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Topical Questions

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2008

My Department will continue to focus on regeneration, housing and preventing violent extremism. I am delighted to announce today £500 million for the new deal for communities.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that at present local authorities accept people for priority rehousing on grounds of homelessness only when they have reached the wire—when they have had to fight legal proceedings right up to the eleventh hour and the bailiffs are knocking at the door. That causes great anxiety for families who already face the threat of eviction or repossession, so does my right hon. Friend’s Department have any plans to review the situation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Bristol looking at the great work on homelessness that is being done with the local authority. My hon. Friend will be aware that current homelessness legislation provides a strong safety net for families with children and for vulnerable people. As soon as the local authority is satisfied that homelessness is likely within 28 days, it must take steps to ensure that the applicant and his or her household will continue to have somewhere to live. However, I understand her concerns and we are working with the Ministry of Justice, the Council of Mortgage Lenders and others to provide and develop mortgage rescue packages to prevent homelessness in the first place. Alongside the biggest-ever cash injection for homelessness services, I am sure that will help to minimise as much as possible the risk of repossession.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has had time to look at the latest survey by the Local Government Association, which has branded 24-hour drinking a failure. The LGA survey warns that violence continues to blight the streets leaving taxpayers with a completely unacceptable £100 million bill. On top of that, local authorities have lost £43 million in licensing costs. Does the right hon. Lady believe that 24-hour drinking is a social experiment that has failed?

The hon. Gentleman will be very well aware that the number of 24-hour licences in this country is tiny. There has been a relaxation of licensing provisions so that people can now drink at different times. If he talks to the police, he will find that in his area, as in mine, they are pleased that we now have staggered closing times, and that we do not see the scenes on the streets that we used to see when people all came out of premises at the same time. We now have a better system for managing our night-time economy, which means the local authority, the police, trading standards and environmental services all working together on the issue. That is the practical approach, rather than an approach in which figures are plucked out of the air.

It is fortunate that the Local Government Association talked to local police and trading standards. The overwhelming majority of health authorities and councils reported pressure on resources. The right hon. Lady cannot kid herself any longer: our towns are nightly turned into vomitoriums, with brawling and bad behaviour. In March 2004, she said that the reforms would create a “continental café-bar culture”. How did her dream of a nation at ease with itself, gently sipping chardonnay, turn into something more like chucking-out time in Deadwood?

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that my dream is of people gently sipping chardonnay, perhaps he has not often been on a night out in Manchester, and perhaps he needs to go on one. I can tell him that a night out in Manchester is now a much more pleasant experience, because the police are active on the streets, the local authority has introduced a “best bar none” award in which bars are rewarded for managing their premises properly, and people can go out and thoroughly enjoy themselves in a safe environment. That is about making practical policies that work on the ground, with people working together. Local authorities’ trading standards departments have done an excellent job of cracking down on some of the off-licences and pubs that have been serving drink to under-age youngsters. We need to tackle those kinds of problems, while allowing the vast majority of people who go out, have a drink and enjoy themselves to do just that.

T2. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the current local government pay dispute, and will know that two days of strike action are scheduled for July. Does she agree that we need a resolution to the dispute, and will she call for negotiations to be opened? (214826)

We are all very disappointed that we face the prospect of industrial action, as the services that local authorities provide clearly impact on people who can sometimes be very vulnerable. I hope that all parties can get together and find a resolution. Clearly, settlements must be affordable, and we must be conscious of the dangers of inflation in the economy. However, if we can resolve the issue without industrial action, that would clearly be in everyone’s interests.

T6. In addition to failing to cope with waiting lists, the Government have, in 10 years, presided over a 10 per cent. reduction in the amount of social housing in England. Council housing has gone, so that there are now only three families in council houses for every seven that there were 10 years ago. Given all that, do the Government feel no embarrassment or shame about having been so dreadful? Is there any chance of a real acceleration of programmes, so that people can have housing built in their communities, as it used to be, including under the Macmillan Tory Government? (214830)

The £6.5 billion that we are putting behind the affordable housing programme is an indication of what we are providing—and that is just for social homes for rent. We are also doing work to enable local authorities to use their land assets, through local housing companies, to build more homes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that in 1997 we inherited a situation in which £19 billion-worth of repairs had to be made to existing housing stock. We have enabled more than £20 billion to be spent on transforming the living conditions of many social tenants. Sometimes in government, one has to make choices about priorities. Having done that work, we are now in the middle of a programme that will offer many more thousands of homes, with up to 45,000 homes a year being built for social rent by 2010-11. That is a strong indication that we are able to make tough choices. At the forefront of our minds is the question of how we make sure that everybody, regardless of whether they are home owners, has a chance to have a decent roof over their head.

T3. What steps has the Department taken to allow more local control over planning decisions about applications to build in the back gardens of houses? (214827)

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have strengthened the guidance in that area, and we urge local authorities to use it. Again, however, to strengthen the arm of local authorities, it is very important that they undertake their strategic housing assessment so that they can demonstrate that they are not only up to speed on housing needs locally, but actively engaged in the question of where the housing should go. Alongside that, we are working with local authorities to identify the land banks that are available to them for the location of future housing. If that work is done, it could strengthen the arm of local authorities to deal with the applications that come in. In the absence of a strategic housing assessment or of that land bank work, some people win their applications, to the dismay of some local authorities.

T7. May I ask when the Secretary of State intends to publish her findings on the south-west regional spatial strategy? When she does, will she take into account the terrible flooding, of which she is well aware, in Tewkesbury, where there are proposals to build thousands of extra houses, including thousands very close to the Walham sub-station that very nearly went under? If it had have gone under, the county probably would have been evacuated. Will she take all those points into account when she publishes her findings? (214831)

Yes, I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken a number of steps to ensure that our planning framework for dealing with flooding is strengthened. We have a new planning policy statement, which is now working, and the hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the borough council in his constituency has been allocated just over £1 million to help it with the cost of dealing with the flooding that took place in his constituency. Obviously, we have £31 million for flood restoration, too.

I am concerned that one year on, some people remain out of their homes. We are determined to do everything that we can about that, but we have managed to ensure that the vast majority of people are back in their homes and resuming their normal lives. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the spatial strategy, which will be published extremely soon, will take into account the issues that he has raised.

T4. Will my right hon. Friend look at the urgent need in Warrington for more shared equity homes, and at the need for our local authority to be more effective when giving planning consent in order to ensure that any consent for affordable housing is delivered on, and that the houses are retained in the affordable sector? (214828)

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. Through the planning framework and measures such as planning policy statement 3 and others, the local authority is absolutely key to ensuring that it has the homes that it needs in its area, taking into account local circumstances. Shared equity and affordable housing schemes are absolutely key, too. I have been to Warrington and seen what is going on, and I suggest that, frankly, Warrington borough council needs to do more to ensure that those affordable housing and shared equity issues are addressed. I commend my hon. Friend and her constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), for their sterling work on the subject.

T8. The Broadholme sewage treatment works in my constituency will reach its capacity by 2010, but according to the Government’s Northamptonshire core spatial strategy,“an expansion of the Broadholme…treatment works is unlikely to be achieved before 2013”. What are my constituents expected to do between 2010 and 2013—put a peg on their nose and cross their legs? (214832)

I would not dream of giving the hon. Gentleman’s constituents such advice. Clearly, in the growing areas of our communities, it is important to ensure that there is proper infrastructure, including transport, education provision and the vital service of sewage disposal and treatment. I was going to say that I would take it away and look at it, but perhaps I should ensure that it is properly dealt with. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue.

T5. When the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), visited my constituency recently, he took a great interest in the future developments at Bruche, and he promised to monitor them. Will he take steps to ensure that affordable and social housing developments built there and in other places are of the best possible quality and that we do not return to some of the cheap and nasty stuff that was thrown up in the past? (214829)

During my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency I was interested in that development, which is not only exciting for Warrington but very significant for the whole north-western strategy for affordable housing. My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point: the issue is not only about numbers but about design and good-quality planning, which are also important. The local authority has a key role to play in that. I really enjoyed my time in Warrington; I hope that I will be invited again, because I want to keep a close eye on the development.

T10. Up and down the country, local authority environmental health officers are visiting farm house bed and breakfasts and telling the proprietors that the family pet can no longer occupy its traditional place in the dog basket by the Aga. That is because the floor of the kitchen has been designated as a food preparation area. Was that decision made in the Department or by the local authorities? Does the Secretary of State agree that the situation is completely barking? (214834)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is essential that high standards of food hygiene are maintained where there are customers, and I am sure that he wants to ensure that that happens. He will also agree that it is important that legislation should be proportionate to the issues that it is designed to address. Clearly, our food hygiene rules are important. I will gladly look at whether they should relate to where the dog can sit, but we must not underestimate the need for our communities to ensure proper, good and high standards of food hygiene for the premises that they use and the places where they stay.

T9. My right hon. Friend will be aware that Nottingham, North has the highest concentration of challenged schools; that was announced two weeks ago by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Will she say how other Departments can work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that sorting out educational attainment becomes everybody’s problem, rather than being seen as something that rests purely with education? (214833)

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important issue, for which there must be an integrated approach across Government Departments and local public services. He is right that there is a very high number of challenged schools in his constituency, but Nottingham city schools also have one of the highest rates of improvement in the number of children getting five GCSEs. Yes, the base is low, but the city is doing extremely well in making progress. My hon. Friend has already met the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Mine is the corporate Department co-ordinating the local area agreement process, and I will ensure that there is a co-ordinated response. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: early intervention and supporting young people is the way forward to improve our communities now and in the long-term future.

My local council is advising families who are given notice to quit by a private landlord to stay put until legal action is taken. Will the Minister do her best to outlaw that practice, which is unfair on landlords and tenants?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we are doing a review of the private rented sector at present, and I will be looking to that for ideas about how to tackle the—to put it mildly—less reputable landlords, and, more positively, for ideas about what contribution reputable landlords could make to our provision of housing in partnership with local authorities and others. I shall consider the point that the hon. Lady has raised and write to her about it.