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Topical Questions

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2007

I would like to make a brief statement. The Government published the Planning Reform Bill this morning. It is a further example of a Labour Government taking long-term decisions in the best interests of the economy and the environment. The Bill will modernise and speed up the planning system. We will establish our national priorities for major infrastructure projects such as airports, power stations and renewable energy, and we will speed up planning decisions in the national interest by cutting bureaucracy and red tape. This will help our economy to grow and, crucially, it will ensure that every region shares in our rising opportunity and prosperity.

Britain’s planning system is over-complicated, bureaucratic and cumbersome. We risk unnecessary delay to major decisions, such as those on renewable energy, which can hold the economy back. At the moment, the big infrastructure projects take an average of two years to determine. We hope that, with the changes that we are introducing, we will be able to bring the average time down to under a year, ending years of unnecessary delays. We are taking the practical decisions to equip—

I rise on behalf of the pigeon fanciers of Croydon and the nation as a whole. Was the Secretary of State as concerned as I was to discover that pigeon racing clubs are not exempt from business rates? Pigeon racing is a magnificent sport, and the winner of the Pau grand national, a bird called Pauline, comes from my constituency. As horse racing and polo are exempt, will the Secretary of State join me in the campaign to fight the pigeon tax?

I am very tempted indeed. The very first Labour party meeting I went to, many years ago, was in the back room of a pub called the Dungeon Inn. As I sat down in my seat alongside six men in flat caps, feathers rose up either side of me. I later found out that the pigeon club met in the same pub on Tuesday evenings. I am tempted to join the hon. Gentleman, and I will look into the rules on business rates. Perhaps we can get together with Pauline and launch a campaign that will really fly.

In Chorley, we are seeing a lot of planning permissions that do not reflect local housing need. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, when planning permissions are granted, they are not for private four-bedroom detached houses, but for low-cost rented housing that suits local needs and helps to ensure that waiting lists are reduced? At the moment, that is not happening.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I urge his local council to look carefully at the new planning rules that we introduced in the spring. They say that local authorities have to do more to bring forward more land for housing, and they also give the authorities a greater ability to determine what kind of homes are needed in their area, because those needs will differ from one area to another. Local authorities need to look more closely at that issue, and to use those planning powers. We are also increasing the investment in affordable housing for the north-west, and the local authorities and housing associations in that area should be putting in bids for that new investment as well.

T2. In an effort to prevent another Government disaster, and given the Department’s enthusiasm for the Thames Gateway, will the Secretary of State consider co-ordinating action across other Departments to look at cliff slippage in Southend, which is now presenting a real danger to road and rail passengers? (168012)

I am aware that this is a serious issue, and I understand that the urban regeneration company in Southend is working with various Government agencies to see what practical measures can be taken to reassure local people. I would hate to see a situation in which the hon. Gentleman was perhaps teetering on the edge of a precipice; it would not be for me to push him over the edge. We will take a very careful look at the matter.

T3. The Government’s commitment to providing more affordable housing is very welcome, but one of the great needs in my constituency is more rented housing, as well as more affordable housing to buy. What do the Government plan to do to increase the availability of rented housing for those who either cannot afford or do not wish to buy, and what role do they envisage local councils having in providing that rented housing? (168013)

My hon. Friend is right that we need more market housing and shared ownership housing, and more social housing as well. We are clear that the plan for 3 million homes by 2020 requires an expansion in all kinds of housing. We are increasing investment for the north-west to support more affordable housing. We want housing associations to bid, but we are also making changes in the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which we are debating later today, that will make it easier for councils to put forward bids for funding to build more social housing.

I would like to ask a question on planning procedures. Besides using intermediaries to make donations to the Labour party, Mr. David Abrahams used the same method to apply for planning permission. Will the Minister now agree to a review of regulations so that the true identity of the applicant is not hidden from the public?

Yes, I think it is essential that people have trust in the integrity and transparency of all our systems in government, and I certainly undertake to look at the issue and to try to ensure, as far as we possibly can, complete transparency in applications. It is important that people know exactly what has taken place.

In the interests of that transparency, can the Secretary of State explain why Government objections to the building of a business park on the established green belt of County Durham were suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn? What steps were taken to ensure that the persons withdrawing the Government objections knew that the directors of the developers, Durham Green Developments—a Mr. Ruddick and a Mrs. Kidd, both employees of Mr. Abrahams—made a substantial donation to the Labour party? In view of the controversy surrounding the business park, will she release all Government papers relating to the development?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the issue has arisen very recently indeed and that it concerns the Highways Agency; it is certainly not an issue that involved Ministers in the process. He has raised some important issues, and I will certainly undertake to liaise with my colleagues in other Departments to ascertain exactly what happened. I can also give him an undertaking that the Government will be transparent in all their dealings on this matter.

The decent homes programme has now reached its final stages of bringing all local authority accommodation up to a reasonable standard. If the arm’s length management organisation in my local authority is to be up and running by April next year, it needs an announcement on setting up and on funding by the end of this year. Can my right hon. Friend help?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the decent homes programme, which has already helped literally millions of people into better homes, including lifting more than a million children out of cold, damp or poor housing. We are keen to get the final phase of ALMOs going, and we are working with individual ALMOs at the moment, as some are at different stages of readiness from others. We want to see the £2 billion that we are putting into ALMOs over the next few years well spent, but I certainly undertake to look at the issue for my hon. Friend as fast as possible.

T4. The Government’s talk about localism and the need to devolve power to local communities is to be welcomed, but does the Secretary of State have plans to localise control over finance? Specifically, does she have plans to devolve revenue-raising powers from Whitehall to the town hall? (168014)

The hon. Gentleman has a record on localism for which he can take some credit. It is unfortunate that he is a member of a party that does not have such a proud record on it. It is a party that abolished London-wide government and denied devolution to Scotland and Wales, so I question its credentials on localism. On the matter of revenue raising, we have taken forward proposals to look at supplementary business rates and a range of issues where it is possible to raise more revenue for specific local projects that people want to pursue. I would also commend to him our work on participatory budgeting, giving local people a real say in how budgets are spent at local level. Those are the real issues that people want to get involved with.

The ballot for a coerced stock transfer of council housing in North-West Leicestershire has been stalled for several months because the local authority believes that it would not secure a yes vote. The leader of the council has approached the Minister for Housing with suggestions whose implementation might accelerate the whole process. Can she tell the House when a reply will be given to North-West Leicestershire, so that the ballot can go ahead and the damaging uncertainty that hangs over local authority housing in my constituency can finally be lifted?

As my hon. Friend says, the leader of his local council came to see me to present proposals that he wanted the Government to consider. We have said that we will look into them in some detail. The council leader was interested in alternative approaches, and it is right for us to consider them thoroughly because they raise various issues. I shall be happy to keep my hon. Friend in touch with the work that is in progress, and to respond to him as soon as possible.

T5. Has the Secretary of State made an estimate of the cost to councils of the damage to infrastructure—particularly bridges, roads and drains—of the summer floods? While answering the question, will she also please now tell us who is responsible for repairing the drains? (168015)

The hon. Lady will be aware that councils have been working very closely with not just our Department, but a number of others on these issues. I know that in my capacity as Member of Parliament for Gloucester as well as in my capacity as Under-Secretary of State.

To date, about £63 million has been made available to local authorities, some of it paid directly to the most local tier of local government. As this is an ongoing process, it is important for the relationship between Government and councils to be maintained, and we will ensure that all Departments join in ensuring that that happens. I shall be happy—as, I know, will my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government—to discuss any specific concerns that the hon. Lady has about her area.

T6. The details of the local government settlement are to be announced shortly, but all those involved in local government already say that they face dire financial circumstances because the Government have consistently underfunded the increased costs of recycling, an ageing population and concessionary fares. What reassurance can the Secretary of State offer local authorities of all political complexions, including Labour-run Sheffield city council, Derbyshire county council and North East Derbyshire district council, all of which have confirmed that they face cuts in the next two or three years?

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): I can tell the hon. Gentleman that over the past 10 years there has been a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in local government finance, and that over the next three years there will continue to be real-terms increases for local government. In the first year, there will be an extra £960 million. I remember the days when, as a local councillor, I spent 10 years cutting budgets in real terms. That happened every single year. It is a very different scenario nowadays. He mentioned concessionary fares. There is £212 million for concessionary fares, which should meet all the costs of local authorities. (168016)

I think I am right in saying that the historic meeting at the Dungeon Inn to which my right hon. Friend referred took place at the Dungeon Inn in my constituency. It would be good to have that on the record.

In the context of local government and climate change, does my right hon. Friend accept that local government and ALMOs can do far more to promote energy efficiency? Does she think that real-time electricity monitors have an important role in encouraging consumers to pay closer attention to their electricity demands, and what is she doing to encourage local authorities and ALMOs to install them?

My hon. Friend makes some important points. Local authorities can do a range of things, but making people more aware individually of both their consumption and their carbon footprints is a way forward. I also think that local authorities could do more about combined heat and power.

Apparently, in Germany there is community composting: communities go and compost together. I think that that sounds a really good idea. Perhaps it could provide the best night out of the week.

T7. In wondering what first attracted the Labour Government to millionaire property developer, David Abrahams, may I ask whether Ministers will confirm whether any Minister has had discussions with him over the content of the Planning Reform Bill? (168017)

T8. My local authority, Basingstoke and Deane borough council, this month announced a 30 per cent. increase in recycling over the past 12 months. It should be well and truly congratulated on that achievement. Does the Minister agree that rather than considering putting taxes on our bins, the Government should do more to help local authorities such as mine to increase the number of items that can be recycled by the community, and in particular, examine schemes such as that run by Tetra Pak? (168018)

Recycling has quadrupled in the past decade, and we should celebrate that fact. As I said earlier, the changes that we are discussing in respect of what local authorities may wish to pilot on waste incentives are not about new burdens or new taxes, because things must be revenue neutral. Any money that comes out of the process must be reimbursed to local constituents. This is a matter for local authorities, and it is up to them to put forward their ideas.