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Topical Questions

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

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.