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Topical Questions

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2008

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.