Government change their disastrous, dogmatic and failed housing policies?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with his characterisation. It is enormously important for us to produce more houses in all sectors—the private sector, shared ownership and social housing—and we are on course to deliver our target of 30,000 social rented houses a year by 2008.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, housing revenue account money is seen as a national resource, allowing us to target the areas in most need. We are therefore providing more resources, including more resources for Chesterfield.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the crisis in housing is now becoming as fierce in some northern towns and cities as it is in some southern towns and cities? Bolton has lost a third of its housing stock, largely through the right to buy, and its housing waiting list in the last few years has quadrupled from 5,000 to over 23,000, and it is rising steeply. A few days ago, the Minister for Housing and Planning met the northern housing forum. Will the Department look at its proposals for alleviating the housing crisis in northern areas?

My hon. Friend is right to recognise that housing issues affect not only the south of England, but the north as well. We need to build more houses throughout England. It is important that we look at proper local assessments, and we are of course very happy to consider any proposals and initiatives that are brought forward by local communities.

Islamist Extremism

20. What assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of Government initiatives to tackle Islamist extremism. (108122)

The Department plays a critical role, working effectively with local government and communities to tackle Islamist extremism. We continue to monitor our work at both local and national level, and to build on what we have learned from previous initiatives, such as the “Preventing Extremism Together” project, to inform our policy development.

Last month, the Secretary of State told the House that action had been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations of the “Preventing Extremism Together” taskforce that were addressed to Government. As action agreed is not the same as action taken, can the Minister tell the House howmany of the recommendations have so far been implemented?

Yes I can, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking the question—it gives me an opportunity to put the record straight, because some misinformation has been perpetuated on this point by mischief makers. Action has been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations that were for Government to lead on. Three have been completed—the recommendation about consultation on the Department for Education and Skills Green Paper, expansion of the minority ethnic achievements project, and the extension of equal opportunities legislation to cover discrimination on the ground of faith—and 17 are in progress. The Government have accepted the recommendations and are working on implementing them. Three are under consideration and the Government are deciding whether to accept them. Of the four remaining, alternatives are in place for two, and two are not being taken forward.

A number of weeks ago, the Muslim Parents Association of Milton Keynes organised a highly successful meeting that was attended by about 200 members of the local Muslim community and people from other faith communities, at which two Imams launched a theological discussion about Islam and how it precisely did not explain the actions of certain extremists within the Muslim community. Will the Minister say what support his Department is giving to moderate Muslim organisations such as the Milton Keynes Muslim Parents Association?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It gives me the opportunity to re-emphasise on behalf of the Government what is of course the case: those who use the name of Islam to justify violence and criminal terrorism are to be condemned. The Government’s programme with the mainstream Muslim community, Imams and various organisations to make that point clear includes events to perpetuate the true nature of Islam and to put to bed the arguments of those who use it to justify their violent extremism, and more than 30,000 young British Muslims have attended those events.

Brownfield Land

The definition of previously developed land is based on the land use change statistics from 1985. It is a practical definition for statistical purposes and should most sensibly remain as set out in the new planning policy statement published 10 days ago.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Large gardens of houses in south Manchester such as the Rookery and Jessiefield are threatened with development. Does the Minister not accept that redesignating gardens as greenfield rather than brownfield sites would afford extra protection against such overdevelopment?

There are practical difficulties in changing the definition in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is not only the question of how one deals with patios; we do not want to make it harder for people to build extensions in their own gardens and to their own homes. There are ways for local councils to address the problems associated with unsustainable development on garden land. Several local authorities already have such policies, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take up the matter with his local council. The new planning policy statement on housing gives local authorities greater powers to have particular policies in this area, and he would be wise to look at that new planning guidance.