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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 480: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2008

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

South-west Spatial Strategy

1. If she will intervene to ensure that site-specific recommendations are deleted from the regional spatial strategy for the south-west with particular reference to Whaddon in Gloucestershire. (226336)

Before I reply to my hon. Friend’s question, I should like to place on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who did a tremendous job as Housing Minister in the Department. I wish her well in her new role as Minister for Europe. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) for his excellent work on community cohesion and for looking after the fire service. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) to her new role as Housing Minister, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), who will both be valuable members of our team.

The regional spatial strategy does not identify specific sites. It does, however, identify areas of search, which are broad directions of growth for the region’s key cities and towns. That approach is consistent with national policy on regional spatial strategies set out in PPS11, which follows published national guidance on regional spatial strategies.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that and I will be gentle with her, which we were not in last week’s debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), who had a slightly difficult time. If we consider the recommendation for Whaddon, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and I have strongly opposed, it does not take a genius to work out that its allocation within the RSS is clearly site-specific. It is important that we look at the process again, and I hope my right hon. Friend will take that back. There are other issues to do with the RSS, but this is a specific issue between Gloucester and Stroud and one that could undermine the whole process.

I am aware that my hon. Friend has been exercised about the matter for some time. I have had the opportunity to read the debate in Westminster Hall to which he and a range of other hon. Members contributed. As I said, the RSS is not about specific site designations, but I take his point in relation to this area of search. It is important that the local authorities are able to shape housing decisions in the interests of their community without the RSS being site-specific. He makes a good point, which I will take into consideration.

The Secretary of State referred to the debate in Westminster Hall last week. Is she aware of the strength of opposition among Members of all parties and in great numbers to the RSS in terms of the process, its complexity, the proposals themselves, housing numbers, and the total disregard for issues such as flooding? Given that so many hon. Members are united against the RSS, will she take those views into account?

I read all of the debate so I am aware of the various issues that hon. Members raised, and I am delighted that they had the opportunity to do so. I also read the robust response by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. There is an opportunity for Members to have their say; the consultation runs until 24 October. There have been at least three debates in which many Members have had an input into the process. There is always a debate about housing numbers, but despite the current economic difficulties that we face, we need more homes for our population. If we are also to get affordability into the system, the answer is increased supply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has sought deletions from the RSS. We are seeking to reinstate something that has been deleted. We are very concerned that the phrase relating to Plymouth specifically as an “economic hub” for growth in the south-west has been removed. That could have serious implications for our growth strategy, and I would welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments on the reason for the change in emphasis in the RSS specific to Plymouth.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. Plymouth has been an engine for growth and will continue to be. It has some award-winning regeneration projects driven by the local Members of Parliament, who have done a tremendous job in making a difference. I am also aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) conducted her own inquiry into housing provision in the Plymouth area. She gave me a copy of it earlier this year and I was delighted to receive it. There is a great deal of innovation in that area, particularly solutions involving community land trusts and mutual ownership. I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) makes about ensuring that Plymouth, together with other centres, continue to be the engines of growth in the area. I will look carefully at the representations that she has made to me.

Council Housing

The Government have announced their intention to change the revenue and capital rules that apply to new council homes in order to remove financial disincentives to new build by local authorities. On 2 September, the Secretary of State announced that we will invite local authorities that continue directly to manage their stock to compete for grant on the same terms as those with special purpose vehicles. In 2007-08, 310 homes were built by local authorities. However, the Government do not publish forecasts for house building.

Hundreds of thousands of children are living in accommodation that is deemed unsuitable for them and their families, and that is a direct result of 25 years of failed housing policies by successive Governments who have refused to allow council houses to be built. Given the collapse of the housing market, if the new private estates are not going to be built, nor will the so-called social housing, 25 or 30 per cent. of which has planning agreement. If the Government can find billions to bail out bankers, why can they not find sufficient money to build the family council houses for those hundreds of thousands of children who are inadequately housed?

I understand and sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s concern for families who are being brought up in inadequate homes, but the demand does not all have to be met through council housing. We will be happy to see a greater expansion of provision by councils, but many other bodies have been providing social and other housing, and the Government have had a substantial long-term programme for decent homes in whatever sector they are found. I doubt very much whether all the children he is talking about are necessarily in the social housing sector. We have an £8 billion programme over the next two or three years. I understand his concern for what may be happening in the housing market today, but I do not think that he can say that this Government have not done a great deal to address the problems.

In Luton, 8,500 families are on the housing waiting and transfer lists, of whom 6,500 are on the waiting list. This is a crisis by any standards. At the same time, we are still required to sell council houses, and Luton has dozens of empty flats that are now unsaleable. Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to stopping the sale of council houses for good in Luton, and to allowing local authorities to buy all those unrented flats?

I would certainly be reluctant to say that we would stop the sale of council houses, but I completely understand my hon. Friend’s basic point. We have a substantial imbalance throughout the country between housing need and what can be supplied, but he will probably know that one of the announcements in September was of a programme for purchase through the Housing Corporation, and if there is need, it can consider expanding that programme. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are looking at all aspects of housing policy to see what more can be done to meet the need.

I warmly welcome the right hon. Lady to her new post and wish her all the best in the challenges that lie ahead. On council house building and other building, can she confirm that the Government will make a major policy statement in the near future saying how they will get the housing market going again?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. We have already made a number of statements about various steps that can be taken to address different portions of the housing market. We are continuing to look at that to see what more can be done, but what is fundamentally needed are the kind of steps that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have taken of late to try to stabilise the economy as a whole, within which housing is a key factor.

Will my right hon. Friend look into the situation where thousands are on waiting lists for social housing, yet local authorities such as Chorley are failing to meet the social housing numbers that they are meant to provide? What actions can she take to ensure that those local authorities do not forget that they have a responsibility and that it is taken seriously?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, all local authorities are required not only to take their responsibilities seriously but to have proper plans to meet them. I assure him that when we come, as we are doing, to reassess the position with regard to both need and supply, what is being done and whether people are meeting their obligations is one of the factors that we shall be looking at very carefully.

I also extend a warm welcome to the right hon. Lady to her new post. Does she agree with the Prime Minister’s unusually candid comments yesterday to Reuters about housing and the lack of it, when he said:

“we failed over many years to build enough houses to meet the need that was there”?

As the third Housing Minister whom I have faced across the Dispatch Box this year, will she tell us what she will do to reverse that policy failure?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should take note of the fact that the Prime Minister was talking about a period of a substantial number of years. [Interruption.] Indeed, the level of need—and the gap between that need and supply—has built up over a very substantial period. Of course, more still needs to be done. However, as I pointed out a few moments ago, we have a £8 billion programme, particularly for affordable housing, over the next three years.

I am, of course, new to this post and I have not yet had the opportunity to study the hon. Gentleman’s remarks as closely as I assure him I will—I am grateful to him for his kind remarks, by the way. However, my understanding is that the only policy that the Conservative party seems to have is to oppose any proposals for further housing wherever they are put forward.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new job; when the message “Beckett is back” went out, there was a huge cheer, because few Ministers have had as much grip as she did during her previous time in the Government.

Last year in Yorkshire, two and a half times as many social dwellings run by councils were sold as were let. I invite my right hon. Friend, the Conservative Front Benchers and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) to consider whether the sacred cow of the right to buy might now need some revisiting. We are in the business of burying Thatcherism; perhaps the right to buy is one sacred cow that might be considered for the sacrificial block.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I take his point about the scope of letting; one of the issues that we are looking at is the allocation of council housing. However, I say to him with great respect that I would rather tackle the problem by making sure that we provide more homes than by removing the right to buy.

Empty Properties

3. What assessment she has made of the effects of changes in empty property business rates on the property market. (226338)

We published an impact assessment of the empty property reforms in May 2007 alongside the primary legislation. On 26 February this year, I laid a further assessment before the House, alongside the regulations.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he will be aware that since February this year there has been a slump in the economy and that commercial property vacancies have risen. The Secretary of State hinted that she would again consider the policy of empty property business rate relief. Would the Minister care to say whether the Government are now doing that?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this issue, although he has not raised it with me before. As he would expect, we are assessing how the reforms are working, as we do with all taxes. As it happens, my lead official is a constituent of his; I have asked that official to keep a particularly close eye on any developments in Wimbledon.

In my local area the economy has also taken a downturn. Although I welcome the empty business property reliefs as a measure for putting such buildings back into use, at the moment the business community is saddled with empty properties that it cannot develop and sell. Will the Minister consider the matter again urgently?

My hon. Friend is right; the rationale for the change was to encourage more property owners to resell, redevelop or re-let more rapidly and to avoid the situation of the taxpayer funding to the tune of £1.3 billion a year owners whose properties were empty. Clearly, owners’ circumstances and the reasons why properties lie empty vary, but as my hon. Friend would expect, we are looking closely at the issue, with local government and the Valuation Office Agency. We want to see how this is working in practice.

The Minister will know that many of those empty commercial properties are owned by small businesses. Bearing in mind the Chancellor’s remarks about helping small businesses, will the Minister urge the Chancellor to give special relief to small businesses in respect of this matter, to help them over the difficult two or three years to come?

I have had representations and heard arguments from virtually every area, sector and type of organisation that they should be considered a special case. When we introduced the changes to empty property relief we decided not to go down that road. We are watching carefully how the process is working and trying to assess its impact, but it is difficult to do so while disentangling it from the general economic changes. We are looking at the matter closely, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and every member of the Government are concerned about the position of small firms at this time, and to see that the Government do all that they can to help them through this difficult period.

Empty property rate relief was introduced in entirely different financial circumstances, so will my hon. Friend not at least consider relaxing the rules during the economic downturn in order to prevent the wholesale demolition of perfectly good industrial premises, particularly the old cotton mills of the north-west of England?

There is not systematic evidence of what my hon. Friend describes as wholesale demolition of empty business properties. Some examples have been thrown up by local councils and the British Property Federation. We are looking at those as part of the general picture on how the changes are working, and will take them into account. As we do so, we will take any necessary decisions. I do not want to raise expectations, but those who followed the legislation will know that there is provision for the Government to reduce the level of the tax, should it be required, and introduce a level of relief. However, we are looking carefully at how the process is working and we will continue to do so with the Valuation Office Agency and with local government.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment to the Privy Council, which I am sure we all regard as well deserved. That said, perhaps he would like to reflect on the following. He says that representations against the current situation are widespread. His colleague, the Secretary of State, is reported in the Local Government Chronicle as observing that the tax is no longer hitting the right buttons. This initiative was brought in by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. Is it not time to recognise that it has created unexpected and perverse incentives? For example, a council such as Swindon would be out of pocket on regeneration sites to the tune of £110,000 if it does not demolish. Does the Minister accept that figures provided by two of the leading property companies show that they are demolishing more already this year than they did in the whole of last year? Does the Secretary of State not need to reflect that the Government mucked up on this one? What is wanted is not a study or an impact assessment but some action.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks—I knew that they could not last, but I appreciate them.

I say to the hon. Gentleman and the property companies that he cited that we would welcome any information or evidence that they wish to submit to us. We are in discussion with the main property companies and associations, just as we are with local government. Because it is still early days, we are assessing how the empty property relief changes may have worked. We are doing so in the context of a changing economy, and we will bear all of that in mind as we continue to do that work.

Thanet has far higher than average unemployment, and I can tell my hon. Friend that this policy, which was devised in different times and for different circumstances, is having a perverse effect in our area. Developers are talking about demolition, and the possibility of speculative build is absolutely zero at present. I would like to add my voice to those calling for general action on this issue, but if my hon. Friend is not able to take action everywhere in the country, could he at least look at some sort of abatement for areas of high unemployment or assisted areas, where we are suffering more than normal?

My hon. Friend will be aware that in assisted areas we introduced 100 per cent. capital allowances for the renovation and reuse of commercial property, and we did so a year ahead of the changes to the empty property relief. We are conscious of the position that slower markets, shall we say, and more disadvantaged areas may be in.

I accept my hon. Friend’s representations, but the liability on empty properties for business rates is not new—it was introduced by the Local Government Act 1966. It is important for the Government to decide how best to target and deploy resources, particularly in circumstances where economic conditions are difficult. These changes meant that we reduced by almost £1 billion the liability to other taxpayers of supporting the owners of empty property to keep such property empty. We have not removed the relief altogether; we have reduced the period, in order to encourage them to resell, re-let or redevelop more rapidly.

Sharia Law

4. What recent assessment her Department has made of the implications of sharia law practices for community cohesion. (226339)

Community cohesion is about building better relationships between people from different backgrounds, including those from new and settled communities. The use of religious courts, such as sharia councils, to resolve private family and contractual disputes is well established, and in itself does not have an impact on community cohesion. It is, however, important that all practices are compliant with our framework of equality legislation, as equality is essential in the underpinning of cohesion.

I congratulate the Minister on his debut on the Front Bench in his new role. He said over the weekend that he would be

“very concerned about sharia courts applying in the UK.”

Presumably no one had told him that last year the Government licensed a whole lot of what they call Muslim arbitration tribunals. I appreciate that their powers are limited, but they are presided over by sharia judges and are therefore, in effect, state-licensed sharia courts. Is the Minister satisfied that individual women in particular who come before such courts will do so voluntarily in every case?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I wish that he had read the entire quotation. For the avoidance of any doubt, I tell the House that sharia law has no jurisdiction in England and Wales, and there is no intention to change that. His point about women is one that I referred to in the answer that I gave a minute and a half ago. We are conscious of the fact that all sharia councils should abide by equality legislation. That is at the core of cohesion.

Is my hon. Friend aware that only two of the eight mosques in my constituency are registered for marriage? Therefore, there can be problems, as couples are married in sharia law, but not in the law of this country. Sometimes there are problems—if the marriage breaks down and a settlement needs to be arrived at about the division of assets, for instance, where the woman can be let down by a sharia judge. Can my hon. Friend’s Department do anything to encourage mosques to register for marriage, so that those marriages take place within the law of the land?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She has huge experience of what is a serious issue. For the avoidance of doubt, the Marriage Act 1949 provides for mosques to be registered for the solemnisation of marriages according to the rites of the Muslim religion. There are certain conditions that need to be satisfied, and they are recognised in law without the need for a civil ceremony. Where a mosque is not registered, such as six of the eight mosques in my hon. Friend’s constituency, a separate civil ceremony is necessary. Otherwise, the spouses of the religious marriage are treated the same as common-law wives and therefore can be disadvantaged. It is really important that they seek advice where they can and that we encourage civil contracts where, for whatever reasons, civil ceremonies are not registered. However, it is just as important that we advise mosques to become registered. That will give women the protection that they need.

I understand that as part of the Government’s community cohesion policy the Minister has started working with mosques to teach citizenship. Could he enlighten us on what his Department is doing to bring mosques more into the mainstream and get them involved, such as through the registration that the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) talked about?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he takes a keen interest in these matters in Rochdale. He will be aware of the setting up of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board—MINAB—with which we are working, along with communities and religious organisations, to improve how mosques operate. A good mosque is like a good church, a good synagogue, a good temple or a good gurdwara: it can be the hub of a local community and make it more cohesive. We are working with faith leaders to ensure that their mosques can use best practice from around the country, so that citizens in Rochdale—Muslims and non-Muslims—can be best served by good mosques.

Last weekend, I was at the big Eid celebration in Bletchley in my constituency. There was a stall there giving information on Islamic mortgages, which are consistent with sharia law. In the current economic climate, such mortgages—which are, of course, available to non-Muslims as well as to Muslims—seem to be quite a good model. Is not this an example of a practice designed for only one community which could benefit the whole community and which could be accommodated in UK law?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that, in consecutive Finance Bills, the Government have allowed Islamic finance to take place in this country. She makes the important point that sharia law is not, as is perceived by the media, just about cutting off hands. It covers Islamic finance, worshipping, and how one dresses and eats. She is absolutely right to say that ethically friendly mortgages—Islamic finance mortgages—are products that are now being taken up not only by more Muslims but by non-Muslims as well.

We welcome the Minister to his new post. We also send our best wishes to his predecessor.

Over the weekend, the Minister was quoted as saying, in relation to sharia courts:

“At some stage in the future I do not rule out the possibility that the Muslim diaspora in this country may be advanced enough”.

That must mean either that he did not know about the Muslim arbitration tribunals or that he thinks that, eventually, their powers could be extended. To clear all this up, will he write to me listing exactly when these tribunals were approved, who approved them, who was consulted, who the judges are, what cases have been heard, and exactly what measures are in place to protect women? And will he place a copy of the letter in the Library?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I am disappointed that somebody of his experience does not know the areas covered by the Ministry of Justice, and those covered by the Department for Communities and Local Government. He will of course be aware of the matter from the copy of the letter given to him by the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), to whom the Home Secretary wrote on this issue. As my contacts with our Front Bench are clearly better than the hon. Gentleman’s contacts with his own Front Bench, I will ensure that the right Minister writes to him to give him the information that he has requested.

Regional Policy

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordination of Government policy for the regions. (226341)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. There is now apparent cross-party consensus that it is better that decisions taken locally and regionally are taken democratically rather than by Government appointees. Bearing in mind the obvious vacuum that has existed since the north-east referendum nearly four years ago, will the Secretary of State now welcome proposals from local partners in any part of the country that will provide a route map to allow regional decisions to be taken democratically?

Yes, I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing record on campaigning, particularly in relation to Cornwall and to the convention in Cornwall. He is right to say that there is a recognition that decisions are best made at the appropriate spatial level in our country, where we can actually get practical change. That applies to planning matters, as well as to regional economic issues. He is also right to say that there is a gap in terms of accountability at regional level. We are taking a number of measures to address that, involving regional Ministers, regional Select Committees, and the scrutiny of regional organisations. He will also be aware of the multi-area agreements that we signed in the summer. These allow democratically elected local authorities to have a bigger say on planning, transport, housing and skills, which are significant issues in our country.

I do not want to be unhelpful or unkind—[Interruption.] Seriously. Will the Minister tell us what the regional Ministers do, bearing in mind that, when I tabled a written parliamentary question asking what my regional Minister did or intended to do, the Secretary of State answered it? There is no scrutiny, and I genuinely do not know precisely what they are supposed to do. We are now told that there are to be assistant regional Ministers as well. Those of us in the minority who have never been invited to do anything are beginning to wonder what we have done wrong. I want to know what the link-up is between these regional Ministers and housing and communities. We do not know, and we apparently have no opportunity to ask questions. Why not? There is a problem of so-called “joined-up government” in relation to the Thurrock urban development corporation, which is part of a key Government policy. I want to address the person who can answer—

I may be forgiven for my heart sinking when my hon. Friend said that he did not wish to be difficult, but—yet he asked a pertinent question. He is right that there should be wider awareness of the role of regional Ministers. I think that regional Ministers have done some excellent work across the country over the past few months as regional champions for their areas—[Interruption.] Hon. Members might not take regional issues seriously, but if they were genuinely in touch with the issues being raised in their communities they would know that regional Ministers have helped to bring together the regional development agency and the strategic health associations—and have made a difference. To my hon. Friend, I would say that the Government may not have utilised his talents sufficiently in the past—

I do not think that I can afford my hon. Friend. Very shortly, however, he will see greater recognition of the role of regional Ministers with the establishment of the regional Select Committees, providing the opportunity to question regional Ministers, which is exactly what he is looking for.

Regional development agencies, which are extremely patchy in quality throughout the company, are with the disappearance of the regional assemblies soon to acquire significant new powers, notably in housing, yet it is very difficult to assess the quality of outputs from the development agencies. How do we assess whether a job has been created or a job safeguarded—two of the most popular claims of the regional development agencies? What will the Secretary of State do to enable us to develop a proper methodology with which to judge the value for money of the regional development agencies, as this is contested, and to make sure that accountability goes beyond local council chiefs being filed in for the occasional audience?

The right hon. Gentleman, as ever, makes a good point from an informed perspective. We shall shortly respond to the consultation on the sub-national review, the results of which he is perhaps pre-empting. I promise him, however, that the results will be available soon. He is right that we need to bring regional development agencies and local authorities together to ensure that we have an integrated view of housing, planning and economic development.

I believe that many regional development agencies have made a very positive contribution. The response to the recent flooding of some of our regional development agencies, along with their local councils, was extremely impressive. If we look at the number of jobs created across the country through the good investment decisions of the RDAs, we clearly see that they have been good for this country. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is more work to be done to ensure that we have better accountability and better scrutiny, but the RDAs’ role has been crucial in building the economy over these past few years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a good point in saying that regional Ministers are not yet subject to sufficient scrutiny by the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that regional Select Committees are absolutely vital to that scrutiny, and can she give us some indication of when they are likely to be set up?

My hon. Friend is right. He has taken a tremendous interest in regional matters, particularly those regarding the north-west. I think that regional Select Committees will provide better scrutiny—the ability to question regional Ministers about their work is essential. I can tell my hon. Friend that those Select Committees will be set up very soon, although I cannot give him a specific date here today. I realise that he is pressing to ensure that they are.

Will the Secretary of State tell us how these Select Committees will be manned and where the Clerks who are to serve them will be found? This is the most appalling piece of meaningless window dressing that the House has been presented with for a very long time.

As the hon. Gentleman will know from his extensive parliamentary experience, the regional Select Committees are a matter for the House, and their establishment is being considered by the Modernisation Committee—again, on an all-party basis. He need only have listened to the contributions that have been made today to appreciate that Members in all parts of the House want more scrutiny of regional affairs and a closing of the accountability gap in relation to regional matters, and I believe that that view has widespread support throughout the House.

Has my right hon. Friend considered the impact of retrospective rate increases, backdated by three years, on businesses in the port of Liverpool in the context of regional maritime policy?

I am very conscious of that issue. Meetings are taking place as we speak to assess the impact and establish what steps might be taken. My hon. Friend raises an important point, particularly in relation to retrospection, and I will undertake to keep her informed as the discussions continue.

It would be interesting to hear what discussions the Secretary of State has had with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the perverse effect that the regional spatial strategy for the south-west may have on an area of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency, given its requirement for 48 new pitches for Gypsies and Travellers in the constituency. The planning inspectorate decided last week in the Minety case that Gypsies may set up their caravans anywhere they please until such time as the county provides that imaginary number of sites. What is the Secretary of State going to do about the perverse effect on the countryside?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if appropriate plans are in place to enable Gypsy and Traveller sites to be organised properly, that is far the best option. When no plan is in place, we must often resort to enforcement action, which is more costly, takes more time, and has a bigger impact on the area concerned.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the issue. I have not talked to my right hon. Friend about the specific issue in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I think he is as aware, as I am, that proper planning for Gypsy and Traveller sites is far the best way of dealing with such matters.

To what extent have the Treasury and the Secretary of State’s Department been co-ordinating the advice given to the regions and to local authorities about their investment policies? Given that the credit rating agencies have been drawing attention to the weakening financial position of the Icelandic banks since February 2007, and that many months ago Moody’s downgraded them to a BBB rating—extraordinarily low for a western bank—how has it come about that local authorities have apparently lost vast sums of council tax payers’ money?

Perhaps he has other sources, but the hon. Gentleman may be referring to a report in The Daily Telegraph about the credit rating agencies’ assessment of the banks. That depiction is not wholly accurate, and I am sure that when he sees the full picture the hon. Gentleman will recognise that for a considerable period the credit ratings were relatively high in terms of local authority investments.

The guidance that we issued in 2004 tells local authorities that they must give priority to security and liquidity, and that only in that context must they look for where they can obtain the highest return. I consider our guidance to be entirely prudent and responsible. Local authorities that have followed it and ensured that they spread their investments, while at the same time prioritising security and liquidity, will have made good and well-informed investment decisions.

Permitted Development

6. What her policy is in relation to permitted development rights in the planning system; and if she will make a statement. (226342)

The Government’s policy is to use permitted development rights to streamline the planning system, thereby assisting householders and local authorities alike, and to encourage sustainability.

Does the Minister agree that one of the significant factors behind the concreting of gardens, which has become a highly emotive issue in suburban constituencies, is the gradual encroachment of permitted development? Does he think that it would be useful to take a fresh look at the balance to be struck between the understandable wish of people to improve their property and the wider environmental impact?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I know that his constituency was affected by last year’s floods, and I pay tribute to the emergency services, local authorities and others in pulling together to address them. He rightly raises the point about balance: there is a balance to be struck in making sure that householders are able to improve their homes without bureaucracy. That frees up a lot of bureaucracy within the local authority system, and it helps encourage, as much as possible, sustainability. Those are the principles behind the permitted development rights we have introduced for impermeable surfaces for front gardens, and I am keen to look at their application to rear gardens as well.

I congratulate the Government on introducing measures to include microgeneration in general permitted development order arrangements. Does my hon. Friend intend to bring all microgeneration under that order, and thereby end the current anomaly whereby some are included while others await inclusion?

Yes, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on environmental improvements. On 6 April, we provided permitted development rights with regard to microgeneration with one or two exceptions—most notably wind turbines, because of noise issues. The balance to be struck between neighbours’ interests and the ability to improve one’s own home is key. I hope we can extend as much as possible permitted development rights to ensure we can reduce as much as possible the carbon footprint from homes.

Is the Minister aware that many local authorities and their planning committees are deeply concerned about these permitted development rights, and that many villages—such as Mottram St. Andrew and Prestbury in my constituency—are having their environment gravely damaged by the concreting over of gardens, the cutting down of mature trees and the building of massive mansions by footballers and cricketers? Is he not aware that if we are to protect our environment, the permitted development rights need to be strictly regulated? I hope he will respond positively to that observation.

Local authorities are very much in the driving seat. They are able to put measures in place, such as through planning policy statement 3 on housing development that is available in their area. My feeling from speaking to councils is that local authorities want to see this; it will stop the clogging of the planning system and it will remove about a quarter of all planning applications, most of which are non-contentious. Local authorities decide the rule. If they want to extend permitted development rights, they can do so through a local development order. Conversely, if they want to restrict them, they have an article 4 direction to allow revision.

Topical Questions

I normally do not make a statement on departmental responsibilities, but I am delighted to welcome our new team to deal with matters across the piece, including local government planning, housing, regeneration and community cohesion.

Will the Secretary of State provide assurance that assistance given to local authorities and councils in England with their investments in Icelandic banks will also apply to Wales?

My hon. Friend raises a point that concerns all Members and all local authorities. We are working extremely closely with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh Local Government Association. We had a meeting last week with the latter, and we plan to have another meeting tomorrow at which the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will be present. We will keep in close contact and make sure that the information and the way in which we can provide support and assistance is shared between us.

The right hon. Lady just admitted that no investment advice had been issued to local authorities since 2004, and that the advice on Icelandic banks remained that they were good until almost the end. Perhaps she has inadvertently forgotten that, Arlingclose, the financial advisers, was advising its clients and local authorities to avoid Icelandic investments. Why was no additional advice issued to local authorities in the intervening period? Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is a difference between light-touch regulation and neglect?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that local authorities are informed investors. They are major organisations that have fully qualified and professional directors of finance and treasurers, who have access to the very best advice. The advice that the Government issued was to local authorities, and it was on the criteria to be taken into account when making their range of investments. As I have already said, the advice is very clear: security and liquidity are the top priorities. It is only within that context that local authorities should then seek to get the highest return on their investments. Local authorities are well informed and intelligent investors, and therefore have access to the very best advice.

The Secretary of State criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) for relying on newspaper reports for the list, but still the Department has not produced a comprehensive list of the authorities affected. Will she undertake to do that, so that we know what the position is for councils, police authorities and fire authorities? Is she now actively examining the investments of housing associations, of PFI schemes in local authorities and of regional development agencies, which we understand are at risk? Until we have a comprehensive list, the Government cannot take serious action. It is no use their relying on others to provide it; it is up to the Government to provide that list.

I would hope that the hon. Gentleman was absolutely up to date with the action that the Government have been taking on all these issues. He will know that last Thursday there was an extensive meeting with the Local Government Association, and that at that time just over 100 local authorities had investments in Icelandic banks. So far, we have details of 116 local authorities with £858.3 million invested. We are also examining the position of housing associations, and the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who has responsibility for policing, met the police authorities last week. I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman not only that this Government are on the case, but that we have taken bold and decisive action that has been welcomed everywhere.

There will be a further meeting with the LGA tomorrow to try to identify the authorities that are struggling with these issues, but local authorities have confirmed that none of them will struggle to meet their payroll bill. Many local authorities have said that there will be no impact on the front-line services that are crucial to council tax payers, but we will ensure that where people are in difficulty, we stand ready to help.

I inform the hon. Gentleman that we now have a rapid response team, fully staffed by people from local government who are able to go in and assist.

T6. May I ask about the Olympics? As we know, the social and economic impact of the Olympic games on my constituents could be massive and very beneficial. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that we derive a good, positive social and economic impact for my constituents and the rest of the east end? (226366)

My hon. Friend is clearly concerned about the legacy of the Olympic games for her constituents, and rightly so. At the moment we are working with all five boroughs in the Olympic area and developing a multi-area agreement to examine social and economic issues. The most important thing is to enable the people from those deprived boroughs to get the skills that they need to take up the jobs that will be left in those areas as a result of the massive £9.3 billion investment that is taking place in the Olympics.

T2. Is the Minister for Housing aware that her officials are putting it about that they will shortly publish the planning policy statement on eco-towns, and that it will be site-specific? If so, may I please urge her to reconsider? Much of the evaluation on the sites has yet to be completed. For example, in Weston Otmoor the rail infrastructure evaluation has yet to be done with Network Rail, First Great Western and Chiltern Railways. This is a really dysfunctional way of doing things and will inevitably lead to further judicial review and further delay. (226362)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, because I think that there may be some misunderstanding. The planning policy statement to which he refers will be a draft and subject to substantial consultation. Not for quite some considerable time do I expect the final version. I am sure that he will know, because he follows the issue closely, that the previous consultation has resulted in a slight delay in the issuing of the draft policy statement, because the response has been so substantial. If the same thing happens again, we will be talking about more time. I would say that we are therefore some distance from any site-specific, and particularly final site-specific, proposals. I hope that that gives him some reassurance.

T8. The housing market pathfinder programme is, at long last, starting to make a real difference in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Minister confirm that the money originally allocated this year as part of that programme but withheld from the indicative amounts will still be available to programmes, such as the one in my constituency, that are deemed to be performing well, including by an independent Audit Commission audit? (226368)

I have been to Stoke and Staffordshire to examine Renew North Staffordshire, and I was greatly impressed by some of the progress being made there. Like me, my hon. Friend will have been delighted that I was able to announce a £1 billion investment for the next three years, with flexibility of plus or minus 10 per cent. on that budget. Given the current turbulence in housing markets and the need to ensure that the gap between the housing market renewal areas and the rest of the market is as small as possible, I am keen to push forward that flexibility as much as possible and to work with her and others, such as Renew North Staffordshire, to ensure that that happens.

T3. Does the new Minister for Housing accept that, unlike energy surveys, home information packs help very few homes? Will she take this opportunity to help very hard-pressed home owners who wish to sell their properties by announcing that there will be a moratorium on HIPs, which will eventually lead to their demise? (226363)

Good try! I am new to the portfolio, but not so new to it that I do not know both that HIPs are a subject of some controversy and that the reason they were devised in the first place was a strong level of perceived need for something to help in the housing market. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I shall examine the issue. I cannot assure him, at present, that I am mindful to take the course that he urges.

T9. May I tell the Minister for Housing and the Secretary of State that I recently held a well attended housing information event in my constituency? My constituents were engaged in it, and were interested to learn about the new shared ownership schemes that the Government have introduced. However, it was obvious that there was a lack of awareness about the details of such schemes and about to whom they were available. Most people thought that they were available only to key workers. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that people are made aware of shared ownership schemes and that they are therefore able to access them? (226369)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that, because, as she says, the Government have introduced a number of initiatives to try to help people through the particular difficulties arising at present. She also rightly identifies the various shared ownership and shared equity schemes as a good way forward. I am sure that she is right to say that not enough people are yet aware of what is on offer. The Department has begun the programme of information and intends to develop and extend that. I am grateful to her for making it clear how necessary that is.

After their joint meeting last week, the Department and the Local Government Association issued a joint statement saying that

“there is no evidence of recklessness by local authorities.”

Given that almost £1 billion of public money is tied up in the collapse, if it is not local authorities, who or what does the Secretary of State think is to blame? Is it the credit ratings agencies, the organisations advising the councils, or her Department for the guidance it issues? Is it not vital that that is reviewed? Should there not have been a six-point plan, rather than a five-point plan, today?

I genuinely do not think that at this point, when we are trying to help in difficult economic circumstances and get stability into the banking system, and trying to ensure that people can get mortgages and that small businesses do not fold during this difficult time, we should seek to play the blame game. At this point, we must consider what we can do to help the local authorities that are in difficulty. That is my absolute top priority at this moment, and not simply in order to help the local authorities; we need to help those people who depend on their services—some of the most vulnerable people in this country. I mean to ensure that the Government put their full effort behind that.

T4. Ministers have confirmed that there is sufficient previously developed—or so-called brownfield land—in the Thames corridor to meet the Government’s current building targets for the region in full, so why are the Government continuing to put so much green belt at risk in the area, and in Castle Point in particular? (226364)

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. The Government are not putting green belt at risk. Indeed, when it comes to housing development, we set our face against any such development. He will also know, however, that it is for local authorities to consider how they make their proposals; indeed, that is in train in his constituency. Knowing him as I do, I am confident that he will keep a close eye on that and, should the local authority make such proposals, that he will raise them again—[Interruption.] My understanding is that the local authority has talked of perhaps doing so at some time in the future, but that there are no concrete proposals at present.

In 1996, when I was chair of South Yorkshire fire and civil defence authority, we employed just one woman firefighter. Now, South Yorkshire fire and rescue service employs 32 women firefighters, up 25 per cent. in the last four years. The service is working towards level 3 of the local government equality standard. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the service on the progress it is making on the equality and diversity agenda?

I thank my hon. Friend for the passion he shows on the issue of gender equality, not only in South Yorkshire, but around the country. He will be aware that in 1997 less than 1 per cent. of firefighters in South Yorkshire were women, but now 13 per cent. of new recruits are women. I join him in congratulating the service on the huge strides that it is making towards becoming more fair and gender-equal.

T5. Does the Secretary of State not now accept that, at the very least, the guidance that was issued to local authorities should have included advice that the higher the rate of interest, especially over the basic deposit rate, the higher the risk? (226365)

This is the third time that I have reiterated the advice that was issued. It provides a good framework, because it tells authorities up front that their top priorities must be security and liquidity and that only in that context should they consider the rate of return and try to get the highest rate they can. Local authorities are informed investors, as I said to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). They all have professionally qualified treasurers and investment accountants. Clearly, they should seek to spread their investments to ensure that they do not take unnecessary risks, but the guidance is clear and provides a good framework in which they can operate.

T10. Is the Secretary of State aware that the boundary committee’s proposals for a unitary authority for the whole of Norfolk and part of Suffolk have met universal opposition? All the MPs, including the four Labour MPs, are totally opposed to the proposals, which would undermine democracy in Norfolk. Does she agree that at a time of economic crisis, when each Department’s budget will be under huge pressure, those highly damaging proposals should be scrapped? (226370)

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he will know that at the moment this is a matter for the boundary committee. He will also know that we have charged the boundary committee with reporting to us by December with proposals for any changes it thinks appropriate. For the moment, he and anyone else with strong views on the subject should make the boundary committee aware of them so that it can take those views into consideration—which it will do.