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Commons Chamber

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2007

House of Commons

Tuesday 27 November 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Climate Change

1. What support her Department has considered to assist councils that wish to introduce measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. (168021)

The local government White Paper, published by my Department, sets out the framework for local authorities to take action on climate change, and we are putting in place a number of initiatives to support it, including new performance indicators to help local authorities to measure progress on carbon reduction, and information and guidance for local authorities on climate change mitigation measures. We have also included climate change as a theme in the current round of the beacon council scheme.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that extensive answer. I am sure that she agrees that it is the poorest people who can least afford energy-saving devices such as energy-saving light bulbs. Will she ensure that local authorities have the resources and the necessary money to target those poor people to ensure that they have the chance to get loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, energy-saving light bulbs and things like that?

My hon. Friend has an excellent record on highlighting such issues in the House. I can give him a couple of examples of local authorities doing exactly the kind of the thing that he outlines. Kirklees has a warm zone plus scheme, whereby loft and cavity wall insulation is being installed for free, on a systematic house-by-house basis. People get a personal visit and it is hoped to put cavity wall insulation into 40,000 homes. Leicester has a hot lofts scheme, in partnership with British Gas and Mark Insulations. An area is selected using thermal imaging to see where the most energy is escaping, and the homes are then targeted. The provision is free, irrespective of income.

Will the Secretary of State clear up the confusion created by her Ministers and officials about whether local authorities are free to implement the so-called Merton rule? When the question of whether they are free to do so is asked in the House, it is always met with the answer, “Yes.” But officials always meet it with the answer, “No.” Is it not time that she told the House clearly whether authorities are free to implement the rule and whether she welcomes more local authorities taking the rule on board and tackling climate change effectively at a local level?

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman is confused, so I shall try to be as clear as possible. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has written to all our stakeholders on this matter. Yes, we can implement the Merton rule, but we want to go further. However, that has to be properly tested through the planning process. That is absolutely clear. We want to press on with our commitments to reduce carbon emissions and we have one of the most ambitious programmes: to get all new homes to be zero carbon by 2016. The Merton rule is a valuable contribution, but we want to go even further.

The private rented sector is quite problematic with regard to climate change and energy efficiency. Will my right hon. Friend work with local authorities to make sure that they are given powers to work with and, in the final analysis, to compel private landlords to raise their properties to minimum acceptable standards for energy efficiency?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sometimes it is the poorest people who live in the most difficult conditions in the private rented sector. It is important that local authorities have powers to work with landlords in relation to licensing and accreditation, to make sure that the highest standards are available. He will also be aware of our intention to pursue energy performance certificates in the private rented sector, which will be of considerable assistance.

Local authorities are required to have made a 30 per cent. reduction in energy use in residential homes by 2011, but the latest figures show that many local authorities, including my authority of Westminster, are trailing well behind that. Will my right hon. Friend work with her colleagues in DEFRA to consider step-in powers, which are available to the Government, to ensure that local authorities that are not raising their game on residential home efficiency do so?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. She will know that in the new local government performance framework, for the first time, there are indicators in relation to climate change. In those areas where we really need to make a difference, we will be able to incorporate those indicators into the local area agreement. There will be measuring and monitoring, and the local authorities concerned will be pressed to have some pretty stretching targets. I hope that a number of local authorities will use climate change as one of their central areas in their local area agreement.

Home Information Packs

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing set out in a written ministerial statement on 22 November our intention to complete the phased roll-out of home information packs by extending coverage to the rest of the market from 14 December, in line with the criteria set out on 11 June. We have now laid amending regulations, ahead of the roll-out.

Quite a few people in the housing industry have complained about the very short notice for extending HIPs to one and two-bedroom properties. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the Government have learned the lessons from earlier this year, when the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors felt the need to commence legal proceedings because of a lack of consultation?

The roll-out for one and two-bedroom properties has been entirely consistent with the roll-out for three and four-bedroom properties earlier this year; I give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance for his constituents. All the evidence shows that the roll-out this year has been entirely consistent, and has provided reassurance and stability to the housing market.

First, may I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on holding their nerve on the issue when Opposition Members, their friends with vested interests, RICS and the like were losing theirs? When the Minister monitors the impact of home information packs, will he report back to the House specifically on packs in which home condition reports were included, so that we can see whether they have an even more beneficial effect, and whether they ensure an even higher completion rate of sales in cases where offers have been made, as many of us believe they will?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are on the side of the consumer, and of home buyers and sellers. The Opposition are on the side of protected, narrow vested interests. Let me reassure my hon. Friend: all the evidence shows that, on average, HIPs are taking seven to 10 days to prepare. The majority of property drainage and water searches are being delivered. All the quality assurances are being provided. We will continue to monitor that, and I will report back to the House.

Will the Minister also monitor the likely effect on first-time buyers? Inevitably, vendors will pass on the cost, and in the latest phase that is likely to hit first-time buyers. Will he keep a close eye on that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that considered question. First-time buyers of one and two-bedroom homes will be the main beneficiaries, as they will now get important information about their new homes for free. Information, including searches for which they would previously have had to pay, will now be included in the HIP, paid for by the seller. That will reduce the costs of getting on the first step of the property ladder.

Given the Minister for Housing’s embarrassing U-turn just last week on first-day marketing for HIPs, is it not time for her to come to the Dispatch Box and admit that without first-day marketing, the HIPs scheme is effectively dead and buried?

Oh dear, dear. Opposition for opposition’s sake is never attractive, and I know that the hon. Gentleman’s heart was really not in that attack. I feel sorry that he has to keep flogging that dead horse. He knows that all the evidence shows that the impact of partial roll-out has been minimal, and that there are strong, convincing arguments for rolling out as planned; that is what we are doing. Any further delay could cause greater difficulties and further uncertainties in the housing market.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the immense patience and commitment of those of my constituents, and hundreds of others across the country, who have trained to be HIP inspectors, and who now have the opportunity of a full, rewarding career ahead of them?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend on that. The Association of Home Information Pack Providers has been first-class in lobbying on behalf of its members, in listening to concerns, and on the subject of the obvious things that we need to do to make sure that the housing market is stable. I will continue to work with AHIPP and other providers to ensure that that remains the case.

Thames Gateway

In the last 12 months, we have secured the go-ahead for Crossrail, including the route to Abbey Wood. Planning permission at Ebbsfleet, secured as a result of Government transport investment; the go-ahead for the multi-billion-pound investment in Europe’s biggest deep-water port at Shell Haven; and the opening of the channel tunnel rail link through the gateway—those major projects alone are helping to support extensive regeneration and growth across the Thames Gateway.

I thank the Minister for her comments. There are growing concerns in my area about the effectiveness of the project, and a feeling that the Government’s performance has been lackadaisical to date. Report after report has criticised Ministers on the Thames Gateway project, including the recent report by the Public Accounts Committee. Is the Minister really the only person who thinks that it has so far been a great success and acceptable? Many people in my area think that more should be done to make a real opportunity of the Thames Gateway.

I disagree with the PAC report. We have seen considerable progress as a result of the major investment that is already being made in the Gateway. That includes over £2 million, for example, in Crayford, to improve the environment around the river, and part of the £32 million that has gone into Bexley over the past three years. Our intention is to keep supporting the regeneration in Bexley and beyond, across the Thames Gateway. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not think it is a waste of money.

It is nice to see the Minister replying to this question. She must have been spoiled for choice, between Thames Gateway and HIPs.

The recent Public Accounts Committee report concluded:

“The Department does not know how much the regeneration of the Thames Gateway will cost the taxpayer”;

“The Department has not translated the vision for the programme into comprehensive and measurable objectives, nor are there robust systems to measure progress”;

and

“The Department's management of the programme has been weak, and has not demonstrably added value to the programme”.

Which of those conclusions does the Minister think accurately sums up the Government’s state of policy?

The PAC report is hopelessly out of date. The National Audit Office report was helpful and we have responded to it, but the pace of progress in the Thames Gateway has been substantial. We have already invested more than £600 million from our Department in a series of substantial improvements across the Thames Gateway, which are supporting the creation of new jobs, new training and higher education places, and new homes. We will go further, and later this week we will set out a major multibillion pound programme of investment in the Thames Gateway over the next few years so that it can truly support a greater number of jobs and homes for the future.

The Thames Gateway is an exciting project. What steps are being taken to proof the project against climate change, in particular against rising sea levels that might flood the project, to make sure that we do not have a major development in the Thames Gateway that, in the next few decades, is overtaken by the changes to the climate that are already taking place?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He may be aware that the Environment Agency has carried out an extensive programme of work that looks at how to secure the Thames Gateway from flooding well into the next century. That is an important part of the work that we have under way and that programme is out to consultation. My hon. Friend is right: we should recognise the future consequences of climate change and that the Thames Gateway is a great opportunity to do more to cut carbon emissions and prevent damage from climate change.

Local Government Reorganisation

We are currently considering all the information and representations that have been submitted to us about the unitary council proposals that have been made. We intend to take our final decisions very soon.

May I impress on the Secretary of State the need for a quick decision to be made on what form of local government reorganisation we are due to have in south and mid-Bedfordshire? Key decisions are already being held up because of the uncertainty. The current state of affairs is not fair on the staff of the councils, many of whom are leaving as they are not sure whether they will have jobs, and the people of south and mid-Bedfordshire deserve better.

I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we mean to make our decisions as quickly as we can. The general rule is that when the intention is to introduce change, the best thing to do is to get on with it so that people do not face uncertainty. That is exactly what we have done with the whole process. I am pleased that proposals have been worked up, and a great deal of preparation has gone into them. The business cases have been extremely good in the cases before us. We mean to get on, make the decisions and implement them. We will then have some flagship unitary councils that can take their communities forward.

My right hon. Friend knows my views about the merits of creating two unitary authorities in Cheshire. Will she ensure full transparency, and that the county council is required to share information that it has at its disposal with the district councils in preparing the bids on which she must make a decision?

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in putting the case in which he strongly believes. He knows that I have to take into account all the information and all the representations that I receive on the issue. It is important that the information that is available, whether it is financial information or proposals for neighbourhood empowerment, is shared among the parties involved. Whatever the issues surrounding the reorganisation, it is in the interest of us all to get the best outcome that we can and to get on and implement it as swiftly as we can.

Is the Secretary of State aware that my constituents want her to drop the whole local government reorganisation? Is she aware that reorganisation of any kind has never cost less and that people will pay considerably more for poorer services delivered remotely? If local government is to mean anything at all, it must be local, and it must be delivered by locally elected people. Will she change her mind—

I know that the hon. Lady feels strongly about the issue and is putting the views of her constituents, but I ask her to reflect for a moment. Local government is important, which is why neighbourhood accountability is crucial. Local authorities must be able to make big, strategic decisions in the interests of their communities as a whole, which is essential in order to promote economic development and growth. I ask the hon. Lady to think about the long-term interest of the community as well as local issues.

Will the Secretary of State answer two questions that I raised in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week?

You, Mr. Speaker, are ahead of me.

The Secretary of State is minded to get the Boundary Commission to consider a unitary authority for greater Norwich. The terms of reference have not been established, and the overwhelming opinion in the county of Norfolk is against the proposal, as it was the first time around. Will she include in the terms of reference the status quo, which is the majority opinion in Norfolk?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, although I thought that he would ask one question with many different parts. We were right to refer the matter to the Boundary Commission, because there were concerns about the criteria for the applications. We wanted to make sure that the wider area would be considered, which is what the Boundary Commission will do. I understand that the terms of reference are being drawn up, and I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s point seriously and come back to him.

Children and Young Adult Services

5. What assessment she has made of the effect of double damping on the funding of children’s and young adults’ services; and if she will make a statement. (168025)

In the course of this summer’s consultation on options for changing the formula grant distribution system, we published illustrations of what each council’s level of grant in 2007-08 would have been if neither grant floor damping nor social services formula damping had been applied.

The damping of the adult and young person’s element of the local government grant was to allow authorities that lost resources to adjust over two years. Authorities have had that time, and the damping is no longer morally or intellectually sustainable. Will my right hon. Friend take note of Labour Members’ serious concerns about the matter, and will she make sure that resources follow needs in future local government settlements?

My hon. Friend’s advocacy on behalf of authorities in relation to not only the local government formula but the health formula has been absolutely remarkable, and it helps our debate in the House to have this kind of informed discussion. He knows that I met various colleagues and members of the special interest group of municipal authorities last night, when they impressed on me the importance of the issues. The new formulae are better than the old system, because there is a better evidence base. However, he knows that I am not in a position to indicate the local government settlement today. He also knows the importance of predictability and stability, in addition to directing resources to the areas of greatest need.

The disparities thrown up by formula funding do not apply only to children and young adults in social care. In my constituency, for example, Kingsway secondary school, Stockport, receives nearly 20 per cent. less in dedicated schools grant than Parrs Wood secondary school, a mile up the road in Manchester. Will the Secretary of State give some indication of when that fundamental unfairness will be resolved?

The hon. Gentleman will know that local government finance is subject to a whole series of relatively complex formulae that seek to allocate funding to the areas that are in need of it. We can all raise specific issues relating to our constituencies, but we have to ensure that the system as a whole is fair. He will also know that schools funding is directly passed through to schools on the basis of the number of children and the needs in the community. That is a pretty fair system.

Council tax payers in the authority that I represent pay an additional 8p as a result of the Government’s failure to implement their policy that money should follow needs. When will the Government’s actions follow their rhetoric?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. He will know that when we have reviewed the formula in the past there has been a change in the distributional impact in relation to the allocation of resources. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), the difficulty lies in balancing the new formula and the direction of those resources with the need for stability in the system. The system of floors and ceilings has been broadly acknowledged to be the right one. There will always be a discussion about how high the floor and the ceiling should be and who should contribute to that funding. We are keen to move towards implementation of the new formula as quickly as we can, balanced with stability.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the needs of rural communities are reflected in Government funding? In particular, will she give the House a commitment that North Yorkshire will have fair and equitable access with regard to pupil referral units compared with other parts of the country such as West Yorkshire?

The hon. Lady will know that elements of the formula relate to rural areas, sparsity and the difficulty of delivering services. She asks about having equivalent resources for pupil referral units. Where there are needs as regards excluded children, it is absolutely essential that we provide facilities for them. The local government funding system endeavours to be as fair as possible while directing our resources, which are always limited, to the areas of greatest need.

My right hon. Friend will know that the principle of damping has been widely accepted because we all understand that radical changes cannot suddenly be foisted on to local authorities, which have to be given time to absorb the changes that are necessary. However, does she understand that double damping, as we see it practised in social services, is causing a considerable drop in morale among treasurers’ staff, who have been wringing out every pound note to get the very best value from it, and then find their efforts defeated? Wolverhampton is losing £1 million a year.

I understand the hard work that local government officers and councillors put into trying to ensure that their budget goes as far as it possibly can in meeting the needs of local communities. However, the comprehensive spending review settlement gives us a 1 per cent. real-terms rise for local government—an extra £960 million in the first year—and there will be a 2.3 per cent. real-terms rise in specific grants from the Department of Health to help us to cope with some of the demographic changes. I do not deny that it is a tight settlement and it is tough for local authorities, and I want to move to implementation of the formula as quickly as we can, but balanced with the stability that I talked about previously.

In arriving at the local government settlement, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that although the damping mechanism was designed to slow the rate of change from the old formula to the new formula, some of us now believe that the rate of change has come to a complete stop and has prevented movement to the new formula? Will she also bear it in mind that the Government are giving grant to wealthy local authorities that are able to reduce their council tax, while areas such as mine are paying excessive amounts?

Yes, I am very conscious of all these issues, the importance of which is evident in the House from the number of Members who have spoken and the passion that they feel. The new formula is based on better and more up-to-date evidence than the old formula, with pretty extensive surveys as well. I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration at the slow pace of change towards its implementation, but we have to consider the matter in terms of the local government settlement as a whole. There will not be much longer to wait before we see exactly what that settlement looks like. I am very conscious of the genuine feelings on this issue in the House.

Household Rubbish

6. What discussions her Department has had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on charges for the collection of household rubbish. (168026)

My Department has kept in close touch with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs during the development of its proposals for waste incentives.

The Minister will know that large families are likely to produce the most household waste, and are least likely to be able to afford additional charges. Already, three out of four fly-tips are household waste, and this policy is likely to make that problem worse. Will he join me in congratulating the London borough of Havering, which has decided not to make any additional charges for waste collection, and will he recommend its decision to other local authorities?

I say to the hon. Lady, as I do to other Members, that it is up to local authorities whether they want to be among the five pilots. Before we roll out the pilots, we have to ensure that there are strong strategies in place to prevent fly-tipping, and we will do that. This process is being led by the Conservative-led Local Government Association, which is keen on incentive schemes. We need to get behind the idea because it could make a real difference to the reduction of household waste. If authorities want to leave out certain groups, such as disabled people, pensioners or family groups, it is their right to do so. We are talking about pilots, after all.

My hon. Friend will realise that we all pay for household collection through the council tax. Does he recognise that improving recycling is one the main contributory factors to reducing household waste? Will he re-emphasise that and send out one of his circulars to each council saying that it is up to them to decide their policies, and not this Government?[Official Report, 6 December 2007, Vol. 468, c. 7MC.]

We want to work with local authorities and, as I say, it is up to them if they want to be among the five pilots. The mood that we sense among local authorities is that this process is a positive way of reducing waste, increasing recycling and having more money to return as rebate. This will not be a profit-making exercise. Any savings made have to be paid back to the electorate through a rebate.

The Minister will know that council tax has increased substantially in recent years, and that in those areas that have introduced two-weekly collections, an additional problem has occurred because of vermin. Will he accept that if charges are made for the collection of refuse, there should be a reduction in the council tax?

In some cases, it is the right of local authorities to ensure through such incentive schemes that there is no additional charge at all, but an incentive to produce less waste. That could be done through smaller bins, or in other ways. The hon. Gentleman talks about non-weekly collection. He will be aware that in many cases, it is not just a question of fewer weekly collections, but of more collections of other types of waste, which is important, and of more recycling taking place during those fortnightly periods.

Would not many local authorities like the opportunity to experiment with variable charges? Provided that the pilots are cost-neutral, should we not be backing them?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has concerns about this; I read about them in the Sunday Express this weekend. He said

“Submissions from the Environment Agency warned: ‘We are concerned that the proposals may lead to increases in fly-tipping of household waste’”.

If the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned about increases in fly-tipping, as he said in the Sunday Express, perhaps he should have supported the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which introduced stiffer fines for people who fly-tip, five-year prison sentences for those who are caught and tougher enforcement. If he is talking about catching such people, more of them are being caught than before.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary can explain how the policy is a positive one to reduce waste when his experts and advisers suggest that it will increase fly-tipping by 155,000 tonnes a year on top of the 186 per cent. increase over which the Government have presided in the past three years. Are the pilots to be kamikazes?

I shall be nice and charitable to the hon. Gentleman, because I find him amusing. However, he is wrong. Let us consider examples in other parts of the world. We have not taken such an approach yet, which is why the Conservative-led Local Government Association wants to try it. In the United States, where waste incentives have been introduced, fewer instances of fly-tipping have occurred in many areas because people are taking a greater interest in recycling.

Local Government Finance

7. What representations she has received on the council tax in Croydon and England in the last 12 months. (168027)

The Department for Communities and Local Government does not hold a record of representations received on council tax in Croydon and England in the last 12 months.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the council tax payers of Croydon have to subsidise national services such as education and social services to the tune of £450 per household, when the figure for the council in the constituency of the Minister for Local Government is £110, yet the levels of deprivation are similar?

In the past 10 years, Croydon has received an average 4 per cent. increase in formula grant every year. That contrasts markedly with the 7 per cent. cut in the last four years of the Tory Government. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that his constituents are much better off under this Government’s formula than under that of the previous Government.

How out of date does the Secretary of State think that council tax valuations will be by the time she gets around to revaluing or, better still, scrapping the council tax altogether?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has an unpopular policy for local income tax, which will make hard-working families much worse off. We have no plans for revaluation. Michael Lyons said in his report that the council tax was not broken, that it was basically a good tax and a property tax from which people could not hide. That is why the collection rate is 96 per cent. and more. It is the best way for us to proceed.

Housing and Planning Powers

8. What her expected timetable is for the transfer of housing and planning powers from regional assemblies to regional development agencies. (168028)

The changes need primary legislation and we will set out further details for consultation in the new year. That will include more information about the timetable and more details about the way in which the new arrangements need to work, including the role for local authorities.

Is it not the case that whereas Conservative Members trust local people, Ministers appear to think of them as no more than a nuisance? That view was demonstrated by the decision to transfer housing and planning powers from one distant and unaccountable regional quango to another rather than returning them to local communities, as they should be.

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. The purpose of the changes is to bring together for the first time a regional approach to economic development with an approach to planning, housing and other aspects that need to be dealt with across local authority boundaries and that cover issues that go wider than an individual local authority. It is right to examine those matters at regional level and to ensure that they are better co-ordinated than they have been in the past.

Is not my right hon. Friend concerned that she may concentrate too much power in what are essentially unelected regional development agencies? For example, Tom Riordan, chief executive of Yorkshire Forward, is a fine chap, but the policy risks making him the commissar of Yorkshire. Should not he be more accountable to local government through bodies such as Leeds City Region or perhaps accountable to a regional Select Committee?

My hon. Friend is right that accountability matters. That is why we have said that we want local councils to sign off the economic strategy. We want a stronger role for local councils in the economic development of their regions than they have previously played. That is important. It is also important to emphasise that regional assemblies have always drawn on the housing and planning expertise of local councils. That needs to continue, and we will be clear that it must be part of the new arrangements that we will set out in the new year.

Why does the Minister persist in ignoring the strong view of the overwhelming majority of people in the south-east that the development agency and the regional assembly should be abolished and that there should be democratic accountability for the planning powers? Will she give us a referendum if she does not believe me?

Sadly, the reason the views of the regional assembly and regional development agency are disputed in the south-east, certainly by Conservative councils there, is that they want to cut house building in the region. That is a tragic thing for local councils in the south-east to want to do, given the overwhelming need for more housing throughout the region and the number of first-time buyers who are desperately in need of more support.

Warehouse Fires

9. What recent discussions she has had on changing building regulations to reduce the risk of warehouse fires. (168030)

In December 2006, my Department concluded a review of all the fire safety aspects of the building regulations, including those in respect of warehouses. A number of changes were made, following extensive research and public consultation. Those changes came into force in April.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, and I know that he takes such matters seriously. I first raised the fire safety aspects of warehouses in 2002, since when we have had another warehouse fire, with tragic loss of life. As warehouses are still regarded as great fire risks, will he undertake to consult chief fire officers in England on what further changes can be made to make these buildings safer?

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s first-class campaigning skills in that regard, particularly following a warehouse fire in her constituency? She has had an Adjournment debate on the issue and has also raised a series of parliamentary questions. In response to her specific point, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is in charge of the fire service, has already held meetings on the issue and will continue to do so.

Will the Government look again at whether criminal liability should fall on directors of companies, whether small or large, in relation to health and safety issues in the workplace?

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that there is already legislation on that. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which applies to new and existing non-domestic buildings, already requires that a notified responsible person for a premises should carry out a risk assessment and take necessary fire precautions to ensure the safety of the occupancy of the building.

Housing (North-East)

The regional spatial strategy for the north-east, which is under review, is proposing significant increases in housing provision in the north-east over the next 10 years. We have also increased the regional housing pot for the north-east from £80 million this year to £100 million a year by 2010.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Has she received a growth point funding bid from Tees Valley Living and Tees Valley Partnership? The bid is designed to ensure that all communities in Tees valley benefit from the growth potential in the local economy. Will she take that study seriously and consider using it as a formal model for future housing policy?

I shall certainly consider closely the proposal that has been made. We welcome proposals for new growth points from the north-east. It is right that we should recognise the pressures on affordable housing across the north and in the north-east in particular. That is why we have welcomed proposals from the north-east for new growth points, which will build stronger communities as well as deliver additional homes.

As the Minister is aware, a few years ago Sunderland city council transferred its housing stock to Gentoo Sunderland, formerly Sunderland Housing Group. Gentoo is in the process of renovating and renewing that housing stock. Would she be willing to accept my invitation to visit Sunderland and discuss how the Government’s commitment to building 3 million new homes will dovetail in with the work already being done in Sunderland?

I am certainly happy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is important that we see the investment in improving existing homes, as well as in delivering the new homes that people need for the future.

Local Government Finance

11. What additional funding has been allocated for infrastructure to local government within the south midlands and Milton Keynes spatial expansion area in each of the next five years. (168032)

Since 2003, Milton Keynes-south midlands has received around £223 million from the growth areas fund and £96 million from the community infrastructure fund, to support infrastructure to back new housing in the area. We shall shortly set out the next phase of funding, as part of major infrastructure investment over the next few years.

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. Given that 52,000 new homes are to be built in north Northamptonshire over the next few years, 30 per cent. of which will be for migrant workers, and that no infrastructure programmes are being planned, will she come to my constituency and explain to the protest groups why no such infrastructure plans exist for Wellingborough as part of the growth strategy?[Official Report, 6 December 2007, Vol. 468, c. 7MC.]

We have put substantial investment into infrastructure and we are going further. We have set out proposals for £1.9 billion of additional infrastructure investment over the next three years from our Department alone. That is in addition to the investment from the Department for Transport and so on. Also, we are today publishing the Planning Reform Bill, which includes proposals for a community infrastructure levy. I would encourage people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to look properly at that and at other ways of raising additional infrastructure funding for his area.

Topical Questions

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.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that you can help us with the interpretation of Standing Order No. 24A on topical debates. On Thursday, the Leader of the House said that she was delaying the announcement of the subject of this week’s debate

“in order to ensure hot topicality”.—[Official Report, 22 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 1347.]

How can her chosen subject of apprenticeships, which was announced yesterday evening, meet the criterion of topicality better than illegal donations to the Labour party and Ministers? How can the Leader of the House be seen to be acting objectively in deciding on what is topical when tonight’s Evening Standard makes it clear that she may have a direct personal interest in this?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am interested in this House and the use of topical debates. Is it not important that the House has meaningful involvement in the decision on what topical debate should take place? To leave this just to exchanges across the House is not good enough. Why will the Leader of the House not consult the shadow Leader of the House and minority parties on what truly constitutes a topical debate?

The Standing Order clearly states that this is a matter for the Leader of the House. Whether the Leader of the House consults others is a matter for her to decide; it is not a matter for me. In answer to the hon. Gentlemen, I can say that the Standing Orders, which are the rules that the House has given me, have said that this is a choice of the Leader of the House.

Order. It is not further to that point of order, because I have explained the situation. There can be no more points of order on that matter.

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot pursue this matter. I have given a ruling on it. If he is going to open up on it again, he will be given the same ruling. He is drawing the Chair into an argument, and that is unfair.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that two weeks ago, during Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the Prime Minister a question about a man who appears on the United Nations list of those belonging to or associated with al-Qaeda yet who is being considered for indefinite leave to remain. I received a written answer from the Prime Minister, as he promised, 12 days later. It simply suggests that I take up the matter with the Minister for Borders and Immigration. How can you ensure that when the Prime Minister says he will give an answer in writing, he does so promptly and that he answers the question?

In actual fact, the Prime Minister gave the hon. Gentleman an answer. He said that a Minister is responsible for immigration, and it is up to the hon. Gentleman to take the matter up with that Minister. My strong advice is to do so and to say to that Minister, “The Prime Minister told me to come to see you.” That is the way to do it.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to draw you into the discussion about topical debates, but could you advise us on the best way to make the Leader of the House’s decision transparent, so that all may see how she comes to her decision on the subject for the debate on a Thursday afternoon?

Every week, the Leader of the House comes here for business questions, and the hon. Gentleman can put such matters directly to her. That would be his best approach.

BILL PRESENTED

Planning

Secretary Hazel Blears, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Hilary Benn, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Secretary Ruth Kelly, Yvette Cooper and John Healey, presented a Bill to establish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and make provision about its functions; to make provision about, and about matters ancillary to, the authorisation of projects for the development of nationally significant infrastructure; to make provision about town and country planning; to make provision about the imposition of a Community Infrastructure Levy; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on 28 November, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 11].

Orders of the Day

Housing and Regeneration Bill

[Relevant documents: The Third Report of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 703, on Affordability and the Supply of Housing, the Government’s response thereto, Cm6912, and the uncorrected transcript of evidence taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee from the Minister for Housing on Tuesday 9th October 2007, on the Housing Green Paper, HC 1038-i.]

Order for Second Reading read.

I have to inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will help to turn our ambitions for 3 million new homes by 2020 into a reality. Those homes are desperately needed by first-time buyers, families on council waiting lists and those who are frustrated by the lack of sufficient affordable homes. The Bill is not simply about building more homes; it is about building better homes, underpinning the new timetable for all homes to be zero-carbon and building stronger communities by better linking housing and regeneration. The Bill is also about delivering a better deal for tenants in social housing, giving them greater choice and a stronger voice in decisions on how their homes are managed.

We know that housing is a central concern for families across the country and it is a central priority for this Government.

I made the point in Question Time earlier that never before has Chorley had people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but it is happening now because of the lack of rented accommodation in what is a wealthy constituency. The problem continues to grow because the local authority is failing to make provision. What can the Minister do to ensure that it will not happen in the future?

My hon. Friend is right. This is a serious and urgent issue for those families who do not have adequate homes and it affects every aspect of their lives—their children do not have enough space to do their homework, among other problems. That is why we have to build more homes, including more affordable homes. We must increase investment in social housing as part of that programme, and we want the Bill to make it possible to deliver those homes faster and more effectively.

Will the Minister confirm that in 10 years of Labour Governments only 5,000 council houses have been built? How many council houses will be built as a result of the Bill?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the majority of the investment through the Housing Corporation in new social housing goes through housing associations, which are able to borrow independently and lever more resources into new homes. That is why 30,000 new social homes will be built this year. We have said that that needs to increase to 45,000 over the next three years as part of the investment that we are putting in. We also want to make it easier for councils to build council homes, as well as housing associations building homes, and the Bill includes measures to achieve that. Of course, councils will need to make bids and be assessed by the Housing Corporation. We want to make it easier for them to do that and that is why we are making changes.

Over the period of the planned 3 million homes, what is the Government’s forecast of how many additional people will come from overseas to live here?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Office for National Statistics forecasts the growth in population. The population is also ageing and more people live alone, so demographic change is also occurring. Some two thirds of the increase in households will occur because more people will live alone, including many older people. We have to address many kinds of demographic pressure, and that is why we need to build more homes.

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. May I help her to help the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? He needs more houses in his area, and the Co-op owns—

I am speaking to the Minister, not the hon. Lady. In my constituency, the Co-op owns about 5,000 acres of farmland on which it wishes to build up to 20,000 homes. The settlement is called an eco-town, but it will not be environmentally friendly. Unemployment in my constituency is 1 per cent., and although we welcome activity we do not need new jobs to be created in our area. The jobs to go with the eco-town will be imported, just like the houses. It seems to me that it would be better to place them near the Co-op headquarters, in Chorley.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is lucky not to need additional jobs in his area but, given the pressures on affordable housing right across the country, I would question whether people there do not need more homes. He will know that I cannot comment on individual proposals for eco-towns, but we welcome the fact that 50 proposals have been made for such new towns. Although some are not appropriate or acceptable, we will say more about the ones that are in the new year.

I need to make some progress, but I will take a couple more interventions, first from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and then from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. New council houses are desperately needed all over London, but will she assure me that any council tenancies granted under the new scheme will be the same as existing agreements? It is not a question of social rent; the new tenancies must last for a lifetime, just as they do at present. Will she guarantee that there will be no change in the current arrangements?

The Bill allows councils to offer council tenancies. We need that change in the legislation; otherwise councils might not have been able to offer council tenancies for the homes that they have built. We believe secure tenancies to be extremely important, and that is why we propose some of the changes in the Bill. We also want to encourage the building of more affordable social and shared-ownership housing to meet the needs of people in all sorts of circumstances.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. The Meden valley “Making Places” scheme in the Bolsover and Mansfield area has led to 300 or 400 colliery houses being saved. Without that wonderful scheme, the region would have been facing an even bigger problem than it does already, so can it be extended to some of the other coalfield areas? We have already discovered one nimby on the Opposition Benches who does not want any council houses in his area but there are lots of potential clients on this side of the House, so will she give us first option?

My hon. Friend is right. My constituency is also a coalfield area, and we support the building of more homes on the former pit sites. Regeneration can be achieved through housing as well as through jobs, and we are putting investment into existing homes as well as into new ones. Many Opposition Members think that the north is a low-demand region, but that is a mistake. Many parts of the north face serious pressures when it comes to affordable housing. We need to build more homes in those areas, as well as in the south.

Some Opposition Members are so desperate to get in that I cannot resist taking their interventions. I give way first to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard).

I thank the Minister for giving way. I have an important question, and am certainly desperate for an answer. Over the next few weeks and months, the Minister will be reflecting on housing need across the nation, but will she also think about the needs of our armed forces in that respect? Is she aware that many British forces personnel posted overseas are unable to get mortgages from UK companies for homes in the UK? They are fighting for our freedoms in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the Council of Mortgage Lenders and its friends are not interested in lending them money. That has encouraged many of those personnel to be less than candid about whether they have an existing residence in the UK. Will the right hon. Lady give the House a commitment that she will meet Defence Ministers to deal with this very serious problem?

The Bill already makes changes that will support those who leave the armed services so that they can be properly treated if they need homelessness assistance or if they are waiting for social housing. We want to do more to help those in or leaving the armed forces to be able to buy affordable housing and shared-ownership housing, and we are already working with the Ministry of Defence on that issue. I am obviously happy to look into the matter further.

I am worried that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will topple over the Bench, so I will take his intervention first. I will take four more interventions, but then I must make some progress.

I am grateful to the Minister of State both for her generosity and for her concern for my physical health.

The draft south-east plan presented to the Government in March 2006 proposed the creation of 28,900 new homes per year. I do not sniff at that—there is a need for new housing—but the plan added the rider that the creation of new homes should be closely related to the availability of infrastructure and associated services. Now that the Government’s panel of planning inspectors has said that it does not accept that new home levels should be contingent on infrastructure, I eagerly anticipate discovering on which side of the argument the Minister falls.[Official Report, 6 December 2007, Vol. 468, c. 8MC.]

The hon. Gentleman knows that I obviously cannot comment on the details of the south-east plan, which is still going through the planning process. However, he will be aware of my frequently stated view that at a time when we face growing pressure from first-time buyers and rising demand for new housing the South East England regional assembly’s proposal to cut the level of new housing in the south-east is bonkers. It is not an appropriate position for that regional assembly to have adopted. We need more housing, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need more investment in infrastructure. From my Department alone, we set out proposals to increase the level of infrastructure to £1.9 billion over the next few years; there are proposals from other Departments, too. Today, as part of the Planning Bill, we published details of the community infrastructure levy that will allow local councils to raise additional resources for local infrastructure. I urge the hon. Gentleman and his party to support that proposal so that we have the parks and play areas as well as the new transport systems we need to support new homes for the future.

What provision does the Bill make for housing options for groups of people with specific needs, such as those who experience mental illness or who have suffered spinal injuries?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the supporting people budget has substantially increased the amount of provision for people who need extra help with their housing, such as those with mental health problems, homelessness difficulties or care needs. We want and expect the Homes and Communities Agency to continue the work of the Housing Corporation in funding, where appropriate, particular dedicated types of housing and support.

My right hon. Friend is talking about the building of houses for rent, particularly for the low-paid. Will she ensure that those houses are eco-friendly, and can she tell us something about the eco-friendly villages that could be created to improve the environment?

My hon. Friend is right. We must not simply build more homes, but build better homes. That includes cutting carbon emissions from new homes. We have set the most ambitious target of any country in the world—that all new homes should be zero-carbon by 2016. Before that, we want proposals for eco-towns and smaller developments that will reach much higher environmental standards right across the development, not only for the homes but also for the pubs, clubs and schools—even eco-offices.

I will give way to my right hon. Friend but then, if Members will allow me, I shall make a bit of progress before taking further interventions.

I am grateful to the Minister; she has been generous.

I warmly welcome the Bill, but how does my right hon. Friend see its provisions and the work of the new agency tackling a pressing problem in my area and a number of others—to bring more quickly into use sites that could be suitable for social housing but are blocked at present, not least by some Opposition Members?

My right hon. Friend is right: critical to delivering additional homes is the bringing into use of appropriate land for new affordable and market homes. The new planning rules and changes to the local framework will achieve that, but in addition we want more public sector land—rapidly—so that we can build more homes on it. The whole point about the Homes and Communities Agency is that it will bring together for the first time public sector land and public sector investment in housing; and bringing those two things together will give us a huge opportunity to accelerate the delivery of new homes on public sector land—to build the homes that families across the country badly need and to give them a secure place they can call their own home for the future.

I have taken several interventions and I will happily take more later on, but I hope that Members will allow me to make a little progress for now.

Since 1997, we have made important progress in improving existing homes, with investment in the decent homes programme. Investment of more than £20 billion has helped more than 1 million children out of cold, damp and poor housing, transforming their lives as a result. We have seen a drop in the number of people sleeping rough on the streets, and we have also seen low mortgage rates and long-term economic stability help more than 1 million more people into home ownership.

We have an ageing and growing population and we have more people living alone, and for more than a generation this country has simply not built enough homes to keep up with demand. We need more market housing, more social housing and more shared-ownership housing. Young families can face the greatest pressures. Many of them struggle to take their first step on the housing ladder, with 40 per cent. of first-time buyers now having to rely on their family and friends to raise a deposit, which is simply unfair, and hundreds of thousands of families are on the waiting list for social housing. We owe it to them to do more.

House building has increased substantially over the past few years. More land is being identified for homes, but we need to do more. The Prime Minister has said that by 2016 this country must be building 240,000 new homes per year—2 million homes by 2016 and 3 million more by 2020. This is not just about building more homes, however; those homes must also be more sustainable and in strong communities. The housing Green Paper published in July set out a wide range of measures to support more and better homes, ranging from new eco-towns to better use of public sector land. The Bill is crucial to helping us deliver that vision.

Delivering the homes we need depends on the house builders and the private market, and on housing associations and their investment decisions. However, as we set out in the Green Paper, it also critically depends on local councils, through their planning decisions, through allocating land for housing, through use of their own land—for example, through local housing companies—through their assessment of housing need, through their promotion of affordable housing and through their ability to promote higher standards.

Councils cannot do that alone, however. Often they need help with funding, with land and with expertise. That is why the Bill creates the new Homes and Communities Agency to provide that essential support and help us deliver those badly needed new homes. The agency will bring together the functions of English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. Therefore, responsibility for public sector land and public sector investment will be brought together properly for the first time. We are putting unprecedented levels of new investment into affordable housing—£8 billion over the next three years—but we have to make sure that we get the best possible results for that affordable housing.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I think that the whole House welcomes the proposals. On the subject of trying to build eco-towns and sustainable low-carbon footprint homes, and given the debate that is currently under way in the other place on climate change, as this Bill progresses will my right hon. Friend consider whether there should be a duty on the new agency to incorporate and have regard to sustainable development? In the past, we set up the regional development agencies without a specific duty, but it is not enough just to say that they “may” have regard to sustainable development. Will she consider them having to have regard to that?

Clearly, the Homes and Communities Agency has to operate within the framework of the planning system, and, as my hon. Friend may be aware, we will shortly set out a new planning policy statement on planning for climate change and how we can better work for new development to cut carbon emissions. The Homes and Communities Agency must work within that framework, and the Housing Corporation, one of the component parts of the new agency, is already promoting higher standards in new social housing than is currently expected in the private sector market. Therefore, it is already leading the way in cutting carbon emissions, but we are certainly keen on looking at what more we can do.

On affordability, the typical starter home in my constituency costs between £80,000 and £100,000. That is beyond the means of many young people in Bury, North. The Opposition want to cut stamp duty on homes worth £250,000. What is the best way of helping young families in my constituency: increasing the supply of homes they can afford or cutting taxes on homes they could never afford?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. If one simply cuts stamp duty and does not build more homes, at a time when supply is limited all that happens is that prices go up, and home buyers are no better off. It is important that we recognise the real pressures that people face. That is why building more shared-ownership homes offers a huge opportunity. We are funding 25,000 more shared-ownership homes through the Housing Corporation next year, but we want to go further—through local housing companies and other programmes.

Since his election, the Mayor of London has hugely increased the supply of affordable housing—by 10,000 additional units a year. However, the Bill does not specifically require the Homes and Communities Agency to work with the Mayor on the delivery of affordable homes. I am sure that that is an omission of no great significance, but will the Minister ensure that the Homes and Communities Agency works with successful deliverers of affordable housing, such as the Mayor of London?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She will know that the Housing Corporation is tasked to deliver the Mayor’s affordable housing strategy in London and we certainly envisage the Homes and Communities Agency being able to do the same thing. We would expect it to support the Mayor in his strong promotion of affordable housing and his target that 50 per cent. of homes put through the planning system should be affordable. I notice that the Opposition’s mayoral candidate, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), has rejected that target. That is a sad indictment of his lack of commitment to affordable housing in the capital.

I am enthused by the idea that the Government are going to give more help to local authorities, perhaps to build more council houses. However, does the Minister have any plans to alter the legislation on the housing revenue account subsidy? Over the next 10 years, my city of Portsmouth will lose £100 million, which will go elsewhere, from rents paid by council tenants in the city, just because we have looked after our houses better than other local authorities. If she is genuine about wanting to help local authorities, changing or abolishing that system alone would go a long way to help.

The hon. Gentleman may want to look more carefully at the Bill, because it includes proposals to make it possible for local councils to be taken outside the housing revenue account system—with support for pilots and the potential for greater reform to the housing revenue account system. The important principle that underlies the housing revenue account is the recognition that there are different needs in different parts of the country, and there were different historical funding arrangements. There is an important and fair principle of redistribution underpinning the housing revenue account. However, there are fundamental problems with it. It does not deliver the most effective long-term management of the housing stock by local councils. That is why we have said we want to set up the pilots—to look at what appropriate longer-term reforms could be made to the housing revenue account to deliver a fairer deal for every part of the country.

What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage local authorities to ensure that, when planning applications are being made for new build by the private sector, there is a large percentage—30 to 40 per cent.—of social housing? In my borough, that has not occurred on anywhere near that scale. The average wage in my constituency is just over £20,000. There is a desperate need for new affordable social housing. I hope that her Department will look into that.

My hon. Friend has made an important point and I will certainly look at what can be done to help local councils do more through the planning system.

I have taken a huge number of interventions and I really need to make some progress.

There are a series of important measures in the Bill, including the setting up of the Homes and Communities Agency, which I have described for hon. Members, and the new Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, which will have a statutory objective to protect the interests of tenants. Where landlords fail to meet standards, the regulator will have new powers to step in with fines and enforcement measures. There are measures to strengthen the voice of tenants in council homes, especially where stock transfers are being considered. The Bill makes possible a wider series of pilots and reforms to the housing revenue account, which is not the best framework for councils to use to manage their stock in the longer term.

I will not; I need to make some progress. I apologise to hon. Members.

The Bill sets out an important series of changes, and I urge Opposition Members to support its main purpose. They have said that they plan to oppose the Bill, and that is a matter of huge regret, given the important measures that it introduces. We would welcome political consensus on the amount of housing needed. After all, in the 1966 election, all three major parties ran on the same pledge to build 300,000 homes a year. I ask Opposition parties to join us now in a commitment to building 240,000 homes a year from 2016, and to join us in making a commitment that they should all be zero-carbon. Some 170 organisations across the country have done so already, ranging from house builders to green groups, from councils to housing charities, from the CBI to the TUC.

I ask Opposition parties to join us in backing 240,000 zero-carbon homes a year. If they think that that is the wrong figure, they should tell us how many homes they think the country needs. Let us have a debate about it. The national housing and planning advice unit has said that the number should be 270,000; there are different views on the subject. How many homes do Opposition Members think that the country needs—or are they just afraid to admit that they want to cut new housing and betray first-time buyers who need more homes?

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—the predecessor of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps)—said that 200,000 homes were not enough, and he was right—we need 240,000. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) told Inside Housing that the Conservative priority would be

“housing numbers, housing numbers, housing numbers”.

Fine, but which ones? A person cannot be serious about housing needs for the nation if they have no view on how many homes the nation needs. Hon. Members need to set out what they think the needs of the nation are.

It is simply not enough to hide behind local councils and what they want, because many councils now back more housing. Large numbers of councils are coming forward to be growth points, and to support proposals for eco-towns and local housing companies. They are coming forward because they want to work with the Government and—once it is set up—with the Homes and Communities Agency that Opposition Members oppose.

What about the key Conservative local councils that should be supporting more homes? We know that councils across the south-east argue for a cut in the level of house building, but the problem is not simply in the south-east. Let them travel with me to Yorkshire and listen to the Yorkshire Conservative leaders. A Tory leader in Leeds has said that regional housing figures are “unsustainable and unattainable”. The Tory leader in Kirklees went further:

“Building the number of houses they’re talking about is, for the vast majority of councils in this region, totally impossible… We haven’t got the ambition and we don’t see the need yet to build more and more houses.”

That is in Yorkshire, a region with large amounts of brownfield land, house prices that have shot through the roof, and house building rates that have simply not kept up with the number of new households forming each year.

Let me be clear that I do not criticise those councils for opposing or turning down bad developments—they should; that is their job. There are still too many dreadful developments that should not get the go-ahead. There are some stupid proposals in unsustainable locations that should be turned down. I do not criticise them or Opposition Members for opposing inappropriate developments, but I do criticise Opposition Members for opposing overall increases in housing, and for arguing for overall cuts to housing, as they have repeatedly done.

I have often teased the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield for his “No Way to 10k” campaign—the temptation is just too great—but I would not criticise him if he simply opposed the odd block of flats or the odd floodplain development. However, I do criticise him for trying to cut the overall number of homes being built across the country. His attitude is epitomised in a phrase that he used just a few months ago, when he said:

“Much as we all disliked the Regional Assembly, it did at least put up some resistance to the Government’s plans to build tens of thousands of new houses”.

That is what the hon. Gentleman wants to do—fight plans for tens of thousands of new homes. That is a betrayal of tens of thousands of first-time buyers and the abandonment of tens of thousands of families waiting on council lists or in overcrowded accommodation. It is not fair on those families to try to block all those new homes.

I ask Opposition Members even now to reconsider and back our plans for 240,000 new homes and for a big increase in affordable housing. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he will back those additional homes and the additional investment that we want to put into building affordable homes.

May I explain to the Minister that in my area both of my Conservative local councils are meeting their targets and building the houses? It is not the numbers that concern them, but the location. They are deeply concerned when they see, at an inquiry about a waste incinerator, a gentleman by the name of David Mellor looking at an area like Wisley, on the edge of the greenbelt, where the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden is located. David Mellor is fronting an organisation that has bought a lot of that land with the wish to put an incinerator on it and an eco-town around it. What is curious is that he seems to have some inside information very early. Perhaps the Minister might look over her shoulder.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot comment on individual planning applications or on any proposals for eco-towns at this stage in the process. However, we need every council in every part of the country to recognise that they need to increase their ambitions for more homes. Faced with the growing need for affordable housing and for housing across the board, every region in the country needs additional housing.

Opposition Members should take the opportunity to change their position, back more homes and back the extra investment that we need. Let them pledge today to support this unprecedented level of investment in new social and shared-ownership housing. Let them back plans for £1.9 billion of investment in infrastructure, and back plans for a community infrastructure levy for councils to raise the additional cash, as we have set out in the Bill. I urge them to pledge today that they would not cut that additional funding.

Let Opposition Members reconsider and support the Bill that will help us deliver the extra homes in the long run. The central proposal to bring together public land and public housing money has been widely supported. The Local Government Association says that it supports the broad aims of the Bill. Shelter says that it supports the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency. A wide range of organisations involved in regeneration and housing across the country have supported the Bill. It is important that it links regeneration principles and the building of communities, as well as the building of more homes. It is also about helping us to deliver more affordable homes, get more bang for our bucks and support more homes overall.

Why on earth do Opposition Members want to vote against proposals that deliver a better deal for housing association tenants? Why on earth do they want to vote against plans that will help tenants who are not getting their repairs done? Why do they want to vote against a Bill that gives Army veterans fair access to social housing or to homelessness assistance? Why do they want to vote against a Bill that gives councils a greater ability to deal with antisocial behaviour? Why do they oppose a Bill that will help this country to build the affordable homes that it badly needs? Why on earth do they want to oppose the Bill? For the sake of first-time buyers in the future, for the sake of families waiting on council waiting lists, for the sake of all those in need of more, better and more sustainable housing, the Labour Government are introducing the Bill today, and I urge the whole House to support it.

I beg to move,

To leave out from “That” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof; this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Housing and Regeneration Bill because it creates a top-down, centrally-driven approach to development and regeneration, allows the unaccountable Homes and Communities Agency, in conjunction with the unelected regional development agencies, to ride roughshod over local communities, takes further powers away from democratically-elected local authorities and places them in the hands of politically-appointed Homes and Communities Agency officials, does not extend to social tenants proper rights to buy or part-buy their homes, fails to address the growing problems with the Housing Market Renewal and Thames Gateway regeneration schemes and provides insufficient measures to promote genuine brownfield regeneration, choice for social tenants, wider home ownership and the raising of environmental standards in house building.

At 169 pages and 280 clauses with 10 schedules, the Bill is particularly large. The fact that the explanatory notes stretch to 121 pages suggests that it is probably also overly complex. What does the Bill say? One of the first things it tells us is that the Housing Minister intends to merge the Housing Corporation with English Partnerships to form the new Homes and Communities Agency.

After the Government spent £167 billion on quangos in the past year alone, perhaps the Minister has finally realised that getting rid of a quango would be a good thing to do. But does she not realise that more bureaucracy will not equal more homes? Sadly, if one wades through the Bill to page 36, one discovers that the Government could not help themselves. Clause 80 creates a brand-new quango, the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords, which, I am reliably informed, will be called Oftenant. The Bill is a classic piece of new Labour draftsmanship—it deletes two quangos but then sets up two more.

The aims of the Homes and Communities Agency are laudable enough, but the Government have misjudged our housing challenge by creating a bulging piece of legislation that simply replicates the failed measures of the past. They are introducing a top-down, Whitehall-driven, centrally controlled, big-Government-know-best approach, while local people and their communities are having their powers stripped away.

Has the hon. Gentleman read the Cave report, which recommends the creation of an independent, domain-wide regulator? Does he agree with that recommendation, and if not, why not?

As I was explaining to the House, the problem is not the Housing and Regeneration Bill. The problem is that the Bill sets up two quangos, so we will return to having two quangos administering housing issues. To understand the Bill’s shortcomings, one must appreciate the Government’s dismal record on housing. The Government lecture about social justice, but when it comes to housing, they have decreased social mobility. When Labour came to power, the average home cost three and a half times average earnings; now in parts of this country, it is 10 times earnings, and in other parts of the country, it is 20 times local earnings.

I will come on to that in just a moment, if the hon. Lady is patient. I want to tell her about the Prime Minister’s huge hikes in stamp duty, which have prevented people from buying homes. The lack of affordability means that fewer people can get on to the housing ladder, because the first rung has been cut away.

As house prices have hit unaffordable levels, a truly massive transfer of wealth has taken place in this country from young people to older people, and home ownership is falling for the first time since records began. Most embarrassingly for the Minister, less social housing has been built every single year under this Labour Government than in any year under the Thatcher and Major Governments. Perhaps that is why clauses 67 to 69 sneakily redefine social housing to include affordable housing. At the stroke of a pen, the Government will be able to claim the provision of hundreds of thousands more social housing units without building a thing. What a load of spin! When will the Minister understand that people want homes not headlines?

When the Government have intervened to try to achieve more, they have failed. For example, they introduced the social homebuy scheme in 2006, but they have recently been forced to admit that they have managed to sell just 88 homes. Most tellingly, they have consistently failed to meet their own home-buying targets. When the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and others discuss targets, it is worth considering that the Government cannot meet their own targets. Under the Thatcher and Major Governments, we averaged 173,000 units a year; this Government have managed 145,000.

Just so we know whether we need to remind him, will the hon. Gentleman let us know when he will answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)?

When will this Government actually meet a target that they have set? They have tried targets in health care; they have tried targets in education; and they have tried targets in policing. For some reason, those targets have not worked, but they believe that they can set targets on housing and achieve them, although all the evidence—they are supposed to build 200,000 homes a year—demonstrates that they cannot do so. They are not even meeting those targets. People cannot live in targets. They need homes and that is what we would provide. The Government have a dismal record of failure on housing, and the Bill simply repeats exactly the same mistakes. Instead of constructing an overarching new agency with immense powers and a massive budget, ready to steamroller over local democracy, a more enlightened approach is required.

What should the Bill look like? It should be used to foster co-operation between local communities and central Government. The Minister needs to understand that not much is achieved by branding anybody with any kind of legitimate concern a nimby. We need to incentivise local communities and to ensure that new housing will benefit them and their families. An existing population should reap the rewards of housing projections based on a larger population. If that were done intelligently, by linking house building to population growth, it might safeguard local hospitals such as the one in my constituency. Infrastructure must be guaranteed and, where possible, lead development.

Sadly, the Bill will achieve none of that. Power will flow from the centre and democratic control will flow away from our communities. The Minister has ensured that the staff of the new agency will be able to enter someone’s home to make a valuation for compulsory purchase with just 28 days’ notice, yet obtaining a home information pack to sell a house can take longer than that. Southern Water recently admitted problems in supplying a search for a HIP within 60 days. Under the Bill, the Minister will have powers to buy someone’s home faster than that person can sell it. Incidentally, I commend her on her embarrassing U-turn last week, when she extended the period for HIPs first-day marketing so that the exemption will last for another six months. Perhaps if she had listened to us earlier she would not be red-faced now. No apology whatsoever has been offered for the turmoil and chaos that all this has caused in the marketplace.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this debate is not about HIPs, his local hospital or Thames Water, but is a serious debate about housing supply? Will he therefore tell us what is his party’s policy on house building?

I have to inform the hon. Gentleman that it is a debate about the Housing and Regeneration Bill, so we are discussing its clauses. Let me tell him about them because a power-grab is going on. In clause 14, we discover that the HCA may seize powers to become the local planning authority at the Secretary of State’s whim. Later in the same clause, it may also assume responsibility to charge for hazardous waste. In clause 15, it may take powers to adopt streets. Clause 17 allows it to make traffic regulation orders. There is almost no limit to the remit of that power-grabbing new agency. Buried in schedule 3 there is even a provision for the HCA to seize graveyards and build on them. In clause 19, the HCA is granted powers to enter someone’s home. With just 28 days’ notice, it can survey it, value it, dig for minerals or even compulsorily purchase it. All those powers rest only on consultation with the Secretary of State, and everyone knows how discredited consultation has become in the past 10 years.

I have taken the opportunity to read the amendment, which makes no mention of homelessness—a major priority—or first-time buyers, who are in great difficulty throughout the country. Are we meant to take seriously an Opposition who are unaware of the major concerns related to housing?

Given the hon. Gentleman’s interest in homelessness, he will know that the week before last I issued my own report on rough-sleeping, which revealed that three times more people are sleeping rough on the streets each night than the 498 whom the Government want us to believe are doing so. We do not want to take lectures about rough-sleeping and homelessness from a Government who have hidden the figures, even though they are being collected by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

What the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) failed to note is the key point about local authorities. They are the key to regeneration and the Government have ridden roughshod over them with yet another quango. They are being deprived of money, and they are having their powers taken away. It is another nail in their coffin.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all know that local communities can deliver affordable homes, but the Minister sees local people as the problem, rather than the solution, so she calls anyone with any legitimate concern on unsuitable development a shocking nimby, unless they happen to sit on the Front Bench as one of her Cabinet colleagues.

I accept that the hon. Gentleman has some difficulty with being called a nimby. In order for us not to call him that any longer, can he tell us how many homes his party intends to build?

I am fascinated by the hon. Lady’s intervention. References have been made to my “No Way To 10k” campaign. I thought I would take the precaution of citing an excerpt from the website:

“While we do need homes for local people…we cannot build more than there is adequate space and infrastructure to support. 10,000 homes is too much.”

It also refers to supporting 6,000 homes. Not my own words, but those of the Labour parliamentary candidate in my constituency.

It is sad to hear the way in which the Government, and the Minister in particular, criticise councils that are doing the right thing—councils such as Wandsworth, Swindon, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Peterborough, Barnet and Hammersmith and Fulham, to name but a few, many of which are exceeding even the Government’s own targets.

What is sad is that my constituents support the need for more affordable housing, but feel increasingly alienated by the perception that their voices are not being heard in the planning process. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Minister was entirely silent during her contribution about how the new agency will work with democratically accountable local government, and entirely silent about how it w