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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—


Before the House rises for the recess, I will publish a shortlist of the locations that we believe have the best potential to be eco-towns and which will go forward for further assessment and public consultation. Later this year, we will announce up to 10 locations that we are satisfied meet our criteria.

In the selection of sites of eco-towns, will my right hon. Friend take into account the needs of existing communities to expand and regenerate, and resist attempts by organisations such as UK Coal to use eco-towns as a way of exploiting their existing land bank, which in some cases will affect the expansion of existing communities?

It is essential that the proposals for eco-towns not only meet high environmental standards but recognise where they sit in relation to other communities, particularly those that we seek to regenerate. It is also essential that they do not become simply commuter-belt communities, but have an identity of their own that includes homes, infrastructure and employment within the communities.

Will the Minister confirm that neither she nor the Secretary of State will entertain as suitable to go on the shortlist those sites that are no more than reheated and previously rejected or withdrawn applications? She will know, as will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), of the case in my constituency involving the Co-op, which has sought for the third time to build on its 5,000-acre farming estate. It withdrew its application in 1992 and tried again in 1996 with a sustainable urban extension. Will she confirm that this reheated application system should not be permitted?

We are certainly not interested in any reheated plans. For the next phase of consultation, it is important that we look at the locations that have the potential to be sites for eco-towns and that they undergo cross-government scrutiny, with advice from the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Highways Agency and others. It is important that we scrutinise the proposals in more depth to ensure that they fit the bill, and that is laid out clearly in the prospectus that we produced last year.

Will the Minister give an assurance that in the next phase to which she has just referred there will be an adequate opportunity for neighbouring local authorities to express their very real concerns about the potential effect of eco-towns on transport and regeneration?

Yes, we want local authorities and communities to look further into issues regarding infrastructure and transport, both in terms of getting from one place to another and reducing the reliance on the car by providing more sustainable transport options for those who will eventually live in the communities.

From the constructive and good-natured debate that I had on development in Aylesbury Vale with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), in Westminster Hall on 4 December, the Minister of State should be in no doubt that I am an enthusiast for sustainable development, including new housing which we need. Will she, however, accept it from me that the proposed impost in the minds of some of 5,000 new homes in Little Horwood in my constituency would represent a disproportional and unjust burden? If she chooses to trifle with the people of Little Horwood and to bite them, I can assure her that they will bite back.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in recognising that new homes have to be part of the future and that we need to build more. Part of the scrutiny for the eco-towns is to look at the housing supply and the housing need in the local communities where they will be placed, and we will look into that in great depth. One of the priorities for locations is housing need, and we cannot duck that because this is about homes for people who cannot get on the housing ladder and have a home of their choosing.

I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that the amount of research that the Government have done into the development of eco-homes eclipses anything that we might expect from our opponents. Does she agree that the new homes entail a 40 per cent. reduction in energy use? Crucially for the British economy, those homes will also provide significant employment opportunities and opportunities to gain funding from countries such as China, because we will export that investment.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is involved in engineering—she is an eminent engineer—and who always looks for opportunities to support that profession. She is right: homes built today are 40 per cent. more efficient than those built a few years ago. Our aim through eco-towns and other approaches is to capitalise on the skills, ideas and innovation in this country to build homes and provide jobs and be a potent force for overseas export and investment back into this country.

Airport infrastructure in the United Kingdom is a subject of much interest. Is the Minister aware that small airports and airfields around the UK provide an important sub-infrastructure and that many business people use them? Will she provide an assurance that airfields such as Leicester airport and others will not be regarded as easy targets on which to build eco-towns, given that they are important parts of the infrastructure of the communities that they serve and are significant generators of wealth in the areas that they serve?

I declare an interest, because there is a growing airport in my constituency. It is very successful, and there has been house building and job creation as a result of that investment. I will not be drawn into specifics because, as I have said, I will publish the shortlist of locations before the House rises. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that all factors in relation to eco-towns, including transport infrastructure, other amenities in the local area and the use of brownfield sites, are part of the mix, which we will study further to see what more we can get out of developers and to ensure that developers are meeting our exacting benchmarks.

On 4 March, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), told us that an announcement was imminent. Why has there been a delay, and why has it taken almost a month for the proposals to be published? Is the delay not a sign of the disarray in the Minister’s Department, which has ignored the need for proper infrastructure planning, failed to carry local support and even advanced proposals for sites that have already been rejected by planners? Will eco-towns join the growing list of botched projects, such as Thames Gateway and pathfinder?

Well, I do not know about reheated plans, but those are reheated Tory arguments. Behind the attacks on eco-towns, which is what this is really about, is a fundamental attack on the need to build more homes. We have not built new towns for 40 years. Of course infrastructure is important, which is why we are introducing the community infrastructure levy, the community infrastructure fund and all the proposals that will go through to the next round. There will be much closer scrutiny involving local authorities, Departments and other agencies to see what more we can get from those bidders to deliver on infrastructure. A community is not a community without infrastructure, and those eco-towns will show how it can be done well and how they can be the best.

Housing (Bournemouth)

The panel report into the draft regional spatial strategy for the south-west recommends an overall net increase in dwellings for Bournemouth of 16,100 for the period 2006 to 2026. That is the recommendation of the panel based on evidence submitted to and discussed at the examination in public held between 17 April and 6 July 2007. The panel’s recommendations are currently before the Secretary of State for consideration.

I am grateful for that reply, but it does not give the full picture. It is interesting that the Minister for Housing, who has just sat down, said that a community is not a community without infrastructure. The numbers of houses that the Under-Secretary has just read out will be built in Bournemouth with no investment in rail services, schools, hospitals or the fire service—as the Under-Secretary knows, there has been a 1 per cent. increase for the fire service. How can we continue to cram houses into Bournemouth unitary authority, which is already building 600 new dwellings every single year, without creating slums for the future?

The hon. Gentleman needs to have a closer dialogue with his local authority, which asked for the regional spatial strategy to include between 680 and 780 homes a year and which is currently building at a rate of more than 1,000 completions a year. Bearing that in mind, the hon. Gentleman would be best off working with the local authority to help to ensure that his local community gets the infrastructure that goes with those houses, and I am sure that that is possible.

Rough Sleepers

An estimate of the number of rough sleepers in England is published every September. It is based on the results of local authority street counts in areas with a known or suspected rough sleeping problem. The 2007 estimate indicated there were 498 people sleeping rough on any one night, which is a 73 per cent. reduction on the 1998 baseline.

I am grateful for that response. The success of the rough sleepers programme means that there are only eight rough sleepers in Northamptonshire. However, will the Minister explain why we are spending a total of £5 million of public money emptying a 66-unit three-storey block of flats to provide a centre for those eight rough sleepers in a part of my constituency that has a pressing need for accommodation for homeless families? Does he not think that there should be a better balance between the needs of homeless families with children and the needs of rough sleepers?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s hard work on housing and homelessness in Northampton. I greatly enjoyed my visit to her constituency a couple of weeks ago.

On the specific point that my hon. Friend raised, I understand that the proposed Robinson house, as part of the £160 million Places of Change funding, will help homeless people in her constituency to seek access to education and training. I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend by saying that the grant, which totals £1.4 million for Northampton borough council, will not be drawn down until my Department is satisfied with the integrity of the scheme. I will keep a close eye on it, and I encourage my hon. Friend to do so as well.

We are all very concerned about rough sleepers. However, should the Government not also be tackling the long-term problems of family breakdown and drug and alcohol dependence? Should they not be doing more about those issues?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, we spent yesterday in the House discussing the Housing and Regeneration Bill, including the creation of the Homes and Communities Agency and the need for 3 million new homes by 2020 as a result of family breakdown. That is exactly what this country needs, yet the hon. Gentleman’s party is opposing the Bill. I would have thought that he would support the housing Bill that this country needs and deserves.

Will my hon. Friend look into how councils are not counting rough sleepers? In fact, all the evidence goes to show that they work around the town and away from where rough sleepers actually sleep. What will he do to ensure that we get the true number of rough sleepers in each local authority area? After that, what can we do to ensure that local people in desperate need on the streets get into accommodation with heating?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. I have received parliamentary questions from him on this very important point. His hard work on this issue is probably at odds with his local authority’s.

My hon. Friend mentioned methodology, which is an important point. I will ensure that we continue to have robust data on the number of people sleeping rough. However, I should point out that before 1998 there was no measurement of rough sleeping levels and the Conservative party attached no importance to the issue. The current methodology has been applied consistently for a decade and shows a sharp reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. Furthermore, the methodology is backed up by the independent National Audit Office.

Listed Buildings

Government policy on planning and the historic environment is set out in planning policy guidance note 15, which highlights the need for effective protection of the historic environment, including listed buildings, as a central part of our cultural heritage and sense of national identity. Tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will publish the first heritage protection Bill in 30 years. It will give listed buildings greater protection, encourage greater public involvement in decisions and create a single, unified heritage protection regime.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer. Is she aware that sites such as High Down on the West Wight currently have protection by dint of being sites of special scientific interest, but are not listed? What extra protection, for instance, would the listing of the structure at High Down—a quarter of a mile long concrete ramp for rockets—bring to the site?

I scratched my head when I saw the hon. Gentleman’s question. I thought that he might ask about Osborne house or any of the 1,900 listed buildings on the Isle of Wight; the island has more than its fair share of beautiful buildings. Clearly, the listed building regime is a key consideration in planning applications, and PPG15 says that local authorities must have particular regard to where there are listed buildings. Clearly, there is a process to undergo for areas that are not listed. As I said, tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will publish a draft Bill that will seek to improve the process for listing areas. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will take a great interest in that.

A large number of the listed buildings in my area have thatched roofs. That poses real problems for owners, not only because of the cost of replacing a roof but because there is a shortage of the appropriate cereal straw to do it. Will the right hon. Lady issue guidance to stop the inflexibility of many planners, who require an absolute like-for-like replacement of thatches instead of using the available material, which is visually impossible to distinguish from the original?

Goodness, it is amazing what one learns in the Chamber; certainly, I have learned something today. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about ensuring that the planning system retains its flexibility but at the same time seeks to protect the cultural and architectural heritage that is so important in this country. I think he will agree that getting the balance right is important. I had no idea that there were different colours of thatch, or perhaps different shades of thatching; I am now better informed, and I will look into it myself.

Ordnance Survey

5. What the respective responsibilities of the shareholder and client Ministers for Ordnance Survey are. (197686)

I am the Minister for Ordnance Survey responsible for the shareholder relationship between the Department and the agency, dealing with strategic and day-to-day issues arising in connection with its activities, particularly in terms of financial and Government matters. My ministerial colleague the noble Baroness Andrews leads for the Department on issues relating to the purchase of Ordnance Survey products and services.

It is a great relief that the Minister knows who he is.

Ordnance Survey is the envy of the world as a mapping institution; it is second to none, and it costs the taxpayer nothing. However, there is continuing confusion between its public duty and the private competition that it has to have as a trading fund. The pan-government agreement, which regulates how different Government Departments and agencies use Ordnance Survey, came to an end yesterday. We have no news of what is going to be put in its place, so will the Minister tell us? When will the regulatory framework be updated and amended to bring an end to all this confusion, which is getting in the way of Ordnance Survey’s excellent work?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Ordnance Survey is a true success story for Britain and, given the importance in the 21st century of data collection and dissemination, is something that we can lead the world on. In respect of his important point about the pan-government agreement, that was established, as he is aware, to ensure that the Government have access to mapping data in order to develop and implement policy at a reasonable price. We are looking into that, and I will update the House accordingly.

The Minister is clearly the right man for such a range of responsibilities. He will be aware that Ordnance Survey is the second-largest Government trading fund and that it breaks even on its costs by selling its goods and services to the public and private sectors. There is an argument that such information should be made more freely available, free of charge. Has he read the book which was published alongside the Budget, “Models of Public Sector Information via Trading Funds”—quite a racy read—and which rebuts the claim that a move to free data would damage the work of Ordnance Survey? It should be made freely available to citizens of this country, and that can be done in a way that produces funds rather than absorbs them.

As a fellow accountant, I can imagine that I would find it racy as well.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the provision of data. He said that Ordnance Survey breaks even as a trading fund. In fact, it provides about £6.2 million in surplus that is then passed back to the public purse via dividends. That is to be encouraged. The business model, with changing market conditions and technology, is being considered and, as Minister with responsibility for Ordnance Survey, I will continue to do so.

I am so sorry to hear that the Minister’s ministerial duties also come at no cost to the taxpayer.

Is the Minister aware that the Atlantis initiative, which is very important in supplying information to support flooding and water management, is also unfunded? For how long, in the present climate, does he believe that that initiative will be sustainable?

I thank the hon. Lady for her consideration of my welfare. I shall look into the point she raises and get back to her. I seem to be doing that on a regular basis with regard to the questions she asks me, but I shall endeavour to ensure that I look into the points she raises and get back to her.

Is the Minister aware that Ordnance Survey is not only one of the oldest but one of the most efficient Government services? Other Departments depend on it, quite apart from local authorities and other institutions in need of accurate information. Will he urgently come up with an agreement that does not—as usual—lend some agency the extraordinary honour of a totally unworkable private finance initiative? This trading fund works, and we ought not to disturb it.

I agree with my hon. Friend on that. As I said before, Ordnance Survey is a true success story, and its provision of data is an example of Britain leading the world. The business model is reviewed on the basis of changing market conditions and technology, and we will continue to do that. The bottom line, however, is to ensure that the success of Ordnance Survey continues.

Empty Properties

6. How many empty properties there are in England; and what steps she is taking to ensure effective use of the national housing stock. (197687)

The housing strategy statistical appendix completed by local authorities shows that there are currently 672,924 empty properties across England—that is a 12 per cent. reduction since 1997. Of these, 271,252 are privately owned properties that have been empty for more than six months.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I welcome the fact that the percentage has gone down, but surely 670,000 is a lot of houses to stand empty. What role should local authorities play, and what powers do they have, in ensuring that they can bring these houses back into use?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: progress is being made, and the figures also have to be seen in the context of rising house numbers, but we have to do more to reduce the number of long-term empty homes. That is why in the Housing Act 2004 we introduced empty dwelling management orders, which give local authorities power to take over the management of properties that have been empty for more than six months. The orders are often used as a last resort but, for example, Manchester city council’s threat to use them led to 40 properties coming back into use.

I am sure the Minister will agree that at a time when there is huge pressure on our countryside for new building, it is a national disgrace that there are 700,000 empty homes throughout our nation. She mentions empty dwelling management orders as if they are the be-all and end-all to solve the problem, but will she not admit that because they are so bureaucratic and difficult to bring in, the total of EDMOs so far has not been 700,000 but 11?

EDMOs are there to be used by local authorities—we provided that power for them. I am always keen to discuss how we can improve matters: Councillor Mehboob Khan of Kirklees council has sent me some constructive ideas about the way forward. Having said that, it is a matter of making sure that local authorities have ownership of the issue at a local level—some 200 of them have an empty properties officer, including in Gateshead, the authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson).

It is also important that, as part of their housing strategic assessment, local authorities identify the right type of housing that needs to be built for the communities that they serve. That is why we must ensure we have the right balance between one and two-bedroom flats and affordable family homes. We will do what we need to do, but local authorities also have to be seen to engage in this matter and deal with the commercial market to ensure that the number of empty homes can be reduced further.

Our planning system stresses the need to stimulate house building on brownfield land before greenfield land. Has my right hon. Friend considered giving empty homes special status in planning, to try to stimulate the bringing back of empty homes into use, before building on brownfield or greenfield land?

Of course we want to see where we can bring empty homes back into use where possible. In fact, this year’s Budget proposals allow for a reduction in VAT where homes are being renovated that have been empty for two years. That is part of the process of using the tools we have provided locally to get a more wide-ranging view of how planning should be developed with regard to housing and infrastructure. However, we have to build more homes too. Even if we filled every empty property, it still would not give us the type and number of houses we need to meet demand in the long term.

Speaking of empty property, the Minister knows that 122 acres of Whitehall currently lie empty at a cost to the taxpayer of some £200 million a year—a substantial sum. Since the Government have a target and a plan for everything, how many acres will still be empty at the end of the year, and what saving will the Government achieve by then in their plan to reduce the number?

We are working across Whitehall to identify suitable surplus public land. We have considered some 900 sites and identified around 170 plus that could be suitable for housing. That is part of our engagement with local authorities in identifying the sites in their areas. I am pleased to say that some 62 per cent. of local authorities have identified their five-year land use plans. We will work with them to ensure that we put our land into the pot, but we must have local ownership for the housing, especially the affordable housing, that we need for the future of people in this country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency the number of private empty homes has increased from 884 in 2001 to more than 1,500 in 2006-07? Is she also aware that the local authority has taken only four actions and is not using the powers that we have granted to tackle that problem? What can she do to ensure that local authorities are required to work in partnership with registered social landlords to enable those houses to be brought back into use for families in desperate need?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the position in Luton to my attention. As a Minister, I always think it is important to ask whether powers are available before devising new ones. If they are available but not used, my hon. Friend gives a good example of the Government’s role in asking why. I am happy to examine the matter in more detail. Clearly, I want to ensure that the orders that we provided can be used. If there is a reason that they cannot be used, I want to hear about it. However, simply not using them is no excuse.

Council Tax

7. What the percentage change in band D council tax has been between 1997-98 and 2008-09 in (a) Basildon, (b) London and (c) England. (197688)

Between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the average band D, two adult council tax in the Basildon district council area rose by 118 per cent. That includes the precepts for Essex county council, Essex police authority, Essex fire and rescue and any parish councils.

The corresponding figure for London was 98 per cent., and for England the figure was 100 per cent. The average council tax increase of 4 per cent. in 2008-09 is the lowest for 14 years—and the second lowest ever—and 2008-09 will be the 11th successive year in which we have increased local government funding by more than the rate of inflation.

Given that the council tax in Basildon district has more than doubled in the past 10 years and that the Local Government Association believes that that is largely because the Government have offloaded responsibilities on to councils generally, without providing the necessary funding—24-hour licensing laws is one example—will the Secretary of State explain to my constituents why the Government expect them to pay the bill for those extra responsibilities when they are already labouring under higher fuel bills and food prices?

The hon. Gentleman knows that in the past 10 years services have improved dramatically in local authority areas throughout the country. More than two thirds of local authorities are good or excellent. I trust that he also knows that the average council tax per dwelling in England is £204 less for those living in a Labour area than it is for people living in a Tory area, and £143 less if one lives in a Labour area rather than a Liberal Democrat area. Labour councils cost you less.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the average council tax is the more accurate statistic for constituencies such as mine because many properties in Barnsley, East and Mexborough are in band A and band B?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Two thirds of the people in this country live in bands A, B and C, with 15.9 per cent. of the population in band D. I am sure that he welcomes the neighbourhood policing teams that were announced this week, the children’s centres and the fact that recycling has increased from 7 to 32 per cent. That means that Labour councils not only cost you less, but deliver a better deal.

I know that the Secretary of State is a fair lady, so will she concede that her figures disguise the reality that council tax has more than doubled since the Government came to power, and that the remorseless increase in council tax is shown by all independent surveys to be one of the largest drivers in the increasing cost of living for families? The Government promised that the cost of the Mayor and the London assembly would be no more than 3p a week, but her figures disclose that the cost of London-wide services to Londoners has more than tripled under this Government, although I doubt whether Londoners regard themselves as three times safer or better transported.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his view that I am a fair person, and I shall respond to him in that spirit. I do not know whether he is aware that the figures in London are even starker. Council tax for people who live in Labour boroughs in London is £198 less than in Tory boroughs, and I was astounded to see that people in Liberal Democrat areas pay £521 more in council tax than people in Labour areas. The record of Ken Livingstone in London, with safer neighbourhood teams and better—

This is all good knockabout so far, but does the Secretary of State understand that since council tax was introduced in Wellingborough it has increased by 422 per cent. —the largest increase in the whole country? Does she accept that that is causing problems for pensioners and those on fixed incomes?

I entirely understand that families and pensioners, and people on fixed incomes, have to manage their budgets and look carefully at value for money. That is why, rather than this being knockabout stuff, it was important to stress the fact that the people in local government—particularly in Labour local authorities—are trying to secure value for money. However, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that the average pensioner household is in fact some £29 a week better off as a result of this Government’s proposals on tax, benefits, pension credit, the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences. Overall, pensioners are significantly better off, but of course I acknowledge that managing budgets is still pretty tough for some people.

Empty Business Property Rating

8. What assessment she has made of the likely effects of the empty business property rating rules that come into force in April; and if she will make a statement. (197689)

We set out the likely effects in an impact assessment alongside the Rating (Empty Properties) Bill last year, with a further assessment alongside the regulations in February. They showed that we expect an increased rate of re-letting of commercial property and a reduction in the business rents as a result.

There are many multi-storey Victorian mills in my constituency with unlettable upper floors, basements and outhouses. Some of those mills are listed buildings in a poor state that are home to scores of small businesses. What support can local authorities give from today to help the owners of those mills to stay in business, thus protecting thousands of jobs?

If they are empty and listed, those buildings are exempt from business rates. The crucial question is whether they are capable of beneficial occupation; in other words, are they rentable? If my hon. Friend and his constituents feel that those properties are not rentable, he should apply to the Valuation Office Agency, which will undertake an assessment and, if appropriate, provide the relevant relief or exemption.

Is the Minister aware that the Government’s proposals are going to cause big problems for small businesses? One such business in Kettering contacted me and said:

“We have purchased two new offices in Kettering. Unfortunately, with the economy slowing down they have remained empty since December. In future, I will not buy any new property until I have a secured tenant signed up. This means that there will be a lot less investment in Kettering.”

What kind of message is that to the business community up and down the country?

When the cost of empty property relief has stood at £1.3 billion, it is no longer easy to justify offering that tax relief for buildings that sit empty, when they are subsidised by other taxpayers. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about business rents and the prospects for business, I suggest that he consult the Federation of Small Businesses. The FSB recognised in its submission to Lyons that such reform could bring down rents for business, because it would increase the incentives to re-let, sell or redevelop property that would otherwise remain empty.

Sustainable Buildings Code

9. What progress is being made in assisting local authorities to implement the sustainable buildings code. (197690)

Local authorities are fully aware of the code for sustainable homes, and many of them are already using it to improve the sustainability of homes in their area in a range of circumstances, including in building sustainable social housing, in housing growth areas and, where local circumstances allow, in other suitable developments. Guidance and support are available as appropriate.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Where local authorities wish to introduce compliance with code levels above the scheduled national compliance dates in their local planning frameworks, is it the Minister’s intention to provide them with the support and guidance to do so?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. His long-term and sustained interest in this area has provided a real incentive for the Government to go further. In respect of the zero-carbon homes target for 2016—the most ambitious target anywhere in the world—I would say that the planning framework provided by planning policy statement 22 in respect of renewable energy and the draft PPS on climate change, published over Christmas, helps to incentivise local authorities to go further and faster, if local circumstances allow it, and we would certainly encourage that to take place.

Does the Minister agree that a block to making buildings more sustainable is often the planning process, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested in his question about thatch—what I might call the “Heath-Thatcher” question. Local authorities will often say no when it comes to replacing a wooden window with double glazing, and prefer single glazing because they argue that if the window is on a listed building, it cannot be changed.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), I believe that the planning framework that we have put in place really helps with this problem. I mentioned PPS22 and the draft PPS on climate change, and I would also mention the recently introduced permitted development rights, which show that we are pushing as much as possible for greener homes and greener communities. That is our intention, and it is a key policy for this Government.

The Minister will know that part of the sustainable buildings code is the requirement to have lifetime home standards by 2013. Will he explain the logic of imposing that requirement on publicly funded homes before those built by the private sector?

The intention is very clear: that we want to be as ambitious as possible for public buildings—and that applies to our existing intentions and targets. In response to an earlier question about Ordnance Survey, I mentioned how Britain could lead the world, and I believe that the incentive provided by public investment in this sector can help Britain to lead the world in innovative and green products, which we can subsequently export. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

Gender Equality (Public Procurement)

10. What adaptations her Department has made to its public procurement policies and practices and its guidance to local authorities to take account of the gender equality duty. (197691)

Communities’ procurement policy emphasises to practitioners and stakeholders the importance of focusing on a raft of social themes, including gender equality. Local authorities are responsible for taking their own procurement decisions, subject to their legal duties, including the duty of best value and public procurement law.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The Labour Government have done a lot to help women at work, but there remains a stubborn equal pay gap and segregation between male and female job opportunities. Will the Minister take into account the recommendation of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee report “Jobs for the Girls” on the £125 billion of public procurement, and its recommendation that public bodies, including local authorities, could be subject to legal challenge for breaching the legal duty to promote gender equality if they do not use their purchasing power to ask suppliers and contractors to demonstrate an active commitment to equality principles? Will he also ensure that that guidance is given—

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is quite right to get across to the House the real changes in recent years around equalities legislation, not least the right to flexible working, maternity leave, paternity leave and the minimum wage, which has made a real difference—a disproportionate difference, in fact—to women. In terms of what more we have to do, much remains to do around equal pay with local authorities, 47 per cent. of which have implemented an equal pay review. Only 3 per cent. of them, in all, are still to begin that work. We are supporting them with £500 million of capitalisation to assist local authorities in this process. That, however, is just a beginning, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has already announced that we will provide further capitalisation for the future.

Will the Minister accept that the politically correct gobbledegook to which we have just listened is incomprehensible to most people in this country? Will he assure me that the guidance will be written in English, and will he try to address the House in that language in future?

I am not sure which bit the hon. Gentleman did not understand of the fact that it is only under a Labour Government that you get the right to flexible working, it is only under a Labour Government that you get rights around maternity and paternity leave, and it is only under a Labour Government that you get a minimum wage. I hope that is not too complicated for the hon. Gentleman.

Topical Questions

I have made my departmental priorities clear. They are to deliver the new homes that we have to deliver by 2020, to make sure that we give more power to councils and communities, and to make a priority of preventing violent extremism.

When council candidates declare next week, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on all of them to make it clear that they will stand on a non-racist ticket? It is very important that these elections do not at any stage descend into the gutter, and that we make it clear that we need cohesive communities that can be built together.

Absolutely: my hon. Friend is so right! When people come to exercise their democratic vote and choose the kind of administration they want, it should be on the basis of good policy, value for money and the provision of cleaner, greener and safer environments. It should not be on any kind of platform seeking to divide people; rather, it should be on a platform that brings people together.

T2. The Government said they would fund concessionary bus fares, but Basildon district council finds that for the forthcoming financial year it will be three quarters of a million pounds—approximately 5 per cent. of council tax—down, which means that the introduction will be delayed by half an hour on a daily basis. Given that the council will have either to raise council tax further or to cut services in order to fund the scheme, will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the issue—and if not, which option does she believe the council should take? (197708)

I am amazed that on the day that free travel is introduced, which will liberate many of our older and disabled people to be able to travel right across the country—11 million people will have opportunities they never had before—the hon. Gentleman should seek to cavil about this scheme. I can tell him that I was on the supertram in Sheffield yesterday—on the day that the scheme was launched—and every single person with their pass was absolutely delighted that they would be able to travel from Sheffield, perhaps even to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, although I cannot think of terribly good reasons why they would necessarily want to.

T3. The misleadingly branded Grovewood eco-town, which is proposed for the area between Swadlincote and Burton-upon-Trent, would build over farmland, would justify the construction of a major new road and would lead to the loss of a proportion of the national forest. When will the Minister give the coup de grace to that ridiculous proposal? (197709)

As I have said, I will make an announcement soon on the locations shortlisted for the next phase of the eco-town programme. Let me say to my hon. Friend, however, that it has been an exacting process to sift more than 50 bids down to the next shortlist, and during the next phase we will be looking at how we can raise the benchmark, endeavour to get more from the developers, and make sure that engagement with local authorities, communities and others is at the heart of the next six months of work. That will include steps such as a sustainability appraisal, a planning guidance note and, importantly, making sure that it is possible to have the infrastructure for these communities to thrive.

May I thank the Secretary of State for using the Conservative slogan at these elections—safer, cleaner, greener—in urging people to vote? Was she engaged in some kind of elaborate April fools’ joke when she suggested that Labour authorities have the lowest council tax, given that not a single academic, serious commentator or statistician agrees with her on that assessment? Is this, perhaps, the clearest example of what her colleague and neighbour the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), meant when he said:

“The Government is losing touch with what fairness means to the mainstream majority”?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the term “plagiarism”, and I must tell him that “Safer, greener and cleaner” has been Labour’s slogan for the past five years; indeed, I was beginning to wonder whether we needed to modernise it. As I have said to the House, the average council tax per dwelling in England in Labour areas is £204 less than in Tory areas, and £143 less than in Liberal Democrat areas—that is why it is excellent value for money. In the local elections on 1 May people will be able to make their choice, and they will see that Labour delivers for them, whereas Tories never do.

If we are using the same slogan, that perhaps explains why there are so few Labour authorities these days, and why the Prime Minister preferred not to have the Secretary of State at the campaign launch. Under Labour, council tax has doubled and the burden on pensioners has become unbearable; no wonder the Under-Secretary of State for Health is in a state of despair. Why did the Government give pensioners a £200 discount on their council tax in 2005 and nothing in subsequent years? Why do pensioners have to wait for an announcement of a general election before this Government show them any compassion?

Again, the hon. Gentleman may have had a little lapse of memory. He will know that this Labour Government have helped pensioners in every year since we came to power, which is why the average pensioner household is £1,500 better off in real terms than it was 10 years ago. He will also know that we have just announced the extra winter fuel allowance for pensioners. He will recognise that every year we try to think of another way in which we can help our older citizens, who make such a fantastic contribution to our community.

T6. Does the Minister agree that local area agreements are best when they are actually local, and that the reduction in the number of targets this year has been very welcome? Will the Secretary of State, or one of the other Ministers, also tell the House whether focusing on themes such as early intervention, as is happening in Nottingham, focuses the minds of not only the Government, but the Government office and all our local partners, so that we can achieve things through these plans, rather than have them sitting gathering dust on the shelf? (197712)

My hon. Friend has played a leading role in the negotiation of the local area agreement in Nottingham through his chairmanship of the local strategic partnership. I am grateful to him for that leadership, because alongside reducing indicators, mainstreaming grants, taking away ring-fencing and giving councils more power and communities more control, that leadership really makes a difference. Nottingham is concentrating on early intervention, and in that way it will ensure for the long term that it is a great place in which to live, work and bring up families.

T4. Has the Secretary of State read the recent article in the Municipal Journal by two eminent professors, Steve Leach and Michael Chisholm? They stated that the current local government reorganisation “is so flawed that it corrupts the body politic.”Is that not a dreadful indictment of what is obviously a politically motivated reorganisation that will do nothing to deliver better services, but will simply pile ever-greater burdens on the hard-pressed council tax payer? (197710)

We have looked at that analysis, and we do not accept it. We do not accept that the reorganisation is politically motivated. All the proposals in the seven affected areas have been produced and submitted to us by local authorities in those areas. The changes will mean that instead of 44 councils there will be nine. Once they are fully in place, the taxpayer will save about £90 million each year, and that can be used to improve services or keep council tax pressures under control.

Since the last housing market fall in the early 1990s, almost 1 million fewer social homes are available to rent, and in the past 10 years waiting lists have increased by 60 per cent. Given that Citizens Advice is reporting increases in the number of people coming to it with problems paying their mortgages, does the Secretary of State think that her Department should have done more to prepare for this looming housing crisis?

We have invested enormously over the past 10 years. First, we have invested to ensure that existing social housing stock is up to standard. Many people today live in more decent homes as a result of that investment. That is also why we have decided that we have to build more social homes for rent, and more affordable homes so that people can get onto the property ladder. It would seem from the tone of the hon. Lady’s question that she supports our proposals not only to increase the number of homes built across the country in rural and urban settings but to ensure that affordable homes are a feature of that increase. I would welcome it if Liberal Democrat councillors supported affordable housing in their own backyards.

T7. What steps can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that councils deliver the affordable homes that they promise? Is she as disturbed as I was that Warrington borough council promised to deliver affordable housing but, in its latest planning permission, delivered only 17 affordable homes out of 178? (197713)

Clearly, it is one thing to put aspirations on paper—my hon. Friend makes a point about Warrington, which identified the target that 50 per cent. of new houses should be affordable—but another thing to ensure that they happen. At the moment, I am considering the expressions of interest for growth housing points. I want to be reassured that affordable housing targets are realistic. In Warrington, and other parts of the country, we should ensure that affordable housing is set among other private housing to ensure that we get away from the mistakes of the past, when we had private housing in one part of the community and social housing in another, which is not sustainable. That is as important as the number of affordable homes that we build.

May I ask the Secretary of State specifically to consider the judgment of the High Court last week on Backdale quarry, and the important implications of that, as it overrode an inspector’s inquiry? While the Secretary of State is considering that position, will she also consider the history of the application? It has now been going on for more than 10 years, and has cost the Government and the Peak park planning authority a vast fortune. It has caused huge annoyance to all the local residents, who thought that once the planning inspector had ruled, they had a solution to the problem, only to find that the High Court threw that ruling out.

I certainly will look into that case—at the process, the procedures, and the outcome of the Court hearing. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is important for the planning system to provide a quick and efficient means of considering applications, while allowing the public to be properly engaged and to have their view expressed. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve through the Planning Bill, which is before Parliament. I shall certainly consider the application to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

T5. In the 1998 Command Paper “Modern local government: in touch with the people”, the Government stated: “The council tax is working well as a local tax. It has been widely accepted and is generally very well understood.”Does the Secretary of State accept that that is no longer true? Who does she think is responsible? (197711)

The council tax, following hard on the heels of the poll tax, was certainly an improvement. The hon. Gentleman will know that there has been an extensive inquiry by a well-respected individual, Sir Michael Lyons, who said that the council tax remains broadly sound, that it should be retained and that it has some welcome elements as it is a partial property tax and provides good local accountability. We believe that council tax is the right way forward. We are always conscious of the need for families and people on fixed incomes to ensure that they can balance their budgets. That is why I say again that Labour authorities cost less and are better value for money. So on 1 May people should vote Labour.

Can my right hon. Friend offer advice to councils across the country, including West Lancashire district council? In the age of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 it is simply unacceptable to have portakabins as polling stations, as they are not accessible to the disabled, either because they have steps or because the doors are not wide enough to allow wheelchair access. We need to send a message out from this House that all votes are valued equally.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Up and down the country it is important that people should have the right to vote. We should make all our polling stations as accessible as possible. I hope that her local authority will hear what she has said. All local authorities up and down the land should ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to vote.

T8. West Berkshire’s Conservative-run administration inherited from the Liberal Democrats a lamentable 18 per cent. of household waste being recycled. That is now rising to 50 per cent., with a power from waste contract resulting in 79 per cent. being diverted from landfill. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating them? (197714)

I am delighted that local authorities in general have raised the amount of household recycling from 7 per cent. some years ago to 32 per cent., and some authorities are doing extremely well. Where local authorities are doing well, I am pleased to congratulate them. The hon. Gentleman inherited the previous state of affairs from a Liberal Democrat council. The record of Liberal Democrats, where they are in power, is pretty lamentable. If anybody looks at Liverpool council at the moment, they will see the state that it is in: it is officially the worst managed council in Britain.

T10. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in relation to the impact on local communities of the closure of our vital post offices? (197716)

I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on post offices. I welcome the intervention of local authorities of all political persuasions in looking at whether councils could play a bigger role in putting services through the post office, or indeed in hosting post offices in their own organisations. I am keen to encourage them to do that. I am also keen to encourage co-operatives, mutuals, village shops and a whole range of different ways of providing what are sometimes essential services to local communities.