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Communities and Local Government

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Violent Extremism

1. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the preventing violent extremism programme; and if she will make a statement. (178383)

Over the past nine months, through the pathfinder fund, we have supported more than 200 projects in 70 local authorities. During the course of this year we will carry out a formal evaluation of these projects, but so far it is already clear that more women and young people are involved in helping to build stronger and more resilient communities.

The Home Office has estimated that thousands of British Muslims in this country support both the means and the ends of various Islamic terror groups. Can the Minister give a solemn assurance to this House that not one single penny of the money that she has allocated under this scheme has gone to any individual or organisation with any links whatsoever to Islamic terrorism?

Let me first make it absolutely clear that the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims in this country abhor violence, abhor terrorism and do not support the tiny minority of people involved in violent extremism. The work that my Department is funding, and will be funding in a substantially greater way over the next three years, is directed at building the resilience and strength of local communities to resist that extremism. We will monitor very carefully indeed the groups to which this money is allocated, and I will certainly ensure that we fund groups who absolutely stand up and condemn terrorism and want to participate in tackling it.

When I go to the mosques in my constituency, the red carpet is rolled out, so to speak, and I am sure that the same applies to many other hon. Members. What happens there is that I meet imams and elders of the Muslim community, and perhaps that means that we are not engaging enough with younger members of the Muslim community. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that we open a dialogue with young men and young women from the Muslim community in order to ensure the success of the Government’s programme?

Yes, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am very grateful to hon. Members in all parts of the House who take this responsibility seriously in their constituencies and are involved in that dialogue. Part of the work of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which is the national organisation from the community itself that is looking at governance in mosques, concerns how we get more young people and women involved in the mosques; that will take us a considerable way forward.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks? I entirely agree that that is what is happening in Rochdale. Does she agree that a key priority needs to be ensuring that we have more imams who are trained and brought up in Rochdale—[Interruption] I mean brought up in Britain; in Rochdale would be even better—and what steps is she taking to assist in that development?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer, but I know that there are some extremely good imams in Rochdale. Irfan Chisti works very closely with our Department and makes a great contribution. I agree that we need to have more imams who are trained in this country and who have not only English language skills but community leadership skills. That is why we are funding a programme for imams. In Dudley in the west midlands, 23 imams are currently involved in a leadership development programme that will help them to really engage with Islam in the modern context of living in the 21st century in Britain.

The preventing violent extremism programme is clearly important, and I have seen some of the good work myself, including the work in Dudley to which the Secretary of State referred. However, she really must clear up the point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). In November, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), wrote to me about the programme, saying:

“The details we hold”—

that is, the Department—

“are…no longer a completely accurate reflection of all the work taking place at a local level.”

If the Department does not have fully accurate details, how can it be sure that none of the money—not a penny, as my hon. Friend said—is falling into the hands of separatists and extremists?

It is important that we monitor very carefully the way in which these funds are being used. At the same time, however, it is essential that local authorities see this as part of their core business and integrate it into their mainstream activities, because local authorities, whether they are in Luton, Leeds or Birmingham, know the situation on the ground and what can work. As the hon. Gentleman knows from our correspondence, we are currently considering all 200 projects. I am ensuring that information about all those projects and the work that is going on will be placed in the Library next week. Monitoring is absolutely essential. We must also allow local authorities to do the things that work in their local neighbourhoods.

London Development Agency/Mayor of London

2. If she will initiate a review of the governance of the London Development Agency and the arrangements for scrutiny of the activities of the Mayor of London's advisers. (178385)

The Government have no plans to review the governance of the London Development Agency or the legal basis for the scrutiny of the Mayor’s political advisers.

I am rather surprised by that answer. Will the Minister confirm that there is a code of conduct for the Mayor, assembly members and assembly staff, but no code at all for the Mayor’s political advisers? In light of the controversy over the role of Lee Jasper, who pressurised the LDA into giving grants to his pet organisations, will the Minister think about looking again at the legislation relating to this matter?

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s surprise. The Greater London authority and the LDA are subject to the same local government finance and audit framework, with the Audit Commission and the district auditor having external inspection and audit powers. He knows that the district auditor has been sent the LDA and GLA internal reviews and will be reviewing whether any further action is necessary.

The Mayor’s advisers report directly to the Mayor. The assembly can hold the Mayor to account for their actions, and it is also able to require their presence at meetings. Indeed, it has done so a number of times in public since 2000.

The Minister will know that I asked for the police to be brought in to investigate a number of projects in my area, and he will obviously not want to comment on those, but does he accept that there is growing concern about the cosiness of the relationship between the LDA, the GLA, the Mayor and the Mayor’s office? That could have led to the sort of problems, to put it mildly, that we have seen—the huge abuse of how money is spent. If it is found that there is a serious link between how the LDA has worked and the money that has been misspent, does he agree that the whole way in which the LDA operates will have to be looked at? We may have to go back to renewing legislation and changing the law.

My hon. Friend is right that it would not be right for me to comment on specific allegations, but I do not accept her description of what has gone on. As I have said, the district auditor will be reviewing whether any further action is required as a result of receiving the two internal reviews from the GLA and the LDA.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a letter from MPs of all three parties, calling for an urgent investigation by the local district auditor? In their words:

“The LDA can no longer be a credible investigator of these allegations.”

Will he confirm that he will take absolutely no further steps to protect the taxpayer in London and the United Kingdom from the wastefulness and cronyism that characterise the expenditure of the LDA?

The hon. Gentleman does not need to tell me because I read the Evening Standard last Friday, as he did. I also read the press release that he put out on that day. It is interesting that he was not on his feet talking about the LDA back in the summer when it delivered the land required for the Olympic park on time—the most complex and largest compulsory purchase order project for the past 20 years. That may have something to do with the elections in May. The fact is that the Mayor we have has been an outstanding leader for London. He has led part of the success of London in recent years, and only today London has won a prestigious international award for the congestion charge—something which the hon. Gentleman opposes.

I hope that the Minister will take time to read the LDA’s report, because the truth is that his washing of his hands is wholly unsatisfactory. Even that report, despite its clear inadequacies, acknowledges the need to review the role of mayoral advisers, based on the limited evidence that resulted in half the instances it investigated being referred to the police. The LDA was criticised in November over some 61 wholly separate grants. It was found that it had not demonstrated that it would get what it expected in return for the funding given, that it had not adequately monitored outcomes, and that it was unable to explain the criteria on which it had based some of its decisions. Government action is needed because the LDA is a serial offender in such matters; it has more form than the Kray brothers.

If the hon. Gentleman says that the scrutiny and holding to account of the LDA have been insufficient, he therefore also says that the operation and conduct of the Greater London assembly has fallen far short of what is required. He remains, of course, a member of that assembly.

Housing (Stoke-on-Trent)

The Department does not make assessments of the demand for council housing. However, we encourage local authorities to assess the housing needs of their area as part of their strategic housing role. Stoke-on-Trent city council is working on such an assessment with neighbouring authorities in the west midlands region’s north housing market area. I understand that it will be published in the spring.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. However, in Stoke-on-Trent, the numbers on the council housing waiting list have increased from 2,000 in 2003 to 8,000 today. I welcome the Government’s investment in affordable housing, shared ownership and social housing, but will my hon. Friend reconsider what he can do to help local authorities build new council houses, including through access to the social housing grant?

I agree that local authorities have a vital role to play in delivering more social housing. On my hon. Friend’s point about social housing grant, she may be interested to hear that we have changed the process for awarding the grant to make it easier for high-performing councils, through local authority companies or special venture vehicles, to qualify and compete for it. We are also examining the potential to increase the number of new council houses by allowing councils to operate outside the housing revenue account subsidy system. I hope that she will be encouraged by that answer.

Housing Revenue Account Subsidies

4. Whether she plans to change the system of negative housing revenue account subsidies; and if she will make a statement. (178388)

There is redistribution within the housing revenue account and I believe that that is right. However, reforms are needed to the housing revenue account and we are already piloting some major changes, which will be supported by the Housing and Regeneration Bill, but we are also conducting a wider, long-term review of the housing revenue account.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She may know that I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), during which I highlighted the impact of the housing revenue account on Sutton’s tenants. Thirty-seven per cent. of the rental income there is a negative subsidy. I asked the Under-Secretary a question, which I should now like to repeat to the Minister. Is she willing to freeze those subsidies at the 2007-08 level until her review of HRA is complete so that Sutton’s tenants do not pay a heavy price?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a long tradition of acknowledging that some areas have been better funded in the past than others. Some areas have had their council housing funded through different mechanisms, which has put them at an advantage or a disadvantage, and there is different need in different areas. I believe that it is right that there should be some redistribution in the system.

I do not like the housing revenue account. There is a series of problems with it in enabling councils to manage their assets properly for the long term. However, it is a complex framework and, to reform it, one has to ensure that one is not disadvantaging unfairly other areas and other councils. We have set out the determination for 2008-09, which councils should have received. We will work fast on the housing revenue account review to inform next year’s determination.

I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments and the review to which she has committed the Department. The housing revenue account is not merely a problem for authorities in negative subsidy. The housing revenue account system is a problem in that an authority can get penalised for building new homes and, if tenants want to opt for improvements, they cannot pay extra rent to cover the cost. There is a fundamental dislocation between the service provided and the rents that are charged. For all those reasons, I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that a fundamental change in the system would benefit landlords and tenants.

My hon. Friend is right. Part of the problem with the housing revenue account is that one has to wrap one’s head in a wet towel every time one tries to work out the details. Such a complex system is not in the interests of people who run housing revenue accounts throughout the country. A system that better rewarded long-term planning and long-term decision making by local councils would be preferable. The pilots that we have established are already trying to find one way in which to approach reform, but the review will be wider and examine a range of options.

Local Government Funding

5. What representations she has received on the statistics used for the calculation of grants to local authorities. (178389)

We have received more than 300 representations on the provisional local government settlement. As we expected, many of those asked us to check the data used or made other statistical points.

The Secretary of State will know that colleagues from Southwark on a cross-party basis had a constructive meeting with the Minister for Local Government last week. One of the matters raised in that discussion, but of concern widely, was out-of-date population figures on the basis of which local government settlements are given. I know the difficulties, but would the Secretary of State be willing to give an undertaking that, if not now—that is, before the final vote is taken, before the settlement comes into force in April—then later this year, when the up-to-date figures are available, there will be a chance to review the settlement on the basis of accurate population information? We cannot give out grant on the basis of figures that are fundamentally out of date.

I appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put his case, and I know that he had a productive meeting. He will know that, in addition to the distribution on the basis of population statistics, we have another mechanism that seeks to protect councils, which is the floor damping mechanism. Southwark will benefit from that over the next three years to the tune of just over £63 million.

Local government itself wanted a three-year settlement, for the stability, certainty and predictability of its expenditure. The figures that we have used are therefore the best and latest available, and are consistent across local government. It would be wrong to disturb the stability and certainty of the three-year settlement. I therefore cannot give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he is looking for—that is, that we will reopen the settlement—because that would inevitably have a huge impact on the stability and certainty that local government has welcomed.

Swindon borough council was disappointed with the award that it received for its growth point grant. Will my right hon. Friend or one of her colleagues meet me to discuss the council’s disappointment and what else it can do? The council did not initially consult Swindon’s MPs, but has done so since, which has been very valuable.

Clearly my hon. Friend is, in her usual way, a champion and advocate for her constituents. She will be pleased to know that there are further moneys to be allocated. I should be delighted to ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government meets her to discuss the position in Swindon, and no doubt she will use her usual articulacy to make the case.

Will the right hon. Lady please take action to increase the weighting of the sparsity factor in the calculation of Government grants to rural areas such as Lincolnshire, where, in a very large county, the police grant is the second smallest in the whole of England, and as a result many of my constituents continually complain of under-policing?

Sparsity is one of a number of factors, and is important in reflecting the particular pressures in rural areas. Sparsity is taken into account when we draw up the formula, which is subject to consultation and is regularly reviewed and examined. Clearly it is important that the formula should take into account a wide range of needs and differences, and the truth is that different communities have different needs. That is why my Department is absolutely committed to devolution to local authorities, so that they can tailor their services to meet the kind of pressures that the hon. Gentleman has outlined.

I am grateful for the patience that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government have shown in listening to representations on behalf of Slough, whose population has grown massively, but which is not having that change reflected, because of failures in the way that Office for National Statistics figures are calculated. Although I recognise the demands of a three-year settlement, is there any prospect at all of some resources being directed to those places that have coped with sudden, urgent growth and which are very diverse, such as Slough? Extra resources, when our—

Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), my hon. Friend is a real champion. I can tell her two things. First, I have agreed to meet the leader of her local authority to look specifically at those pressures. Secondly, and more generally, hon. Members will know that there is £50 million of extra provision for looking at community cohesion. I anticipate that some of those areas will use some of those funds to look at the pressures and impacts of the rapidly changing communities that can now be found throughout Britain.

Is the Secretary of State not aware that there is not only growing concern but growing evidence that Labour-controlled authorities get much more generous grants than those authorities controlled by either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats? Is it not about time that the formula for the granting of resources to local government became not only genuinely fairer but a lot more transparent?

What is true is that, under Labour Governments, all local authorities get better settlements than they did under Tory Governments. In fact, by the time we get to the end of this spending period—

Order. I must put it on the record that an hon. Member has left the Chamber after asking a question before we have moved on to the next question. That is a practice that I will not tolerate, and I suggest that the Whip have a word with the hon. Lady concerned.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I was about to remind the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) that it is Labour Governments who are the most generous to local authorities of whatever political persuasion. Under this Government, we will have had a 45 per cent. real-terms increase in local government spending by the end of this spending review period. None of us will forget that, in the last four years of the last Conservative Government, there was a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in spending for local government.

Order. The hon. Lady has returned, and I am pleased about that, but she should not leave the Chamber until the question on which she has asked a supplementary has finished.

Aylesbury vale is a designated growth area earmarked for substantial additional housing over the next two decades, and I had a very reasonable and constructive exchange on that subject with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), on 4 December. Will the right hon. Lady tell the House what discussions she has had with her right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that additional resources are made available on time—that is, concurrently with the housing development—so that health provision and educational facilities are of the standard that my constituents are entitled to expect?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about ensuring that the new housing developments are part of thriving, vibrant communities that have schools and health facilities that make them the kind of places in which people want to live. There is a great deal of cross-government working going on as a result of the Green Paper to ensure that we provide exactly that kind of infrastructure, and the community infrastructure levy will help local authorities to ensure that developers and landowners make their contribution to making these communities excellent, high-quality places to live.

My own county of Leicestershire is generally a sea of prosperity surrounding an archipelago of islands of difficulty. The Conservative-controlled county council has said that it believes it has had a reasonable settlement this year. Is the Minister satisfied that, following that decent grant settlement, the extra funds for those islands of disadvantage are actually being spent within those towns and villages in Leicestershire and not on pet projects for the council’s own Conservative areas?

My hon. Friend knows that we are undertaking negotiations on the local area agreements in every local authority area. It is vital that, within those agreements, funds are targeted at the areas where we need to make the greatest progress. In addition, we have the working neighbourhoods fund, and I am absolutely determined that that will enable us to tackle worklessness in the poorest and most deprived communities, where people need extra help to get back into work.

Home Information Packs

6. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of home information packs on the housing market. (178390)

HIPs are already cutting costs and delays in delivering searches, as well as providing energy information across the market. The Government also commissioned an independent report by Europe Economics on the impact of HIPs on the housing market, including the impact of the first phase. The report found no evidence of any impact on transactions or prices, and concluded that the predicted impact on listings was short term and marginal compared with the wider factors affecting the market.

Everybody knows that anyone who takes decisions can make mistakes. One of the things that the public do not like about politicians is that they never seem to admit to having made a mistake. A local estate agent told me this morning that the downturn in the housing market was at least partly caused by the introduction of HIPs, and there are many other experts in the field who will line up to criticise them. Will the Minister do her bit to restore people’s trust in politicians by admitting that she got this wrong, scrapping HIPs and stopping defending the indefensible?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that his local estate agent is out of line with all major commentators on that? That is exactly why we commissioned Europe Economics to do an independent analysis and to seek the additional advice of Peter Williams, a former member of the Council of Mortgage Lenders and also a member of the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, in order to do a full assessment of the overall impact on the market and of the particular impact of the first phase of introduction. It was very clear about there being no impact on transactions or prices and emphasised that the market was being affected by a much wider range of important factors, including the global credit crunch, which is of course having an impact on the market.

After the initial delays in commencing the home information pack programme, it seems to have rolled out now relatively trouble-free. National Energy Services, which is based in my constituency, has reported that it has registered 85,000 energy performance certificates since 1 August. Home condition surveys are not a mandatory part of HIPs, so what work is the Department doing to secure the views of those who have had those surveys done, perhaps with a view to rolling out the home condition surveys as a mandatory part of HIPs in future?

My hon. Friend may be aware that the area trials looked into home condition reports, conducting detailed interviews with buyers as well as sellers. We await the final report, which will be published for further discussion about the way forward.

Will the Minister provide us with specific examples of actual house purchases that have been materially influenced by the content of home information packs? Will she arrange for any such case study examples to be placed in the Library so that we can make an objective analysis of whether they are doing any good?

We have certainly been given anecdotal evidence from particular estate agents. In one case, for example, early information about land title had highlighted a problem with the sale at an early stage; without it, such information might not have emerged until much later in the process. Detailed assessments have been going on in area trials, as I mentioned, and we are also conducting ongoing monitoring. It will be important to link the energy performance certificates with the new green homes service, starting in the spring, which can target people with F and G-rated homes to provide serious financial support as well as clear advice on how to cut carbon emissions and fuel bills.

The Minister has already referred to the Europe Economics study that was conducted prior to rolling out HIPs for one and two-bedroomed homes. However, that study was carried out because the earlier area trials, to which the Minister has also referred, had never been published. Those were £4 million trials, whose results were promised to the House by the end of the year in June and July by the Minister herself and to the other place in October. Yet notwithstanding the £4 million cost, those results have never been published. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when those results will actually be published and how much—in addition to that £4 million—the research by Europe Economics, which told the Minister what she wanted to hear, cost to commission?

The two reports looked into completely different things. The Europe Economics report looked into the wider impact on the housing market and, in particular, at the roll-out to three and four-bedroomed properties. The area trials were conducted by Ipsos MORI in an independent assessment and have been looking into and following through individual cases, including those where a home condition report was involved. That is obviously not part of the three and four-bedroom roll-out, which was assessed by Europe Economics, as I said. We have not yet received a final report from Ipsos MORI. As soon as we do, we will, of course, publish it for scrutiny by the House.

Council Tax

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will answer questions 7 and 12 together. It is councils that decide the level of council tax. The Department publishes the actual figures each year after all authorities have made their budget returns in March. We will do so again, as usual, this year.

Does the Minister not understand that people are not fools and they know perfectly well that it is not just councils that set council tax? They know that the Prime Minister is introducing another stealth tax here by imposing statutory regulations on local authorities without adequately funding them to carry out their responsibilities.

We have an established system that recognises the net increase in any extra burdens and responsibilities that we place on local authorities, and that is reflected in the settlement. There is no reason why anyone should experience excessive council tax rises this year. The increase that we have made continues the real-terms increase for local government that we have seen over the last 10 years under this Government. It gives all local authorities the certainty of knowing for three years what they will receive, it gives them the greater flexibility and freedoms for which they have asked, and it makes clear that their ability to manage lies, in many ways, in their own hands—in the efficiencies that they should be able to achieve for their council tax payers over the next three years.

The Minister will know that Conservative- controlled Hammersmith and Fulham council is proposing a 3 per cent. cut in council tax for the second successive year. That compares with an average annual increase of 7.7 per cent. under Labour over the previous 12 years. Remarkably, although band D council tax will now be £863 a year rather than the £1,064 that it would be if Labour were still in charge, the Audit Commission’s independent rating for the council’s services has increased from three stars to four. Surely the Minister must join me in congratulating the council on its excellent performance.

Of course it had a very good basis—a Labour basis—on which to build. Residents of Hammersmith and Fulham may well be looking at council tax cuts, as they did in the current year, but they are also looking at library cuts, law centre cuts and cuts in vital voluntary sector groups.

The hon. Gentleman refers to band D council tax figures, but fewer than one in six dwellings across the country are in band D. If he wants to swap figures according to political control, I must tell him that the average council tax level for all dwellings is £260 higher under Conservative authorities than under Labour authorities this year, and rose by more this year than last year.

The Minister’s last statement cannot go unchallenged. As he well knows, that difference is simply because there are more properties in higher bands in Conservative authority areas. I hope he will apologise for misleading the House in such a way.

As the hon. Gentleman represents the City, one would expect him to be good with figures. I repeat that the problem with band D figures is that fewer than one in six properties are in band D. The right figures to use are those for the average council tax on all dwellings. Let me give them to the hon. Gentleman. The average council tax under Labour authorities this year was £938, the average under Conservative authorities was £1,200, and the average under Liberal Democrat authorities was £1,039. There have been higher rates and higher rises under the Tories than under Labour.

Agencies (Appointments)

8. Whether Parliament and local authorities will have a role in the appointment of members of the restructured regional development agencies, the Homes and Communities Agency and the Infrastructure Planning Commission. (178392)

Appointment of members to the boards of those bodies and proposed bodies would be made by Ministers, on merit, in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ code and guidance. There are no current plans for either Parliament or local authorities to play a direct role in those appointments processes.

The Infrastructure Planning Commission will be unaccountable. It will be judge and jury in its own cause, and it will even decide the process by which local people can make representations on contentious planning issues. How can that conceivably be fair?

I think the hon. Gentleman may have missed the boat. We had a good discussion about that during our deliberations on the Planning Bill. It is a shame that he is not a member of the Bill Committee. The purpose of the Infrastructure Planning Commission will be to streamline and speed up the planning process, and strong safeguards are built into it to ensure that consultation with local communities will be enhanced.

What I have said is not directly related to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I hope it is helpful to the House.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) about the bodies he listed, will the Minister say when the Secretary of State will reply to my letter dated 21 December setting out concerns in my constituency about the proposal to build a new town of up to 50,000 inhabitants on the Co-operative Society’s almost 5,000-acre farming estate in the Harborough district? May I tell the Minister that that massive development, which might well come before the bodies my hon. Friend referred to—

Order. That is a wide supplementary question. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman should bring up the matter in an Adjournment debate; that might be the best thing to do.

When does the Minister next plan to meet representatives of the East of England Development Agency, my local regional development agency, and can he tell the House of one positive measure or initiative that it has carried out that would not otherwise have taken place?

That has a slightly tenuous relationship with the main question about public appointments. However, I am always happy to meet members of any RDA, and I know from work I have done on the Migration Impacts Forum that they have done some good work in the hon. Gentleman’s region. With regard to the initial question on public appointments, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for the body concerned, in terms of its representation and who is on it, and I think it has a good mix.

Energy-efficient Homes

9. What assistance is available for people buying houses with energy ratings F or G to improve their homes. (178393)

We announced the green homes service on 19 November last year. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said in an earlier answer, the green homes service will offer every householder who gets an energy performance certificate of an F or G rating for their home discounted or free help with energy-efficient measures. That help will come from a range of grants from both Government and industry under the energy efficiency commitment.

Ratings F and G are the poorest, and therefore the most in need of the free help the Minister has outlined, but I understand that one in five of all homes in the country are rated F or G. How many homes does my hon. Friend think this scheme will be able to help over the next few years?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We anticipate that over the next three years 5 million more homes will benefit from discounted or free loft and cavity-wall insulation, and another 3 million homes from discounted or free low-energy light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances. The next phase of the energy efficiency commitment, running from 2008 to 2011, is expected to cut carbon emissions by 1.1 million tonnes and will save consumers about £10 billion in energy savings. That is good for home owners, and it is good for the environment.

Being very careful how I pronounce “F and G”, may I ask the Minister what energy efficiency schemes exist to replace single-glazed windows with double-glazed windows in constituencies such as his and my own, where that can make a huge difference both to the comfort and, more especially, the energy efficiency of each individual home?

A range of grants is available. The assistance available under the decent homes programme has meant that, since 2001, the number of non-decent homes in the social housing sector has been reduced. The replacement of single-glazed windows has been an important part of that effort. Warm Front, which has been a success in my constituency, is also a key tool in tackling fuel poverty. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady to provide further information.

New-build Social Housing

We want to make homes more sustainable as well as more affordable. Homes built under the £8 billion affordable housing programme will now have to be built to code level 3 two years earlier than the rest of the market. We think it is important that where Government investment is involved, we lead the way in the work towards zero-carbon homes.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she consider that the EcoHomes certification arrangements, which are set out by the Housing Corporation as a precondition for the funding of new-build by housing associations, will match the anticipated progress of the sustainable buildings code, and will she look into ways that the Housing Corporation might further incentivise more sustainable housing developments by housing associations?

That is certainly something that we are continuing to look at, because we have said that we want all new homes to be zero-carbon rated by 2016. That obviously requires substantial changes to the way we design and build homes, and we want public sector investment to lead the way. The Housing Corporation is now using the code for sustainable homes; it has switched to that from using the EcoHomes certification, and that means that there is an opportunity to look not simply at energy efficiency, but at wider aspects of sustainability.

We expect to build 30,000 new social homes this year—the figure will rise to 45,000 by 2010—as part of an £8 billion programme of investment in more affordable housing over the next three years.

Although I welcome that, the Minister will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) saying that the number of people on the council house waiting list in our city has risen to 8,000 and is rising fast—by several thousand a year. Although I accept the interest in the market and in housing associations, and the better management of council assets that was mentioned in response to an earlier question, does my right hon. Friend understand that those measures are not meeting the need and that we are storing up problems for the future? Bad and unjust housing will lead to social problems and will undermine all the other Government policies in education and social justice unless we can find—

Two significant issues need to be addressed; we need to increase both the amount and the quality of affordable housing in Stoke and in other areas across the country. That is why we introduced the multi-billion pound decent homes programme, which has already lifted 1.8 million children out of poor, cold and damp housing—that is hugely important—and why we are investing £679 million over the next three years in affordable housing for the west midlands, which is a 40 per cent. increase over three years in the amount of such investment. I believe that it will make a significant difference to meeting housing needs across the country.

Topical Questions

My Department is dedicated to devolving power to councils, communities and citizens, to building strong, cohesive communities, to delivering the Government’s targets on building new homes and to preventing violent extremism.

Last week, the Secretary of State’s Department announced that it would impose more houses on the west midlands than local councils say they can cope with. It is also deciding the location of eco-towns entirely outside the planning process and, through the Planning Bill, it is removing the role of local communities almost completely from important decisions on major infrastructure projects. Does she understand that, as a result, people are feeling powerless and dangerously cynical about local democracy?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I simply do not agree with his characterisation of the way in which either the housing process or the planning process works. It is important that local communities are involved in deciding what kinds of homes need to be built, and where homes need to be built, in their areas. That is why we have made changes to the planning policy statement for housing. Councils should be using those new powers to support development in their communities, but they also must recognise that we badly need more homes in this country to meet the needs of families in overcrowded accommodation, families on council waiting lists and future first-time buyers. It is irresponsible for Conservative Members to campaign against more affordable housing when it is desperately needed across the country.

T5. Do Ministers agree that the local authority business growth initiative—LABGI—has been phenomenally successful in supporting local authorities such as Stafford borough council and Staffordshire county council in encouraging new business start-ups and in rewarding them for success? This is currently a three-year scheme, but what discussions are Ministers having with their colleagues in the Treasury to mainstream the scheme and to keep it as generous as it is to those who have successfully bid for assistance? (178377)

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the scheme. He is also right to say that we should be doing more to recognise and reward local authorities that play a part in expanding the business base, and therefore the jobs and prosperity, of their areas. The short answer to his question is that detailed discussions have taken place for some time with the Treasury. They led to confirmation in the comprehensive spending review that money would be set aside in the second year of this CSR period to incorporate LABGI into the design of the business rate system. It is clear that the trial with the stand-alone scheme has demonstrated its importance. We must make it an integral part of the system for the future. We will then increase, and have provision to increase, the amount of money going through LABGI in the third year of this CSR period. I encourage hon. Members on both sides who support the principle of the scheme to work with us to design a scheme that can last for the long term.

T2. Earlier in Question Time my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) raised the issue of housing subsidy. Will the ministerial team give serious consideration to how they will explain to my constituents who are council tenants that, on average, every one of those council tenant households is paying £1,473 a year in negative subsidy back to the Government? How can it be fair for some of the poorest in our society to contribute in that way to other poor people in other parts of the country? (178374)

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman missed what was a sensible discussion of the housing revenue account system and how it works. There is an element of redistribution in the account, and that is important because council housing has been funded in different ways historically and there are huge variations. There are also huge variations in need, so it is right that the system has an element of redistribution. However, there are problems with the system as it stands, and that is why we are conducting a serious long-term review and piloting different approaches. For example, we are piloting ways for councils to opt out of the housing revenue system so that they can better manage their assets in the long term.

T8. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the implementation teams that are moving local authorities, such as those in County Durham, towards unitary status are required to produce a proper information strategy for local residents so that they are kept fully informed of the implications of change, the time scales and the significant milestones that the Government require local authorities to meet on the way? (178380)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the important issue of the process that will need to be undertaken to implement the proposals. It is important that local people are kept fully informed about the proposals as they are developed and that there is complete openness and transparency in that process. My experience of any big change process is that it is important to get on with it. The sooner it is done the better, but it has to be done rigorously and properly. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will continue to monitor it, as will I.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will have been saddened by the evidence presented at last week’s inquest into the death of baby Rhianna Hardie, who was scalded in a tragic accident caused by a faulty thermostat. The coroner noted that the Health and Safety Executive thought a similar fatality in 2002 sufficiently serious to bring it to the attention of the predecessor Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. However, the Department did not pass on that warning to local authorities. Has the Secretary of State been able to ascertain why the ODPM did not pass that information on to local authorities?

This matter is of the utmost concern. It was a terrible tragedy, although thankfully rare, and our sympathies are very much with Rhianna Hardie’s family. The hon. Gentleman is right that there was a similar case in 2002, and consideration was given then to whether a new British standard should be introduced for immersion heaters to ensure that it did not happen again. All new installations now have to have a secondary thermostat to prevent overheating. There is also a full review of building regulations to look at the issue, which started last summer and is an ongoing process. We will consider the comments made by the coroner in the latest case very carefully, because it is important to have clarity between my Department and the Health and Safety Executive on responsibilities and lines of communication. I will personally ensure that we consider the comments and, if there is action to be taken, that we ensure that the right authority takes it.

That is very helpful. It might also be helpful if the Secretary of State would consider placing in the Library the correspondence between the HSE and the ODPM on the issue. In the course of the review, it might be helpful to look at the protocols for her Department on how information from the HSE is treated. I appreciate the point that she makes about the building regulations, but given that we are talking about 3.5 million boilers, can she tell me whether she intends to issue guidance to housing authorities on what checks should be made on those thermostats? Finally, what assessment has been made of the risk of a reoccurrence of such an accident?

I do not want to pre-empt the review of the building regulations that is being undertaken to consider that matter, which will be comprehensive and thorough. One reason why I want to get to the bottom of the relative roles of the HSE and my Department is that it has traditionally been the role of the HSE to communicate directly with housing providers rather than that of the ODPM or, now, of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Housing providers are under a duty of care to their tenants but, as I understand it, they are also under a duty to report to the HSE rather than the Department. I want to have a thorough look at that and am happy to confirm that I will put as much information about the issue as I possibly can into the House of Commons Library. As I said, the coroner said that such tragedies were, thankfully, extremely rare. Obviously, such things are an absolute tragedy for any family to which they happen and we must make every effort to ensure that such an occurrence does not recur.

What success has the Minister had in persuading her ministerial colleagues to look at the introduction of feed-in tariff legislation such as that which is being applied elsewhere in Europe? In Germany, in particular, such legislation has been successful in putting citizens at the heart of driving their sustainable cities agenda and providing sustainable and affordable energy in their own homes.

My hon. Friend has pursued this issue with assiduity—that is probably the best word. [Hon. Members: “Perspicacity.”] Or perhaps perspicacity is—I think I shall say that he has done so with a great deal of energy and commitment. He has raised an important issue that appears to be technical but is quite substantial. An interesting matter to pursue is not simply the feed-in tariff system but the way in which local people, local neighbourhoods and local communities can contribute to that important agenda. If he looks at the recent planning policy statement on climate change, he will see some welcome statements about the role of communities in terms of combined heat and power and on some of the other issues that he has pursued.

T3. The Government will be aware of the sustained rainfall experienced by many parts of the country, including my own, which was devastated by floods last year. Although the situation is not that bad yet, more rain is predicted. People’s homes are being flooded, as are roads and fields. Given that fact, is it not rather insensitive for the regional assembly to submit its draft regional spatial strategy to the Government suggesting that thousands of extra houses should be built in my constituency? People need houses, but do they want them where they cannot get insurance, where they will flood or where they will cause other people’s property to flood? The regional spatial strategy document needs to be thrown straight back at the assembly and rejected outright. (178375)

The regional spatial strategy will be studied, examined and dealt with in the usual way. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have recently tightened up the planning rules on flooding, something that Sir Michael Pitt looked at and reported on just before Christmas. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am conscious of the worries that were felt overnight and have continued this afternoon in Tewkesbury and some other areas, particularly in the west country. He and the House might like to know that as at 14.16 today, 63 flood warnings and no severe flood warnings were in place, while nine all-clears had been given.

The risk of flooding is high in some areas, but, by and large, water levels are generally at about the levels that are considered normal for this time of year. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman’s council has rightly been on high alert and has been active overnight, as have a number of other councils. Central Government and the Department stand ready to help if and when they are required.

Can the Secretary of State explain why the nine regional fire control centres are being built on such a huge scale? Is the embarrassing truth that her Department failed to take into account shift working when determining the national requirements that it set for building them?

No, not at all. The reason that we are building these centres—the hon. Lady will be aware of this, because of her experience in her region—is that the current control centres have nothing like the capacity of the new ones. Surely, like me, she would like to see—[Interruption.] If she would listen to me for a moment, I shall explain. Surely she would like to see a system in place whereby the closest fire engine is directed to the scene of the incident, regardless of where it is from, and whereby new technology is available through satellite navigation to get the engine there as quickly as possible.

I accept that the centres are big—I recently visited the ones in the south-west and the east midlands—but they are large because they have to be able to cope with emergencies, and extra capacity and more staff are sometimes needed. I had a meeting with the firm EADS Defence and Security Systems today—

T4. The leader of Gravesham council has told me that the council was not consulted at all about the Thames Gateway project’s move into the new Homes and Communities Agency. When Ministers spoke about local community involvement in the process, is that what they had in mind? (178376)

We have had extensive consultation with local councils and other organisations across the Thames Gateway, as part of the overall delivery programme. The HCA is taking over all the Department’s functions on housing and regeneration across the country, including the major growth areas such as the Thames Gateway. The Department will continue to support the cross-departmental work in respect of transport and other functions but, as we have always said, local councils must take the lead in local areas and communities. That will enable us to get the best results in delivering the jobs and homes that are already coming into the Thames Gateway.

T6. The Secretary of State will know about the illegal Gypsy encampment at Minety in my constituency. It was recently given 18 months leave to remain while Wiltshire county council assessed the need for such encampments across the area. However, how can the council reasonably make such an assessment, given that very large numbers of Gypsies in Ireland and Romania are reportedly waiting to come to England as soon as places are available? The more Gypsy places that Wiltshire county council provides, the more quickly they are filled. (178378)

The hon. Gentleman said that Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs were being assessed in his area. That is the right way forward, and the vast majority of local authorities have completed their assessments. The independent task group on site provision and enforcement published its final report to Ministers last month, and it concluded that the Government’s policy on provision of sites for Gypsies and Travellers was sound. The key is that such provision must be enforced properly, and we need more authorised sites to avoid the risk of antisocial behaviour and disruption throughout the larger community.