It is a privilege to open this section of the debate on the Gracious Speech. I wish to start by paying tribute to the four firefighters who lost their lives in Warwickshire last weekend: John Averis, Ian Reid, Ashley Stevens and Darren Yates-Badley. Their loss is a reminder of the commitment and courage that our dedicated emergency services show every day, be they firefighters, ambulance crews, police officers, community support officers or the volunteers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. This was the worst loss of life for the fire and rescue service in a single incident for 35 years. It has had a huge impact on a small community, and I know that it is felt very deeply by their colleagues everywhere. Our condolences go to all their friends and families.
I am proud to be Communities Secretary at a time when, as the Government’s programme has made clear, we are poised to make a significant shift in the way that the business of government is carried out. We want more power to be given to Parliament and to the people. Devolution will be brought to the countries, councils, communities and citizens. What a contrast that will be with the record in government of the Opposition, who should be judged by their deeds and not their words. In 18 years, they hoovered up powers to the centre, from schools, colleges, local councils and the NHS. They abolished London-wide government, and starved councils of cash.
Yes, as a councillor in the Tory years, I remember how the Conservative Government cut budgets every year. Let’s hope that we never go back to that. It beggars belief that the Leader of the Opposition is in Manchester today to launch a Conservative co-operative movement. Conservatism and co-operation have as much in common as chalk and cheese.
As ever, the Opposition’s rhetoric about localism is merely a fig leaf for their desire to cut public spending, shrink the state and let the free market take over. The Conservatives believe not in co-operation but in competition of the kind that lets a few swim while the many sink. That is what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, in my city and in communities across the country. By their deeds shall we know them.
Today, thanks to 10 years of investment and the commitment of local leaders, over three quarters of councils now have three or four stars from the Audit Commission.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, but will she set the record straight in respect of an answer that she gave during the Department for Communities and Local Government Question Time of 16 October? Speaking of services for the elderly, she said that Manchester city council was
“a four-star local authority providing excellent services, with an excellent direction of travel.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 692.]
She went on to say that the contrast with Conservative councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham was “absolutely obvious”. However, the facts are as follows: the Commission for Social Care Inspection ratings for adult social care gave Hammersmith and Fulham three stars and Manchester only two, while the Audit Commission’s comprehensive performance assessment gave Hammersmith and Fulham four stars and Manchester three. Moreover, Hammersmith and Fulham achieved £1,813 in spending per head on the elderly, while Manchester city council managed only £1,419. Will the right hon. Lady set the record straight because, if she wants people to have confidence in her role, she must be fair on all councils of all parties?
The hon. Gentleman forgets to mention that a lot of that good work was built up under Labour. Will he say why Hammersmith and Fulham, a four-star council, is about to increase the charges for meals on wheels by £200 a year? I do not think that a four-star council needs to take that sort of action.
Perhaps that just enables us to see what the priorities of Hammersmith and Fulham council are.
We must put the governing back into local government. Local councils should not merely administer services, they should shape the future, build a foundation for aspiration and ambition and not wait for Whitehall to tell them what to do next.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I do not want to be contentious, but the answer to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) referred was given to me. It was to me that she gave information about Manchester that clearly was not accurate. If she is telling the House that the information about Manchester that she gave that day was not right, will she now correct what she said?
Certainly, I think that Manchester city council provides excellent service for people in the city. The information to which the hon. Gentleman refers was given in response to a query from another Manchester Member of Parliament. I wanted to make sure that he was fully aware of the excellent work done by Manchester city council.
We now have a number of excellent local leaders right across local government. John Merry, the leader of my own Salford city council, is a shining example. Salford council provides excellent services and makes sure that there is a foundation in our city for aspiration and achievement among even the poorest people.
Last month, I announced the new indicators for measuring local government’s performance. There are now just 198 such indicators, compared with the 1,200 that there were in the past. I also announced new flexibility for local councils to direct funding to meet their local priorities, with £5 billion of grants being mainstreamed. Local government must use its new freedom and demonstrate what confident councils, ambitious for the people whom they serve, really can achieve.
This Government also want to see an unprecedented transfer of power and influence direct to local people; elected representatives who are not afraid of the views of local people but enriched and strengthened by them. As the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” made clear, we cannot overcome the challenges that we face today or meet the rising aspirations of the British people if we do not make people themselves part of the solution. At the heart of my politics for the past 25 years has been the conviction that there are no better advocates for local communities, no better agents for local change, than local people themselves.
Last month I published jointly with the Local Government Association a community empowerment action plan underpinned by £35 million of funding. It outlines a series of practical proposals to pass power to the people—action, not rhetoric. Community kitties, local citizens juries, and the transfer of assets such as underused buildings to local voluntary groups are just some of the methods that pioneering local councils have explored. I challenge every council to take up these new opportunities. In the months to come, colleagues across government and I will be working closely together to embed the principles of community empowerment into a wide range of policies, from policing to health.
The Gracious Speech showed that we are a Government with the courage and the vision to take the difficult long-term decisions that are in the interests of this country. Look at house building. The fact is that for a generation we have not been building enough homes to keep up with the needs of our population. Today we are building 185,000 homes a year, the highest rate for nearly 20 years. But with the number of households projected to grow by over 220,000 each year from now to 2026, it is clear that we must go further.
Already many first-time buyers have to struggle to afford a deposit. Too many young families are living in cramped conditions or on council waiting lists. Without urgent action, their prospects of one day owning their own home will become increasingly remote.
The Government try to portray their aim to build 3 million homes before 2020 as simply a way to ensure that young people can get on the housing ladder. Will she confirm that, by the Government’s own admission, of the 3 million houses that they say will be built more than 1 million are for future immigration? Is that why, after his disastrous slogan of “British jobs for British workers”, the Prime Minister has not come up with a slogan of “British houses for British families”?
Many of the new homes that will be built will be for families; they will be for first-time buyers. However, they will also be for older people, who increasingly are living alone. The hon. Gentleman has to recognise that this is a demographic problem and not simply seek to scapegoat immigrants.
This is a Government on the side of aspiration for the many, not the few. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we will build 3 million new homes by 2020. I want to pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. She is taking the programme forward with passion and vigour. The Conservative party, by opposing our plans to build more homes, is betraying the aspirations of everyone who wants to own their own home but is struggling to get on the ladder.
The Government will bring forward a housing and regeneration Bill to create a new homes and communities agency. The agency will be vital to delivering our Government’s housing ambitions, working with local authorities and the private sector to promote regeneration and build new social and affordable housing.
I am delighted at the progress that is being made. When the new agency is created, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the regulations governing it deal with the problem that crops up from time to time in all Government Departments in constituencies such as mine where there are pockets of severe deprivation within a broader community that is very wealthy? Cheshire is a wealthy county, but there are pockets of severe deprivation that get left out in the matrix that is used for Government funding.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He will know that we have been trying to ensure that we use the data about super-output areas so that we really drill down into those pockets of deprivation in our policies right across the board, but also in housing policy. It is a key issue. Sometimes these matters are felt even more keenly where there are pockets of deprivation within an area that is affluent overall.
The right hon. Lady will understand that the issue is not just the number of houses to be built—everybody accepts that we need more—but where they are placed. In my constituency, a public inquiry is going on that will end up on her desk and I obviously do not expect her to pre-empt that decision, but can she assure me and my constituents that when she makes a decision on that inquiry it will be based on the current Cambridgeshire structure plan and the decisions, plans and strategies of locally elected people rather than allowing them to be overruled, as was implied by the inspector at the opening of the inquiry, by her objectives for far more houses, bearing in mind that we already have a new town only 5 or 6 miles away from the proposed site? Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that she will judge the situation after allowing for the views of local people rather than simply allowing her figures to overrule any form of local accountability?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that the decisions will be made entirely properly, in accordance with all the local plans and the most up-to-date planning rules, and with integrity and probity. Of course, they will.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman says that everyone accepts the need to build more homes. I hope he is talking to members of his party, many of whom are on record opposing the building of new homes across the country. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that Government housing plans would leave
“a concrete scar across…rural England”.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) said:
“Suburbs like Barnet are under attack from…excessive targets for new house building.”
The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said that the current level of house building was “excessive”. That was three years ago, so I hope that Opposition Members are joining us in saying that there is an absolute need to build more homes to meet aspirations, especially those of young families.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that in the north of England some communities have experienced fast economic growth and enormous demand for housing, and have housing affordability problems that are as severe as those in the home counties? When the Government consider awarding growth point status to new local authorities, will my right hon. Friend look at cities such as my constituency, City of York, in exactly the same terms as southern cities to ensure that we have the support for additional housing that we need in the north of England?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. His constituency is a very attractive place in which to live and is under similar pressure to places in the south. We will make sure that there are growth points in the north as well as in the south so that everybody across the country can benefit.
I thank the right hon. Lady for being so generous.
Many houses are being built in and around my constituency of Broxbourne. At present, my constituents face packed trains, packed tubes, packed roads, packed hospitals and no water. It is easy to talk about building houses, but where will the infrastructure come from? Where is the Government’s vision for infrastructure?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not just about vision; it is about being prepared to put in the resources. We are putting £1.9 billion into infrastructure, with £300 million for the community infrastructure fund. We shall be introducing the planning charge. This Government have proper plans to make a difference, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support new house building otherwise he will have a job explaining to his constituents why he is letting down first-time buyers who need housing.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady as I should like her to correct the impression she may have just given the House with an inaccurate or partial quote from something that I may have said three years ago. I have repeatedly maintained that we need more affordable housing; the question of whether it is excessive relates entirely to the relationship with the provision of infrastructure. In my part of the country there is a lot of house building but no investment in infrastructure at all. That is what I mean by “excessive”.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Quality as well as quantity is fundamental, and that brings me to my next point. I am talking about not the one-size-fits-all monolithic estates of the past, but mixed communities, supported by excellent schools, transport and hospitals; about decent design, which helps defeat crime, provides space for young and old, with green spaces and safe places to come together as friends and neighbours; about green homes, where the needs of the environment are balanced with the needs of families; and not about the quick-fix solutions that blighted too much of the post-war building programme, but about well designed houses that people are proud to call home.
I visited Nottingham yesterday to see the innovative proposals for new eco-homes in the Meadows area of the city. I saw real enthusiasm, real vision and, crucially, genuine support from the local community for the new development. It is a tragedy that the Tories oppose such initiatives, because they are the prisoners of the nimbyism of Opposition Members.
On the point about eco-homes and better standards in tackling climate change, the Environmental Audit Committee found in a report some time ago that the regulation of standards and building regulations are not maintained as well as they should be. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider giving local authorities more powers to carry out the monitoring rather than leaving that to the self-regulating people in the building industry who often fail to implement or observe the standards.
Enforcement has improved, but issues still remain. We intend to carry out a review of the building regulations to make sure that we have a proper system in place.
It has been 20 years since there was major reform to the regulation of social housing. Giving tenants a bigger say over the management of the places where they live is a core part of bringing social housing up to standard in the 21st century, after the Tories left us a repairs backlog of £19 billion. The Bill will create the new office for tenants and social landlords, giving tenants a stronger voice.
It is interesting that on 5 October this year, on BBC Radio 4’s “Any Questions” programme, we got a glimpse of the Opposition’s attitude to social housing, when the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) described a walk down a road in Chesham and Amersham. He claimed that one side of the road, the owner-occupied side, had neat gardens and painted doors and that the other side, the rented side, did not. Tories think that tenants do not look after their properties. I was shocked by that description. I thought it was an insult to 8 million tenants and to the millions of people in social housing who take pride in their neighbourhoods and homes.
Will the new agency also regulate council housing? In Northampton, the housing service is going down the drain and we urgently need to make sure that we do not have new social housing that is of a high standard and regulated while the standard of council housing—it is a Lib Dem council—is constantly deteriorating.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Initially, the regulation will not extend to council-run property, but we want to consider whether it will be able to do that later on. We want to make sure that we get the regulation right in the first place before extending the responsibilities.
Building the new homes that Britain urgently needs also has implications for our planning system. It was a Labour Government who introduced the landmark Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which set out the guiding principles for a framework that has endured for 60 years. Today, it is a Labour Government who are ready to renew that framework to meet the modern challenges of climate change, the economic pressures of globalisation and the need for a secure energy supply.
In particular, it is vital to improve the system for nationally significant infrastructure such as ports, reservoirs and power plants. It is still too complex, opaque and very slow. Typically, applications take almost two years with many cases taking much longer. For example, it took more than six years for a decision to be made on both the north Yorkshire grid upgrade and Thameslink 2000. Britain cannot wait that long. We will bring forward a planning Bill to streamline and improve the planning regime. The Bill will introduce a single consent regime for major infrastructure projects and establish an independent infrastructure planning commission. That will help to ensure that more timely and predictable decisions are taken on infrastructure projects that are key to economic growth, international competitiveness, tackling climate change, energy security and improving quality of life.
Let me be clear that this must not—and will not—come at the cost of transparency and public involvement. In fact, it will improve opportunities for public participation at every stage of the process. Both Parliament and the public will play a central role in debate about the national policy statements that will set out the country’s long-term needs for renewable energy, major transport schemes and so forth. In each and every case when developers wish to build national infrastructure, they will have to consult local people before submitting an application. Local inquiries will become more accessible so that everyone—not just those with the most resources and the best understanding of the system—has a fair chance to have their say.
There are already different targets for different kinds of brownfield land. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue before. Clearly, our Government’s record of building on brownfield land rather than greenfield sites is extremely good, and there has been a significant increase in building on brownfield sites.
Building strong communities is about much more than bricks and mortar. My Department will lead work on ensuring that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to come together and share a sense of civic pride and belonging. In an age of globalisation, this work has never been more important. For generations this country has benefited enormously from the contribution of migrants in all fields: the economy, culture and civic life. As the patterns of migration change, we continue to benefit. However, we need to have an honest debate about the different impact on different local communities. The migration impact forum, which is jointly chaired by my Department and the Home Office, is providing the evidence that we need to respond effectively. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion has already reported on what positive measures we can take now.
I am trying to take the right hon. Lady at her word about having an honest debate. However, does she concede that local authorities predicted at least three years ago that there would be an enormous strain on the delivery of public services as a result of her Government’s cack-handed and mismanaged policy on accession states in terms of immigration? We have 20,000 new EU migrants in my constituency, which is putting an enormous strain on local public services and causing enormous problems with community cohesion. Where is the honesty in that and where is the debate? It is too little, too late.
It is important to have an honest debate and to come up with practical proposals to ensure that communities that are experiencing significant change can cope with the pressures. It is irresponsible simply to raise these issues without having a way forward on policy. That is why I call for an honest, transparent and proper debate.
In order to have that honest debate, will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that all figures on migration given by the Government will be accurate?
The figures that we have from the Office for National Statistics, which operates entirely independently, are the best available figures. As I said last week, I want to ensure that the ONS works with local authorities to determine whether there are ways in which the figures can be enhanced. People have suggested using general practitioner registration figures, for example, as a means of enhancing the statistics. However, one of the problems is that many people coming to this country do not register with GPs, but attend accident and emergency centres. That is one illustration of the difficulties of getting the most accurate figures.
I will give way in a moment.
I welcome the commission’s recommendations on information packs, on explaining rights and responsibilities to new arrivals, on school twinning schemes, and on local citizens days. Those are all ways in which we can bring people together to try to find a shared future. That is about dealing with the pressures, rather than simply highlighting the problems. I can tell hon. Members that before the Local Government Association produced its most recent report, I had already announced an extra £50 million to help communities to cope with the extra pressures arising from the need for integration. Again, what about the Conservative party? It seems that Conservative candidates can state publicly that Enoch was right, and will not even necessarily be summarily dismissed by their party leader.
Clearly, a range of people have expressed concern about the current best available figures. I am therefore pleased that the Office for National Statistics will work with the Local Government Association to see whether there are ways in which additional information can be gathered, but that is not without its difficulties. I referred to GP registrations; national insurance numbers do not necessarily give an accurate reflection, either. We have to make sure that we use the best available figures to make the right policy decisions.
May I bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention a good example of practical work in that respect? In my town, the hospital needed more nurses. Representations were made to the primary care trust because of the increasing number of children being born to eastern European couples, so the trust simply provided the extra funding for the extra nurses. It is looking at the issue and is working constructively with the hospital, instead of using the scaremongering tactics that the Opposition try to use.
Yes, that is exactly the right approach: identify the pressures and come up with practical proposals to deal with them. That is the kind of responsible policy that we ought to, and do, have in Government.
The final matter that I wanted to mention was the challenge of violent extremism in our communities. A tiny minority of people are involved in extremism. They do not speak for the vast majority of the UK’s Muslim communities, who share a deep repugnance for acts of terror. None the less, the challenge leaves no room for complacency. We have to continue to work together with those in our Muslim communities who are committed to standing up for peace, respect and tolerance. The Prime Minister has confirmed that over the next three years we will invest £70 million in making all our communities more resilient to violent extremism. Let me make it clear that although my Department is leading our work with local authorities and their partners, preventing violent extremism is a national effort across Government. I hope that the House and the country will stand united in dealing with the challenge that faces us.
The Government’s programme makes it clear that this is a Government with a vision of building stronger communities in towns, cities and rural areas alike, and a Government with the courage to take the long-term decisions that are vital for the country’s future, so that we meet the rising aspirations of the British people. I am proud to put our programme before the House.
May I join the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in paying tribute to our firefighters? I know that even now there may still be the bodies of some civilians in the place that was affected. It should be mentioned that the firefighters concerned were retained. In all our communities, we all owe an enormous debt to retained firefighters. They do an ordinary job of work during the day, and at the sound of a bleep they drop everything and go and put their life on the line. We are all very grateful for it, and recognise the importance of retained firefighters.
The right hon. Lady obviously takes a great interest in the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to Manchester. She wondered what a Conservative had to do with a co-operative society. I have to tell her that my great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Keighley co-operative society; he was also one of the founders of the Independent Labour party. [Interruption.] He soon became disillusioned and moved on.
The right hon. Lady did not want to be here today
I am sorry, but I must tell my hon. Friend that I always think that it is marvellous to be in the Chamber to hear the right hon. Lady speak. It reminds me why I am a Conservative.
The right hon. Lady strongly believed that she, I and other hon. Members should have a more pressing engagement. If the Prime Minister had listened to her, we would be pounding the streets, either last Thursday or today, securing the vote for the general election. I know that, because she is a blogger—and a very fine one with surprising views. For the sake of accuracy, I have obtained a copy of her conference blog, which is entitled, “Snap election? Bring it on!” She is not afraid of holding unconventional views. The Prime Minister’s speech at the conference was described by commentators as
“one-third piffle and two-thirds plagiarism”.
It is worth giving the right hon. Lady’s assessment, as it expresses an interesting oddball view:
“Gordon’s speech…was the highlight of the week. It showed real strength and national leadership. It also was noticeable for not mentioning David Cameron once.”
It is fair to say, however, that the Prime Minister mentioned my right hon. Friend a few times the following week. In case hon. Members are worried that the Secretary of State’s judgment was temporarily unhinged by her time as chairman of the Labour party—that would be understandable, given that she suffered the worst local government defeat in the history of that once-great party—may I tell them that her recovery has begun? She showed great prescience—and I commend her on it—in her assessment of the leaders of our respective parties. She wrote:
“The contrast between the two leaders couldn’t be starker. Strength versus weakness. Vision versus PR.”
Before the pixels had a chance to reform on her computer, it was pretty clear to everyone which leader had strength, vision and bottle.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will give way to him in a few moments, because I want to discuss something that the Secretary of State said.
The right hon. Lady castigated a number of Conservative Members for defending their constituencies, and said that we were a bunch of nimbys. I have a list with me, and I would like her to consider whether the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who opposes high-density building in his constituency, and the Minister for the Olympics, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), are nimbys. The Minister for the Olympics said that proposals for flats in her constituency were
“totally inappropriate and will have a wholly detrimental impact on the amenities of local residents in the area.”
The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), opposes—hon. Members have guessed it—housing development in his constituency. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), is against the building of 9,000 houses in his constituency. He could say to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps): “9K, no way.”
In a moment, when I have finished the list.
It is a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), in the Chamber. He has objected to 570 new homes in his constituency. It occurred to me while listening to the Secretary of State that there is a new definition of “nimby”—not in the Minister’s backyard.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Government Members back more homes, and increased housing in their constituencies. Do members of the Conservative Front-Bench team support more homes in their constituencies, as opposed to calling for reductions in the overall amount of housing by literally thousands in their constituencies?
In Leeds, the Conservative-controlled council, with the aid of its Liberal Democrat bedfellows, has introduced a new form of nimbyism, which is about reducing the number of polling stations across the city. Does that encourage people’s participation in elections? Will the hon. Gentleman oppose the plans of the Conservative administration in Leeds to reduce the number of polling stations?
I understand that the hon. Gentleman may be on the way to another place. As far as I know, there are no polling booths there. But no doubt he is doing a good service to his party. On the location of polling stations, I have been involved in local government for a long time and in this place for a long time, and generally the matter is regarded as non-political. I hope that the council in Leeds will strive for consensus to ensure that the maximum number of people are able to vote at a given polling station.
We now know the reason why the Prime Minister rejected the advice from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and postponed the election. He said that he wanted to
“show people the vision that we have for the future of this country...and show people the policies that are going to make a huge difference and show the change in the country itself.”
I wonder what went wrong. The Queen’s Speech is painfully lacking in vision. The plodding nature of the proposals could not be clearer than in the measures that the right hon. Lady is responsible for.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since there seems to be happy discussion of the fact that not only Back-Bench speeches, but Front-Bench speeches should be curtailed, would it be possible also to write in the suggestion that Front Benchers should talk vaguely about what is on the Order Paper?
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has a sense-of-humour failure.
Each year the Government announce new housing figures and each year the housing crisis gets deeper. Each and every year the Government miss their own targets on house building. The Government are so out of touch with the housing market that their cure for failure is to increase the target even more. Goodness me! Is that not how Nikita Khrushchev ruined Soviet agriculture?
Let us consider what we were told on Tuesday—that the Government are going to build 3 million new houses by 2020. The Government do not have the capacity to build 3 million houses, nor do local authorities. The Government can create conditions that encourage house building, and councils can help facilitate new communities. The reality is that the Government have not come anywhere close to meeting their own targets.
The figures speak for themselves. The Government are building fewer houses than the previous Conservative Government. Under Labour, in England an average of just over 145,000 homes have been built each year since 1997. Across the whole of the Thatcher and the Major Governments, the average number of houses built each and every year was well over 173,000. So what is the Government’s response to failing to provide enough new homes? The Prime Minister talks about meeting aspirations. What first-time buyers want are bricks and mortar.
According to the Halifax, there were an estimated 315,000 first-time buyers in 2006, the lowest total for a quarter of a century. Home ownership is falling for the first time since records began. Mortgage repossessions are up. The Government, through higher taxation and a refusal to listen, have kicked the housing ladder away from thousands of first-time buyers. Homes are unaffordable for the vast majority of people.
If the hon. Gentleman believes that bricks and mortar—new homes—are indeed needed, will he take the opportunity to condemn the Conservative-led South East England regional assembly, which is arguing for cuts, rather than increases, in the level of house building in the south-east?
I am not entirely sure that that is true. I was about to say, having mentioned Nikita Khrushchev, that the right hon. Lady would make a very bad commissar, but on reflection, I think she would make a very good commissar.
Let us look at the Government’s announcements yesterday and compare them with reality. They say that they are going to build 10 eco-towns. There is something familiar about that. As far back as 1998, Ministers were talking about eco-towns. Last year they announced plans for six eco-community developments, but the reality is different. This year Ministers admitted that only one in 10 of the planned new homes had been built. The Government talk about opening up social housing and reinvigorating the social housing sector, but the reality is different.
The Government have made cuts to the right to buy sector, denying thousands of people in social housing the chance to own their own homes. Ministers talk about getting social tenants on the social housing ladder. They have a plan called the Social HomeBuy scheme—
It is a pretty good pilot, for £15 million. When the press release came out, there was nothing about it being a pilot scheme. Some pilot! [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady should contain herself. She will get a chance. I know that she is feeling a bit uncomfortable, but live with it.
The scheme, which would cost £15 million, was intended to get 5,000 people on to the housing ladder. How many are on the housing ladder? How many took up the scheme? Eighty-eight. A £15 million scheme that cannot get beyond double figures is shameful. When the going gets tough, the Government reach for their favourite solution for all ills—a new quango.
If the right hon. Lady wants another go, she is welcome.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not very keen on answering questions and has not yet answered any of the questions that I put to him, whether on the South East England regional assembly or any other issue. I will give him one more chance. As he is well aware from parliamentary answers and matters on the record, the Social HomeBuy pilot has spent less than £1 million on setting up a pilot scheme, not £15 million, as he says. He also knows that the Government have set out a programme of £8 billion of investment in new affordable housing. Can he say whether his party would back that £8 billion, especially given the £6 billion black hole that it faces?
Black hole? Is that from the Government who have just revised borrowing requirements by £11.6 billion? I will take no lectures from the Government. They are the Government of the dodgy figures on housing, dodgy figures on the homeless and an inability to get round to building. We do not want to hear from the right hon. Lady any more on those matters.
Let us talk about the quango. The new homes and communities agency, which is better known as the greenfield housing development agency, will be established by merging English Partnerships with the Housing Corporation. In typical Labour fashion, two quangos will be merged to produce—well, two quangos, for alongside the greenfield housing development agency, the office for tenants and social landlords will be created.
Only this Government would demand 3 million new houses and simultaneously be demolishing homes against people’s will. That act of supreme vandalism, which is called the pathfinder scheme, is another failure. It was much trumpeted, full of high expectations, with no delivery. Across the country terraced houses are being bulldozed against the wishes of local people and local communities, and the Government refuse to listen. Bureaucrats in Whitehall are forcing the demolition of family homes across England. Town halls that fail to meet the arbitrary targets for bulldozing or seizing homes will face the threat of savage cuts to their funding.
Let me give an example that the Secretary of State might well recognise. In Salford, town hall bosses have rejected pleas for the local community to renovate homes in Seedley under the pathfinder scheme. They opted to demolish, on the grounds that the renovation plans lacked the “transformational” qualities needed to obtain Government funding. Why do the Government think that the only way to build new houses is to ride roughshod over the communities that they want to build in?
Perhaps I could invite the hon. Gentleman to visit Seedley and Langworthy in my constituency, where he will see the work that has been done over the past 10 years to rebuild a community virtually destroyed by the previous Government. We now have terraced housing that is sought after by people in our community and houses prices have increased dramatically. In the past, one used to be able to buy and sell a terraced house in Seedley and Langworthy for £5,000 to £6,000, because the community was absolutely devastated. The average house price now is around £70,000. That community has been rebuilt and has got off its knees, after the legacy that the Tory party left it. I invite the hon. Gentleman to come and visit the people of my community who have prospered under this Government.
My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted a number of central Government cock-ups. Does he also recognise that the end result of the Government’s decision seven years ago to force through planning guidance to ensure that we build thousands of flats is that many families who needed homes now find thousands of flats, but no family homes? Does he agree that that central direction is one of the reasons we are in the mess we are in?
The Soviet tractor factory approach to density has not worked. It has just created a number of flats that have gone for rent-to-buy and buy-to-rent. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield and I visited a mixed development on Monday with different areas of density that could manage a density of 55 to the hectare, which is pretty impressive. We have to place that against a different kind of development—the kind with bland uniformity.
My hon. Friend is doing a tremendous job of highlighting 10 years of failure from the Government. Does he put that down to sheer incompetence or cynicism; in other words, that by maintaining the dynamics—or mis-dynamics—of supply and demand in the housing market, in order to ensure that the economy continues to thrive, the Government are letting down a generation of people who wish to have their own homes built?
In truth, I do not think that the people across the Dispatch Box are cynical or incompetent; I just think that they are misdirected. They simply do not understand how the housing market works and have adopted a Soviet approach to central planning—I will come to the commissar in a moment. It was not so long ago that the figures for car and telephone production for the year would be announced from that Dispatch Box. Housing is the last bit of socialism that the Government have got, so I entirely understand that they might be reluctant to get rid of it.
We have listened for nearly 20 minutes to the hon. Gentleman’s rather poor stand-up turn, which would not go down well in a nightclub. Will he now spend just one minute explaining to the House some alternative Conservative policies? Last time the Conservatives were in power, we had a massive backlog of repairs and modernisation required in the housing stock for the most disadvantaged communities in my constituency. What would he do for those people?
I was brought up in a terraced house and raised for most of my life on a council estate. Do not patronise me—I know what it is like to live on a poor estate, what it is like to be poor and what it is like to be abandoned by Labour on those estates. I have been generous in giving way and I have responded to hon. Members, so I will now tell the hon. Gentleman what we are going to do, which is in the main part of my speech. If he will be a little patient, we will come to it, but all in appropriate time.
The greenfield housing development agency represents the greatest threat to the green belt yet. The Secretary of State was reluctant to offer reassurances about the safety of the green belt when she gave evidence before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, only to be contradicted by a panicky Prime Minister a few hours later. Can she guarantee that the green belt protection will stay in place?
Okay—it will be interesting to see how that is implemented. Is the reality instead that the Government are just waiting to let rip with the bulldozer and the concrete mixer, regardless of the views and concerns of local residents? Why does the Secretary of State not realise that she needs to work with local communities rather than imposing her iron will, along with the clunking fist? Why can she not realise that we need to build communities, not homes? [Interruption.] The reason Government Members laugh is this. Their idea of building is to rip up green fields and put on lots of little ticky-tacky houses. The first generation is proud to live in them, the second generation shuns them and the third generation regards living in them as a badge of failure.
That is why we want to build real communities, with real homes that people are proud of. We need more homes that are affordable, well managed, environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly. Many need to be built in cities, but not all. Can the Secretary of State see that increasing the supply of such homes can be best achieved by working with local communities, rather than by overriding local feeling, which she is intent on doing? We need developments with roads, hospitals, nurseries and shops, with homes that people will want to live in—homes with gardens for children to play in and spaces to park a car.
I hope that we can build a consensus on planning. It is clear that the Government are in a mess with their proposals for the Bill. Let me assure the right hon. Lady that we recognise the need to improve our planning system, not just for large infrastructure projects, but for the good of local authorities and the communities that they represent. Our planning system can at times be slow, too expensive and too bureaucratic. We must never see a repeat of the painful process of approval for terminal 5 at Heathrow. However, the new rules on inquiries have only just been introduced and seem to be working reasonably well in the Stansted inquiry.
We need a system that is fast and responsive to changing needs, and which allows us to build the large-scale infrastructure that is so vital to our continuing prosperity. The problem is that so many of the difficulties in the current planning system are of the Government’s making. The ink is hardly dry on the previous planning Act and here we are, desperate to legislate again. The system introduced by the Government is ensnaring local authorities in red tape and bureaucracy. We need a system that is accountable to the public and democratic, and which carries public confidence and support.
Regrettably, the proposals before us achieve none of those aims. Instead, we see a new planning quango—the infrastructure planning commission—that will strip local authorities of their say on planning applications on everything from airports, power stations, motorways, ports, sewerage plants, hazardous waste storage and landfill. As one might expect, the quango is unaccountable and effectively unsackable.
My doubts on that change are not partisan. Perhaps I should quote the views of the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), the former Housing and Planning Minister. He is of the view that
“decisions on major facilities such as nuclear power stations should be taken by elected ministers rather than the IPC, which will not be democratically accountable.”
I entirely agree with him. The IPC’s functions include powers for the “compulsory purchase of land” and
“powers to amend, apply or display local and public legislation governing infrastructure”.
Responsibility for regional planning is to be transferred from the unelected regional assemblies to the unelected regional development agencies. Perhaps the commandment from the Secretary of State is “Quango shall speak unto quango”. The quangocracy is not a success. At present, the Government say that all decisions would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, yet this would only be via the Select Committee system. Parliament as such will have no opportunity to approve or reject them. That simply is not good enough. National infrastructure projects deserve a proper debate to which the whole House can contribute. We are prepared to look at ways of making large infrastructure statements accountable to the whole of Parliament. If we can find a way to offer genuine accountability and genuine democracy, we will look at any proposals that the Secretary of State might make. The real expertise on planning still resides with local authorities, and it would be better to return strategic planning to them than to create an unpopular quango.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned nuclear power and infrastructure projects. Does he agree that, specifically in regard to nuclear power, it is important to have an informed debate, and that any consultation is genuinely that—a genuine consultation rather than window dressing prior to the Government’s announcing that they are already in favour of nuclear power, whatever the outcome of the consultation? Whether or not one is in favour of that kind of technology, surely the House and the country deserve the respect of being allowed to hear the facts rather than simply the prejudices of the Government.
I entirely agree. Matters like these are marred by political prejudice—that is the nature of the thing—but I think that the folks out there expect us to take a view on this, and to listen to what they have to say. Even if we disagree with them, they will at least respect us if we make that decision.
My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about the need for sustainable communities. Does he share my disappointment that the Secretary of State, in making her partisan attack on the Conservatives’ localist credentials, signally failed to mention the Sustainable Communities Bill when talking about the Government’s programme, even though it passed through Parliament with strong cross-party support? Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Government to place on record their determination to implement the Bill with real energy, as though it had been invented in Government?
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he did to bring that most important piece of legislation to the statute book. Having had conversations with the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing, I know that they share our enthusiasm for it, but perhaps, in these partisan times, the odd nice thing gets left out. That is life, I suppose.
On a personal note, may I say how much I regret the fact that the marine Bill is still only at the draft stage? We were promised a marine Bill in 2005, and it has been one of the main objectives since 2001. We have been waiting patiently, but our patience is now exhausted. I have always thought that the marine Bill and the Climate Change Bill were really just two sides of the same coin. Of course we welcome the Climate Change Bill. Such is our enthusiasm that we have welcomed it every time the Government have announced it. I am aware that my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), will have many points to make on this subject when he winds up the debate, so I shall not cover them now, but we do support the Bill’s objectives.
However, I must take issue with the fact that the Prime Minister has sought to sneak another stealth tax into the Climate Change Bill. This is a stealth tax masquerading as a green one. I was somewhat surprised to see its inclusion in the Bill. According to the press, first it was in, then it was out. A press conference was arranged, the Minister was ready, then No. 10 cancelled it on the quiet, just like the election. Then DEFRA said that it had been going to happen all the time. In out, in out. This is not the politics of a firm, well-run Government; this is the politics of the hokey-cokey. Bin taxes are just going to shake things about. They will damage the local environment and public health by leading to a surge in fly-tipping and backyard burning. Neighbours will be creeping out in the dead of night to drop the remains of their chicken tikka masala in next door’s bin. The countryside will be blighted by fly-tipping, and back garden rubbish burning will pollute the atmosphere.
Let me quote from the outgoing Mayor of London. Mayor Livingstone calls the plans “flawed” and says that bin taxes would be a “disaster in London”. Labour-run Northumberland county council slams them as “unworkable and impractical”. The set-up and running costs of such a complex tax, involving the installing of microchips in every bin, will mean that the overall burden of taxation for ordinary families will rise. Families now face the double whammy of record council tax bills and a new bin tax. Let me be clear: bin taxes will be costly, they will damage the environment, and we will continue to oppose them.
What we saw yesterday was little more than reannounced policies, reheated soundbites and tired old ideas. If this Queen’s Speech were fast food, it would be a dodgy kebab, warmed up once too often, overlooked by the public and well past its sell-by date. This is not the change that people want. Only the Conservative party has the ideas and the energy to meet the aspirations of the British public. We were promised a vision for the future. We were promised change. This is not vision. This is not renewal. This is just the next chapter in the long goodbye of a tired and increasingly pointless Government.
It is some time since I have addressed the House from the Back Benches—about 18 and a half years, I think—but I am delighted to be speaking today and to welcome the Gracious Speech. I was very pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to say. I was extremely disappointed, however, in the contribution of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), whom I knew well in local government. I remember him when he was a local government leader. He did not talk about the north at all today, and I do not think that he would dare go anywhere near it now. They kicked him out of Bradford, and now we know why. I am really disappointed that he gave us not an ounce of an idea of what he would seek to do in housing, local government or anything else. We know nothing about Tory policies—because, I suspect, there simply are no Tory policies.
Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak with some trepidation, because I am not going to speak only on today’s topic. I shall ask for your indulgence, and use this debate on the Queen’s Speech to talk about some of the issues that keep me going, get me up in the morning and convince me that this Government can do even more to change the opportunities of the people in communities such as mine, who for years were led to believe that they had nothing to contribute, and told that the Government did not expect them to play any part in the world. The devastation of communities such as mine during the Tory years is still deep in people’s psyche; it is there for all to see. The difference that has been made over the past 10 years is remarkable, but there is still more to do.
The real strength of the Queen’s Speech was the commitment to aspiration. Many people in the north-east have simply never believed that they were able to take part in the advantages of our modern society. If there is one thing that we need to do in the north-east, it is to turn around the aspirations of the younger generation, and of their parents, so that that generation can really become the drivers of change and opportunity. Much of what was in the Queen’s Speech, and in the public service agreements in the Budget statement last month, showed how the Government have learned from their time in office that there needs to be a much clearer focus and much more effective cross-cutting interdepartmental work.
I spent the last year of my time in government trying to ensure that we joined up different polices and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, shaped places more effectively, so that people living in them could achieve their very best and turn their lives around. I want us to do that by tackling the huge challenges, such as child poverty, which still exist in the north-east. I am pleased to be involved with people in the region in turning child poverty round within the next generation. As a result of the legacy in the region, it has the highest number of children who do not get the opportunities that they should have.
I disagree with the main plank of what the Tories have said. They try to maintain that society is broken. Society is not broken. Far too many people within our society and communities are not getting the opportunities that they need, and do not have real access to what would turn those opportunities around. However, many people have opportunities today and are achieving—they have jobs, and so on—because of what has been going on in this Government, and they want to be part of ensuring that things are even better for the next generation.
I admit that in my last year in government I became obsessed with early intervention. The Government have done remarkable things for early years opportunities. We have built up an infrastructure of children’s centres around the country, and there is a recognition that early years education and opportunity make a difference to children’s lives. Sometimes, however, we were not sufficiently systematic to ensure that those got through to the children who needed them most. We opened the doors, and hoped that they would all come through. What happens is that those who recognise the opportunity storm through the doors and take it up, but some of those who are not too sure how to go about it, or who are worried about what life would be like in there, or whether they would be embarrassed because they did not have the same vocabulary, or whatever, as other people there, simply do not turn up.
One of the programmes that we introduced is the family nurse partnership, and I was delighted when a couple of weeks ago the Government announced that they were giving a further £30 million to that. The programme is rolling out in 10 pilot areas around the country. The Leader of the Opposition does not know what he thinks about it yet. He called it a new programme of foetal ASBOs—antisocial behaviour orders—but others on his Front Bench welcomed it because they saw what it could do.
I was delighted to meet Professor David Olds in my constituency the week before last when he came to see how the programme is being rolled out in Durham. It is making a huge difference. Nurses are meeting young women whom they say nobody else has picked up. Those young women have an early pregnancy, and may have mental health problems. They have certainly missed a lot of school, and their literacy and numeracy may not be what we would expect. Now, however, they have learned about what happens to a baby’s brain as it develops in the foetus and are now enthusiastically deciding for themselves that it would be a good thing if they do not smoke or drink any more, because they know that that will enable their baby to grow better in the womb and to be born heavier and probably later.
The programme’s results are beginning to show real differences in local communities. We know, because the programme has been so well researched and evidenced internationally, that it produces enormous benefits for both parents and children. The amazing thing—this really interested the professor from Colorado—is that we are managing to get fathers involved, in a way that they have not managed to achieve as well in America.
In America, for every $1 spent in the programme, the state, or the foundations, will have saved $5 by the time the child is 15. I am not saying that we will get such superb results in this country, but the programme will make a huge difference. The young women and the parents are beginning to get some self-respect—some knowledge and understanding of themselves and their responsibilities in terms of rearing their children. That is making a difference as those children are growing up. We know that we have to get to the most disadvantaged as early as we can and work with them in a positive way so that they can draw on their own resources and strengths and build on those.
Our society is not broken. We have to engage with people in ways that allow and enable them to be the best that they can. I sometimes look at the Opposition and wonder where things went wrong—but I know that such programmes can be productive. I urge the Government to see how we can use our resources most effectively in all their programmes. We cannot do that just by pouring money in; we must build relationships, using the money effectively and ensuring that we make a difference in the lives of the people who were abandoned, rejected and absolutely neglected by the previous Administration. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friends to ensure that that is precisely the legacy that this Government give to the country—by building a new generation that can take the opportunities to develop their skills, and to develop the skills and opportunities in their communities, so that our country is at the forefront of how the world develops in the future.
We share the Secretary of State’s grief and concern at the loss of the firefighters’ lives. I, and my party, want to be associated with the condolences that she extended. It is a stark reminder that however much we talk about such things in the House, it is often the people out there—the local service providers—who take the hits when trouble strikes.
I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box to defend her Government’s record and to explain their intentions. The Department that she runs has a central role to play in key issues that this country faces. Planning and housing are clearly among those. The fact has not been mentioned yet, but more than 1.6 million families are on the council house waiting list. House prices have been rising and are now unreachable by many first-time buyers, especially in the south, but also in constituencies such as mine, in Greater Manchester. Repossessions are predicted to rise from 8,000 in 2004 to 30,000 this year and 45,000 next year. As we have heard from the intermittent references to the subject of the debate, there is an overheated housing market in the overcrowded south-east, and there are environmental problems that go with that.
Less often mentioned has been the fact that more than half the carbon dioxide emitted in this country comes from buildings. The regulation and environmental control of buildings is also within the Secretary of State’s remit. If we take the new projections of population growth seriously, it appears that many of the existing pressures will become more severe in the coming year.
The Department has a central role in ensuring that local services are provided throughout the country in a timely and effective way. Last week’s comprehensive spending review and pre-Budget statement made it clear that things will be very difficult for local government over the coming year, given a sharp reduction in the development of finances. The Minister for Local Government himself has said that there will be a tight settlement. We know that there will be ferocious pressures on the delivery of social care throughout the country, we know that the costs of the single-status agreement—which were raised earlier—are not funded properly, and we have heard rumours that another round of unitary authorities is being contemplated in Lancashire and Cumbria. It is a turbulent world in which the Secretary of State reigns and provides finance. The provision of finance, too, should have featured in the Queen's Speech, but it contained no proposals for reform of the local taxation system.
This is not just a question of housing, planning and local services; we must also consider equality and social cohesion. The Secretary of State referred briefly to the report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. I hope to hear later today that she has accepted its recommendations, and that she will place the results of her consideration in the Library.
We were tantalised by the reference to action on citizenship in the Queen's Speech. The Secretary of State did not mention it explicitly, but her commission has produced recommendations which I consider to be of great sense, sensitivity and understanding. I hope that any action on citizenship that is taken will pay especial regard to what the commission has said, and as a first step will restore funds to local authorities to provide English lessons without the penalties that have been hinted at elsewhere.
It is interesting to note that despite a great deal of talk beforehand, the single equalities Bill did not find its way into the Queen's Speech in draft or any other form—but we do have measures relating to housing, planning, local services, equality and social cohesion. How have the Government, and the Department in particular, responded to those crucial issues? Many of them require cross-departmental action—people getting out of the silos, joined-up government, and so forth—and that applies to no issue more than it does to climate change, “the greatest threat to mankind”.
What contribution does the Secretary of State intend to make during this Session to solving the problem of climate change? We are bound to say, “None, really.” The Climate Change Bill is welcome, but it covers only carbon dioxide emissions, it does not set annual targets—it establishes instead a five-year target which is out of synchronisation with the general election sequence to which we are accustomed—and, at 60 per cent., its target is too low. It should also be noted that it does not include aviation or shipping. Nevertheless, any climate change Bill is better than no climate change Bill, just as any single equalities Bill would have been better than no single equalities Bill.
I was fascinated by the Secretary of State’s assurance that the Merton rule would be retained, and that, in her words, the Department wished to strengthen it and make it more flexible. I do not believe that it is possible to do both those things at the same time. Local authorities all over the country have already adopted the Merton rule or variants of it, and others wish to do so. Whatever the Secretary of State says in this place, her civil servants are still advising councils to hold back and to slow down, which cannot be right. I urge the Secretary of State to back up what is in the Climate Change Bill by letting local authorities and local democracy get on with the job that they are ready and willing to do in support of the Government’s strategy.
I cannot let pass the opportunity of mentioning what was said to the Secretary of State earlier about monitoring the effectiveness of environmental regulation of buildings. She said that a review was being carried out. I remind her that there was cross-party support for the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which I was happy to promote, but that I am still waiting for her and her Ministers to implement the provision allowing additional monitoring. She does not need new legislation in the Queen's Speech; she just needs to get on with it.
We must also ask where the marine Bill is—but that is not the right hon. Lady’s problem. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is sitting next to her, knows very well that only two or three weeks ago, when he spoke at a meeting here, he gave a clear hint that the Bill would be ready and waiting for us in the Queen's Speech—but it is not.
I return to the question of housing and planning. Ministers seem to think that with housing, there is a choice to be made between quality and quantity, but the Liberal Democrats reject that idea. We must have high-quality sustainable housing, and we must have more housing as well. The need is substantial, but what we are offered is too little affordable housing, too little social housing and too little sustainable housing. We need to see, in the housing Bill, measures that genuinely empower local communities to make their own decisions, and to provide public land for affordable housing through the use of community land trusts.
Please will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that all new homes will be zero-energy buildings with zero carbon emissions by 2011, rather than by 2016, which is the Government’s aspiration? Will she also present proposals to start the upgrading of existing buildings, especially the 70 per cent. of existing homes that will still be in use in 2050 and which, unless action is taken now, will still be emitting a ridiculously high level of carbon?
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the eco-towns proposal is clearly of environmental interest, the real challenge relates to proposals for eco-suburbs—ensuring that homes in existing suburbs are fitted with equipment that can deal with the environmental impact of emissions?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I know that his borough of Sutton is beginning to explore the possibilities. We need to recognise that the huge majority of the housing that is supposed to be zero-carbon by 2050 has already been built, so we must take action with regard to that sector.
Will my hon. Friend join me in expressing gratitude to the Centre for Alternative Technology, which has devised a blueprint for a zero-carbon Britain? Are not such organisations experts in the field, and should not all parties pay attention to their recommendations? They make a practical reality out of what the Government may previously have considered to be theories.
The fact is that the country is bubbling with ideas. The work has been done, and there are people ready to step forward and implement it. What they need is a clear signal from the Government that they should get on with the job. The Merton rule could be taken as a very precise example of how not to deal with the issue: by hanging a sword of Damocles over it, the Government have inhibited the step forward that local government and local communities are ready to take. My hon. Friend has made a powerful point about the availability of the ideas and advice that are needed.
The Government must produce plans to make not only housing but entire communities economically, socially and—crucially—environmentally sustainable. The Department has seriously underachieved in terms of its proposals for the housing Bill, but has it done any better with the planning reform Bill? The indications suggest that its main effect will be to help Labour’s friends in the nuclear and supermarket industries, rather than to give local people a genuine say in planning.
Nobody can deny that the current planning system has major structural flaws. There are some serious difficulties at what might be termed the micro-level, the middle level and the macro-level. One of the more grotesque and absurd features of the micro-level is that planning applications are generally considered without the input of locally elected representatives, because the code of conduct prevents that. There are also other flaws that need to be put right, such as that there is no third-party right of appeal, and that some developments—such as mobile telecommunications masts—are substantially excluded from the planning process. It would be good to be able to report that the Bill looks set to fix those problems, but so far it certainly does not.
There are absurd consequences at the middle level. Towns such as Yeovil and Chesterfield—both of which are represented by my hon. Friends—want more homes, but they cannot build them because the national and regional planning guidelines for their areas prevent that. Whatever else is included in the Bill, I hope that there will be a provision that allows local communities that want to build to be able to do so. If we want more homes, the starting point must be to put them where local communities want them to be.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the flipside of that is that communities should be able to refuse more housing where that is less appropriate? My community, for instance, is accepting up to 8,500 new houses but draws the line at 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 or more, which would push development into the green belt, and developers are currently eyeing up the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty.
My hon. Friend makes an important point: how do we strike the balance between the requirements of local communities and those of our country as a whole? The planning reform Bill must address that. My party will examine whether it does so, and if so, how. There ought to be a greater element of local self-determination in such matters.
Does my hon. Friend agree that getting that balance correct would involve ensuring that certain issues are addressed? There was an application to convert a shop into a takeaway in the Parade, in Benyon road. The community and local councillors did not want that. A reformed planning Bill would ensure that that local decision was kept local—instead of being passed on to an inspector in Bristol who found against the wishes of the local community and councillors.
That intervention brings me neatly on to consideration of what is wrong with the planning system at the macro-level. All sorts of decisions—my hon. Friend has just produced an example of one—finish up on the Secretary of State’s desk. It is unimaginable to me that the Secretary of State would, in signing off the inspector’s report, have particular regard to the circumstances of a takeaway in Carshalton and Wallington. There is something wrong there.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that a Liberal Democrat Government would prevent any appeal beyond the local government level? There are local issues that all of us feel strongly about, but is he seriously suggesting that the whole system should be log-jammed by a local district council wishing to ensure that there are no further developments?
Having listened to the comments from the Conservative Front Bench, I was under the impression that that was the policy that the Conservatives were advocating. The hon. Gentleman might wish to come back on that point.
We have published proposals to increase the amount of housing. Clearly, it is not a practical or feasible option to give every street the right to veto any development that might take place there, but we also need to avoid sending too many decisions to the top level of the planning system—the Secretary of State’s desk. I noted a phrase that the right hon. Lady used. She said that the Government were going to drill down into pockets of deprivation—but I think that they are more likely to drill down into pockets. My point, however, is that there is a network that can take decision making by the Secretary of State down to absurdly low levels.
What does the Bill propose in relation to major strategic developments? The present system is not satisfactory. It takes forever, and in many cases it seems to be a charade, in which the result produced at the end is exactly the same as the initial proposal. I do not generally advocate a return to Victorian values, but—
I understand the frustration with the time that the current planning process takes, particularly when it goes to inquiry. However, the hon. Gentleman made the sweeping statement that the current system does not work, and there was an implication that it is undemocratic. Let me point to the outcome—twice now—of public inquiries relating to the east London river crossing and Thames Gateway bridge. Two planning inspectors turned down those major planning applications, in support of what the local community had been asking for—so the system does work sometimes.
I do not pretend to be an expert, and nor do I want to offer an opinion about that crossing, which I know has serious problems, but I do know that the two local authorities concerned and the elected Mayor approved the project. There was a conflict at that point, and perhaps those local authorities were not representative of the views of their communities; the hon. Gentleman clearly believes that to be the case.
I was about to talk about Victorian values, because we should look back to the era of the railway developments of the 19th century. More miles of railway were developed in 50 years then than miles of motorway were built in the last 50 years of the 20th century, and the Secretary of State had nothing at all to do with it. This House did, however; railway Bills cluttered up the House’s time in that era.
The Secretary of State is currently too often the arbiter of major infrastructure projects, and saying that he or she is democratically accountable to this House is only a fig leaf. Frequently, the lengthy preliminaries of reports and inquiries serve only to validate a decision that has already been taken. We will examine closely what the Government are now proposing. It is one thing to streamline the process, but it is another thing to ignore the evidence completely and override the clear wishes of the local community.
I put the following point to the Secretary of State when the White Paper was first presented to the House: if there is to be an independent commission, it is important for it to be genuinely independent, so that it can contradict the intention of the Secretary of State, and if it does so, the Secretary of State will leave it at that. If not, it will simply be another link in a lengthy chain of decision making, and will not improve the situation one bit.
The debate on planning has so far largely focused on housing. Will the hon. Gentleman say something about the effect of planning on renewable energy development? Does he think, for example, that too many wind farms are stuck in the planning system, and if so, does he have a solution?
Yes, I do think that, and I also think that if we ever reach the point where the current Government, or our next Government, approve a high-speed rail link to the north of England we shall face the same problem. There are national and strategic proposals that must be decided at a national and strategic level—I am quite willing to say that. However, it is still very important for that element of democratic accountability to be there not just in a notional sense, but in a real and effective sense.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, strangely, among the issues that land on the desk of, and are decided by, the Secretary of State in Westminster are applications for energy generation over 50 MW in Wales? Under the new proposals, a commission for England and Wales will take those decisions, rather than a Welsh Assembly body.
My hon. Friend tempts me into some very difficult territory. I will listen carefully to his further representations on that point.
The problem with the Queen’s Speech is not just what is in it, but what is not in it. Chief among those absences is the lack of a single equalities Bill. Discrimination law in this country is in a mess, and we need that Bill to protect people regardless of their race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or gender identity. It is a great pity, and I very much regret that such a Bill will not come forward in this parliamentary Session. I hope that behind the scenes there will be some action to kick it forward promptly. However, if there is to be a delay, the Secretary of State could take advantage of that setback to consider including within that Bill the outlawing of discrimination on the ground of caste, as well. Some of us attended a conference in this place yesterday, hosted by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), at which we heard testimonies to the pervasive way in which this blatant discrimination has crept into British public services. This is a real and substantial issue, and it now falls to the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Government, to take it up.
In the Queen’s Speech the Government have flunked the housing question, blocked the planning issue, stumped local government and run away from equality. Neither they nor the Conservatives have any answers to the key issues of fair local taxation, local empowerment and Britain’s housing crisis. The Liberal Democrats will, accordingly, vote against the Queen’s Speech.
Order. Before I call the next speaker I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches, and it applies from now on.
Debates on Queen’s Speeches always involve a wide range of subjects, and this is perhaps a good opportunity for Members to assess—to audit, even—what is happening not only in their own constituencies but within Parliament. On looking back at the changes that have taken place in Crewe and Nantwich in the past 10 years, I can see exactly why we should be positive and welcome the workmanlike terms of this Queen’s Speech. New schools have been built in my constituency, including three new primary schools, one of which was custom-built in an area that was previously unable to get any assistance. Not one but three new health centres have been built, in which we are able to offer an enormous range of primary health care services. There has also been an explosion of university places. I am amused to think that within a very short period, Crewe and Nantwich will undoubtedly be known as a university town. I imagine that within the next 300 years, ours shall be regarded as the doyenne of those establishments, far outflanking those newcomers that claim credit for their students’ background, general development and education.
When I look back at the positive and useful things that have happened, it is important—indeed, essential—to relate them to the future. The future in Crewe and Nantwich is going to be sparkling and happy. Our unemployment has virtually disappeared and we are building new houses at an incredible rate, but we still have exactly the problems associated with deprivation that one of my hon. Friends identified earlier. We have all the deprivation factors that destroy lives, although happily, only within a very small area. For example, there are children who do not seem to benefit from Sure Start services or from the imaginative range of health and education services that could transform their future, and parents who are still unable to find anywhere decent to live.
In conducting the “audit” to which I referred, perhaps we in this House could ask that housing associations be looked at closely. Those who persuaded local authorities to hand over their housing stock by advancing the argument that they would be able, through a housing association, to get all their repairs done, get all their buildings brought up to first-class status and achieve a truly high-class level of housing perhaps need to do some persuading that that is actually happening. Indeed, some housing authorities, struggling as they are to change people’s circumstances, still have a vast backlog of repairs. They are finding it virtually impossible to rehouse people who would have been on the old housing authority lists—both young, small families and those who want to change their accommodation. The flexibility within the housing stock seems to have disappeared, and we do not yet seem able to address those problems.
We must consider not only education and housing but transport, which is my field. To me, transport is a vital issue. For example, we are demanding a sparkling new station at Crewe, which will be the gateway to the north-west. We want either a proper development of the Victorian buildings or a genuinely new, architect-designed, superb station. Not only are all those things possible; we shall insist on their being created.
However, the reality is that in order to push such change and to hold together the myriad streams needed for funding and development, we need a sound, carefully researched and defensible local authority structure. The Government decided—one understands why—that the changes in local authorities were such that we should not only seriously look at the whole question of restructuring, but ask where we can make serious advances. Those of us who know that there is increasing demand in Whitehall for shared services and for reorganising not only the number of jobs, but where they are and how they are done, recognise that local government cannot expect to escape that. However, it is essential that we do not make changes that, far from providing bigger sums of money, better planning and more imaginative schemes, go back two or three steps by splitting local authorities, making many of them unviable and difficult to support. I am afraid that we in Cheshire are in danger of doing that.
When a reorganisation of local government in Cheshire was originally suggested, I looked carefully at both sets of figures. I had no particular animus toward one set or the other, because frankly, like Members of all political parties, I had councillors on both sides of the argument. I looked carefully at the proposed split and I must confess that I assumed—wrongly—that once the Government had looked at the economics of it, they would not argue the case any further. Splitting Cheshire into two unitary authorities would cost more than £100 million, and the new authorities would run out of reserves in their first year of operation. Many of the things that are essential to me, such as planning the new education and transport services, would rely on two authorities that might be—perhaps inevitably would be—under different forms of political control. Those authorities would have to be prepared to vire money from their own budget into the budget next door, which is controlled by their opponents. I have great faith in human nature, but I find that an unlikely scenario and one that causes me considerable difficulty.
The financial case for a single Cheshire unitary authority is proven. It meets the Government’s affordability criteria, generating a surplus of £58 million over the five-year payback period. It can be demonstrated because it relates not to the existing county, but to a new idea of a county region responding to the flows across Cheshire, connecting with Liverpool in one direction, Manchester in another, the potteries in a third, and north Wales and Shrewsbury in a fourth, so that ours is a most flexible and increasingly imaginative area. If we were to go ahead with splitting Cheshire in the way that has been suggested, worrying things would happen.
Although four districts asked for this split, their own advisers, Deloitte, examined the affordability material and assessed 78 per cent. of the categories of cost as being above normal risk. That led the Conservative-controlled authority that had originally asked for this to say that it was giving the information to the Department, but that it did not now support the idea. That is mildly worrying. Furthermore, three sets of figures have been submitted on this bid, but totally different assessments have been made each time and they have been found to be seriously wanting in a number of fields. I do not have the time to set those out today. The reality is that the political argument—this is not party political—for this change is not proven.
There is an appetite for unitary government in Cheshire, and the Government are right to identify it. The two unitary authorities idea lacks credibility and stakeholder support. The letter that the Secretary of State sent demonstrated that it would be supported only if the facts and figures added up and were plainly and clearly demonstrable. They are not, and the case is clearly made the other way.
Those who support local government and who want to see it leading in those fields that are most important, supporting the work of the Labour Government and providing the sort of leadership that only locally elected people can provide, know that local authorities must themselves be viable if they are able to fulfil that role and must have the support of the people who elected them. I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand that that is not the case in respect of the proposal for Cheshire to be divided from top to bottom. I know that she will reconsider the figures when they are presented to her.
One of the delights of this debate is that one can range widely over the body politic. If you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not, within the rules of the House, confine myself to discussing local government.
The Queen’s Speech is an opportunity for the Government to set out their stall and their vision. One does not need to be particularly parti pris to come to the conclusion that there is a certain lack of momentum at the moment—I put it no more strongly than that—which is not surprising when a Government have been in power for 10 years. This sort of phase in history has happened before. We can think of Eden following the exciting period of the Churchill Government, of Douglas-Home following Macmillan, of Callaghan following Wilson, and lastly of Major following Thatcher. It may be right that we go through this sort of period when a Government feel that they must consolidate and they do not have any burning ambition to change things because they have been in power for a number of years. The trouble is that a Government who do not wish to change events often are the victim of events—that was the case for the Callaghan, Major and Eden Governments. That is a real danger for this Government. Many people have been disappointed with politics in recent weeks and have started to ask where the beef is, what this Government are about and what their great vision is.
I, along with colleagues who represent Lincolnshire constituencies, talked to the Conservative group on Lincolnshire county council last week. That group had great worries about the lack of direction that it was receiving from the Government. In a sense, the Government started off with a series of reforms. In education, they abolished grant-maintained schools. They went in one direction and they have now rowed back with academies. They made a series of reforms of the health service. They rolled out all that health policy and have rowed back again with foundation hospitals.
We have also had all this debate about reorganisation. Councillors in Lincolnshire and, I suspect, elsewhere want a degree of stability. The French, German and American political systems do not have constant reorganisations. Lincolnshire does not want or need any other reorganisation. Logically and intellectually, I favour the unitary system, but there is no point throwing all these chairs up in the air, abolishing the district councils in Lincolnshire and elsewhere, abolishing the county councils and starting from scratch, because we will not solve our problems by such reorganisation.
The hon. Gentleman represents a fairly rural area, as do I. Does he agree that rural communities sense a degree of drift by the Government? Having endured a difficult economic situation, made worse by the recent outbreaks of various diseases, the rural community does not feel very supported by the Government. It feels that they are potentially willing to allow the small communities, which are still very dependent on agriculture, to go into terminal decline. Does he agree that we want a clearer strategy and more positive focus on supporting our rural communities in Wales, and indeed in England?
I heartily agree with that. Of course, this will be denied by the Government, but that is the view of the rural communities.
That view is buttressed by what is happening to post offices. Lincolnshire faces a swathe of closures of apparently productive and profitable post offices that serve the community. The Public Accounts Committee constantly examines areas of waste and incompetence. We do not get involved in party politics; last week, we examined job-creation schemes. One such scheme was spending £73,000 per job, yet my constituents see that profitable, successful post offices that serve the rural community face extinction. We are talking about people who often work for small salaries and who provide an essential public service. No business case is offered for this, and gagging orders are served, so we cannot be given the facts. We write to Ministers and to the chairman of the Post Office, but we do not receive answers. The Government must address the real feeling of rural communities in this country that they are suffering in so many ways in terms of funding. Our Lincolnshire police force is at the bottom of the Government funding league—no county is more badly funded.
I now come to my main theme. Places such as Lincolnshire are, for the first time in their history, faced with a wave of immigration. So many of the issues that my councillors were talking about last week were based on worries about immigration. In a sense, we can have a healthy debate, because one can now talk about immigration without being accused of indulging in racist undertones. This immigration is coming from eastern Europe. The people are extremely welcome, individually and in groups, and they are hard working. However, 40 per cent. of the children in some schools in Boston speak only a foreign language. We welcome them because they will contribute to the community and within just a few months they will learn English. Apart from having difficult, foreign-sounding names, like the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), they will be completely indistinguishable from British people in a few months. However, where is the Government funding to provide all the services that those people need? This is not a traditional immigration debate about people who have a different ethos coming to places such as Lincolnshire. This is simply a practical debate about how we ensure that the roads, schools and all the rest of it are in place to provide for people. The Government need to provide some answers.
If we are to be honest about the immigration debate, we must also consider immigration from outside the EU. Personally, I think that the Muslim minority in this country provides an enormous amount of individuality and creativity, and is hugely beneficial. However, the Government have mishandled the whole Muslim question in two ways. First, they have been far too weak in dealing with Muslim extremism. The Government have not made it clear that people are welcome in this country, but primarily because they see themselves as British. We have only to look at the wave of Jewish immigration into this country in the early part of the 20th century to see how successful that community has been in integrating fully into our society. It is now represented in many spheres, right at the very top of society.
We have to be firm with the leaders of the Muslim community and say to them, “You are very welcome, but you have to integrate”. I am very concerned about the creation of a ghetto mentality in the Muslim community, with Muslim faith schools, in which people spend too long in an introverted system. I would much rather see them integrate fully into the education system.
The other way in which the Government are mishandling the issue is in foreign and defence affairs. I shall stray a little into that area, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I think that I am allowed to do so. The Government have alienated the Muslim minority in this country and throughout the world through their policies on Iraq, in particular, and Afghanistan, to a lesser extent. It is well known that I voted against the Iraq war, and I shall not go over that again. However, in the Liaison Committee over the past year, I have repeatedly asked detailed questions of the former Prime Minister, and I have also asked the Secretary of State for Defence what on earth is going on in Iraq. Answers have not been forthcoming.
We have had an answer from a senior serving officer, responsible for thousands of troops, who told a Sunday newspaper that the decision to pull soldiers out of the centre of Basra last month came after commanders concluded that using Iraqi forces would be more effective. He said:
“We would go down there dressed as Robocop, shooting at people if they shot at us, and innocent people were getting hurt. We don’t speak Arabic to explain and our translators were too scared to work for us any more. What benefit were we bringing to these people?”
The article also states:
“British forces have struck a deal with Shia militias to withdraw to a single base at the international airport in return for assurances that they will no longer be attacked.”
The fact is that the invasion of Iraq was a fundamental diplomatic and military disaster. It has given enormous impetus to Muslim extremism and we are still making mistakes there. We are still alienating Muslim opinion. We have got out of Basra and it appears that the only victors there are the Muslim militias. I voted against the war and I think that we should get out as soon as possible.
There are also real dangers facing us in Afghanistan. I know that terrorism is a real problem there, and we should by all means go in there to deal with it. But if we think that we can impose our western liberal values on Iraq or Afghanistan, we are deluding ourselves.
Does it strike the hon. Gentleman as ironic that, given the successes that we had in Northern Ireland in dissolving the motives for terrorism, little effort appears to have been made in the so-called international war on terror to understand the motives? To understand those motives is not to condone the acts of terrorism, but does he agree that the lessons from Northern Ireland could usefully be relearnt by the British and American Governments?
Of course I agree with that. Probably everyone sitting in this Chamber agrees deep down, although they cannot say it publicly, that we have mishandled Muslim opinion and that we have failed to learn from what we achieved in Northern Ireland. It has been a mistake to try to impose our values and we are paying the price—through substantially increased spending on our security services.
If we are to have an honest debate about immigration and local government, we must also have an honest debate about education and health policy. I suspect a lack of momentum in those areas. We had a Public Accounts Committee report only a couple of weeks ago on the academy programme. Large sums of money are being spent on academies, but the evidence shows that their results are below the national average. I know that they are placed in difficult areas and that some are catching up, but I question whether we are just recreating the comprehensive schools that were built in the 1960s. The first such schools experienced a surge in interest and academic standards, but because we did not address the fundamental flaws in the education system, they ultimately became failed schools. When the new paint has rubbed off in 20 years’ time, the academies could also become failed schools.
I have a simple solution that I have advanced consistently—although I have perhaps not brought my Front Benchers with me—which is giving head teachers the freedom to run their schools in the way that they want. That means giving them freedom over budgets, over hiring and firing teachers and over selecting, deselecting and expelling pupils. I am not talking about a return to grammar schools, because that debate misses the point. I am talking about more freedom for head teachers.
This very day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), a former leader of the Conservative party, is launching a new scheme for pathfinder schools in some of the most difficult areas. Those schools will provide real hope and opportunity in those areas, becoming beacons of excellence. But we have to set them free. If the academies are to be successful, they have to have that freedom.
That suggestion is not some weird idea from a right-wing think tank. Look at what is happening in Holland, and in Sweden, of all countries. Sweden has had continual social democratic government for the last half century and it has a universal voucher scheme. It is also introducing—although this is not generally known—a voucher scheme for hospitals. It is privatising hospitals and providing beacons within its national health service, delivering real choice. I strongly believe that politics is about empowerment, about providing ordinary people—through vouchers or any other means—the real empowerment in health and education that better off people already have.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid that I may only give way a couple of times and my time is about to run out.
I have identified a theme that I shall try to impress on Front Benchers on both sides of the House. We are now at a stage in politics at which we have agreed that central direction simply does not work. We now all apparently agree with localism, but if that is to be more than just a slogan, we have to trust the people. We have to trust individual choice and we have to empower local people to make choices in health and education.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I shall not follow him all the way to Iraq, although I do share some of the concerns that he raised on the issue of immigration. However, I wish to speak mainly about housing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) pointed out, after 10 years of this Government, we all sense a general improvement in the quality of the health service, hospitals and transport in our constituencies, but housing is one of the weaker areas in that general improvement, and that is why I wish to concentrate on it.
I welcome the commitment to an expanding housing drive in the Queen’s Speech, which will be pushed through by the new Minister for Housing. My right hon. Friend is not in her place at present, but she carries all our good will and will bring a new intelligence and dynamism to the housing issue. Having made that sycophantic point, I wish to raise certain problems in housing. We have tried to drive forward on housing while carrying an excessive burden from the past of failed policies, which will make it more difficult to make progress. It is a huge problem, because the building record has been poor. The supply and demand equation has featured in the escalation in house prices.
More importantly, under the Tories there was a long period of disinvestment in council and social housing that produced horrendous problems on housing estates. I draw the House’s attention to the research done by Leon Feinstein, of the university of London’s institute of education, entitled “The Public Value of Social Housing”. It analyses the relationship between housing and life chances and shows that the housing estates were very mixed communities in the 1950s. Very often, they were a springboard for success and social advance. By the turn of the century, however, thanks to disinvestment and the fact that the scarcity of public rented housing meant that they had become dumping grounds, the estates had become a drag on performance. They were associated with high unemployment and a comparative failure in life chances.
It is a shocking report, and the ground has to be made up. The problem is huge, and the Government must shed some of the burdens of failed policies in the past. They should take the money used on those policies and put it into the housing construction and refurbishment drives, as otherwise success will not be achieved—especially given the short time scale that now remains.
I have various criticisms to make, therefore, although I shall not make them in the spirit of a performance at the Bolling working men’s club, which was what the Opposition spokesman gave us earlier. I want to offer more sensible criticisms of some of our policies that are not working as they should.
First, I turn to the pathfinder programme. Some time ago on the “Tonight” programme, Trevor McDonald revealed that, under the pathfinder programme, viable terraced housing that could be reconditioned very cheaply was being pulled down and replaced with far more expensive housing that people did not want. That has been a feature of the pathfinder programme’s performance.
In addition, the National Audit Office has released a report on housing market renewal through the pathfinder programme, and I shall be able to tell the House about it at one minute past 12 noon tomorrow. However, I can say today that it is very critical and that it states that the programme does not provide good value for money. The pathfinder programme is disappointing, and the money spent on it could be used elsewhere.
Secondly, I emphasise that there can be no successful housing drive without councils’ full and enthusiastic co-operation. Yet the Government continue to pressure councils, keeping them short of the money that they need to do the job in respect of housing because they prefer them to privatise their housing stocks. Councils are still being bullied, bamboozled and bribed into going for privatisation, even though it is an expensive programme in itself. Enormous gap funding is required for the new housing associations, there is a big debt write-off and the NAO has estimated the costs per property of the whole transfer programme at about £700. That money could go to housing, but in fact it is being spent on estate agents, lawyers, consultants and accountants all over the country.
It is wrong for the Government to maintain the pressure to privatise housing. That pressure should be suspended until we put local authorities on a favourable financial footing so that they can play on a level playing field against the registered social landlords. At present, the playing field is not level, especially when it comes to RSLs’ ability to borrow and the debt write-off that they enjoy.
The Government are alienating local authorities instead of co-operating with them, but 3 million council properties remain in council control, often through arm’s length management organisations. More than 100 authorities have rejected transfer or decided not to go for it, and the Minister for Housing has said that 95 per cent. of them can meet the decent homes target by the dates to which we committed in our manifesto. However, many are forced to get money for repairs and refurbishment by selling off council housing and the sites to private developers.
It cannot make sense to try to increase the stock of public rented housing by selling it off and pulling it down. Yet that is what is happening in places such as Sheffield—where my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and I were due to speak against the policy at a meeting tonight—Birmingham and Camden. The Minister for Housing has said that the amount pulled down will be less than the amount of new build, but that cannot be true in Camden, where very little land, if any, is available for council housing.
Is my hon. Friend also aware that the financial pressure that some housing associations face has caused them to sell off street properties, either on the open market or at auction? Such properties are exactly the ones that we need if we are to create mixed communities. The very same effect that my hon. Friend described in respect of estates will therefore obtain with street properties.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, and I was about to deal with the role of the RSLs. The building drive can be pushed forward only with the co-operation and good will of councils. The RSLs are not a naturally entrepreneurial sector. For obvious reasons, they are cautious, preferring to build up balances and reserves rather than expand and improve. Moreover, they are merging together into bigger and bigger RSLs that cover the whole country rather than a specific area.
The RSLs are also sluggish. Some of the problems with the Thames Gateway seem to have arisen because the RSLs are not putting the drive into new building that is needed, and there is no one to bash heads together and force them forward. The Government are going to have to energise and drive forward the RSLs in a way that they seem reluctant to do at the moment.
Another criticism is that there is no firm basis for local authority finance. For three years running, the Labour party conference has demanded the so-called “fourth option”—that is, that the Government should stop taking money out of housing revenue accounts. At the moment, about £1.5 billion a year is taken out of those accounts to pay off historic debt, but why should we pay that debt? People do not pay off historic debt if they go into hospital, so why should they if they go into council accommodation? Another half a billion pounds of right-to-buy proceeds is also lost in the same way. Local authorities cannot compete on the same basis as RSLs in terms of loans, because—as the Department’s own research states—the management and maintenance grants that could provide a finance stream to borrow against are kept deliberately low to prevent them from being used for that purpose.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, but he will know that one of the biggest problems facing local authorities that have chosen to remain social landlords is that they perceive that they are being penalised by the way that the money is clawed back. Does he agree that, as a result, it can appear that one area is subsidising another area, in a way that could, against the wishes of everyone involved, force the relevant ballot to be rerun?
That is true, and the Government must take account of the point that my hon. Friend makes. How can authorities participate if they find themselves in that trap, where they are left to rot by the Government? A form of gap funding should exist that enables them to fill the gap between the revenue and resources that are available to them and the costs involved in refurbishment and regeneration and in meeting the decent homes target. Gap funding along those lines is not provided to councils, but only to the private sector. That is another weakness, and the local authorities affected should not be left in that position.
It is true that the Government are undertaking an experiment at the moment, with six local authorities keeping the revenues from housing revenue accounts. However, the indications are that the experiment is not going well, and the six authorities are certainly not being treated very generously. Moreover, it will take time to survey the results of the experiment, and the problem is one that faces us now: unless local authorities’ housing revenue accounts are put on a firm basis so that they can participate in programmes such as the ones that have been described, they will not have the good will, or the ability, to build the houses that we need.
A fourth criticism has to do with our obsession with ownership. The research done by Professor Blanchflower indicates that the countries with the highest levels of home ownership also have the highest levels of unemployment. I suppose that that may have something to do with labour mobility, but the money that goes into home ownership programmes for key workers merely adds fuel to the flames of rising house prices. That money is quickly discounted by the local market and is effectively wasted. It also is used for buying shares in RSL properties, even though people are frankly not keen on that. If they opt for a share-buying scheme, they have to pay rent and meet the cost of a mortgage, as well as pay for repairs. The housing associations do not want to do it, and the customers do not want to do it either because two thirds of them are on benefit. What would be the benefit of such a scheme? Shares will be difficult to sell when people do buy them, so money is being poured into the scheme and it is being wasted.
The main commitment must be to build more council houses and more RSL houses—more social housing generally. The demand now is for housing to rent, not to buy, because people cannot afford to get on the ladder. A Shelter survey has indicated that people’s first priority is affordable housing, which could be rented or low-priced housing. Their second priority is safe communities. Ownership is only the third priority of people who want housing. So why are we foisting so much effort into ownership schemes when we should be building much more public housing for rent? People cannot afford to get on the ladder now, so there is no plan A unless we build more public rented housing. If the market collapses, as the International Monetary Fund has warned us that it might well do, there is no plan B because once repossessions begin and people face negative equity, where are they going to go if we are not building houses for the public rented sector?
My fifth criticism is of the 15 local housing companies, which are a top-down enforced arrangement. They are effectively a means of forcing local authorities to disgorge their land that could be used for building council houses so that at least half of it is lost through public sale and the other half is lost through transfer to a private sector company that the council cannot control. I am not happy with that. Let us end these failed programmes. Let us give the Minister the boost that she deserves and the money that she must have to go through with the housing drive that the country needs. There is only one slogan to end on, and that is, “Build, build, build”.
I should like to associate myself and my colleagues with the sympathy expressed for the fighters against the fire. I am sure that our prayers and sympathies are with all those who feel that great loss today.
I want to use the fact that in this debate wide scope is given to us to comment on things that are on our minds. I am suffering great fears as far as my Province is concerned at the present time. I hope that the Minister will take what I am going to say to his colleagues. We had a police officer shot in the city of Londonderry this morning. He was taking his child to a local school. He was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He was shot with a shotgun and he has suffered serious injuries. It is not for me to say who is responsible for this, but I am told on good authority that the IRA dissidents are definitely under the shadow of this particular crime. If that is so, we could be going back to things that we thought we had finally conquered.
I trust that this House will understand how the people in Northern Ireland feel. I am sure that we will be able to get the victory, but it will come only when there is rigorous law enforcement and those who do these deeds know that they cannot get away with them. I make an appeal to the authorities about this matter. As the House is aware, this is not a devolved matter. It is not a matter for me or the Assembly.
The other matter that I want to tell the House about is a very sad matter indeed. A young boy called Dean Clarke was sold a drug pill for 50p on the open market. It was sold to him in an area that is dominated by Protestant paramilitaries. The young boy took the pill; he has since died. That is something that I must underscore today. I make a call to the Government to take immediate action on open drug selling in parts of Belfast. The evangelical Presbyterian minister who has been in that place for many years went to the police and gave them evidence. He went himself and publicly bought these tablets from the sellers for 50p. For 50p, this young boy’s life was taken. That is intolerable, and I trust that the House and the Government will understand just how we feel. Nevertheless, we must press on toward the mark. I look forward to the day when I will not need to stand up in this House and bring such a message, but I feel that the urgency of it needs to be impressed on us all.
In response to the Queen’s Speech, I want to address certain issues that affect my constituents. The speech has focused rightly on those matters, and that will be of enormous benefit to the people whom I represent.
Looking at my constituency and what has changed in the past 10 years, I can already see enormous improvements in job availability. Unemployment is now down to the national average. That is something I do not think anyone believed was possible in 1997 when the Government were elected. We have seen enormous improvements to local schools, both in the resources that they have and the buildings in which they operate. The same is true for local health facilities.
However, when people come to my surgery with two particular problems, my heart sinks. The first is housing. It is often young couples who come; I have met three or four in the past week alone. They are absolutely desperate either for a home of their own or to move home because they need somewhere larger. A young mother was telling me the other day that she lived in a two-bedroom house with four children and the house is simply not big enough to cope. Another young mother was living at home with her parents because there was not a home available. She wanted to remain in the area because the reality for family life is that grandparents will help with child care; if they do, mothers can go out to work and add to the family income and improve family life, and that is important to them. So people need a home in the area where they were brought up and have all their family and social ties.
All too often, I have to say to people, “I am very sorry, there is just an enormous waiting list.” Even people who have priority because of their overcrowding or homelessness often cannot get housing in the south of Sheffield, where housing problems are particularly acute. Demolition is rightly taking place on two or three of the local estates there which were system built in the 1970s and the housing stock and fabric has simply failed. That puts additional pressure on the availability of empty homes.
It would be enormously helpful if the Housing Corporation put pressure on housing associations to give their fair share of allocations to people on the council’s list, especially people with priority need and homeless families. All too often, housing associations do not follow through on the commitments that they give, which puts all the pressure back on the local arm’s length management organisation, Sheffield Homes, which is doing an incredibly good job. So the first issue that makes my heart sink is when people come and say, “Can you help me get a home?” and the answer often is, “No, not in the foreseeable future.”
So what can we do to help? The Queen’s Speech has got it absolutely right this time by focusing on the fact that we need 3 million additional homes to be built in this country. A good proportion of them need to be built for rent for people who cannot or do not want to buy a home. In my constituency, house prices are three times higher than they were in the late 1990s, and homes that were affordable then are not affordable now. Giving local authorities and ALMOs the chance to get into the house-building programme is incredibly welcome, but I caution Ministers that there are some practical difficulties in that process, which we need to remove.
It is proposed that authorities will receive about £40,000 per unit in grant from the Housing Corporation. Six ALMOs are being given the opportunity to bid for funds, but will £40,000 be enough to enable an authority to embark on a house-building programme and make the sums stack up, especially given the complications of the housing revenue account? There are some pilot schemes under way to try to disentangle the housing revenue account problems and develop something more practical to allow authorities to build homes. At present, there is the perverse situation that they could build new homes and lose grant in the process. We need to speed up the procedures and consider whether we need to reform the whole housing revenue account system. That will be a major challenge for the Government in the next spending round.
Are the methods by which ALMOs and local authorities are to be allowed to build homes, such as the development of housing companies and the involvement of various partners, so complicated that there will be a time lag before homes are actually built? My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out that the situation is not as simple as it was in the old days, when local authorities got the money and built council homes. Some of the mechanics for involving ALMOs and local authorities in the house-building process are difficult. The Government are right to consider a number of routes, but how quickly will they deliver the homes people need?
The Government’s intentions and motives are right: they are putting housing at the top of the agenda because 3 million homes need to be built, but have we got the mechanics right? Will the process enable housing for rent, which we need in constituencies such as mine, to be built as quickly as possible? That is a major and serious challenge facing the Government. I want to be part of the debate, pushing the Government onwards to achieve the extra housing we all desire.
The second issue that makes my heart sink is when my constituents say, “First Bus or Stagecoach has decided to take away the bus service I rely on.” It might be the service they rely on to get to work because their shift starts at 7 in the morning. It might be the service they rely on to go and see their husband or wife who is in a residential home and it will now take them an hour longer to get there. It might be the service they rely on to take their children to the grandparents who will drop them at school because the parents are going to work.
Family and social life and employment can be disrupted at the drop of a hat when bus companies take such decisions, so I am pleased by the Government’s commitment to allow passenger transport authorities to take powers to use quality contracts, and to create and deliver a framework for services in their area. They will also be able to determine fares and service standards and other things that are important to my community. The restrictions on bus operators’ powers to change routes and drop services at 42 days’ notice are important. The Government’s intentions are right, and those measures will be vital. Often the same people have housing and transport problems; the poorer people in the community need a home to rent and they rely on local bus services.
Again, however, the Government have not quite got the mechanics right. I want to take up the proposals, and perhaps when we consider the legislation for giving powers back to passenger transport authorities we can make some changes compared with the previous draft Bill. The fundamental problem with the Government’s proposals is the length of time it could take between a local PTA deciding that it might want to bring back quality contracts and review the operation of buses in its area and setting up those contracts. It could take up to two years.
Another problem is that the Government do not quite trust elected PTAs enough—whether they are county councils or the metropolitan PTAs. Once an authority has decided, after a considerable amount of consultation and review, that the proposed system of quality contracts is the appropriate way forward, the traffic commissioners will have the right to second-guess the PTA’s proposals. Why should an unelected traffic commissioner be able to veto a decision made by an elected PTA? If we believe in localism and the transfer of real responsibilities and powers to elected members locally, why should the traffic commissioners have that right? Even if the traffic commissioner agrees with the proposal, why is it necessary to have the right of appeal to a transport tribunal, which will merely prolong the process? Although voters, the PTA and the local community in general can determine that quality contracts are the right way to bring sense and order to the provision of local bus services, unelected bodies will still have the right to review and veto the proposals.
Will the Government reconsider those proposals? By all means, let the traffic commissioners be part of the consultation process, but they should not have the right of veto. Their review should be undertaken in parallel with the decision-making processes of the transport authority, which would cut down the time involved and enable decisions to be taken more quickly.
During this Session, I hope to comment on the Government’s proposals on planning, which in general I support. It is right to try to speed up the process and to adopt a sensible approach to major projects. The existing system is nonsense; many inquiries take years rather than months so we need a consistent approach, with national policy guidelines on the provision of energy or airports. Individual applications for airports or energy-producing units would then be considered in the context of overall policy, which is a much better structured way forward.
My only concern relates to the proposal to abolish the needs test for retail development. I shall need perpetual reassurance from Ministers that nothing the Government propose will in any way damage the improvements that have been made in the past few years in terms of more retail development in town and district centres and on the edges of such centres rather than on greenfield sites, with all the related problems of congestion and environmental pollution, as well as the fact that people with no access to a car cannot buy the cheaper food that is often available in supermarkets. I hope that Ministers will reassure me that the abolition of the needs test will not weaken the emphasis on building in town and district centres. That has been extremely important for the regeneration of cities such as Sheffield where there will be a £500 million shopping development in the centre of town over the next four or five years. The developers, Hammerson, point out that the project is being built as a result of the city council’s clear rules—in line with Government guidelines—on planning policy for out-of-town developments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we keep the brownfield site quota uppermost in our minds? The problem is not just the number of developments, but the suitability of sites. Many of the most suitable sites are on brownfield land. We need to get both the fiscal and planning regimes right.
I agree. My hon. Friend’s point applies to retail and housing developments. There may be a need to build on some greenfield sites, but it is important that we look at brownfield sites, as we are doing in Sheffield in the Don and Attercliffe area where we are building between 3,000 and 4,000 new homes on brownfield sites, which will regenerate the local community.
Another issue raised by my constituents is the pressure on local authority social services budgets, which I hope the Government will address. The issue was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, although there will be a Green Paper. We rightly encourage the health service to ensure that people do not go to hospital unless it is absolutely necessary and that they stay in hospital for only a short time, receiving care, treatment and help in the community. However, the result is that financial responsibilities are transferred from the health service to local authority budgets, which are already under strain. Fortunately, people are living longer but they require more care at home. People with learning disabilities rightly require increasing amounts of assistance from local authorities, with care at home, training, day centres and other provision.
There are real needs in our communities so I shall be interested in the provisions of the independent living Bill. The chief executive of an organisation supporting that measure is one of my constituents. When he came to see me we discussed how much better it would be if we could give people who need care at home the freedom of having a personal budget. The local authority would still assess their needs, but if they had a personal budget they could buy the services they needed. Where such schemes have been trialled, not only have people benefited from improved services that they actually want but there have been efficiency savings owing to the non-provision of services people do not want. I hope the Government will return to that matter in due course.
In general, I very much welcome the proposals in the Queen’s Speech.
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, but the contents of the Government’s programme do not match the expectations raised by the Prime Minister’s hype of the past few months. In fact, the Government seem to have run out of steam. Much has been rehashed and restated and there is little in the Government’s programme that will be welcomed in my constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford.
In particular, I fear that many of the problems facing the country are not being addressed by the Government. The problems of the national health service locally and especially in my borough of Bexley in south-east London are not addressed in the Queen’s Speech. We face real problems of NHS cuts and downgrades in our area and there are threats to the accident and emergency and maternity units at the local hospital of Queen Mary’s in Sidcup. It appears that the Government are not really concerned with that.
Not at the moment; I have not even got started on my speech. The hon. Gentleman will have his turn later.
I am also surprised that there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about the looming pensions crisis, which is of grave concern to many of my constituents. In addition, they are concerned about the piecemeal constitutional reform that appears in the Queen’s Speech. It will not deal with the unfairness faced by England and English Members of Parliament. These issues will not go away and the problems will get worse unless the Government are prepared to deal with them, talk about them and realistically endeavour to solve them.
I was somewhat disappointed by the remarks of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Her partisan and cliché-ridden speech did not add up. On one front, she said that she wanted to devolve more powers down to local authorities, but on the other she was taking away powers on planning and other issues. She is facing in two different directions. There is an excellent Conservative council in Bexley and it does tremendously good work, but it receives a poor financial settlement from central Government. The council is expected to do more for less. In addition, in the past year, the Government have given more powers to the Mayor of London to take planning decisions. That takes planning powers away from local authorities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on his robust, positive and effective speech. I note that the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) is sadly no longer in her place, but her speech highlighted aspiration as vital for our young people. Conservative Members are absolutely behind her in that; we want aspiration so that people can raise themselves up and rise to the top. Why then is our education system still failing so many of our young people? It is not helping them to fulfil their aspirations, but more on that later.
Today, we are concentrating on the environment as a major issue. Without doubt, it is one of the greatest challenges of our age. I strongly welcome the Climate Change Bill and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, we have welcomed it several times before. Naturally it is now pleasing to see that it is actually going to come about. However, there are still concerns. Is it logical for the Government to set carbon budgets years ahead before a new committee on climate change will have reported on what the overall targets should be? Are the Government again wanting to spin headlines without being interested in the substantial issues? I am delighted to see the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in his place because, last month, I asked him a question about the independence of the committee. He told me to be patient. I remain patient and will look with great interest as the Bill goes through at what he has to offer and at how he plans to monitor and take things forward.
The Government talk about wanting to control carbon emissions, but it is always disappointing that they have failed to meet the targets that they have set themselves. Conservative Members are united with the Government that there must be action to deal with the problem, but the Government could do more. In particular, the Climate Change Bill should contain rolling annual emissions targets. We need an independent body to set, as well as monitor, these targets and we have pressed hard for an annual report from the Government on how they will make progress on this important issue. Such measures would make a difference and we will support the Government on the Bill if they can tweak the provisions in the direction that we would like.
On a local matter, I know that in an intervention the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) has already raised the issue of the Thames Gateway bridge.
The hon. Gentleman always gets his facts wrong. He is known for that locally as well as in the House. The fact is that it is a different proposal for a different bridge to go to a different place and to be built at a different time. Unfortunately, he is stuck in the past just like so many of his colleagues on the Government Benches.
It is interesting that the Government have a plan for cutting emissions and improving air quality, but what is the result? We are all united against the Thames Gateway bridge in our area of south-east London and there was a public inquiry. The public inquiry inspector said that the bridge was not necessary for the development of the Thames Gateway, but who was it who would not accept the report? The answer is the very Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who opened the debate. She did not like the outcome of the inspector’s report so she has reopened the public inquiry so it can perhaps come to a decision that she would like. The Government speak with one voice to say that they want a cut in emissions to improve air quality and to deal with the problems that we have in south-east London, but if the proposal for the bridge goes ahead, it will increase traffic, have health consequences and increase the problems for the environment. Of course, we now know that the reopened public inquiry will not take place until 2009, so people locally have that sword of Damocles above them.
Nuclear power will be discussed later. I am trying to get across—[Interruption.] I am discussing the issues affecting my local area and they include the emissions from traffic. I would like more public transport and not the Thames Gateway bridge. My approach would help to cut emissions and, as well as dealing with issues of road safety, help to improve health in my area.
I am concerned that other issues have not appeared in the Queen’s Speech. In my time outside the House, I worked for Bexley college and dealt with young people and others who were at the college trying to obtain the qualifications that would enable them to lead fulfilling lives and have a good future. I therefore welcome the Bill on education and skills that proposes to improve education and training and to enforce duties on young people and parents to ensure that young people participate in education. I welcome moves to improve access to post-16 education. After all, we now know that there are more than 250,000 more people not in education or training than there were in 1997. That is under a Government who keep telling us how successful their education policies have been. That statistic is really worrying.
If we have spent so much on education and invested in it, why are so many young people disaffected? They do not have the skills of reading and writing at the ages of 11 and 16 that they need to be able to participate so that they can make something of themselves. That big question has not been addressed in the Queen’s Speech and although I welcome the proposed Bill, there is much more that we should do to raise standards for those within the current statutory school age of between five and 16.
The diversity and variety of Bexley’s schools is excellent. We have grammar schools, technical schools and single-sex schools, and our council is determined to do the best for all children. I know that school attendance has been a national problem. The number of children of compulsory school age having at least one unauthorised absence has increased by 22 per cent. nationally in the past five or six years. That is very worrying because every day that a child misses at school cannot be made up. We want to ensure that children have the opportunity to be in school and to learn. The Government boast that they have spent £1 billion on tackling truancy, but truancy has increased. That needs to be addressed seriously, not only because children are losing education, but because we wonder and worry about what those children are doing when they are not in school.
May I suggest that the Government examine the work that is being carried out in my borough of Bexley that is led by our two excellent cabinet members, Councillors Simon Windle and Teresa O’Neill? I hope that their “every day counts” strategy will do much to improve attendance in Bexley, even though it is not as bad as that in many other parts of the country.
Bexley head teachers said that they wanted much clearer guidelines and advice, and, more importantly, policies that were applied consistently across the borough. From this year, there will no longer be differences for children in different schools. Parents have been asked to try to keep to a minimum the time that their children are absent from school. Additionally, schools no longer have holiday forms to complete. Instead, parents or carers will need to write directly to their child’s head teacher to justify why holidays should be granted during term time. Any pupil’s attendance at school is a partnership among the child, parents, the school and the local authority. A child’s formal education is a valued asset that should be treasured and looked after carefully. Teachers in our schools do a tremendous job, but they can be allowed to do their very best only if everyone ensures that children attend school as much as possible.
Much more needs to be done on standards and discipline in education. The present system is failing too many children, which is a disgrace. When we look forward, we want to see a well educated, enthused and aspirational group of young people who can take this country forward. That was what we were looking for from the Queen’s Speech.
We approve of some aspects of the Queen’s Speech. We welcome what is proposed in the Climate Change Bill, although we will need to tweak it. We welcome the proposed education Bill, but it is not enough. More needs to be done in schools, but such action was lacking from the Queen’s Speech.
My constituents will find the Queen’s Speech wanting in addressing many of their concerns, notably the NHS, crime, immigration and education. The Government seem to be rather bankrupt of new ideas and the Queen’s Speech proves it.
In view of the time limit, I shall confine my remarks to some of the matters raised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee regarding the draft Climate Change Bill and the Government’s response. I welcome the all-party agreement of the Committee, on which I serve, on the principal purpose of the Bill: to enshrine national carbon emission reduction targets in law. We will be the first country in the world to do that, which is hardly an indication that the Government are running out of ideas and commitment, as some hon. Members have suggested. Doing so will not only firmly place such issues on the political agenda and the Government’s agenda, but strengthen the will of the Government to create and deliver the certainty that is essential so that businesses and other organisations can be confident that the matter is here to stay for decades to come, and that investment can be put in place and decisions taken in the knowledge that the Government will not back off. That crucial political aspect of the Bill is absolutely essential and is entirely consistent with the message of the Stern report, which described climate change as the
“greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”
Stability and certainty in policy and the political will will be crucial if major players in the economy are to tackle that market failure.
The draft Bill proposed that, by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions must be at least 60 per cent. less than they were in 1990. The Committee heard evidence that the science on which that figure was based has moved on. However, we did not think that, as politicians, we should just pluck another figure out of the air. We thought that the expert committee on climate change would be best placed to make recommendations on the matter and that that committee should be free to alter targets—certainly the 2050 target, and also the interim 2020 target. The draft Bill did not allow for that, so I was pleased that the Government’s response indicated that the climate change committee will have the power to do that and that it must report on the target by autumn 2009.
I would like the report to happen a little earlier because I understand that the Government intend that the committee should exist in shadow form before the Bill is enacted. That will be helpful, and the committee is bound to be doing some work on that while it is thinking about the period of the first carbon budget. The public will be looking to the committee to do so.
The 60 per cent. target will be very tough in itself. The CBI has signed up to it, but I understand that some of its members are moaning and groaning. That is all the more reason why, if we are to end up with the higher target that I think we will need, the argument for it must be based on science. However, there is not yet a consensus on the science. For example, the Tyndall centre for climate change research argues for a 90 per cent. reduction from the 1990 base. It recommended that figure in a report that it prepared for Friends of the Earth, which gave evidence to the Select Committee, but Friends of the Earth did not adopt that figure and went for 80 per cent. There is not yet consensus, but the science is moving on.
The hon. Gentleman is making a number of extremely powerful points. May I push him a little further? How sensible does he think it is that the Bill—we expect—will set the targets and that the climate change committee will come to a decision on what the targets should be only after that process?
The issue needs careful consideration. It will be important that there is a figure in the Bill because that will show that the Government mean business. I hope that the expert committee will start its work early next year. If the door is open under the framework of the Act to use a mechanism involving the expert committee so that the figure can be upped in the light of scientific consensus, that is a perfectly sensible way of going forward. The Government cannot be accused of vagueness at the start of such a serious process.
The Bill will propose five-year periods for carbon budgeting, starting in autumn 2008. Binding limits will be set for each five-year period and three consecutive periods may be examined at one time. The draft Bill included a requirement that the committee on climate change should make an annual report to Parliament on the progress being made. That provision was very welcome and supported by the Select Committee. The Committee also supported five-year budget periods. Some argue for annual statutory targets, but they would be bound to create a focus on shorter-term reduction objectives. Such targets would also be too sensitive to weather, short-term climate change and changes to the market price of energy. Five-year periods are thus more sensible and fit in with the internationally agreed time periods involved under Kyoto and the European Union emissions trading scheme.
When Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gave evidence to the Select Committee, they supported annual statutory budgets because they thought that the fact that a five-year period could span a change of Government might weaken a Government’s resolve to address the situation. However, that Select Committee evidence session shows that both Friends of the Earth and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds would be content with five-year budgetary periods, provided that there be explicit annual milestones, so that the Government could be held accountable and could make decisions regarding emissions during a five-year budget period, not just at the end of it. The Select Committee agreed with that and supported a five-year period, but with annual milestones set and published by the climate change committee.
In their response, the Government welcomed the support for the five-year budget period, but apparently they are set against annual targets or milestones, which they say would undermine the credibility of the system. They cite all kinds of problems—and the Select Committee would agree with them, if we were talking about annual statutory targets, but we are not, and I am not. We are talking about milestones that are not statutory. Milestones will exist anyway along a five-year route—a 15-year route, in fact—even if the Government do not want to recognise them.
The minute that the Bill becomes an Act, people will talk. They will be anxious and interested. Parliamentarians and all sorts of organisations will want to know what progress we are making, and what the ifs and buts are. It would be better for the Government to embrace that reality, and not to seem to set their face against indicative milestones. Such milestones are not statutory targets. I believe that they are entirely consistent with an annual emissions report to Parliament—something to which the Government are committed. What will that report talk about, unless it is the progress that has, or has not, been made, and how we will deal with the situation? Of course some people will misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent the annual milestones, but that is no reason why the Government should not embrace the concept, and I hope that they will consider doing so.
As I have said, I am pleased that the proposed committee on climate change will start its work sooner rather than later. The Select Committee made a number of comments about it. Mainly we wanted to make sure that it was independent and had sufficient resources, but I will pick on just one comment: the proposal that, among the experts on the committee, there be a specialist in dealing with and understanding biodiversity. Biodiversity is obviously affected by climate change, which has all sorts of human and economic consequences for it. I am disappointed and surprised that the Government disagreed with that in their response. They said that biodiversity was considered in everything that the Government did, and that it was in the ether, as it were, at all times. Well, I am sorry, but I am not terribly convinced by that. We are setting up a mechanism through which to consider climate change, and biodiversity should be among the issues that are constantly considered; it should not just be assumed that it is being considered at all times, because that is not convincing.
In the draft Bill, it was proposed that international aviation and shipping emissions not be included, but that they be included at some future point. The position now, I believe, is that the Government accept the logic that they must be included at some point. That will of course affect the difficulty, or otherwise, of achieving a 60 or 70 per cent. reduction target, but at least the target will be based on reality. The Government are right to indicate that the committee on climate change will have the power to recommend the point at which emissions from international aviation and shipping be included. I must say that in the evidence that the Committee received, the opinion was overwhelmingly that they should be included from day one.
There is a case for saying that although there are clearly technical difficulties, and although clearly the planet cannot deal with the issue until there is proper international agreement, there is such a thing as political leadership, which perhaps involves taking a few risks. No one is going to say, “You shouldn’t do that.” No country will deny that we should do it, ultimately. We, as the first industrialised country, are in a strong position to give political leadership on the issue. We should look towards an early inclusion of international aviation and shipping emissions, rather than wait for the European Union emissions trading scheme or some other international agreement, which will clearly be needed beyond that. It will strengthen the Government’s arguments for securing those international agreements if they take the lead in the way that I suggest.
On the inclusion of aviation in the European emissions trading scheme, does my hon. Friend agree that it will be quite wrong of the EU and the Government not to include the impact of radiative forcing when calculating the impact of aviation, when there is eventually trading within the scheme, as its impact could be up to four times greater than is currently calculated?
Right. Of course, the science will, hopefully, take on board all of that, because we are interested in dealing with the reality, and not with what happens to be fashionable at any point in time; the subject is far too important for that.
I should like to draw attention to one or two other related matters. It is important that the Bill establishes a clear relationship with the rest of what the Government do, in terms of joined-up, seamless government, certainly as regards the terms of the legislative programme outlined in the Queen’s Speech. There is to be a planning Bill, a housing and regeneration Bill, an energy Bill and a draft marine Bill. Those four, at least, have a strong influence on how we reach our emission reduction targets, on our trajectory, and on the issue of cumulative reductions in carbon dioxide. I was going to go through all those Bills, but there is no time. However, the important point is that we must make sure, when each Bill is introduced and goes through its stages in the House, that the scrutiny includes remembering that the Climate Change Bill seeks to overarch all of that. We will not deliver on climate change unless those Bills and other measures succeed in addressing the concerns in detail.
Clearly, I support the Climate Change Bill, but I support changes to the draft Bill that the Select Committee examined. I look forward to the Bill’s publication. There are some hopeful indications in the Government response, but further changes need to be made. I say that because I want a robust Bill that will command support throughout the country and in the House. It is such a crucial issue; we just have to get it right.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate on the Gracious Speech. I want to focus on the issues in the speech that particularly affect my constituents in Fareham. Those topics happen to be the subject of the earlier interchanges between the Front Benchers—housing and planning. Let me give the House some background that will enable hon. Members to understand my concerns, and why I am articulating the concerns of my constituents.
Fareham borough council is one of a number of councils in south Hampshire that have formed the partnership for urban south Hampshire, to develop plans that will form part of the south-east plan. The partnership proposes that 80,000 houses be built in the area between just to the west of Southampton, through Portsmouth to Havant. Under those plans, 13,000 houses will be built in my constituency over 20 years—10,000 in a strategic development area, and 3,000 in areas of Fareham that are already developed. The plans are partly to help stimulate economic growth, and partly to accommodate population growth in the area. The population studies that the councils commissioned to help inform their decisions show that in the 20 years from 2006 there will be an extra 53,200 single-person households, and only an extra 5,700 new family households. It is clear from the analysis that has been done that there is demand for more houses in the area.
Despite the logic that underpins those plans, my constituents have some concerns about development, which are rooted in their experiences to date—and are not, I hope, a reflection of the experiences they will have in future. They have three particular concerns: infrastructure, density and location, and a lack of democratic accountability.
In Fareham, there has been rapid development over the past 20 or 30 years. New communities have grown up, but there has also been a shortfall in infrastructure. Whiteley, for example, is a community split between Fareham and Winchester. It has a single primary school, which does not have enough places for the children in the community, who have to be bussed to the other side of the M27 to schools elsewhere in my constituency. In September I was proud to open a new permanent GP surgery in Whiteley. It is the first and only such surgery in Whiteley; the doctors were operating out of portakabins until earlier this year. There is one road in and out of Whiteley, and 3,000 to 4,000 houses, and residents think that new houses are being built without adequate infrastructure. Elsewhere in the borough, there has been large-scale infill development in recent years, but Blackbrook maternity hospital has closed, there is no investment in new road schemes, and it is difficult for local residents to find a dentist in the area. For them, new housing means pressure on existing local services, and they cannot see the Government taking any steps to relieve that pressure.
Hampshire county council and other local councils supported the south Hampshire rapid transit scheme, which proposed to operate a tram through Gosport into Portsmouth. Unfortunately, the Department for Transport decided not to proceed with the funding of that scheme, yet no other funding has been made available to improve public transport. Interestingly, the panel empowered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to investigate the south-east plan said in its report that it was regrettable that the rapid transit scheme did not proceed, because when people were considering how to accommodate the additional housing growth in the area, they would have to look afresh at public transport and other schemes to improve infrastructure. Local people therefore believe that development has taken place without the incentive of new infrastructure to maintain or enhance their quality of life.
Density and location are a concern because there are not many brownfield industrial sites in Fareham, so most brownfield development has taken place in back gardens. Fareham has topped Hampshire’s garden-grabbing league for the past two years, and people ascribe the change in their residential environment to the building of new blocks of flats. Those problems are not exclusive to Fareham, and are experienced throughout south Hampshire. We are told that high density is important to improve affordability, but the price of those flats is four or five times the average salary of people in Fareham, so they are not necessarily affordable developments. Problems caused by the lack of infrastructure are therefore compounded by changes in residential areas.
Local people are concerned, too, about the lack of control over development. They do not believe that they have a say in development, because central Government’s control is too strong, so their protests are ignored. The combination of a deteriorating quality of life, development that changes the character of an area and a lack of local accountability cause people to be frustrated with development and anxious about what will happen to their community in future. They will get no relief from the housing and planning Bills that are to be introduced, and they regard the proposals to move planning from regional assemblies to regional development agencies, following the shift from counties to RDAs in the last planning Act, as moving power further and further away from people and their elected representatives. The evidence from the partnership for urban south Hampshire is that local councils can work together at sub-regional level to tackle those issues. The Government need to learn that decisions do not need to happen at the regional level or in Whitehall, but can happen at the local level. The proposal to move decisions further and further up the chain alienates people from the political process at the local level.
My constituents are concerned, too, about the planning charge in the pre-Budget report; legislation may be required to introduce it in this Parliament. It is a response to criticism about the planning gain supplement, but my constituents are concerned about the small print. They are worried that money raised on houses built in Fareham, Southampton and Portsmouth could be taken away and spent on other priorities in the region. They regard it as a stealth tax, as money is taken out of the local area to be used elsewhere. Money could also be raised in other areas in the south-east and channelled into Fareham, Portsmouth and Southampton, but that would mean that another group of people—another Member’s constituents—would be disfranchised, and would not receive the economic benefit of developments in their area.
The money raised by the planning charge should therefore be spent in the area where it is raised, unless local councils agree that it should be spent elsewhere. Local councils across the south-east, for example, agreed that the Hindhead tunnel to improve road connections from Hampshire and Surrey to London was a regional priority. They took voluntary action to back the regional plan. People are prepared to work collectively to support such projects, but they will not be happy if they are compelled to pass up money raised from houses built in their area so that it can be used for projects elsewhere.
The lack of democratic accountability and the risk that money raised by the planning charge will be used elsewhere may exacerbate people’s alienation from the planning process in areas such as south Hampshire. If the Government intend to pursue the policy of centrally imposed targets for Hampshire and other parts of the south-east, they must will both the ends and the means. Too often, the Government say that the money will be made available for infrastructure, but people in south Hampshire need clear evidence that they are prepared to step up to the plate. They do not want a repeat of what has happened in Whiteley and other parts of south Hampshire, where infrastructure has not kept pace with house building and economic development.
Until the Government recognise the need for change, the measures on planning and housing mentioned in the Gracious Address will not address the concerns of people in my constituency. If we are to tackle growing frustration with the planning system, we need a change in approach. We need to move away from top-down big government that takes powers away from local communities, and away from money being raised by the planning charge in one area to be used in another. We need to give back to local communities the right to determine how development affects their area, and the responsibility for meeting their housing needs. Local communities must see the fruits of development, so we must provide incentives to improve infrastructure. The Gracious Speech does not show that the Government can provide the change that the country needs. People in my constituency are desperate for change: they are desperate for more local accountability and local responsibility. The Government talk about that, but they do not deliver. I believe that the Conservatives can talk about it, act on it and deliver it.
I am pleased to take part in the debate. I particularly welcome the announcement in the Queen’s Speech of a Bill to improve services for vulnerable children and young people, including those in public care. It is good that Ministers are taking forward their proposals in the “Care Matters” White Paper, to improve outcomes for looked-after children and young people. The Government have made real progress in the past 10 years in helping children and young people, especially under the Every Child Matters agenda.
It is right that we are offering universal support and help to parents through services delivered in children’s centres. In my constituency, Stockport, in two of the most deprived areas parents are being offered a range of services that include parenting courses, speech therapy for young children, advice on diet, StoryBus read and play, and share care schemes.
Many years ago I was a social worker in those same areas. At that time it was almost impossible to access services for vulnerable families. The services that were available in specialist centres stigmatised and separated those families from the wider community and labelled them as social care families—a label that followed the children through their school years to the time when they became parents, and the cycle started again.
Of course, those families are hard to reach and to help, but the difference now is that services are available, and because they are universal and are often provided by local parents and the imaginative use of volunteers, those hard-to-reach families will be reached. Their children will benefit and will stand a better chance of staying with their parents, with better parenting than happened in my day, when the choice was to leave children in bad situations or take them into care, which meant placing them in situations that did not improve their life chances.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) said in a recent speech,
“We need to recognise that, where the state is responsible for a child’s welfare, it has a moral obligation to care for that child as any other good parent would”.
So I particularly welcome the White Paper’s focus on improving outcomes for children in public care, especially in their educational attainment at school.
I am especially interested in improving outcomes for the group of young people who, because of the complexity of their problems, are often cared for in children’s homes. There are 6,500 children in children’s homes and hostels in England. That is 11 per cent. of all children. Children in children’s homes tend to be older. Just 1.5 per cent. of looked-after five to nine-year-olds are in such accommodation, compared with 14 per cent. of 10 to 15-year-olds and 23 per cent. of those aged 16-plus.
Those children and young people are—understandably, because of their backgrounds—among the most challenging in their behaviour, and the most needy of the best care that the public system can provide. Without a stable care placement, there is little chance of a stable school or training placement, and without that there will be no improvement in outcomes or in their life chances. They need the best care both in the care placement by the provider and in the support and interventions of the corporate parent—the local authority that has responsibility for looking after them.
One of the issues that concerns me locally is the number of children from other boroughs who are placed in my local authority area, Stockport. In 2005 Lord Filkin, then the junior Minister with responsibility for children and families, wrote to all councils stressing that
“a firm Government commitment that, save in exceptional circumstances, out-of-authority placements for looked after children should be restricted to cases where they are clearly in the child’s best interests”.
He argued that too often such placements were not in a child’s best interests and made it harder for a local council
“to act as an attentive corporate parent”,
and that children were
“less likely to thrive if they are living well away from their own communities”.
He added that
“out-of-authority placements can also result in unhelpful concentrations of children with high levels of need in particular parts of the country”.
I wholeheartedly agree. This is exactly the problem that we are experiencing in Stockport.
How can social workers miles from a children’s home satisfactorily discharge their corporate parenting responsibilities without delegating them totally to the provider, whose interests may not always coincide with what is in the best interests of the child? My concern is that in some parts of the country local authorities are not heeding this Government advice, and that children, especially those with complex behaviour problems, are being “exported” from one borough to another.
The growth of independent children’s homes has created some positives—for example, choice and tailored placements suitable to children’s needs—but also some negatives. While it has allowed some local authorities to seek better value by closing their own children’s homes, it has led to an increase in exporting children elsewhere. For example, I understand that more than 1,000 children from other authorities are placed in Kent. In Stockport we have 200 children placed from other boroughs; indeed, we have 17 per cent. of all children’s homes within Greater Manchester.
Although most homes offer a good if not excellent service there are, as there are everywhere, “rogue traders”. There are incentives for local authorities to place children out of their own borough. While the placing authority pays fees to the private home—in some cases up to £4,000 per week per child—it is the receiving local authority and the police that have to foot the bill for tackling repeat offending and running away, education and health, including mental health. A Greater Manchester police analysis showed that 81 per cent. of all children missing from home are missing from children’s homes in Stockport, compared to a conurbation average of 65 per cent. That reflects the complex difficulties of those young people, the high level of private provision in the borough and the difficulty that those private homes have in managing those children.
Our local research showed that children missing from home during a particular six-month period had committed on average just under five offences each, and that 47 per cent. had been victims of crime on more than one occasion, which included physical and sexual assaults. There is also evidence of substance misuse and prostitution when missing. A failure to manage those children in care not only has a high resource cost for the authority in which they are placed but, more importantly, exposes them and the wider community to risk.
In Stockport we have seen the profitable development of a market in importing prolific and priority offenders from other boroughs. In one case, authorities were leafleted by a Stockport home owner with an offer to send their persistent and schedule 1 offenders to his private children’s home in Stockport. The problem is that the care provided by such homes does not seem to manage or stabilise the behaviour of those young people. The area round one three-bedded children’s home in Stockport that took offenders from Liverpool was hit with a swift rise in burglary, car thefts and criminal damage. My interest is in ensuring that the children in those small homes are looked after and supervised properly, and that the inspections are rigorous in taking into account factors such as repeat offending and the number of times children run away or go missing.
Children’s homes of whatever size are now regulated by Ofsted, which registers and inspects them a minimum of twice a year. There are national minimum standards that children’s homes must adhere to, and each home must have a statement of purpose. Inspectors should assess the home against the aims of the Every Child Matters agenda, which includes categories such as “Staying safe”, “Enjoying and achieving”, “Making a positive contribution” and “Achieving economic well-being”, so there are criteria against which homes can be measured.
However, there is anecdotal evidence in Stockport that in practice the inspection reports are not as rigorous as they should be. I understand that some reports do not adequately report how often children get into trouble or go missing, and are more concerned with issues such as the quality of food and the cleanliness of bathrooms. It cannot be right that an inspection report on one Stockport home failed to mention that one young person had offended 89 times. Surely reference to that would have been relevant under the “Staying safe” category of Every Child Matters. If such issues are not reported, how can other agencies provide the interventions needed to help the young person concerned and others like them?
As Lord Filkin said, children are less likely to thrive if they are away from their own communities. If the child or young person is a long way from home, there is less opportunity to do whole-family work. Also, if a young person is placed in their authority of origin, offender management and safeguarding will rest with those who are more familiar with the case. There will therefore be greater stability in the resourcing and provision of substance misuse services, child and adolescent mental health services, family work, parenting, education, training and employment. I am also concerned that the requirement under the Children Act 1989 to promote contacts with families can be difficult to meet if children are placed away from home. Children in children’s homes will often have complex physical, behavioural and educational needs. If we are to improve the outcomes for such children, it is crucial that all the local agencies have a full knowledge and understanding of the problems.
The children and young persons Bill offers an opportunity to address those issues and the gap in outcomes between children in care and their peers, and to improve placement stability and consistency for children in care. It should be mandatory for the local crime and disorder reduction partnership to be notified by private homes when a prolific and persistent offender is exported into their area. However, some homes will not share information as to who is resident, which makes the CDRP’s task of either safeguarding or reducing crime more difficult. We should also consider standardising the base assessment of young people before and during placements to ensure both that the inspectors are mindful of the “Staying safe” category in reducing crime and tracking runaways, and that inspectors report fully on such incidents. If those measures were used robustly, they would stop providers from offering inappropriate placements for young people who they know they cannot manage, and act as a lever for improving staff training.
There can be no doubt that it is best to place children in a home near to their own home, because the social worker responsible for supervising and reviewing their case can easily access and make use of local agencies to improve the life chances of that young person. That is inevitably more difficult if a child is placed outside the area, many miles away. Inevitably, however, some children will be placed outside their own authority, for very good reasons and because it is in their best interests. It is important that we have a robust and strict inspection regime that reports on all aspects of their progress, so that the child who is a long way from home can be properly parented and his or her life chances can be improved. It is important to address those issues with this most difficult group of young people—and we cannot achieve that without improving public care and corporate parenting.
I should like to return to the subject raised by the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall). I served on the Joint Committee on the draft Climate Change Bill and also on the Environmental Audit Committee, and I am glad to see a number of my colleague survivors of those Committees here today.
There is no doubt that climate change is the greatest new political issue to have arisen in our lifetime. At their highest, the stakes are the most extraordinary possible—namely, the survival of life on earth. I have no hesitation in welcoming the intentions of the Government in bringing forward the Bill. I should say in passing, however, that they sometimes seem to forget how the commitment to the Bill came about. It was in fact campaigned for by Friends of the Earth, and the support of the Liberal Democrats, the nationalists and, eventually, the Conservatives, persuaded the Government to introduce it. None the less, that consensus is worth hanging on to.
It is also worth mentioning, as did the hon. Member for Bedford, how the Bill will work. It will work by increasing the Government’s credibility in climate change policy, because they will be giving away power. By setting up the committee and imposing legal obligations on themselves, they will increase their ability credibly to bargain internationally and credibly to go to industry and the public with measures that will help to deal with the problem. In that regard, however, I still have some concerns about how the Bill will work, because I do not think that the Government are willing, yet, to give up enough power to give themselves enough credibility in the coming decades.
I want to concentrate on two areas, both of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Bedford: the targets and the carbon budgeting process. On the 2020 and the 2050 targets, it is clear from discussions in all the Committees that have looked at the Bill that the most important factor is that there should be a total emissions target over the entire period. Yes, there should also be an end-point target relating to how great a reduction we make, but what really matters in climate change is the amount of greenhouse gas that has gone into the atmosphere across time. That total volume target is not mentioned in the Bill, but it needs to be in there.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the mechanism of carbon budgeting will effectively drive down the quantum that is out there, as he puts it, over a period of time, and that it will be a very effective adjunct to targets as we go through the period up to 2020 as those budgets are replaced over a five-year rolling period and that quantum continues to be drawn down?
Yes, indeed. If we add up the carbon budgets over the entire period, we will get a volume target. That is how it is supposed to work. It would just make more sense to have that volume target in the Bill from the start, and to recognise that what we are talking about here is the overall level of emissions, rather than simply an end-year target.
My first point on targets relates to whether all greenhouse gases should be included in the Bill. At the moment, only carbon dioxide is included, although the other five greenhouse gases have greater greenhouse effects than carbon dioxide. It is important, therefore, that the Bill covers not only carbon dioxide but all the gases that can cause this problem. The Government now seem to be conceding that point, at least in principle, and saying that there should be a power to include the other gases in the Bill. I want them to go further, however; I want there to be a duty to include them. This relates to the question of credibility and of the Government giving away power.
My second point relates to international aviation and shipping. The Tyndall centre’s figures show that, even assuming a reduction in the rate of increase in aviation over the next 40 years, international aviation and shipping will add about a quarter to the greenhouse gases that we emit—about an extra 1.5 gigatonnes.
There was some difference in the evidence given to the Committees by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport. The DFT was keen to say that the issue was complicated and that there were various ways to bring international aviation into the picture, but the best way forward is to make a start now, as the hon. Member for Bedford said. The Tyndall centre suggested a perfectly good way of allocating international aviation emissions. It would not be exactly the same as the eventual international agreement, but it would be close enough. It is important to start now. There would be far less disruption if we made an approximate but pretty good estimate now and then changed it slightly in a few years’ time than if we failed to act at all now and had to incorporate an enormous change before 2012, which we are committed to do under the European Union emissions trading scheme. That also needs to be a duty and not just a power.
My third point is on the target of a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050. I accept that we need an end-point target as well as a volumetric target, but the evidence is overwhelming that 60 per cent. is not enough. The Stern report said that there is between a 63 and 99 per cent. chance that a 60 per cent. reduction would lead to an increase in temperatures of greater than 2°, which is the target that we are all working to. The Tyndall centre said that if we include international aviation and shipping, the original draft of the Bill implies a 50 per cent. chance of a 4° increase, which would be practically catastrophic. We would reach the stage at which feedback mechanisms might come into the picture. We need a clearer target.
The Tyndall centre said that if we want a 70 per cent. chance of not exceeding 2°, we cannot emit more than 4.8 gigatonnes over the period between now and 2050. That implies a much stricter end-point target than 60 per cent.; it is at least 80 per cent. I know about the view that there is no consensus how far the reduction target should go, but there is a consensus that 60 per cent. is too little and that it has to be at least 80 per cent. The 80 per cent. target needs to be stated in the Bill and the power of the Committee to recommend a target should apply to going above 80 per cent., not 60 per cent.
The hon. Gentleman just answered my question, but perhaps he will reflect on the fact that he is saying that politicians should do the job of the expert committee on climate change. Does he not think that the expert committee should be allowed to do its job?
It is our job to set the starting point and to let the committee discuss that. There is an important problem with the timing. The first carbon budget is supposed to start in 2008, which is next year. We cannot wait until 2009 for the committee to report on what the end-point target should be. If we start setting budgets that are based on the wrong assumption, it will be difficult to get back on the right track.
Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the lower percentage risks on which the Government and Stern based their assumptions were from the intergovernmental panel on climate change and that there is widespread opinion among scientists that it is a conservative approach? It includes data that is as old as 2004 and does not include some of the more alarming recent science on climate change.
My hon. Friend is right. That is the evidence that the Committees heard. It is generally accepted that that is the case.
My fourth point is on the 2020 interim target. The Bill says that there should be a minimum of 26 per cent. and a maximum of 32 per cent. There is no reason to have a maximum target. The Committees could not understand that. The Government seem to have been persuaded to include that by the CBI on the grounds that we do not want to go too far, but we cannot go too far in tackling climate change. The Government’s latest response is that if we go above 32 per cent., that can be banked for the next period, but that lets the pressure off the next period and we should not do that.
The main point about the carbon budgets is where the debate started and where it has got to. Again, the hon. Member for Bedford is right about that. The debate started as, apparently, a debate about multi-year versus single-year targets—about whether budgets should be set over a multi-year period or a single year—but I think it has now established that we need both. We need a multi-year target to deal with variations and longer-term projects, and also an annual review. The same applies to the financial planning of Government. We have the comprehensive spending review, and we used to have the multi-year financial strategy. We need that kind of longer-term planning, but it does not preclude the need for annual audits: it does not mean that we should stop checking the position year on year.
I am still undecided on whether the multi-year framework should be five years or some other period. The Government have advanced an argument for five years, but a three-year target would be in line with domestic policy and the CSR. Ultimately, we must decide not just how to set the targets but how to fulfil them. According to my many years’ experience of government at local level, if the money is not there, the policy is not there either. Policy is governed by money. I think that there is still quite a strong case for a three-year domestic policy cycle.
I want to know why the Government are resisting the notion of an annual debate. Such debates should take a particular form, which I think is what the Government are resisting. We need to check each year whether enough progress has been made. The Government should come to the House and say either “We think that enough progress has been made: we may have missed the target by a bit, but it is not necessary for us to do anything about it” or “We need to change course: here are some proposals.” The Opposition can then say whether they agree that we are on course, or whether they agree with the proposed policy measures.
That would put the Opposition on the spot as much as the Government. The Opposition could not just hang around saying “The Government are not succeeding: they should do better.” They would have to say what they would do instead. I think that an annual process involving a substantive motion, amendable by the Opposition, would sharpen the debate considerably. The fact that the Government oppose the idea strikes me as another example of their unwillingness to cede power.
The issue of the budgeting framework also involves the question of banking and borrowing. I do not agree with the proposition that if the budgets go off course a little, nothing need be done. A proper annual review would prevent the problem from arising, but allowing banking and borrowing simply lets the Government off the hook when it comes to keeping on course over the multiple years.
A further problem with budgeting is the use of foreign credits, which arose in all the Committees. It seems that the Government intend to use foreign credits to get themselves out of a hole when missing targets or budgets. The Committee of which I was a member recommended that the climate change committee should advise on the use of foreign credits and set numerical limits. That, I think, is the key point: while the Government appear to recognise the problem caused by excessive use of foreign credits, they seem unwilling to accept the idea of numerical limits. Again, I think that that is to do with the balance of power between the committee and the Government, and I think that the Government will have to give way.
Other technical matters could be raised, such as the question of legal enforceability, with which I could bore the House for many hours. The matters that I have raised today all relate to the same question: they all relate to whether the Government are willing to give away more power and accept more duties. If they do, their credibility will rise, and their ability to act both internationally and domestically will improve. I urge them to make those changes.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) who served with me on the Joint Committee on the draft Climate Change Bill. He underlined a number of issues concerning the Bill which I also wish to address.
Before addressing the detail of the Bill, it is necessary to reflect on what it now represents. I say to those who claim that the Queen’s Speech is not visionary and lacks substance that this Bill has an astonishing amount of substance. The architecture will, we hope, last many years and ensure that we move from a profligate carbon-energy economy to a low-energy and low-carbon economy. It provides the means and framework by which we can achieve that. It is right to say that we must get this right and that there might be ways in which we could better move towards achieving our goal, but it is momentous that we will in this coming parliamentary Session be debating—and, hopefully, all agree on—a Bill that achieves that goal.
The Bill sets that architecture up not only in terms of the targets that have been mentioned. It is important that we pay attention, as we have done in Committee and elsewhere, to the question of which target is likely to enable us to get to the point—which must be a global point, not just a national point—that we want to reach: the point above which we start encountering serious feedback effects. The generally recognised level for that is 2°, and therefore talking about degrees rather than percentages might provide us with a more appropriate target in the long term.
There are two important aspects of the architecture. There are the arrangements on carbon budgets so that we can continue to drive down the quantum of carbon year by year—five-year period by five-year period. That is an essential element of the way forward because it is at least theoretically possible to reach one’s targets over particular periods by being extremely profligate in the use of carbon and then shutting everything down for a short time, so that the target will have been met but nothing will have actually been done about the carbon that has been released over that period and which cannot be taken back.
Another important aspect that is substantially covered in the Bill, but which has not received particular mention this afternoon, is the architecture of how we trade carbon in future within Europe and, hopefully, on a worldwide basis. The setting up of a number of protocols relating to how that carbon trading takes place is an important element of the Bill because, among other things, it will create pressure by establishing a value and price for carbon that drive the decisions that will be made within the carbon budget periods. That will help begin to ensure that decisions on different forms of energy use, and different forms of housing and land use, can be based on how carbon is running through the economy rather than just on bottom-line financial arrangements.
It is important that we address the issue of carbon price in the context of another piece of proposed legislation in the Queen’s Speech: the energy Bill. I have mentioned that some people have said there was little vision in the Queen’s Speech. To address that, we need point no further than at other Bills referred to in it that should, can and will back up the Climate Change Bill architecture in terms of moving from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy.
The context in which the energy Bill is set is that in the next 15 years or so—roughly the period of the first three carbon budgets in the Climate Change Bill—we will need to renew some 40 per cent. of our power stations. All except one of the existing nuclear power stations will be decommissioned, as will a number of gas and coal-fired power stations. One thing that we do know is that we cannot replace those power stations with a gas power station economy, because we would simply burst open the carbon targets set in the Climate Change Bill. We also know that, whatever we think about nuclear power, when we have to replace that substantial part of our energy generating supply in that approximately 15-year period, it simply will not ride to the rescue. It will not be generating any power—certainly not by 2020, and probably not even by 2025—unless very different proposals from the current ones on commissioning, planning, justification and so on are introduced, even allowing for the context of the planning Bill, which is also in the Queen’s Speech. In renewing our power supply, the emphasis over the next 15 to 18 years will therefore have to be on renewables or near renewables.
It is at this point that the question of the ends and the means of the Climate Change Bill comes into view. The energy Bill provides a different regime. Renewable obligation certificates encourage different forms of renewable energy to come on to the market, but the decisions that we will have to take about those forms of renewable energy will often be hard ones. Although the full support throughout the Chamber for the Climate Change Bill is most welcome, the reality is that once it is enacted, we will have to consider what we actually do—either with assistance and advice, or through the mechanism of this Chamber—to ensure that those carbon budgets are maintained.
We will undoubtedly face some controversial decisions, such as that on the Severn barrage. I welcome the recent announcement of substantial Government assistance for a feasibility study of the Severn barrage, which, if built, will provide some 5 per cent. of our future energy supplies on a renewable basis. However, its environmental impact on the Severn estuary, wildlife and so on will be controversial, so there will be trade-offs between our ends and our means.
What concerns me is the bad signals emerging from early attempts to ensure that those future trade-offs have a positive impact on climate change. Reference has been made in this Chamber to the fact that the Conservatives are resisting the climate change levy, and the question was asked earlier this afternoon why we need carbon budgeting in the Climate Change Bill.
We also heard a disgraceful depiction of a policy that is being put forward, which is deeply involved with the questions of what we do about climate change and how we organise our lives in such a way as to reduce our carbon emissions and the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions on our environment. I trust that the Climate Change Bill will contain this policy of ensuring that residents who act positively on recycling get rebates from their local authorities, that local authorities have the power to do that and, possibly, that people who take no action on recycling or on ensuring that their waste is managed in a reasonable way face some form of consequence. That relates very much to climate change, because if we do not recycle more, if we do not stop burying our rubbish in the ground, and if we do not use that waste as a resource to remove the sucking in of virgin materials and to ensure that the carbon consequences of that alternative way forward are recognised, we will simply allow our waste arisings to become a substantial repository of additional carbon emissions over a very long period of time.
Simply to characterise such a policy as a spy in the bin, a chip in every waste bin and a stealth tax is disgraceful in terms of climate change commitments. I hope that the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who will sum up for Opposition, will dissociate himself from that characterisation. I respect the hon. Gentleman for his knowledge, experience and understanding of environmental matters, and he surely must have been squirming in his seat while that pantomime characterisation of a policy that is essential to an early approach on climate change and waste minimisation was discussed in this Chamber.
This is about means and ends. We must get them both right. I welcome the measures in the Bill that get both of them right.
Naturally, the essence of any Queen’s Speech is to identify challenges and attempt, through legislation, to address the issues of the day. Casual conversation and my constituency postbag alike convince me that demographic change is one of the most pressing challenges facing our nation. The requirement for a substantial increase in house building, which was discussed earlier, for a much-vaunted educational opportunity Bill and for the further promotion of local transport initiatives has, to a great degree, been dictated by the impact of largely unchecked immigration to these shores since the beginning of the decade.
It is essential that immigration is assessed with a clear vision of the type of country in which we should like to live over the next 20 to 30 years. It is an uncomfortable truth that the British people have never been consulted, or honestly informed, about the scale of demographic change in this country over recent decades. We now need a long-term strategy that will both promote our economic welfare and enhance the quality of life and social cohesion for all.
The mainstream political consensus over the past decade or so has been that the UK should play a full part in a free-market, free-trade global economy. I subscribe to that consensus along, I suspect, with many hon. Members. Given our history of political stability, our culture of openness and the benefits that arise from world business adopting our mother tongue as its lingua franca, ours is also a country to which many people seeking asylum from political turmoil will come. As a result, the political decision has been made enthusiastically to embrace skilled and hard-working people wishing to settle here from both outside and within the European Union.
There has been a gradual realisation of increasing disquiet about the numbers of immigrants coming into the country. For sure, much of this unease is articulated by recent immigrants themselves, who have most to lose from any social unrest. Political leaders have traditionally shied away from addressing this contentious issue, but now we hear the adoption of slogans such as “Immigration is too high and must be cut” or “British jobs for British people”.
Such superficially attractive solutions are not grounded in reality. For example, I believe that taking the easiest option to reduce the overall number of immigrants would be the most ill-advised route. Yes, we could substantially cut the number of immigrants by stopping all those who reside outside the EU coming to these shores, but we should consider the five main categories of people coming to live and often, but not always, to work here.
The first category is the ever expanding number of non-EU nationals, especially those working in highly skilled global industries such as financial services, the creative industries or IT and technology, where UK industry boasts such a leading position. No one could seriously suggest that a drastic reduction in that group would be advisable or desirable, whether in IT specialists from India and China, US investment bankers, or folk from Australia and New Zealand who work in the creative industries.
Similarly, we might relatively easily slash the number of non-EU students coming to study here, or prevent them from staying on to work here for a year post graduation, which was a Labour Government initiative that I wholly supported. Indeed, I would prefer to see rights for graduates from abroad to work here after studying extended. International students—especially those from India and China, the big economic superpowers of the future—will be more likely to return to their homeland as great ambassadors for this country if they have had the chance to study and to work here. It should be our strategy for the higher and further education that our educational establishments provide to students from across the globe to remain one of our greatest and most successful export industries.
The third category comprises the dependants and relatives of previous immigrants who often arrive with relatively few skills and little understanding of the English language. I accept that that issue continues to be sensitive. As someone who represents an inner-city seat, I deal with dozens of such cases. I support dealing more robustly with those who rely on family and marital ties, irrespective of their likely contribution to this country, but there are strong practical reasons why many of those immigrants will continue to come to these shores.
Fourthly, we could stop or drastically reduce the number of asylum seekers who continue to come here as political refugees. They amounted to some 25,000 last year, for example. I speak as someone whose mother was twice a refugee by the age of 15, so I do not intend to be harsh. We are, rightly, signatories to several international agreements and, short of withdrawing from those treaties, we need to recognise that genuine asylum seekers will continue to come and often remain here.
Finally, as other hon. Members have pointed out, the other major immigration influx has come in the past three and a half years since the enlargement of the EU, from Poland, the Baltic states and more recently—albeit with some tighter restrictions, which I support—from Romania and Bulgaria. Vast underestimates were made as to the numbers from EU accession states who would come to live and work in this country after May 2004. Yet there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it, because we are fully signed up to the concept of free movement of people within the EU.
Today with the large numbers of new immigrants from Europe, Africa and beyond we have little cheap housing and our health service, transport and educational infrastructures are under increasing strain, as we have gathered from contributions from Members on both sides of the House. Nor is it exclusively a problem in London. The disquiet about immigration, as was the case in the 1950s, is from everyday folk who feel that their quality of life is being badly affected by the increased need for housing, school places and other local services.
I very much accept that. One of the difficulties that a nationalised health service has, as a monopoly employer, is that it is able to drive wage rates down to levels that make jobs less acceptable to too many of the indigenous population. The hon. Lady is right, and I recognise what she says in both the hospitals in my constituency, Barts and St. Mary’s, Paddington. It would be impossible to run those hospitals without significant amounts of immigrant labour.
We seem to be at a loss as to what to do now. Over recent months, we have heard several slogans. Many argue that we should provide public services only to those new arrivals to these shores who have already made a financial contribution. Our public sector ethos—to which the hon. Lady referred—makes such a hard-and-fast rule unenforceable. None the less, the originators of our national health service never expected it to become the “free at the point of need” international health service. One statistic shows that the UK spent some £42 million this year on treating HIV-infected folk from abroad, even though some NHS trusts have massive deficits. Those deficits are not as big as they have been in previous years, but the point remains. At my local hospital—St. Mary’s, Paddington—it is estimated that more than £3 million was lost to NHS tourism last year. I am afraid that that sum represents a deterioration in the quality of health care offered to my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck).
Demographic change, especially at the pace of the past half decade, is a problem. I worry that what should be a great national debate on the potential benefits and drawbacks of immigration is likely to degenerate into a blizzard of statistics. Alongside that, I think that there will be a political imperative to set and reach annual targets of maximum quotas. In my view, that will lead to a distortion of statistics, priorities and our economic needs.
It came as no surprise to me that last week the Government recalibrated sharply upwards the numbers of immigrants working here. Within days, the total rose from 800,000 to 1.1 million and then to 1.5 million. No doubt the highest figure will be used as the baseline from which to measure success in bringing totals down in the years ahead, but I believe that that approach is entirely wrong. Our goal should be to encourage and reward hard work and the development of marketable skills among those brought up and living here. Equally, we should make it ever harder for people who are not prepared to contribute fully to our communities to come to, and remain in, the UK.
In that regard, business has an important role to play. Too often, businesses both large and small have ignored their broader responsibilities in respect of immigration. For sure, there is an ever expanding pool of willing immigrant labour that helps to drive down wage levels, along the lines that I set out earlier, with the result that business may have all too little incentive to look at some of the downsides of unchecked immigration. Many commercial concerns are only too happy to employ foreign labour without regard to the effects that that may have on the provision of health, education and transport in their community, but at the same time we condemn so many of our indigenous, home-grown youngsters to lives without jobs, practical education or training.
The operation of our benefits system has also helped to make it far less attractive for some British people to work full time. All too often, those people prefer to rely on tax credits or other benefits. Housing benefit in particular means that people, especially in the capital, need to earn considerably more than the minimum wage to make working worth their while. That cannot be right.
The unemployment rate in central London is 8.5 per cent., yet there are literally hundreds of thousands of people, from central Europe and beyond, working in this city of ours. We all know that it is impossible to get served in a bar or restaurant without meeting a Pole or a Lithuanian, or the like.
It is all well and good for the Government to boast about having increased the number of jobs in the country, and all the statistics suggest that they have done exactly that. However, in all too many cases, they have failed to ensure that Britons have the skills, application and aptitude to take up many of the new opportunities offered by the modern world. That failure is evident even after every pupil in this country has been through a dozen years of compulsory education. It is a shameful and disgraceful legacy.
The general economic picture has remained rosy, but we have turned a blind eye to the failure to educate an unacceptably large cohort of the younger generation. Today’s employment opportunities may well be snapped up by eager young men and women from central Europe, and economic growth may continue apace, but soon—perhaps very soon—there will be a reckoning. We now have millions of young British men and women growing up and leading perhaps chaotic lifestyles who are unable to offer the basic capabilities and aptitudes needed even in unskilled labour. If the UK wishes to remain a high-wage nation, we need all our people to have commensurately high skills.
The relatively clement economic picture has allowed us to turn a blind eye to many of the problems that I have described, but the refusal to arrest our educational failings has the makings of a long-term dysfunction in our society. The challenge may not be immediately apparent today, but I fear that in the years ahead we shall repent the fact that the first decade of the 21st century was very much the best of times. Our failure to respond to the deeper, long-term malaise that I have set out will haunt us in the decades to come.
I want to link communities and local government with environment, food and rural affairs through the issue of climate change. Local government can show us some good examples of the work that it is doing to tackle climate change. For example, more than 100 authorities have signed the Nottingham declaration or its equivalent, committing their communities to living their lives more sustainably. It can also show us bad examples. I mentioned in an intervention the number of renewable energy proposals that are stuck in local government planning systems. The British Wind Energy Association says that more than 150 applications for wind farms are currently waiting for a decision by local authorities and some wait several years for a decision.
In this House at least, we are all agreed that for our country it is essential that we get to a low-carbon future. For some people, the clinching argument is the finite nature of carbon-based fuel resources. Clearly, they will be unable in the future to sustain the growing economies and populations of the nations of the world. For many more people, the clincher is climate change itself. People see the danger of increasingly unpredictable extremes of weather—great changes in patterns of temperature and water. Damage is already in train as a result of historic emissions. That is why a policy of adaptation is so important to our country. We recognise that we have to act now to avoid cataclysmic outcomes later down the line.
So here in the UK at least, we all agree where we need to go—to a low-carbon future—but the debate is about how we get there and at what speed. However, it is right to lift up our eyes and look at the international dimension because it adds so much to the complexity of the decisions that we make. Clearly, global warming is a global challenge. Our contribution to global warming is so small that, however high our targets for reductions in emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases, we will not on our own solve the problems of the world. But we can show a lead; we can agree that because of our historic emissions and our ability as a developed country, we can and should do more for the rest of the world. The greatest gift that we can give to the world is to point to our years of continued sustained economic growth decoupled from growth in our emissions. That can reassure parts of the world that are still not convinced that by having a good environmental record they will not in some way damage economic and social progress for their populations.
My view is that we get to a low-carbon future through major programmes of energy efficiency, resource use efficiency and new technologies for renewable energy, waste minimisation, recycling and water management. My view about the speed we should move at is that it should be very quick. There are three components to how we move quickly. One is the legislative framework, the second is technological transformation, and the third is behavioural change.
I start with the legislative framework. It is true that the Climate Change Bill is a great achievement. It will make us the first nation in the world to impose legally binding carbon reduction targets on ourselves. Of course, the Bill will simply set that obligation; it does not contain the measures by which we will meet them. Similarly, just as the climate change committee and carbon budgets are very innovative, they are not the tools by which we will reduce emissions. We must look elsewhere for the policy instruments. Some of them are economic instruments—taxes, tax reliefs, grants and so on, many of which are to be found in Finance Bills. We must look at the regulation that we introduce to correct the inadequacies of the markets on which we would otherwise rely to drive the changes to achieve that low-carbon future.
Such regulations will include the standards that we impose on the building of new homes and commercial premises and on the amount of renewable energy that is included in new developments. Currently, thanks to Merton local authority, several local authorities have progressive policies on that. It is to be hoped that the guidance that the Government have promised will amount to Merton-plus rather than abolition of Merton. We need to watch and ensure that that is right.
Other regulations will need to give the regulator of the energy industries the right aims. The remit of the regulator now is such that energy companies maximise their success by persuading us all to consume more and more finite energy resources. In future, we need to reward them for persuading us to save and conserve those resources. We need to add to the remit the issues that are so important in the rest of our energy policy—tackling climate change and paying attention to security of supply. In our casework, we all hear about people’s delays in obtaining connections to the national grid for forms of generation—sometimes imaginative ones—from renewable energy sources. It must be part of the regulator’s job to confront and overcome those delays.
We need to consider how we can achieve greater coverage of renewable energy in the creation of electricity and heat and in transport. In the UK, the main mechanism is the renewables obligation, which we are not likely to change in the near future. However, the consultations we held last year about changes to the structure of the obligation are important and need to be implemented as soon as possible.
The contents of the Queen’s Speech give us the opportunity to do something about all the regulations I have described. It includes Bills on energy, housing and regeneration and planning reform, as well as the draft marine Bill that several Members have already mentioned. As the Conservative spokesperson said, the marine Bill goes hand in hand with our work on tackling climate change; it also goes hand in hand with planning reform, because in future we face the prospect of an infrastructure planning commission and a marine management organisation that will have a say over marine developments. The marine Bill needs to be on the same level as the climate change and planning reform Bills.
The Climate Change Bill will include significant provisions for tackling climate change, such as the incorporation of international aviation and shipping in our targets for reducing carbon emissions. The measure will enable the introduction of secondary legislation for new emissions trading schemes in the future, such as a carbon reduction commitment or a household energy supplier obligation. Less controversial at present—although I predict they will be more so when we get to them—are the Bill’s adjustments to the road transport fuel obligation. There will also be permission for the pay-as-you-throw pilots requested by the Conservative-controlled Local Government Association. I suspect that we shall want to give all those issues close attention.
Apparently, we shall not be giving close attention in the Climate Change Bill to personal carbon trading; we shall not even be authorising secondary legislation for it. However, I hope we shall continue to debate the possibility of personal carbon trading and indeed to press for it, because it could be significant in changing behaviour in the future.
That is the legislative framework. I was a member of the Committee that carried out pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Climate Change Bill. In our report, we described the measure as the first step along the way to a low-carbon future for the United Kingdom—words that were quoted with approval by the Government in their response. No one should think that by passing a single Climate Change Act we shall solve the problem of tackling climate change. It is but the first step and I am certain it will be followed by further legislative efforts and many more measures to achieve our objectives.
Technological transformation involves a move from the carbon-based fuels on which we relied in the past to renewable fuels in the future. It means a commitment from all of us to our science, engineering and manufacturing capabilities, encouraged by the announcement in the pre-Budget report of the new package for the UK element of the environmental transformation fund.
The other issue on technological transformation that I want to talk about is the commitment to localism. At the moment, the issue is not localism, but a shift from an over-reliance on a centralised grid to more decentralised power and microgeneration in the future. That means that we will be looking at other mechanisms, such as a feed-in tariff, to complement the renewable obligation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will respond to the debate, so I would like to take this opportunity to ask him about his views on smart metering. I do not see how feed-in tariffs will become a meaningful part of the whole until we have smart meters in every home and every business premises. I wonder about his Department’s commitment to a display meter, rather than a smart meter, in every home and whether that is a step along the way to smart metering or a distraction or diversion that might stop us doing the right thing more quickly. Will he comment on that when he responds to the debate?
The importance of long-termism in setting out the path to tackling climate change is to provide investors with the security of being able to invest over the long term and to make a difference, and that brings me to discussing behavioural change in the 45 seconds that I have left. Local government is important but it has been neglected in the debate. The phrase “Think global, act local” is still tremendously relevant today. Local government has an important role to play in helping people to make changes to personal behaviour in as easy a way as they can. That involves giving them choices to make about the premises in which they live and work, how they travel and what they shop for and providing the right sticks and carrots for people to make the right decisions. For goodness’ sake, let us all celebrate successes, such as green awards and similar, and let all politicians, the media, local government and individuals play their part in making sure that we do.
I had intended to talk exclusively about climate change and the Climate Change Bill, but I would like to make some quick comments about a couple of things that have come up in the debate.
The first is migration and, in particular, the migration from eastern Europe that several Members have mentioned. I am becoming increasingly concerned about the tenor of the debate on the issue. For example, I saw a tabloid headline last week that screamed, “All jobs created have been taken by migrants”. That is clearly nonsense.
Last year, the Trade and Industry Committee produced a report on the impact of the extension of the European Union to the east. As part of that process, we tried to get a handle on exactly how many migrants had come to the UK. We had before us the statistician from the Department for Work and Pensions and we tried to find out how many Poles, Lithuanians and others were in the UK. Frankly, he did not have a clue; he could not tell us. The main reason why he could not tell us is that, although it is relatively easy to count the number of people coming into the country, it is not so easy to count the number leaving. That is an important point. I appreciate it is difficult to count the people leaving the country because of free movement within the EU, but many people from eastern Europe come here to work on a temporary basis.
There is now a significant eastern European population in my constituency. Some of them are settling, but many more come in the summer particularly to pick raspberries and strawberries. The industry would collapse without the labour from eastern Europe. Indeed, many growers are becoming concerned that too much of a crackdown on Romanians, Bulgarians and Russians will lead to a labour shortage in parts of the industry. There is a huge eastern European population in my area in the summer, but most of them go home in the autumn. Many of them are students who return to university and who have come here to earn money to help with their studies. That is perfectly legitimate and we should not get to the point where those people are penalised or stop coming here because of fears about migration.
The second point regards council housing, and I listened with interest to the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I remember that as a councillor in the early 1980s, we sold off huge numbers of council houses after the right-to-buy-policy was introduced. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the policy, the effect was that all the best council housing was quickly sold off to people who had lived in it for many years.
The real problem was not selling the houses, but the fact that the money we received from selling the houses had to go to paying off housing debt. We could not build new council houses with that money and the problem was exacerbated later when the legislation was changed. Although previously one could sell at a discount or for the outstanding debt on a house, the latter option was removed, so the sale had to take place at a discount. In effect, when any new houses were built, they were often sold off without getting enough money back to cover the debt on the house. No council in its right mind was building a great number of council houses in those circumstances.
The new Government in Scotland have taken action on that. We intend not only to build new houses, but to amend the right to buy to tackle the problem. Only the two measures together—more social housing and ending the right to buy at less than the cost of building—will result in a large number of new houses.
Let me move on to what I intended to speak about: the Climate Change Bill. We generally welcome the Bill. Climate change covers many matters, both reserved and devolved. The Scottish Government have accepted the need to work with the UK Government to meet the challenges of climate change, which obviously affect us all. The statutory target in the Bill is a 60 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2050, but as has been noted, that covers only carbon dioxide, not the other greenhouse gases. We do not think that the target is sufficient. Many scientific studies indicate that a reduction of at least 80 per cent. will be required to avoid the 2° rise in global temperature that would lead to a sharp increase in the expected impact of climate change. That impact is already being felt in many developing nations throughout the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific islands and south-east Asia. We must move quickly and as far as possible.
The Scottish Government are consulting on proposals to establish both mandatory targets and monitoring arrangements to reduce Scottish emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050. That would cover all greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide. We are also encouraging Scottish industries to invest in low-carbon technologies because that would be a way forward both to help our industry and to tackle climate change.
While the Scottish Government are looking at creating legislation that would lead to a greater reduction in emissions of not only carbon dioxide, but other greenhouse gases, it is encouraging and welcome that the Secretary of State has been reported recently as suggesting that it might be necessary to increase the target above 60 per cent. and that other greenhouse gases might need to be included. That suggests that there might be scope for cross-party agreement and progress as the Bill makes its way through the House. I certainly hope that that will be the case. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) noted, there was a previous agreement among various parties. While we all agreed on some aspects, I recall that the process broke down because of disagreement between the Liberals and Tories, although I am not quite sure what it was about. Prior to that, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and even the Democratic Unionists had joined the consensus. It was a pity that the agreement broke down because achieving consensus is important.
How does the Secretary of State intend that the UK carbon reduction target will work in the various devolved Administrations, given that the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies will have an interest and will, I presume, put forward their own legislation on the matter? If any of the devolved Administrations achieve a much bigger reduction than their appropriate share of the UK target, how will that be reflected? Would such success be likely to let other parts of the UK off the hook, or will the Secretary of State be giving each area a specific part of the UK target?
Most of the oil is coming south at the moment. If we are given all the oil, we will be delighted to take responsibility for it.
A further problem relates to the five-year carbon budgets because it appears that we are missing any indication of what, if anything, will be done to get us on track if it seems that we are not making real progress towards the ultimate target. A five-year carbon budget period will last longer than one Parliament, which will make consistency much more difficult to achieve. We would have liked some more interim targets along the way. I reluctantly accept, I suppose, that strict annual targets may be too restrictive, but some mechanism is required to make sure that we are on target and can adjust if we are off-beam.
Hon. Members have talked about ensuring joined-up government, and have mentioned the energy Bill. The hon. Member for Cambridge talked longingly of the Government giving up power in that area. One of the problems is that the climate change problem affects many Departments, and things are not necessarily joined-up. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made a good point about the regulator; I have serious difficulties with the way in which Ofgem operates. The generation of electricity is obviously an important part of the climate change issue. Renewable energy will, as he rightly says, be a major issue in the coming years, in terms of combating climate change. Scotland has not only oil but massive potential for renewable energy, whether it be wind, wave, tidal, water or geothermal. You name it, Scotland has the potential for it.
The problem is that it is becoming difficult for many renewable generators to get their energy to market. That is partly because there is a problem with the planning system; Scotland’s system is separate from England’s. There is a queue to link up to the grid, irrespective of how likely a person is to get planning permission for their development. That is one problem. Another problem is the way that Ofgem charges. I noted last week that Ofgem has issued a sustainability report and congratulates itself on its contribution to sustainability. I had to laugh a bit at that, because in Scotland the opposite is happening, as there is an unnatural obsession with locational pricing. That is undermining a great deal of potential renewable generation in north and west Scotland. I have often raised the matter in the Chamber with Department of Trade and Industry Ministers, but it is the first time that I have raised it with a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We will see whether we get a different response; I doubt it, somehow.
The system is discriminatory, because it means that anyone generating electricity in the north of Scotland, far from the south of England, pays more to connect to the grid. Not content with that, Ofgem has now proposed introducing locational distribution pricing. Generators in more remote areas suffer the discrimination of paying more to link to the grid, but if the proposals go ahead, they will also face greater costs when transmitting their energy across the grid to the ultimate market, whether it be in another part of Scotland or south of the border. Frankly, that is madness, and it can only undermine the move towards cleaner and greener electricity. Rather than giving that power away to unelected quangos such as Ofgem, the Government should get a bigger grip, and make sure that we have a system that delivers the clean, green energy that we need.
I have often mentioned the issue of carbon capture and storage, and the fact that a scheme was ready to go ahead in Peterhead but is basically now on hold because the Government decided to go down the road of a competition. That is missing an opportunity, and it is a pity that they did that.
Time is running out, but I will make a couple of quick points about the marine Bill. We would all like a marine Bill to be introduced. There is particular interest in that in Scotland, not just from a marine environment point of view, but from a fishing point of view, as the Secretary of State may well be aware. We want to see how fishing will be treated in the Bill. A report this week showed that Scottish fishermen were the greenest in Europe. They have certainly come a long way to have a sustainable industry, and that should be reflected.
There is also the issue of ship-to-ship transfers in the firth of Forth. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment wrote to the Secretary of State about that on 7 September, and he still awaits a reply. That is an important issue concerning a practice that may endanger the natural environment in the Forth estuary. I ask the Secretary of State to consider the issue, and perhaps to take the matter up again. I have run out of time, so I shall end my remarks.
Before I commence my speech, the House may wish to know that I chair the Community Development Foundation, which administers grant programmes for both the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although I have no pecuniary interest in that process.
The three main themes of the Queen’s Speech are security, aspiration and democracy. Security means continuing the battle against crime and antisocial behaviour. At the same time, we must celebrate the confidence with which the police and the communities in which neighbourhood teams are well established do so, while redoubling our efforts to thwart terrorists. As for aspiration, no youngster should leave education without the necessary skills, and no one should be denied basic skills in adulthood. We want to ensure that every family has a decent and affordable home, and we want to ensure and enhance dignity at work through greater flexibility for employees and the enforcement of rights such as the right to the national minimum wage. On democracy, we demand that our services should be truly accountable and personalised, and that all decisions are taken at the appropriate level of government. I will come back to that issue later.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in the Chamber. When he was at the Department for International Development, I was his Parliamentary Private Secretary for four years, and with due diligence, I notice that he has been present in the Chamber even longer than me today, missing only 10 minutes of debate. He will be aware that climate change is one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, confronting us. I want to raise two things with him. First, climate change has a political architecture: individuals, communities, Governments and international organisations must work together and take co-ordinated initiatives to tackle the problem. It has the same political architecture as fair trade and the global relief of poverty, and his experience in the Department for International Development of working on the Make Poverty History initiative puts him in an ideal position to apply those principles and leadership to climate change.
Secondly, I would rather that we had an 80 per cent. reduction target for CO2 and fail by 5 per cent. than have a 60 per cent. target and exceed it by 5 per cent. Not only is the target about meeting our share of international responsibility but it may well have to make up for others’ shortcomings. Whatever experts say, the 80 per cent. target gives us some wobble room if we need it, whereas the 60 per cent. target does not do so. Those issues need to be tackled early, as other hon. Members have said.
My High Peak constituency covers most of the bases in DEFRA’s portfolio, and I should like to draw a number of issues to my right hon. Friend’s attention. First, the aggregates levy sustainability fund, which is administered by DEFRA, puts money back into communities affected by quarrying. It is currently under review under the comprehensive spending review procedure, but because that money is hypothecated, it must go into communities affected by quarrying. I hope that my right hon. Friend can give me an undertaking, not necessarily today, that this will continue to be the case.
Hill farmers in High Peak are almost all in the 10th decile of income, as they farm land with a low productivity. They are concerned about the nitrate vulnerable zone regulations, and they require an assurance that they will receive help to meet those new challenges.
The national park dominates the geography of my constituency. The principles behind the park are well understood and supported by the Government, but rural housing is a problem. Housing in national parks is a particular problem, because in rural areas, wages are generally lower than in urban areas but house prices are higher. Social housing in rural areas per head of population is less than half that available in urban areas. In addition, the particular constraints on planning in national parks and the extra costs of building, where that is possible, make energy conservation in both new homes and old homes extremely difficult and exacerbate the problems of rural housing. These problems are largely seen not in rural areas but in the cities, where young rural families migrate when they cannot get homes in rural areas.
Finally on DEFRA, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows, because I have told him often enough, that High Peak is the spiritual home of the right to roam. We had the Kinder trespass in 1932, and earlier this year we marked the 75th anniversary, which our right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary attended as the then Environment Secretary. A couple of years ago I was delighted to be present to welcome the first open access land designated under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. I am disappointed that we are not going to extend that right yet to coastal areas. After we brought in the CROW Act, we spent three years working out the detail of implementing it. I am sure that we can do that with the right to access the coastal areas, and I hope my right hon. Friend will look into the possibility of bringing that forward separately from the rest of the marine Bill.
I shall address the rest of my remarks to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and make one or two observations about the nature of democracy in the 21st century. Initially, perhaps, democracy was about communities looking after their own and being entirely self-sufficient—the idea of communes, kibbutzim and so on—but in an interdependent world, that is not possible. Yet the idea of electing people to look after our interests is only 200 years old in this country, and even that took 140 years to mature. Next year it will be only 60 years since we abolished the university vote and the double vote that some people had, when they could vote at both residential and business addresses. We have had our present franchise for only 60 years.
Although there are those who want to return to the era of rotten boroughs and who would support the right of millionaires to pump tens of thousands of pounds into selected local Conservative campaigns in order to ensure that the sheer firepower and weight of money behind their campaign might achieve what the force of argument clearly cannot—that is, Conservative victories—I am delighted that we will deal with that under the legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech.
Today we have a 24-hour global news media. More people rely on the internet than on newspapers for news. We can attract thousands to petition No. 10 Downing street on a website within hours. We can make or break careers by voting people out of “Big Brother” or into the final of “Strictly Come Dancing”, and we can also force leaders of the G8 to stick to their resolve to tackle global poverty by mobilising globally on the scale of Make Poverty History.
When there is such a groundswell of opinion, people expect something to happen. They understand why some collective ambitions cannot be fulfilled, if it is explained to them. People understand when politicians try hard but temporarily fail to achieve those ambitions. Being British, we also understand the historic art of compromise. However, people do not understand when politicians do not try to understand and resolve their problems. The lesson from this is that democracy is not something that happens every four years, but something that happens 24 hours a day.
In response to those pressures and demands, I welcome the recent comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the empowerment of communities. The CDF, the organisation that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, has been asked to take forward the initiative on empowerment by bringing together third sector organisations involved in communities and involved in helping local people have more control over the issues that affect their local environment.
A mechanic goes underneath a car to look up and find what is wrong from the bottom. He has a better understanding of what needs fixing in that car and how than does the garage proprietor, who looks from the skylight and sees only the bonnet and the roof. Our communities are the mechanics. They are constantly looking up and seeing how things work or why they do not. They often know better than the one looking down from on top what needs doing. Councils are better at their job when they ask people what they think of the services that they receive, when they take public concerns on board and when they see themselves as the servants of the people.
Communities, as well as individuals, can have aspirations. Lower crime, better lighting, less dog fouling, more play areas, a better balance between the needs of the motorist and those of the pedestrian, better disabled access, faster clearing of blocked drains—all are community aspirations that have been brought to my attention in the past two weeks. If it is legitimate for communities to influence such issues, why not allow them to influence major capital investments made locally, the deployment of staff in their communities and the ownership of community assets?
The issue is about campaigning and empowering communities and the organisations that represent them. The message that communities send out to politicians, particularly local politicians, is, “You are part of the democratic process, but you are not the democratic process itself.” The people in communities have to be part of that process and must be able to influence what goes on around them. I am proud that we are getting to grips with the issue, finding out what works, disseminating good practice and calling all politicians to account for themselves. Through our commitment in the Queen’s Speech to improve the security of all, to recognise the aspirations of all and to recognise the democratic aspirations of communities, I am sure that we will continue to deliver the progress that we have started on for another 10 years and more.
My principal concern with the Government’s approach to environmental issues is not about a lack of good will on the part of the Government—we have heard a great deal of it today—but about a lack of urgency and ambition. I am also concerned about the failure to extend interest in the environment sufficiently beyond the narrow concerns of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and into other parts of Government, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, whose programme we are also considering.
On climate change, the urgency is extreme. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) pointed out the potential global catastrophe that we face. The Government’s Stern report said that an increase in global temperatures of 2° would cause falling crop yields, water shortages, rising storm intensity, forest fires, droughts, flooding and heatwaves, and the possibly irreversible onset of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the collapse of all or part of the Amazonian rain forest. Stern quotes the intergovernmental panel on climate change’s 2001 assessment as saying that the risk of that happening with atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 450 parts per million is 38 per cent. Stern also quotes the Hadley centre as saying that the likelihood is much higher, at 78 per cent. However, 38 per cent. is not a risk that I would even like to take crossing the road, let alone playing with the future of the planet.
Complacency even starts to creep in in the Stern report. Strangely, Stern draws from those alarming risks the conclusion that 550 parts per million is a safe target to aim for, which has been translated into the Government’s targets. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, the IPCC figures might be conservative. The recent fourth assessment report is based on data collected by 2004 and so misses out a great deal of recent and even more alarming research. That includes research that has said that carbon intensity in the global economy might not be decreasing, as the IPCC assumed, but increasing, owing to rapid economic growth in India and China, thus making the situation more alarming than thought. The picture might therefore be worse than the IPCC, Stern or DEFRA have realised.
So why is the target reduction in the Climate Change Bill still only 60 per cent. by 2050? The opinion that that target is utterly inadequate is now widespread. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and other Labour Members agreeing with that proposition. I hope that we can form a cross-party consensus that the figure in the Bill needs to rise, although I was a little disappointed that at an event that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and I attended yesterday he failed to support any increase above the 60 per cent. reduction in the Bill. I fear that the Conservatives will not be backing Friends of the Earth, the Liberal Democrats and others in arguing for much more ambitious targets.
Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who spoke earlier, I regret the lack of urgency in bringing forward a marine Bill. We first consulted on the proposal, at length, in 2006. This year there has been a White Paper and yet more consultation. There is now a draft Bill, with yet more consultation in 2008, yet it is a measure that enjoys all-party support. We have years and years of consultation, but what we need is legislation. The need is urgent: more than half the UK’s biodiversity is in our coastal waters, and the economic activity in those coastal waters is worth billions, yet the management of our seas is at the moment “ad hoc” and “reactive”. Those are not my words; they are the words of the Government in one of their many consultations.
Worse still is the fact that some measures in the Government programme will pose a threat to our environment. Measures on housing, energy and planning address urgent and important issues, but all carry risks to the environment. They will, for instance, pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power stations, which the Liberal Democrats believe will be unpopular, unsustainable, unaffordable and unsafe for generations long into the distant future. If the Government’s energy strategy concentrated as much on renewable energy as it should do, we could look forward to a cleaner, greener future instead of being led down this dangerous path to nuclear new build. The planning reform Bill will be used as a cloak to facilitate the building of new nuclear power stations, probably on many of the same sites as the last generation of nuclear power stations, some of which could still be contaminated when they are overwhelmed by sea-level rises and storm surges due to climate change. To say that this is not joined-up thinking by the Government is to put it mildly.
Planning reform is certainly needed, but it is needed to entrench, rather than undermine, local people’s rights. In my constituency, residents are happily watching hundreds of new houses being built on brownfield sites. In fact, local councillors of all parties have accepted a figure of 8,500 new houses, so there should be no accusations of nimbyism there, even though that insult is a rather feeble one that is used whenever local communities seek to defend their quality of life, which is something that they have every right to do. Councillors and politicians in Cheltenham draw the line, however, at building 14,500 new houses, or perhaps even more, under the new targets being imposed on us by Government inspectors soon. That would represent a 25 per cent. growth in the size of our town. If a similar kind of growth were imposed on Greater London, most of the Government’s 3 million target would be met in one fell swoop.
Pushing all the new housing into a few urban extensions and a few growth point areas such as ours, thereby pushing development into the green belt and on to flood risk sites, threatens to bring about an unsustainable level of growth that will create urban sprawl and add further pressure to local roads and services. Such is the green light being given to developers that they are even eyeing up the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, which most local residents had assumed was absolutely sacrosanct from development.
Development is being aggressively promoted at Glenfall way in my constituency, which is inside the AONB. I hope that that application will be thrown out, and I equally hope that the planning reform Bill will not encourage developers to try again later, although I fear that it might. On another site, in Leckhampton, following 700 objections to a greenfield development that had previously been ruled inappropriate by two Government inspectors, an application has been made yet again. In effect, those 700 objections to the earlier, almost identical application will count for almost nothing, and the whole process will have to start all over again in the community. We need planning reform to level that playing field and to make it a fairer fight between local communities and aggressive developers.
I would object less if this manic push for huge numbers of new houses was actually going to work as a reliable way of delivering affordability. The truth is, however, that house prices in Cheltenham are high not because insufficient land has been released historically—in fact, there has been a massive amount of new building over the past 20 or 30 years—but because of a national trend towards higher house prices, which has been influenced as much by interest rates, mortgage lending and a lack of social housing as by a lack of land being released. Locally, we have outstanding schools, a thriving local economy, a fine, attractive town centre and attractive parks. All those factors would still be there if we experienced this enormous growth, and I suspect that we would still have relatively high house prices.
Of course the developers want to build on greenfield sites near towns such as Cheltenham: it is much more profitable than the alternatives. One such alternative is urban regeneration. It is no wonder that the west midlands regional development agency, in its evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee, said that the policy of creating urban extensions next to relatively affluent towns would actually undermine urban regeneration. It is no wonder that there are complaints from less wealthy counties, such as Cornwall, which want and need the housing more. And it is no wonder that there are complaints from smaller, rural communities whose post offices, shops and schools are closing for lack of people and which are not being given the allocation of housing numbers that are being attached to large towns such as Cheltenham.
Another consequence of the headlong rush to have new build on valued green spaces is the loss of plant life, higher carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity, not to mention the straightforward loss of beauty, which is rarely mentioned by politicians, but valuable to our quality of life, mental health and the simple enjoyment of the countryside. Once lost, those green spaces are gone for ever. Instead of slow-tracking the Climate Change and marine Bills, which should have been fast-tracked, I suggest that the potentially disastrous market-driven predict-and-provide planning and housing policy is where the Government need to pause for thought, consult and go back to the drawing board.
Before making my remarks on housing, I want to pick up one or two issues raised in the debate. First, a couple of hon. Members have referred to education, including the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who talked about the academies programme. I think I can confidently state that I am the only parent in Parliament who has a child in an academy school. Let me say that I, for one, go down on my knees in gratitude for the three new academy schools in my constituency. Together, they will account for about £100 million of new buildings when completed. Those buildings replace a dilapidated, ugly and brutal three-site failing school. We hear so much nonsense and mythology about the schools programme, but it is right that the schools that were in the greatest need and in trouble have been given the priority for new buildings and management.
New buildings alone are not going to transform children’s educational experience. One of the worrying contexts that we are failing to address on both sides of the House is the extent to which schools have polarised in their intake. New buildings or no new buildings, devolved management or no devolved management, it will be impossible to provide all our children, especially those from the most challenged backgrounds, with the quality of education that they need if we do not have a mixed intake. A voucher-type scheme is the worst possible option. In some ways we have a de facto voucher scheme now, because parents apply for the most popular schools—those in highest demand—and those schools choose their parents and children. It is not a case of parents and children choosing those schools. As a result, the schools that are less popular gradually ratchet downwards, to become schools of last resort. That has to be turned around. Many different polices will be needed, including the academies programme and resource allocation. We need to be far more rigorous and honest about what is happening in our schools because of their admissions policies, and what we need to do to ensure a balanced intake.
The second issue that has arisen a couple of times is migration. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for seeing some of us a few weeks ago to discuss the impact of new arrival communities on local services. We need to discuss the extent to which, while central Government benefit from migration and the contribution that migrants make to the economy, local communities have to deal with the service consequences of changing or growing populations. The problem is decades old; it is not new. We have to address it, but before we do, we must go further in ensuring that we have a reasonably accurate count of who is living in our local communities.
Again, it is easy to go for glib soundbites. No open democratic society in the world knows with absolute certainty what its population is, or where it is at any given time. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I was fortunate enough to go to Washington a couple of weeks ago. The American Government believe that there are 20 million people in the country who are not documented and whose location they do not know. It is a global problem, but what we can do is improve our capacity to measure at local level.
In 2001 I was a lone voice. It gives me no satisfaction—well, actually it does give me some satisfaction—to know that I was right. I was alone in saying that the local census count in my borough in central London would prove to be catastrophically wrong. I telephoned the censors and the Government during the weeks running up to the census to say there were whole estates to which forms had not been delivered, and which would therefore disappear from the count. We knew very well at an early stage that the count would be inaccurate. Incidentally, my local council took no interest in the possibility of an inaccurate population count until 18 months later, when the census was returned and it found that it had lost 24,000 people. Then it suddenly became a matter of great interest.
The Office for National Statistics had been wrong, and refused to admit it. Only now are we beginning to elicit from the ONS some recognition that its methods alone cannot cope with what is happening in our urban communities. It is not just to do with migration, although migration is part of it; it is also to do with churn, an issue that is hugely under-recognised by government at all levels. A population in which 30 per cent. of households move every year has massive implications for the delivery of services such as schools, social services and benefits, because it is very hard to count. When diverse communities exist along with communities with large numbers of properties in multiple occupation and a high level of mobility, a dry statistical measurement will simply not be enough. It is the services at the sharp end that will be affected, and it is the people who depend most on those services—often the most vulnerable—who will not be counted and will therefore not be provided with services.
The Government need to recognise that the Local Government Association has a point. It may have its own political axe to grind, but it has a point about numbers. They also need to recognise that we must vastly improve the partnership approach to the measurement of population. That involves not just the ONS, national insurance numbers and GP registrations, but a great deal of permanent outreach-based contact with populations and the matching of numerous data sources.
Housing is a long-standing concern of mine, and I welcome the new priority for house building that we have established in recent months. Mechanisms in the housing Bill will enable us to deliver the homes that are needed. I especially welcome the emphasis on social housing. As the sub-prime crisis across the Atlantic and its ripple effect have demonstrated, we have a genuine problem not just with those who cannot get a foot on the ladder—important though that is—but with those who cannot sustain home ownership. There are a growing number of such people, and sadly that number is likely to continue to grow. We must ensure that we not only provide homes for them, but do something critically important, by de-stigmatising affordable housing for rent.
Home ownership is a legitimate aspiration. It is a lovely aspiration. It is an aspiration that I am sure almost every hon. Member has fulfilled. It is not, however, a moral right. It does not confer a higher status on home owners, and it does not imply that those who cannot afford to buy their own homes are in some way inferior and as a consequence—for this is the practical manifestation—should not have the rights to choice, mobility and decency that the rest of us take for granted.
Of course the problem is partly due to a long-term failure to build new homes on the necessary scale, but it is also the result of the right to buy. That was a fantastic policy, and a windfall, for those who benefited from it directly, but it was a social catastrophe none the less. It left us in a position equivalent to running the bath taps with the plug out: building new homes while haemorrhaging social housing at the other end of the process. We must address that problem.
Although building new social homes is crucial, it is not enough. I welcome the fact that the Government are also seeking to implement some of the recommendations of John Hills’ review of social housing. He has this year produced what is probably the most rigorous and thorough analysis of the social housing sector in generations. He has put forward some excellent proposals, mostly based on incentives and rightly rejecting the call we have heard from some quarters for an end to permanent tenancies for social tenants. That would be another inhumane and brutal social catastrophe. The incentives address issues such as downsizing and mobility. He also looked at the issue of worklessness among social tenants. That is not a problem to do with housing benefit, as has been suggested from the Opposition Benches. It is a problem to do with rent: those who aspire to get into work at the lower end of the salary scale will be unable to clear their rent. If people are to be able to hold on to their homes, rather than be at risk of arrears and losing their homes, we must look more imaginatively at the relationship between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government in terms of the treatment of housing costs. It is criminal that families are trapped in poverty and worklessness because of the way in which rent and housing benefit currently interact.
I will push hard for the housing legislation to include the long promised and long overdue updating of overcrowding measures. In my constituency, we have families not of six people in two-bed flats, but of six people in one-bed flats. It is time we recognised the inhumanity of that level of overcrowding. We need a modern legislative response to give such families the hope that they will achieve what they rightly aspire to.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. At the outset, there was some marvellous political knockabout between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). It was a contest between a heavyweight and a lightweight. I say that meaning no disrespect to the Secretary of State, but there was clearly a size difference between them. I greatly enjoyed that knockabout and the exchange of insults across the Chamber concerning the idea that many Members were nimbys. The truth is that when it comes to representing our constituencies we are all nimbys, because we are elected and paid to represent their concerns in this Chamber. Many of us—almost all of us, I think—live in our constituencies, so many of their concerns are also our concerns. I therefore make no apology for being a nimby, and I do not think that any of my colleagues should make any apology for being nimbys either, because that is what we are here to be.
I wish to talk about concerns about house building. I represent a constituency north of London and just in the south of Hertfordshire, called Broxbourne. We have done our bit. Over the past few years, we have built 5,000 new homes. They needed to be built, and I am sure that we will build a few more homes in the coming years. However, there is concern in my constituency—and, I think, in others in the east and south-east—about sharing that burden. Why is it that when we talk about population growth most of it seems to be in those areas?
My constituents come to me to express their concerns, and they are confused. They say, “Charles, every morning we get up at 5.30; we have to get up that early because if we get to the station after 6.15 we can’t get a seat on the train. We get on crowded trains—if we can even get on the train at all, as sometimes there’s no room and it leaves without us. If we do manage to get on the train, when we reach one of the interchanges at the borders of London and we get off to board a tube train, those trains, too, are absolutely heaving.” They are concerned. They do not know how the current infrastructure will cope with the forecast increase in population and the growth in new homes. Of course they cannot use the roads, because those are blocked from 6 o’clock in the morning; the M25 is gridlocked from about 6.30. So it is nimbyism in a sense, but it is also legitimate for people living in areas that are going to take the bulk of the new home-building to raise their concerns about infrastructure and to have them answered.
It is also very important that, in building new homes, we create communities and do not just build dormitories for London. Too much of what was built in my constituency could, I am afraid, be classed as a dormitory. There is very little mixed provision, with many small one-bedroomed or one and a half-bedroomed flats. People return to those flats in the evening from work and leave for work in the morning—there is very little engagement with the local community. Most of them, I am afraid, shop at the local supermarket, which does very little for the community shops. We need more mixed provision. We should build new homes that accommodate all groupings and all sizes of families—from homes for people living individually to proper family homes with three or four bedrooms, so that we can have mixed communities.
The great sadness of Broxbourne is that while we were building all these new flats, many of which are buy-to-let—although I recognise that buy-to-let provides homes for people—we were closing down primary schools. So although we were building more homes and increasing the population of my constituency, at the same time we were closing much-loved primary schools. My constituents would be a lot more relaxed about new house building if we could show them the benefits of it—for example, new youngsters coming to their schools.
In talking about mixed provision, we should also bring the issue of density into the discussion. Before moving to the sunlit uplands of Broxbourne to be its MP, I spent my professional career living in London. I lived in two wonderful Victorian terraced houses—one in Battersea and then one in Balham; I migrated to Balham to have my children. Those houses were clearly built to last—and yes, I lived in mixed communities. In both the places in London in which I lived, I had housing association houses and flats either side of me, and they were inhabited by wonderful people whom I became great friends with, so I have nothing against mixed communities, which I think are good and socially cohesive.
However, when we build new homes, can we please draw from the past and look at how the Victorians and Georgians did it? Such homes are still hugely desirable. In the 1960s, many terraced houses in Battersea were pulled down to make way for new high-rise council blocks. Although desirable, those council blocks are not now as desirable as the terraced houses that were left. A three-bedroomed terraced Victorian home, for example, can sell for upwards of £600,000. So before knocking down Victorian homes in the north of England, the Government should think carefully and consider whether it would make more sense to invest in those homes to ensure that they last another 100 or 200 years.
I now turn to social housing. People are willing to accept more houses in their communities if they are for their young people. In Broxbourne, people with local links—youngsters who were born and educated in the community, and who work and have family there—are given additional points toward getting a housing association house. That is a good thing. Strong communities need to be inter-generational. At a time when more and more women are entering the workplace and having to balance their family duties with their work duties, it is important to have that network of support—aunts and uncles, brothers, grannies and granddads. So we should have mixed provision to support inter-generational communities, and ensure that in building social housing, local people know that they will be first in the queue for those houses.
I urge us to consider the environment. The Environment Agency, which has no particular political axe to grind, has told me that the east of England is running short of water and that there is simply no more available. We know that, because when we drive around Hertfordshire we see many rivers at a fraction of their original flow, and some that have run dry. When we are talking about saving the planet from global warming, it is incumbent on politicians in this place not only to think globally, but to act locally to preserve our environment, particularly our riverine environment.
Finally, let us consider the green belt. It does not belong to anyone in this Chamber; we are purely custodians of it for future generations. I urge the Government to think carefully, as I am sure they will, before building on the green belt. I say that with the best will in the world. Once green belt land has been built on, it can never be got back. Broxbourne is lucky to have green belt land. Perhaps I take it for granted, but I know that many London families come from Harrow, Enfield and other boroughs to enjoy it at weekends. They walk their dogs and enjoy the wonderful picnic places that our green belt provides.
That is the sum total of my contribution. I have spoken for three minutes less than my full allotment, and I hope that the time can be used wisely by other colleagues in this place.
I shall endeavour to use the time wisely, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker)
The Queen’s Speech charts a clear course of action for this Government and for our country. In an era of insincere political gimmicks and gesture politics of the worst kind, the Government’s legislative programme sets out to tackle the major issues of our time in a methodical, measured and practical way. It contains a sober analysis of the issues that the country faces and sets out the policies to address them. For all its surety, there is a profoundly progressive and radical element to the Government’s programme, which no amount of shrill criticism can drown out. Members of this House perform a great disservice to politics when they fail to engage with the arguments and the policies put before them for their consideration and instead attempt to mislead the public that black is white and white is black. This programme is remarkable, in part, precisely because it seeks to avoid that tired practice and because it tackles the issues of our day head on.
Of course, it is the Opposition’s job to oppose, to interrogate and to scrutinise these proposals, and I hope that they do so well. Perhaps, if the right spirit is adopted, they will seek to form a consensus with the Government on a series of issues for the benefit of the nation. That is a sincere hope. I will now identify a series of areas where such an approach is needed immediately.
The first such area is the Climate Change Bill. The Government should be commended on being the first Government in the history of this nation and the world to bring forward such a far-reaching and ambitious Bill. There can be no doubt that it is truly radical. The fight against climate change is for my generation what the Cold War was for my parents’ generation and what the fight against fascism was for my grandparents’ generation.
The nature of the problem means that this is not a simple matter of generational politics. As most of us know, but not all of us accept, it is the issue that most threatens our very existence, whatever our nationality, religion, race or class. No part of the political spectrum can claim sole ownership of this issue, but I firmly believe that the fight against climate change can be fought and won only with progressive policy solutions. The market will not rescue the planet from rising sea levels and burning woodlands. Climate change will affect the poorest first and it will affect them the worst. That is perhaps its only certainty, and it is why it demands a progressive response. It cannot be left to the market, because the market cannot solve the problems caused by climate change, nor can market mechanisms, of themselves, provide us with the means with which to fight climate change.
The state, acting nationally and internationally, is the best and most effective tool that we have to combat climate change. The issue requires better government, not simply smaller government, so let us work together on both sides of this House to make the Bill work, bearing in mind that if we do not do so, my generation and every successive generation will believe that this House, and perhaps even democratic governance itself, is unable to solve the problems of most importance to the country and the planet. Let us consider the ramifications of that for not only the environment, but society, democracy and our entire way of life.
Let us also consider something else when we debate the minutiae of this policy: this is a time for solutions, not gestures. It may be that our political culture and our political dynamics are simply not suited to achieving effective solutions to issues such as climate change. The adversarial nature of this House at present facilitates only the achievement of fleeting, partisan political advantage, and that is worthless. We all have the opportunity to change that: we have the opportunity to demonstrate that the Members of this House seek to serve the people of this country and to solve the problems that they face. That is the change that the British people require, and those are the changes that this legislative agenda demands of us in this House. The stakes have never been higher. The consequences of failure have never been greater. These issues are more important than any of our individual political fortunes.
For the Climate Change Bill to work, it requires a series of complementary Bills, especially on planning and energy policy. Changes to the planning system of this country are long overdue and I am pleased that the Government have recognised that in the Queen’s speech. The Climate Change Bill also requires a consensus. But the area where a consensus is most urgently required is energy policy, especially nuclear energy. Put simply, without new nuclear energy in Britain, we have no chance of leading the fight against climate change, strengthening our energy supplies and continuing our economic growth.
Before entering the House, I worked in the nuclear industry and campaigned for new nuclear and for a better understanding of the industry in the media and across the political spectrum. I must say that, for the most part, I have found the understanding of nuclear issues in this House to be nothing short of pathetic—that is the most charitable word I can find. Since entering the House, I have worked with the industry, the Government, utility companies and the trade unions to further the nuclear case. It has been a relentless endeavour, but logic, science, the imperatives of climate change and the overwhelming national interest would appear to have prevailed.
I am pleased that the Prime Minister has shown the strength and courage necessary to take these difficult decisions. It would be easy for the Prime Minister to strike populist oppositional poses on nuclear, much as the Leader of the Opposition has done. But difficult decisions call for people of real strength and integrity: there is no room for cowardice or opportunism on such matters, and the Prime Minister has demonstrated that he is the only party leader prepared to take the tough political decisions this nation needs. On behalf of 17,000 workers in my constituency and more than 40,000 nuclear workers nationwide, I thank him for that.
In the spirit of consensus, I want to change that. I want, and the market wants, a consensus on nuclear. The Liberal Democrats have an official view—they are anti-nuclear. That position is, in my view, deeply flawed, but it is at least sincerely held. But I know that several Liberal Democrat MPs—none of whom is in the Chamber at present—are pro-nuclear, and I hope that they can find their voice and help to build the consensus that I seek.
The official policy of the Conservatives is anti-nuclear, but I also know that the majority of Conservative MPs are pro-nuclear. I hope that those men and women find their voice soon and force a change in the views of the Leader of the Opposition and his Front-Bench energy spokespeople so that we can achieve a consensus. The policy of nuclear energy as a “last resort” is perhaps the best illustration of the political malaise that the Queen’s Speech seeks to leave behind. Indeed, it was cited as such by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) when he left the Conservatives for Labour recently.
The Conservative position deserves some exploration. The policy of nuclear as a last resort, if adopted, would ensure the demise of the British nuclear industry and with it, more than 100,000 British jobs, directly and indirectly. It would weaken our national scientific, engineering, academic and mechanical disciplines, impoverish our ability to strengthen the security of our energy supplies and undermine our efforts to combat climate change. Why? Because after decades of decline and having now won the arguments, the nuclear industry needs new entrants at every level—scientific, mechanical, professional, academic and industrial. Decades of neglect have resulted in a shrunken, ageing skills base. Unless the industry is supported now, there will be no industry to support in the future. To delay is to decide—as I wrote in my letter to the Leader of the Opposition, calling on him to abandon his opposition to the industry earlier this year. I still await a reply.
What informs the Conservatives’ policy? It is based upon a tragic conflation of factors. First, the Leader of the Opposition is anti-nuclear and believes that the public are anti-nuclear. He is wrong in that assertion, but he believes that it is a populist position. Secondly, fearful of his colleagues who support the industry, he has not the courage to confront his Back Benchers with the reality of his policy. Thirdly, he hopes to shave votes from the Liberal Democrats in Tory-Lib Dem marginals in the south of England, having clearly abandoned the north of England, Scotland and Wales. Finally, he either fails to understand the need for nuclear in the fight against climate change, which in itself provides a shocking illustration of his understanding of the realities, or he does understand, but is willing to place his political fortunes above those of the future of this country and the planet. The change that this country needs is the change from cynical, cowardly, political calculations such as that. The Leader of the Opposition can help assist this change in one of two ways—either by admitting his policy is wrong and supporting the Government, or by taking a clear, principled anti-nuclear position and allowing his colleagues a free vote on the Government’s plans.
I am passionate about this matter, because it means everything to my constituents and to the very fabric of my constituency. For me, it is not a question of choosing one electricity generating source over another. The nuclear industry dominates my economy: indeed, it sustains 60 per cent. of it, including schools, hospitals, services in both the public and private sectors, the housing market and the transport infrastructure. There is not one area of west Cumbrian life that the nuclear industry does not touch, and that is why the Conservative proposals are so dangerous. They threaten not only the future of the British nuclear industry and all that depends on it, but west Cumbria’s very existence.
The future success of west Cumbria is facilitated by the Queen’s Speech. That success is the only reason I am in this House. Nowhere else in this country or even the world is the symbiosis of economic, environmental and energy policies as evident as it is in west Cumbria.
I could go on but, in fairness to other colleagues, I shall bring my remarks to a close. Politics matters, and on Sunday I shall join hundreds of others at Whitehaven’s war memorial in reflecting on what happens when politics fails. Robert Kennedy said:
“Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”
I appeal to hon. Members of all parties not to be the enemies of change.
I want to offer the debate some brief observations about the Climate Change Bill, from the perspective of someone who, like the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), served on the Joint Committee that considered it in draft, and who also sits on the Environmental Audit Committee.
It is clear that the Bill is needed. The inconvenient truth is that our country, which legitimately takes pride in its leadership on climate change, is failing to stabilise emissions, let alone reduce them. Carbon dioxide emissions in this country have risen since 1997 and, at a critical time in the international process, it is very important that we get back on track. We need a new process for setting targets, and for testing their validity and relevance. We also need new ways to test the Government’s credibility in meeting those targets and setting a framework to which the market can react.
We have an opportunity to set an example for other countries to follow. The Climate Change Bill is welcome and extremely important, and I have four observations to make about it. First, there will be a lot of debate about the long-term carbon emissions target for 2050—that is, whether emissions should be cut by 60 or 80 per cent. A year ago, I wrote a report for the Conservative party’s quality of life commission saying that emissions should be cut by at least 80 per cent. That is my personal view but, while it is entirely right that we build consensus through the voice of an independent Committee, it will be too sluggish a process if we have to wait until 2009 for that opinion, given that it is the trajectory of emissions reductions that is important.
In that context, I encourage the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—who I hope will have a bit more time to focus on climate change, after all the other matters that he has had to deal with—to think more carefully about the language that the Government use about the temperature stabilisation ranges that drive emissions targets. They talk about their desire not to cross the 2° increase threshold, and that is enormously important in view of the costs and risks that would arise if it were crossed. We have a moral duty, as the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) noted, to keep temperature change below that level, but Government statements on the matter sound increasingly incredible because they continue to talk about a stabilisation range that includes an extreme for carbon emissions of 550 parts per million.
As Stern has said, that is a very dangerous place to be, given that his models suggest that there is a 63 to 92 per cent. probability that the 2° increase threshold will be overshot. If the Government stick to the vague and broad language that they have used hitherto, they will lose credibility. They have an opportunity to send a much stronger signal to the international community, at a critical time, about this country’s level of ambition.
However, I am reluctant to allow the debate to focus on the long-term targets alone. I believe that the interim targets for 2025 are the most important, as they are the ones that will bite on today’s decision makers, whether they be in Whitehall or in Britain’s civic centres and business boardrooms. The challenge, in the context of failure, is to really get on top of emissions, and the interim targets are essential. Like the hon. Member for Cambridge, I do not understand why there is an upper limit and why we continue to drag our feet about aviation and shipping. Neither do I understand why the targets do not include—or at least refer to—all greenhouse gases, given that we are in danger of sounding extremely complacent in that regard.
My next observation on the Bill is that the really important innovation is the carbon budgets. They will allow us to deal with the real issue, which is the cumulative carbon emissions. The other really important innovation is the committee on climate change. It was clear to me in the scrutiny Committee that there is an enormous weight of expectation on that committee. I have no idea what Olympians the Secretary of State has in mind to serve on it, but they will have an extremely difficult task. The key decision, which will perhaps underpin the credibility of the whole Bill and the Government’s process here, is the appointment of the first chairman of the committee. The signal that is sent by that will be very important.
The background to this is that there is a growing voice of concern that the Prime Minister does not have the same passion and enthusiasm for climate change as his predecessor. If the first appointment as the chairman of this body is seen to be a poodle who does not have the authority or ability to cause the Government discomfort—which seems to be a crucial element of that role—it will send a negative signal to the marketplace. That is a key bell-wether decision that will tell us a lot about the Prime Minister’s ambition and true commitment to the climate change agenda.
My last observation about the Bill is that we should not see it as a fig leaf. Let us not see it as a Bill that simply ticks the box for climate change and the environment. The challenge is delivery. Setting the right framework is essential, but the Stern report will not implement itself. A framework Bill is just a framework Bill. It is the policies that underpin it that are vital. This is not a call for more policies and initiatives. In fact, the evidence seemed to come through on the Environmental Audit Committee that we almost have too many policy initiatives. There is a complex framework of policies and institutions that overlap and, arguably, muddle and confuse. There may even be an argument for pulling back and doing less much better.
In that context, I would argue that it is disappointing that in the Bill and the discussion on policy there is not more emphasis on picking the low-hanging fruit and cracking the conundrum of generating more energy efficiency in the existing housing stock. That is the main issue. It is the ultimate no-regrets policy. The time is absolutely right because, for the first time in our generation, energy pricing is a real issue. We have all grown up in an era of relatively cheap energy. That is changing. This is the opportunity to break through consumer inertia on energy efficiency.
I am not convinced—much of the evidence that we received on the Environmental Audit Committee reinforces my view—that the Government have thought hard enough on this issue. They are not showing adequate ambition, and that is a pity. To persuade people to take action to save the planet and save money at the same time seems a compelling proposition if we get it right. We have a key opportunity to engage communities and individuals. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for High Peak (Tom Levitt), talked about the under-exploited opportunity to make communities and individuals engage with climate change and drive the bottom-up process, which is fundamental to sustaining the change in values and behaviour that we must achieve to address the problem.
I close by drawing the attention of the Secretary of State to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which it was my privilege to promote in the last Parliament. It jumped through all the hoops solely on the basis of the cross-party support that it had. Two members of the Committee that considered the Bill—the hon. Members for Eltham (Clive Efford) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)—are sitting on the Benches behind the Secretary of State. The Minister with whom I negotiated the Bill, the now Minister for the Environment, was sitting alongside the Secretary of State earlier. My Bill is potentially a tool in his box. It requires central Government to think more deeply about sustainable communities and to develop a national strategy. It throws down a challenge and opportunity for local authorities and communities to engage in that process and have a real voice in it. For the first time, it gives them an opportunity to see how every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent in their communities and to argue for reallocation of resources and functions. It is an opportunity for them to engage in a genuine way in decisions that will shape the influence of their community on the climate, including how they source energy, distribute energy, move goods and move themselves. It is a wonderful opportunity.
My Bill was not born in the Government and not invented by the Government. My concern is that it should be implemented with the same energy and enthusiasm as if it were. Many people have high expectations, want to get engaged in the process and do not want to be let down by the Government. So if the Secretary of State has not had the opportunity to look at the implications of the Bill for the climate change agenda, I suggest that he does so and encourages his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to implement the Bill with real energy and enthusiasm.
The Queen’s Speech contains radical proposals on families, climate change, housing and local government. I want to focus on local government and the empowerment of local communities so it is fitting that I follow the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). I congratulate him on his success in bringing in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and on the prospect of its enactment.
Many communities feel a sense of detachment, and in this place and elsewhere politicians have debated how we can get our local communities to re-engage with the democratic process. Part of the difficulty is that people can perceive the problems with their communities—they live with them every day—but there is a disconnection between the solutions and their enactment. When people express concern to us about local community issues, we as politicians need to engage them in the implementation of the solutions.
As a Member who works with the local community to try to deal with some of the problems, I feel frustrated that I have no decision-making powers to will people the resources to carry out the changes they want. People in my community propose excellent projects that would make a huge difference, but those projects fall by the wayside because there are neither the resources nor the capacity, through statutory or other bodies, to support such schemes into fruition.
If we are to engage with local communities, we need to bring about change in the way that local government and other local statutory bodies work. For that, we need flexibility so I welcome the consultation document produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government—the action plan for empowering local communities—which states that there will be a reduction in the number of targets set locally to allow local authorities more flexibility.
Most of the Members who have spoken in the debate have a local government background, so we know that by the time a local authority receives its rate support grant and other funding 99 per cent. of the money has already been spent on all the statutory functions of local government, such as schools, social services or support for children in care. There is little flexibility in the budget to meet the challenging demands that will come from the empowerment of local communities.
I urge the Government to consider targeting those powers so that it is not just the sharp-elbowed, well-educated communities that come first and get what they want, but the most deprived and challenged communities are helped to engage in improving the quality of life in their area. If the engagement and empowerment of local communities is to work, the process has to drill down to them, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said. People are already engaged—they know what is wrong in their communities—and we have to find mechanisms to encourage them and give them a supporting hand to take things to the next stage. Quite often other communities with the wherewithal jump to the front of the queue before the deprived communities get a chance. That is where we must make a difference.
I welcome the measures on the empowerment of local councillors; I would have welcomed them when I was a local councillor. However, they might provide an opportunity for people to make trouble just to make a name for themselves. We must be careful to ensure that the councillors empowered to work up projects in their local communities are not just politically motivated and that they are genuinely of the community and for the community. For example, it is easy to organise a petition for speed humps in a road, to demand that the road humps are put in place and then to complain about the council if that is not done. I am sure that we have all been guilty of doing something similar in the past. However, is that community empowerment or is community empowerment about enabling the parents who are concerned about the lack of facilities for young people to come forward to say that something should be done about that? The latter is the real change that we need.
I very much welcome the idea of transferring assets but not the idea of the well heeled, well-educated sections of the community coming forward to elbow their way to taking over the running of services in their area. Real changes must take place in the communities where the changes are most needed. However, there is a great deal of good will towards the idea of people coming forward to participate and we must provide the basics so that local people can be empowered to take over the running of local assets and services for themselves. The schemes must be sustainable.
Neighbourhood renewal will come to an end at the end of March next year. I have chaired a local neighbourhood renewal project and, through talking to the local community and challenging the local authority to respond to the issues that have been put on the agenda by the local community and not by officers from the local authority, we have actually managed to implement some enormous changes. We now have an adult learning centre at a local school in which £1.5 million has been invested to make it fully accessible to the disabled. The school has been expanded further by introducing a children’s centre. The seedcorn money for that came from decisions that were made at the local neighbourhood renewal panel and that money set everything in train. Ideas came from the local school with the support of the local community and the arguments were put forward at the neighbourhood renewal panel. Therefore, the decisions were made by local people. Similarly with neighbourhood wardens, and the initiative that we took with Charlton Athletic football club that has brought youth work on to the estates, it has all come about as the result of community initiatives—people becoming involved, perceiving a problem and identifying what they would like to do to solve it.
We need to find the resources to enable people to become involved. The key to change is having the resources and the local community having the power to take decisions about those resources without the decisions being made for it. Having the decisions taken elsewhere leads to disengagement. Instead, those who perceive the problem should be part of finding its solution.
If we are to empower local communities, we should also empower the tenants to decide who should be their landlord. If we talk about empowering local communities, we are not consistent if we continue to deny local tenants the opportunity to remain council tenants if that is their wish. Any future arrangements for the financing of housing should include that option. Tenants should not be forced down the route of becoming an arm’s length management organisation or any other body that is at arm’s length from the local authority. However, if that happens and difficulties arise, the assumption should be that the housing returns to the control of the local authority and does not pass into the private sector or anywhere else.
In the few minutes that I have left, I would like to discuss planning. Several Members have said that the crisis in housing has grown despite the Government’s efforts over the past 10 years. In a report that was published in June, the Royal Town Planning Institute indicated that a start date was awaited for the building programmes for 225,000 homes on 14,000 acres of land, although planning permission for the homes had been given. I recently met the private company that has just taken on responsibility for developing the Kidbrooke area. We are going to knock down 1,900 homes on an estate and replace them with 4,400 homes, and we are about a third to half way through decanting the estate. The private company will submit a planning application in the new year to start the first phase of the development. When I asked how long the company would be on site from beginning to end, I was told that it would take 10 to 15 years to build 4,400 homes. It cannot be right that it will take that long to implement such a development.
Given that the RTPI indicates that 225,000 homes are awaiting building start dates, we will have to set timetables for the implementation of planning applications because we will otherwise not meet the targets that we are setting ourselves. I am absolutely sick and tired of three generations of a family who live in the same home coming to see me in my surgery when I know that there is little that I can do to help them to find housing. The problem is that we are not building homes quickly enough. The planning permission is in place, but the development is not happening.
I welcome the Government’s proposals for trying to streamline some of the processes involved in public inquiries. It might be fine strategically if they are going to set a national plan for three nuclear power stations and then leave the planning commission to sort that out. However, with regard to the Thames Gateway bridge, if it were said, “We need a bridge in east London,” and that was left to an inquiry, that would not be acceptable.
I shall touch on several issues that were raised by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), which relate principally to poor Government statistics, their poor use and their impact on the funding of services in Brent.
My first example relates to Office for National Statistics information and migration figures. Brent’s population was given as 269,000 in the 2001 census and ONS thought that it had increased by only 1,800 by mid-2006. Of course, ONS statistics are used to predict the grant settlement for local government, as well as to determine the funding of local health services. Those statistics show that Brent’s population should be broadly static over the next three years, but the Greater London authority’s projections of Brent’s population, which take account of planned housing developments, estimate that Brent’s population is 279,000 and that it will increase to 290,000 by 2011. Those estimates are more in line with council figures on school registrations and the housing transfer list, which shows that some 20,000 families in Brent are waiting to be re-housed.
Work commissioned by Brent council from Professor Les Mayhew that involved such data as GP registrations, school databases and housing and council tax records—all the different types of databases were correlated, which is what the hon. Lady was talking about—demonstrated that Brent’s population in July 2007 could have been as high as 289,000. There is thus a massive discrepancy between the figures that we believe to be true in Brent and those that the Government use. ONS figures in mid-2006 showed that there were 47,000 children under the age of 14 in Brent, whereas Revenue and Customs figures based on child benefit entitlement indicated that there were 52,000 children aged under 14, so the Government have massive discrepancies in their databases.
The issue is not just migration but churn. We have the highest rate of houses in multiple occupancy in the country, so there is a very transient population. On migration, along with Newham, Brent has the highest number of non-UK national insurance registrations of any council area in the country. That gives some indication of the scale of migration in and out of the borough.
Each person who is undercounted costs the council £500 a year in Government grant. That has a massive impact on funding. The projected undercounting, and the historical and current position, has a massive impact on the funding of services in Brent. Also, changes in formulae for adult and children’s social care funding have adversely affected many London local authorities. Those factors combined have meant that Brent is on the floor when calculating the grant settlement. As the Minister for Local Government pointed out earlier this year, the comprehensive spending review for 2007 is a very tight settlement for local authorities. There is real anxiety that if there is a big differentiation between councils that are on the average and those that are on the floor, councils such as Brent—one of the most needy local authorities in the country—may get a settlement at less than the rate of inflation. That would represent a real-terms cut in the money that is available for valuable local services for vulnerable people in my constituency.
Brent has five of the 200 most deprived wards in London and, as in many boroughs, there is massive pressure on the social services budget. The sweetener for local authorities in the comprehensive spending review—that 2 per cent. supplementary business rate—is not accessible to any London local authority because it goes to the Greater London authority to pay for Crossrail. In fact, local authorities in London will have to pay as a result, because they will have to pay on their own council buildings.
There are other pressures on the budget. For example, cost-shunting from the health service is estimated at £11 million. I should like to return to that, if I have time. There is also the impending reform of the neighbourhood renewal money. Brent currently receives £2.27 million a year from the neighbourhood renewal fund, which is spent in the most deprived neighbourhoods in the borough—Harlesden, Stonebridge, St. Raphael’s, Brentfield and the Church End estate. It is spent on targeted employment intervention, community safety work such as tackling gun and knife crime—a massive problem in my constituency—reassurance policing in Harlesden and St. Raphael’s, and award-winning extended schools projects, such as that at Mitchell Brook primary school.
There is real anxiety that if that money is cut in any way, it will undermine the work that is being done. Working with the most deprived communities requires a long-term build-up of trust. If we put money in and then take it away before people have had the chance to build relationships with their community, we might as well not have provided the money in the first place. My plea to Ministers is that they should think about how they reform the fund, so that long-term work is sustainable and can be continued.
The second issue related to statistics concerns funding for education in Brent. The most immediate crisis is in capital funding. There has been a dramatic rise in population, both through migration and birth rate, and it is putting immense pressure on Brent’s schools. Of course, in such matters the Government use not ONS statistics but school rolls. However, the system that they use does not appear to be capable of keeping pace with the rapid population rise in Brent. The lower end of the projection, which is based on housing capacity, is that the shortfall in school places could be as much as five forms of entry for primary schools by 2009-10, and eight forms of entry for secondary schools by 2016. I already see the impact in my constituency work: distressed parents find that they are unable to get a school for their child.
In the short term, there has been a 7 per cent. increase in applications for reception just this year. Four emergency primary classes have had to be opened, some of which are in temporary classrooms. The council is trying to place in primary schools 80 children who have arrived in Brent since September this year. All the secondary schools are already full, apart from one Catholic boys’ school. The council is trying to place 100 children who have arrived since September in secondary schools. In addition, 200 secondary-school children are currently in specialist language or GCSE short courses, and will need to transfer to mainstream places as soon as possible.
The primary capital programme is available in 2009, but it comes too late for Brent. Brent needs that help now. We are somewhere between waves 7 and 11 of building schools for the future. The problem with that programme is that it relies on rolls falling nationally, and does not cater for places such as Brent where the rolls are rising very rapidly indeed. The only funding system for building new schools is the academies programme. Regardless of one’s political view about that programme, it is the only system available for the council to build a new school in Brent.
The John Kelly schools in my constituency are teaching twice as many students as they were built to teach. Most of the extra capacity is provided by temporary classrooms, which have been in existence for 30 years. They are an absolute disgrace, and I request that a Minister come and see the state of those buildings and the conditions in which students and teachers are working. It is remarkable that the schools manage to achieve the results that they do. Brent is classified as one of the six local authorities that must pay inner-London weighting to staff but which are treated as outer London boroughs for the purpose of funding. That same discrepancy occurs in the health system. I raised the issue with Ministers in 2004, when I was promised that the situation would be looked at again. The council estimates that the problem costs between £3 million and £4 million in education funding, but Ministers have not reviewed the issue. I hope that they do so, because it leaves children in Brent short-changed by a considerable amount of money. The same situation affects colleges in Brent, which receive almost no area uplift compared with other parts of London.
In the final two minutes available to me, I wish to turn to the issue of health. I have mentioned the discrepancy in funding for inner and outer London, which affects health as well. The projected population statistics affect the money available for health services in Brent. The problem is compounded by mismanagement and pressures on the doctors’ contract, targets and top slicing by the London strategic health authority, which have impacted on the capital’s primary care trusts. PCTs in Brent managed to reach the heady heights of being in debt to the tune of £53 million earlier this year, and have undertaken devastating cuts to preventive health care. We have seen a retreat to reactive services—I believed that that health service policy was long gone—so while the Government have made all the right noises on preventive health, I am afraid that in Brent the impact of health cuts has produced a different result.
I have spoken before about the impact on children’s services and the clinics that have been closed, but I should like to raise a few other issues that are very pressing indeed in Brent. The teenage pregnancy rate in Brent is much higher than the national average, and there have been cuts in school nursing services and in sexual health funding. Smoking cessation services have been cut, and healthy eating educational work will be undermined by school nursing cuts and the closure of school clinics. The educational achievements of looked-after children and those with special educational needs will be undermined b