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Communities and Local Government

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devon and Somerset Fire Service

1. What discussions she has had with the Devon and Somerset fire service on its funding settlement; and if she will make a statement. (188682)

The Devon and Somerset fire service met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), on 5 December. It also submitted written representations, and we carefully considered those alongside all the other representations that we received before making our decisions on the local government finance settlement.

The Minister will be aware that the Devon and Somerset fire service estimates that it is £2 million worse off because of the change to the pensions for firemen, although that was meant to be cost-neutral. The Government Actuary’s Department came up with a figure of £1.2 million, although the way in which it was calculated means that we are talking about £174,000 less than even that amount. The Under-Secretary has indicated to the authority that he estimates that it was short-changed by £440,000. Will the Minister for Local Government provide all the estimates calculated for Devon and Somerset’s funding, so that we can decide whether we are short of £1 million, £174,000 or—

The changes to which the hon. Gentleman refers were designed to smooth out the cost peaks and troughs that fire authorities previously faced year to year in paying for pensions. The Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service has been quids in as a result of this arrangement, whereby the national Government step in to make good any shortfall over the past couple of years. Of course I am happy to examine the case that the Devon and Somerset authority has offered—we did so in the run-up to the finance settlement and we will do so again if it has fresh information—but I have studied the figures, and I think that the balance of advantage lies with that service.

Would the Minister be prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament from Devon and Somerset to examine next year’s settlement, because every year the authority has to consider cutting operational capacity, as it has done in this year’s budget round, and that cannot be in anyone’s interest?

Of course I will meet a delegation of MPs—I am always prepared to do so. I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman, but nor should his own fire and rescue service. Far from being hard done by in the next financial year, and unlike 10 fire and rescue services whose settlements are on the floor for such authorities, Devon and Somerset’s settlements for the next three years of the period are significantly above the floor. The authority is thus hardly hard done by in the terms that he argues.

Clearly the three-year settlement is disappointing. The Minister will be aware of the disquiet felt by many fire authorities in the south-west about the financial implications of the FiReControl project. It is felt not least in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), where there is near universal opposition to the closure of the tri-service centre in Quedgeley as a result of a new FiReControl centre in Taunton. The regional FiReControl project is three-years late, and 14 times over budget and still heading north. Will the Minister for Local Government give the House a firm undertaking that the cost overruns on the project will not mean fewer firefighters and poorer pensions in the south-west and throughout the country?

First, the hon. Gentleman misrepresents some significant opinion about the attitude to the FiReControl project in the west country. Secondly, the FiReControl project is designed to strengthen the service’s capacity to deal with all sorts of pressures and challenges that it may face in the future. Far from demonstrating the case against that initiative, the summer floods reinforced the case for making just such a move. We will do our best to ensure that the implementation of the FiReControl programme across the country proceeds according to its current time scale and budget. That is what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be doing, and I shall give him any support that he needs.

Affordable Housing

The Housing Corporation is on track to meet the affordable housing targets we set for its 2006 to 2008 affordable housing programme. Not only that, the corporation is today announcing initial allocations for the new affordable housing programme for 2008 to 2011, which will contribute towards our Housing Green Paper target of providing 70,000 new affordable homes per annum by 2010-11, of which 45,000 will be social rent homes.

Funding has been scrapped for the rural housing enablers at a time when the Government are nowhere near meeting their unambitious targets for new affordable housing in rural areas. I wrote to the Minister recently about the “Home on the Farm” scheme, which would have provided hundreds of new dwellings by transforming disused farm buildings in my constituency. Does she agree that that is an imaginative scheme which could help to prevent more of our rural communities from becoming lifeless ghettoes of empty second homes? If so, will she support the restoring of the funding to the rural housing enablers so that such schemes can become a reality?

There is plenty of opportunity for local authorities, should they wish to do so, to use planning policy statement 3, which provides for marketing affordable housing in rural areas. There are several ways in which that can be done, including using disused buildings. I am pleased to announce today a new national target for rural affordable housing, to deliver 10,300—[Interruption.] At least we have targets for house building. The target is to deliver 10,300 completed homes in communities of fewer than 3,000 in the next three years. That represents a rise of more than 50 per cent. on the 4,625 units allocated, and it is for completions, which is a lot better than for allocations.

Will the Minister review the targets for supported housing for young people? We need more such housing, especially through the development of more foyer projects. We made a commitment that we would have a foyer scheme in every town: when will we get that?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question because in my previous role at the Department for Work and Pensions I was pleased to meet the Foyer Federation to hear how it was providing homes for 10,000 young people a year, and supporting them in finding work, through learning and skills packages. I am pleased to say that the number of homeless 16 and 17-year-olds in bed and breakfast accommodation is down a third. We need to do more and, with my colleagues in the DWP, I intend to explore further what more we can do for young people through housing.

With the number of first-time buyers at its lowest since 1980 and home ownership falling, is not it time for the Government to remove the roadblocks to home ownership that they have put in place, such as rising stamp duty and home information packs?

The Tories say that they want to help first-time buyers, but across the country they oppose the extra homes that first-time buyers and young families desperately need. The fact is that we have helped almost 95,000 people get their first step on the housing ladder through shared ownership schemes. We have 1 million more people in home ownership since 1997, and we are building not only the homes but the sustainable communities to ensure that everyone has a chance to have a roof over their head.

The real roadblocks to a property-owning democracy are mass unemployment, hugely high interest rates and low standards of living. I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on having avoided all three of those factors left to us by the Conservative party. Does she accept that, even given that, it is necessary for people to get a step on the first rung of the ladder? Will she therefore insist on going ahead with her plans for affordable housing and not be diverted by the opposition or cynicism of the Conservatives?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. In order to create the environment for home ownership, we need good employment rates, and they are at a record level; we need low interest rates and inflation; and, importantly, we need to build the houses. There is no point Opposition Members talking about supporting more people in buying their own homes if they then join Tory councils locally to oppose every house building venture. We are committed to more affordable homes and to considering different schemes to make that happen, but we should not kid ourselves: we need to overcome the lack of house building over decades to ensure that we can provide, among other things, the first rung on the property ladder.

What discussions has the Minister had recently with the house building industry about the provision of affordable and social housing, and how it might be a good idea to have such provision as part of general housing development, so that ghettoes of affordable and social housing are not established? I would be very interested to know what initiatives the Government are taking.

I am pleased to say that one of my first telephone calls was to Stewart Baseley, who leads the Home Builders Federation. The hon. Gentleman is right: we do want to ensure a mix of tenures in developments. To achieve that, we have to have support at local level, which I have to repeat is not often forthcoming from his party.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, while we need more affordable housing, especially in my constituency, we should remember, too, that some tenants in Keighley—especially on the Woodhouse estate, which is managed by Bradford Community Housing Trust—live in appalling conditions? The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, our hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), will bear that out, and he is going to visit that estate. I wish that we could do something to encourage the trust to improve those houses, especially at a time when it is shoving the rents up—notices went out yesterday.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. I know that she recently had an Adjournment debate on that issue. I hope that she is aware of the measures that we are taking through the Housing and Regeneration Bill to provide the tenants of registered social landlords with the opportunity through Oftenant to ensure that they get the services that they require. We want to raise the standard of support for tenants, and that means empowering them to have a voice about how to drive up the standards of services.

Growth Point Bids

New growth points are subject to the statutory regional and local planning process, and so any growth bids will be subject to robust testing and public consultation as part of the regional spatial strategy and local development framework mechanisms.

Reassuring as the Minister’s answer is, to date the growth point bid submitted for Blackpool and the Preston area has not been subject to any form of public input or consultation. Will the Minister assure me that mechanisms will be established, if that growth point bid is successful, to enable the public, at appropriate stages, to have their input before the area is irrevocably changed by the proposals in the bid?

I love conspiracy theories, too, but the idea that we are trying to promote growth point bids behind closed doors and in smoke-filled rooms is wrong—actually, because of the smoking ban, it would be illegal, too. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we will bring forward proposals shortly on the second phase of growth point bids. I reiterate my original answer: they will be subject to the full statutory planning mechanism.

My hon. Friend has been kind in listening to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and me argue for our own growth area. Does my hon. Friend agree, on the basis of what he saw in Northampton this morning, that any extra funding allocated to the west Northamptonshire growth area would be money well spent?

I have seen a lot of my hon. Friend today. I thank her for her hospitality during my visit to Northampton this morning. I have seen the ambition and vitality in that town, of which she is a true champion. May I point out that the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation will receive more than £30.1 million over the next three years? From what I have seen today, I am sure that it will be well spent. I pay tribute, too, to the fantastic residents of the Goldings estate, whom I met at Goldcrest community room. They need to be part of the growth point process, too.

Has the Minister noticed that not one of the growth point bids for Leicestershire includes the site of the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s bid for a new town of up to 40,000 people in my constituency? Does he think that that is a coincidence?

The hon. and learned Gentleman and I have clashed over that matter on a number of occasions and he has had an Adjournment debate on the subject. I know that he is a strong champion of his community on the matter. I reiterate that growth point bids, as well as eco-town suggestions, will be brought forward very shortly and will be subject to the statutory planning mechanism.

The city of Plymouth has growth point status, which has been approved through the planning process and has the support of local people. Will the Minister tell us how in a joined-up Government we will achieve our growth targets if the Ministry of Defence closes our naval base, as was reported in The Sunday Times over the weekend?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about joined-up government. It is important that we concentrate on housing growth and on increasing the supply that this country so sorely needs, but it is also important that we have the infrastructure and economic base to ensure that we have sustainable communities throughout the country.

If growth point bids are to succeed, the house builders will need land. I hope that the housing ministerial team will seek to emulate their distinguished predecessor, Harold Macmillan, who built 300,000 houses a year in the 1950s. He did so by building on big gardens and green land in towns and suburbs. Those who oppose any new house building and any release of gardens and land are doing future generations a great disservice. When will the Conservative party copy Harold Macmillan and support the Government Front-Bench—

Home Information Packs

4. If she will publish the findings of the home information pack pilot surveys conducted since November 2005. (188687)

As the House has been told, Ipsos MORI is still in the process of finalising its conclusions. A copy of the research report will be placed in the Library of the House once the project has been finalised.

Any professional organisation that conducts a pilot will assess its results before rolling out the policy in question. Has the HIP pilot been evaluated? Did that evaluation prove that HIPs have had a measurable benefit, or did the survey show that there has been no measurable improvement from the introduction of HIPs—and is that why the Government have rolled out the policy before evaluating and publishing the outcome of the survey?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have learned from the trials, but we want to give the House a more comprehensive analysis of the information that has been compiled. We have seen already that HIPs can improve the market, and that they are making a difference and providing increased transparency. On average, a pack takes seven to 15 days to prepare, and the people who said that each one would cost £1,000 have been shown to be wrong: a HIP costs £350, and some estate agents are incorporating the cost in their fee. So far, 320,000 HIPs have been issued. We are on a journey, and I want to evaluate how HIPs are bedding in, but it is interesting to see what those who oppose them are doing. Only last week, the Opposition Front-Bench team put out a press release asking for more information about HIPs. They had better make their minds up.

Will my honorary friend—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Does she accept that it is particularly important to include information about flooding in a HIP, especially in areas such as the one that I represent? Did the pilot provide any insight in that regard? If not, is it worth looking at areas where flooding has occurred to make sure that such information is included in future HIPs?

With my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, I am looking at all the issues to do with housing, planning and flooding. I shall look into the matter that my hon. Friend raises, and I shall be happy to get back to him with some more information. We recognise the risk that flooding poses, but it is a problem that we can deal with in a number of different ways. The result is that new developments can cope with flooding risks, and that means that the housing supply can continue to grow. However, he raises an important point, and I shall be interested to learn whether he believes that information about flooding should be integral to the HIPs process.

Will the Minister confirm that the questionnaire about HIPs included a question about the period for which a pack is valid? The housing market is very slow and even on a downturn at the moment, so people selling a home might need to purchase more than one HIP.

I am looking at various matters to do with insurance and first-day marketing that my predecessor—

No, not at all. My predecessor identified various problems and acted on them, but it is wise for any Minister to take stock as the deadline approaches. I shall be happy to look into the question raised by the hon. Gentleman.

When HIPs are evaluated, will my right hon. Friend look into their effect on people posing as sellers? When such people put their house on the market, young couples incur the expense of a survey, only to find that the house is withdrawn when its market price has been established. It is clear that the people involved have no intention of selling, and their actions merely mislead potential buyers.

Yes, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest just that. People are thinking carefully about whether they really want to put their house on the market or should just chance it to see what will happen. Other people are probably better to quote on the matter than Ministers. MyLondonHome, an internet property portal, believes that home information packs will have a positive effect on the house buying and selling process. We welcome that opinion from the people who work in the sector.

We have heard today that it does not in fact take four to six days for a HIP to come through, as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) told me before, but that it takes seven to 15 days. We are getting closer to the truth. Surely, having waited nearly a year for the results of the Ipsos MORI trials on HIPs, and having spent £4 million of taxpayers’ money, and still not having had the results, despite HIPs now applying to all shapes and sizes of house, is it not time that the Minister at least took some responsibility for her own decisions and her predecessor’s by apologising to the public for spending that £4 million of public money, which has gone absolutely nowhere, as the policy has already been introduced, and has simply been wasted?

Was that the question? I tried to detect a question in there. [Interruption.] Well, we will look at Hansard to see whether there was actually a question. It is interesting—[Interruption.] It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman is standing before the House suggesting that his party is against HIPs, when on Wednesday 13 February the Conservative party issued a press release calling for the inclusion of licensing information.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one group of home buyers to have been substantially advantaged by HIPs are first-time buyers, who get information provided up front at no cost to them? Will she reflect, however, that if the Government eventually see their way to including home condition reports in HIPs, first-time buyers will be even better off than they are now?

Yes, that is a good point. For those buying properties, it would offer an opportunity not to duplicate activity and in so doing duplicate expense. We will be looking through the findings from the area trials in considering the status of home condition reports, along with other policy areas, and I intend to ensure that we move towards permanent implementation for HIPs by consolidating the transitional arrangements.

Finance (London)

5. What discussions the Government office for London has had with the (a) London Development Agency and (b) Greater London authority on finances. (188688)

Officials from the Government office for London have had discussions with the GLA and LDA on a range of financial issues, reflecting their responsibility for administering the Government’s block grants to those organisations.

Following the Deloitte report commissioned by the London assembly last summer, which revealed inadequate justification or accountability for much LDA spending on the initiative of the Mayor or his advisers, what steps has the Minister taken to ensure sufficient statutory safeguards to prevent misuse of public funds?

The hon. Gentleman will know that in 2005 the LDA took steps to strengthen its project management, delivery arrangements and scrutiny. He will also know that the LDA is accountable to the Mayor, and I hope that he will know that the London assembly is responsible for scrutiny. The Government office for London is responsible for administering the block grants to the GLA, but the checks and balances in relation to action by the Mayor clearly belong to the London assembly, and the LDA is accountable to the Mayor.

Is it not time for a full and transparent register of the interests of the Mayor’s advisers, so that we can put an end to the scandal by which large sums of LDA money are transferred to groups or bodies with which it later transpires those advisers have some business connection?

The hon. Gentleman will know that on 15 February, Lee Jasper, to whom I presume he is referring, asked the Mayor to refer any allegations to the police, and was suspended by the Mayor. The hon. Gentleman will also know that five days later on 20 February the police stated that they would not be investigating, and no criminal allegations were reported. He is fully aware of that situation.

If on 1 May, nine weeks from now, London council tax payers form a view that the London Development Agency has not been properly managed, that money has been badly spent, that the audit trail is incomplete, and that there is no proper political accountability for the past four years, who should they hold to account? Is there not only one answer to that: the current Mayor of London?

The hon. Gentleman is correct that the best form of accountability is through democracy, and people will have the chance to vote on 1 May. It is interesting that when Michael Portillo was recently asked who he would vote for in the mayoral election, Ken or Boris, he said, “More choices, please”, so he will not be backing Boris. He also said that it would perhaps be rather good for the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to lose the next election. He has experience of losing—

Speaking of endorsements for the London Mayor, the Secretary of State will know that the Prime Minister is refusing to endorse Ken Livingstone, and refers simply to the Labour administration at City Hall. It appears that the two have not met in public for some months now. Are the Government supporting Ken Livingstone for Mayor, or are they simply embarrassed by the fact that he is mired in sleaze and maladministration?

Order. We are going rather wide of the question. I will try Mr. Neill to see whether he can stay in order.

I will do my best, Mr. Speaker.

I am always happy to look the Secretary of State straight in the eye. I ask her to reflect on the fact that her suggestion that the issue is nothing to do with the Government really does not stack up, as they created the institutions in question. When they did so, they claimed that the Greater London authority would be a beacon of transparency and accountability. Would she like to explain what kind of beacon it is, and what kind of transparency it has, given that the Mayor’s adviser failed to register the fact that he is chairman of an organisation seeking a grant from the body that employs him, and given that the Mayor’s adviser sent an e-mail to an officer telling them to lay off an organisation that happens to be run by one of his associates? If that is transparency, will the Secretary of State not reflect on whether her beacon needs a new battery?

I ask the hon. Gentleman to raise his sights a little, although I would never accuse him of digging in the gutter. The GLA has the power to summon the Mayor and the LDA. It has the power to call for the disclosure of documents. It also has a new power for confirmatory hearings. The matter is serious. Do the Opposition really believe in decentralisation, devolution and scrutiny at the local level, which is what they talk about, or are they now saying that the issue is a matter for Government from the centre, not for the GLA? Just to make it clear, I will place on record that I think that Ken Livingstone has been an excellent Mayor for London. If we look at policy, there is congestion charging, better public transport, the Olympics and the regeneration of the city. It is an excellent record.

Housing Stock Transfers

Since 1 January 2003, there have been 105 housing stock transfers by 66 authorities, involving more than 422,000 dwellings, which has levered in £6.4 billion of private finance.

I am grateful for that response, and I welcome the Government’s policy to give tenants more direct control over their homes through non-profit housing associations; I think that that is absolutely right. Will the Minister tell us how that policy can help us to increase the availability of social housing, which is so badly needed in many communities, including my community of Castle Point?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question; he raises an interesting point. I have been taking the Housing and Regeneration Bill through Committee, and the relationship and interplay between the new Homes and Communities Agency and the regulator for social housing will be key. Tenants will have a view on what housing is needed in their area, and they need to contact the regulator to make sure that affordable housing is available there.

About 7,500 tenants in North-West Leicestershire have spent many, many months subject to a disgracefully unbalanced £1 million coerced stock transfer campaign by the local authority. When will my hon. Friend be in a position to respond to that district council’s proposals, so that the ballot can at long last take place and the deeply damaging cloud of uncertainty can be lifted?

I agree with my hon. Friend that clouds of uncertainty are bad for tenants. I mentioned the Housing and Regeneration Bill. One of its key provisions is to ensure that it is mandatory for tenants to have a ballot in respect of transfer of ownership of their homes, and I would encourage all local authorities to do that in the meantime.

Will the Minister congratulate Conservative-run Kettering borough council, of which I am privileged to be a member, which has decided to retain its council housing stock, is well on track to meet its decent homes standards, and is building a record number of affordable homes every year?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will thank the Government for the increase in council house investment during the past decade. Council investment has increased from £800 per home in 1997 to £1,100 per home this year—that is a 30 per cent. increase in real terms. We have also made available £3.7 billion to arm’s length management organisations to deliver improvements to council housing stock, and we will be spending more than £4 billion over the next comprehensive spending review period on arm’s length management organisations. I hope the hon. Gentleman will thank the Government for that unprecedented and sustained investment in council house stock.

Housing Associations (CEOs)

7. What the five highest salaries are in 2007-08 of chief executive officers of housing associations; and if she will make a statement. (188690)

Information about chief executive salaries appears in housing associations’ annual accounts. I do not have information on 2007-08 salaries as the accounting year has not yet ended, but I have information for 2006-07, which was published in Inside Housing in September last year. The five top CEO salaries were as follows: Places for People—£258,000, Anchor Trust—£240,000, Sanctuary—£225,000, Genesis—£210,000, and Hanover—£210,000.

There is an interesting link between this question and the previous one, which I should point out. On top of the basic salaries, those five people also received bonuses each year almost equal to my salary as a Back-Bench MP, and should they retire they can receive up to £300,000 as a lump sum. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an example of the pay-to-retain-me culture, and that the boards of housing associations should realise that they are handling public money?

If you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, I will not get into the debate on pay for Back-Bench Members, but my hon. Friend makes the reasonable point that the boards of housing associations need to be responsible and show restraint. However, it is right for the boards to make such decisions. They are regulated by the Housing Corporation, which can intervene and has done so in cases of mismanagement. It is also important to remember that there are representatives of local residents on the boards. We should continue to keep the focus on those boards.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is interested in applying, but as I said, it is for the boards to decide. There are about 2,000 registered social landlords delivering 2 million homes to about 4 million residents. It is important to remember that what I read out to the House was just the salaries of the top five CEOs, and despite the fact that they are doing a good job, it would be unfair to focus on just the top five.

Unitary Status (East Anglia)

8. When she next expects to meet representatives of local authorities in East Anglia to discuss Government plans for unitary status. (188691)

Ministers have no plans to meet local authorities in East Anglia at this stage in the boundary committee’s work. I have asked the boundary committee to advise whether it would recommend unitary arrangements for the area in future, but at present it is best that local authorities speak to, meet and deal with the boundary committee, which they are doing.

Is the Minister aware that I have not yet met a social worker, teacher, fire officer, police officer, planning official or highways engineer who is in favour of the proposals? The only people I have met who are in favour are the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and a few senior local government officials who are eyeing up large redundancy payments. Why does not the Minister listen to the public, who believe that the proposals will not make any difference to the delivery of efficient local government in East Anglia? Will he listen to the public and scrap those ideas?

The case for unitary rather than multi-tier local government is very strong, and we set it out a couple of years ago. Just to be clear to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, let me repeat that there are no proposals for unitary reorganisation in East Anglia at present. That is precisely what I have asked the boundary committee to look at; after discussing the matter in detail with local authorities and others in the area, it will judge whether to recommend to Ministers that there is a good unitary solution for the area in the future. When or if it does that, I will consider it.

I hope that the Minister knows that no local authority, parish council or organisation of any kind, except the Waveney Labour party, is in favour of this abortion called Yartoft, which tries to link Yarmouth and Lowestoft. May I have his absolute undertaking that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not accept any proposition that is so wholly against the views of every single elected authority concerned?

I will send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the guidance that we have given to the boundary committee, because that also sets out the way in which we will consider, and the criteria against which we will consider, any proposals that the boundary committee may make to us at the end of the work it has been asked to do. If he and his hon. Friends want to meet me about that at the appropriate stage, of course I will do so.

Does the Minister accept that any restructuring of local government in Norfolk will divert time and money away from improving front-line public services, and that ultimately it will be the hard-pressed taxpayer who has to pay for the privilege?

It is true that any proposal for restructuring local government inevitably raises fierce feelings. It usually raises resistance, particularly from those councils that may not have a future under any arrangements. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the guidance, too, because it makes it clear that at this stage of the work it is for the boundary committee to formulate a draft alternative proposal, and that

“Any dialogue with, or request for information from, a local authority should not involve the authority having to incur significant expenditure.”

I hope that that is of some reassurance to him and his local authorities.


9. What contribution eco-towns are expected to make to the supply of housing, with particular reference to affordable homes. (188692)

Eco-towns offer an exciting opportunity to provide desperately needed new homes for families and first-time buyers, but in a way that is consistent with our climate change objectives. They must have at least 30 per cent. affordable housing, but I am keen to see whether we can achieve even more, with some developments pushing towards 50 per cent.

I hope that the Scottish Executive in Holyrood are listening to our commitment in this regard. I note that eco-towns will provide low running cost properties and good access to public transport, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to regenerate our towns and cities at the same time so that one does not succeed at the expense of the other?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that the eco-towns of the future, of which we hope to have 10, take into account the areas where they are situated and the links with other communities. I see some real possibilities, particularly in realising a public transport vision in some communities. I understand from my hon. Friend and others from Scotland that the Scottish National party has been quiet on these matters, but I hope it will learn from the ambition and progress here in Westminster to provide homes in a way that meets our climate change objectives.

This morning, the Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland announced an eco-village for Enniskillen. We welcome all such developments, but may we have an assurance that we will make further progress at a more dynamic pace to try to reassure communities throughout the United Kingdom that we are serious about climate change?

We have set ourselves the world-class challenge of making all new homes zero-carbon by 2016. That has put us at the forefront of what we can do with housing and the built environment. Eco-towns, our zero-carbon challenge and our work across Government on climate change put us in a good place to get on top of the issue, so that the Government can lead and we can facilitate and enable local authorities and businesses—and the public, who also want to do the right thing—to play their parts.

Social Housing

10. What assessment she has made of the potential of local housing companies to increase available social housing stock. (188693)

Local housing companies have the potential to contribute significantly to the target of 200,000 new homes on surplus public sector land by 2016. English Partnerships is working with 14 local authorities on developing the local housing company model. That will provide an accurate basis for assessing its potential, but early indications suggest that it may be possible, through the model, to deliver 15 to 20 per cent. more affordable housing on each site than traditional disposal and planning processes would deliver.

Will the Minister expand on the benefits of local housing companies in providing extra resources for local authorities and extra affordable houses in my constituency and others?

The model places local authorities at the very heart of the development process, thereby affording councils greater influence over such matters as the quality and mix of houses. To respond directly to my hon. Friend, I should say that, crucially, it allows councils to benefit from the increasing value of land on the site which can be ploughed back into affordable housing. I am taking a keen and personal interest in the 14 pilot areas for local housing companies and I hope that more councils will consider that model in future.

Topical Questions

My Department is responsible for achieving the delivery of 3 million new homes by 2020 and for encouraging active, empowered and cohesive communities right across England.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State did not mention people who sleep rough. According to Government figures, nobody is sleeping rough in Wellingborough, Rushden or the rest of Northamptonshire, and fewer than 500 are doing so in the whole of England. Recently, I attended the opening of a night shelter at the Full Gospel church in Rushden. It was immediately occupied by five rough sleepers. If the Government do not recognise the problem, how can they solve it?

Our homelessness policy has been tremendously successful, particularly in respect of the worst type of homelessness—rough sleeping. The number involved has reduced to 498 from last year. I understand the mechanics of what the hon. Gentleman is saying in terms of a 0 to 10 categorisation, and I have pledged to look at that. However, we are in a fantastic phase of homelessness policy. We are moving forward from an ad hoc situation—trying to find somebody a bed for the night—to making sure that we address the real, underlying problems of homelessness and rough sleeping. We are looking at skills and training and have just ploughed the biggest cash injection ever into homelessness services. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be pleased with that.

T2. Ministers will be aware of concern that the replacement for the neighbourhood renewal fund is a fund focused exclusively on unemployment. There is concern that there should be continuing funding for social regeneration, particularly in deprived areas; I am thinking particularly of building communities and ensuring that people have a voice at a local level. What further consideration are Ministers giving to ensuring that there is that voice at a local level and that some of those social regeneration projects continue? (188673)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. He will know that the neighbourhood renewal fund has been extremely successful in tackling crime and improving educational performance, particularly in our poorest communities. The working neighbourhoods fund is specifically focused on tackling worklessness, because in some of the poorest communities there are several generations of people who have not worked. It is absolutely crucial that we tackle that.

My hon. Friend will also know that the local area agreement process is built on making sure that every citizen has a voice on the priorities for their communities. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that although his authority will not get the neighbourhood renewal fund, there will be a transition authority for the new working neighbourhoods fund, which is £1.5 billion over the next three years for those authorities in England.

T4. Will the Minister take a very close look at the representations made by the six local authorities that each have less than half the sum that they need for the Supporting People programme? Will she look closely at speeding up the pace of change of the grant formula and have urgent talks with Stoke-on-Trent city council to see whether we can use underspend from other areas or whether, through talks with the regional Minister, we can find a way to get the money that we need now rather than having to wait 13 years before we get the allocation we need? (188675)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that issue. She has an excellent record on campaigning not only on Supporting People but on getting more housing and facilities in her area. The Supporting People programme helps hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people in our communities to get supported housing, and there is now £1.5 billion in the programme. I certainly undertake to look at the points that she has raised about accelerating the programme and ensuring that we direct the funds to the places where it really matters. I think that everybody in this House would agree that the Supporting People policy has been one of the most successful, particularly in working with the voluntary sector.

On 27 November last year, the Secretary of State told the House that the Government had “no plans for” a “revaluation” of council tax. She will be painfully aware that that statement was at considerable variance with the actuality. Documents released by her Department show that since 2005 the Government have spent at least £6 million on preparing for revaluation. Will she withdraw her statement of 27 November and apologise for its inaccuracy?

I certainly will not. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is what I have said many times before at this Dispatch Box—that there are no plans for a revaluation in the lifetime of this Parliament, and certainly not before 2010 or 2011. We now have a three-year local government settlement that provides the certainty, stability and predictability that local authorities need. To be honest, the report in The Sunday Telegraph is simply more scaremongering. No revaluation—I do not know how many times I have to say it.

It was the right hon. Lady’s Department’s own work; we should be clear that we have this information only because officials failed to obliterate the words beneath blacked-out paragraphs in the released documents. The documents show that many thousands of households are paying more council tax than they should be, and that those errors have been kept secret—in the Government’s own words—owing to the

“adverse press coverage this could generate in the current climate.”

Will she now tell us the true number of households in the wrong band? Is it more than 400,000? Or will we have to rely on the vagaries of her Department’s magic marker to know the truth?

I try to be kind to the hon. Gentleman—I genuinely do—but I have to say to him that by choosing this particular issue he is on very shaky ground. He will know that the document to which he refers is more than two years old, from before we passed the legislation dealing with this issue. There will be individual properties that are in the wrong council tax band, and there is a process for people to make an appeal for that to be addressed, but for him to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that there will be hundreds of thousands is patently untrue, and scaremongering.

T5. The Secretary of State kindly wrote to me last week suggesting that I hold a citizenship day event in my constituency. Does she agree that it would be an even better idea to combine a citizenship day with a Britain day so that we can celebrate the virtues of British citizenship? (188676)

My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. We have put together a pack to encourage local authorities to celebrate citizenship, but to do it in their own local way. Whether that reflects what works best in Wrexham or across the whole of our nation, I hope that it is something that local authorities take an active interest in, and we will continue to support it from the Department.

T6. Last year, the Department for Communities and Local Government decided not to reorganise Cumbria, but to leave it under a two-tier authority. When that decision, which I supported, was announced, the six district councils and the county council pledged to work together to reduce waste, save money and improve services. Will the Secretary of State write to those councils and ask them what progress they have made on that pledge? (188678)

My hon. Friend is right: we decided last year not to proceed with the unitary proposals from Cumbria, and the onus is now on the county and district councils to work together more closely. He may be interested to know that the Leadership Centre for Local Government is involved in helping them to do just that, and that over the next three years £380 million will be made available to help councils to improve and become more efficient. Part of the way they need to do that will be to work together more closely. I hope that his councils will draw on those funds, and on the expertise that we are making available to them.

Regional Ministers have now been in post for more than six months, yet still there is no structure to hold them to account. Does the Secretary of State not think that it would be a better idea to get rid of them altogether, as these unaccountable entities are nothing more than Government representatives in the region, rather than the region’s representatives in Government? Is not the truth that they are nothing more than a waste of space?

I am very disappointed by the hon. Lady’s approach to this issue, from a party that is supposedly committed to devolution and decentralisation. Regional Ministers have performed an excellent function over the last few months, ensuring that some of the organisations in the region are more accountable to the people of this country, and that we are able to question and scrutinise the activity of many of those organisations. I would have hoped that the Liberal Democrat party, supposedly a localist party, would want to see more devolution—

T7. I shall be interested to see which Cabinet attendee steps up to the plate to respond to my question on the Thames Gateway, particularly as I am complaining again about the absence of joined-up government in the prosecution of the Prime Minister’s laudable objective of regeneration in the gateway. Why is it that someone in the Department is frustrating the development of the Thames Gateway by refusing to approve the eastern region spatial strategy? That is leading to paralysis of decision making, a disincentive to investors— (188679)

I get the drift, most certainly. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. On 4 March, I will be chairing the Thames Gateway strategic partnership. It is my intention over the months ahead to identify clearly what we need to do across Government and in the Department to make progress. Considerable progress has been made, but there is more to be done. The new Homes and Communities Agency, under Sir Bob Kerslake, will be taking on that strategic responsibility. I will be working with him to ensure that we make more progress and ensure even greater success for all the communities in the Thames Gateway area.

On that very point, I still do not think that we have had an explanation from the Government of why, after years of poor performance by the Department in the management of the Thames Gateway, and a very damning Public Accounts Committee report last November, the chief executive of barely a year was sacked but the Minister responsible for the policy has received a promotion. Could we now have that explanation?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that some of the content of the PAC report is clearly out of date. Much progress has been made, and there is more to be done. This is an ambitious project. A lot is required nationally, regionally and locally in order to deliver outcomes, and although there is constructive criticism to be made, we have to ensure that we highlight the fantastic things that have already been done in the Thames Gateway with regard to jobs, homes and the environment. Constructive criticism is always important, but let us not lose sight of that.

T8. When a school, such as North Wheatley in my constituency, is flooded in July and again in January, is it not incumbent on the local authority to rebuild the school as new in conjunction with the Environment Agency? (188680)

It is certainly incumbent on the local education authority, working with the local authority, to take every step that it can to get the kids back into their classrooms so that they do not lose out on their education. I well remember the North Wheatley school, which I visited in the summer along with the North Leverton primary school, which was also flooded. I will look into the matter for my hon. Friend, and if I can assist as I did previously, I will do so.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing agree to meet me and other concerned Members of Parliament of all parties who have major anxieties about land maintenance companies, such as Greenbelt Group Ltd, which owns the common land on new estates in perpetuity, charges home owners excessive costs, provides little or no service and then sends threatening and bullying letters to my constituents and others? (188681)

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who think that that is an important concern for their constituents.

Are Ministers aware that MCL, the Government’s consultants on funding the national bus concessions scheme, has estimated that Chelmsford needs £1.1 million extra to be fully funded? Are Ministers also aware that Chelmsford will get only £413,000—a shortfall of £738,000? The current scheme, which starts at 9 am, will have to meet the statutory minimum time set by the Government at 9.30 am. Will Ministers reconsider, fund the scheme properly and stop insulting my constituents by writing to me and trying to blame the borough council rather than themselves for failing to fund the scheme fully?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a significant amount of extra investment has been made in concessionary bus schemes for pensioners and disabled people, in a way that has never previously been known in this country. That represents tremendous progress. He also knows that the Local Government Association requested that the extra funding for concessionary fares should be made in a specific grant and ring-fenced, contrary to the rest of our policies. I agreed to do that, and £212 million—a generous sum—has been allocated and will meet the needs of authorities to provide concessionary fares.