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Topical Questions

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

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.