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Communities and Local Government

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Housing Policy

1. What assessment she has made of the impact of the current economic climate on her Department’s housing policy. (236262)

The Government recognise that the current market conditions pose significant challenges. We are responding by helping those at risk of repossession, bringing forward money for affordable housing this year and next, and establishing new programmes to help first-time buyers and support the construction industry. While responding to the immediate challenges that we face, the Government remain committed to meeting the long-term housing needs of an ageing and growing population.

Is the Minister aware that 1.7 million families are languishing on housing lists waiting for homes? Why will she not allow councils the same borrowing rights as registered social landlords, so that they can buy land now while it is cheaper? Surely the Government should be trying to make the best of the current economic downturn, and using it to plan for the future.

We are trying to make the best of the current economic downturn, and we are indeed considering what can be done. In some circumstances councils have more freedoms than they have exercised, or in some cases been aware of, in recent years, but I assure the hon. Lady and the House that we are considering all circumstances and all options in order to do what we can to ease people’s problems through the present difficulties.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to affordable housing, but may I caution her against returning to the days when we built large mono-tenure housing estates? It is crucial for us to retain mixed-tenure estates. One way of investing in affordable housing to liberate the supply in the social rented sector is to build more affordable housing schemes for supported housing, which shakes people down through the tenancy stream and frees up social housing tenancies. Will she look again at our supported housing strategy, particularly for older people, but also for young people?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and has shown remarkable prescience. I am indeed taking a great interest in the possible opportunities for social housing, for precisely the reasons that he has given. Social housing can be beneficial and offer a better option to some who are seeking housing, but it can also help to solve the problem of under-occupation, which does sometimes arise.

The current market conditions are actually making housing more affordable, while also providing lower mortgage rates. We need more social housing in my constituency, but I am not sure that we need the Government’s long-term housing targets. The south-east draft plan refers to possibly allowing for overspill from London, and targeting us as a growth area. That causes the real worry of whether we can accommodate those people, given that much of the constituency is green belt.

I understand the anxieties that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, but we still have substantial unmet housing need. We cannot as a country, let alone as a society, afford to ignore that and hope that somehow it will vanish, because it will not. I have some sympathy with his concerns, and I know that there can be problems if people are anxious about these matters, but we have to put homes somewhere.

While demand for affordable housing is rising, does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment at the fact that my local authority, Westminster, managed to ensure that only 11 per cent. of the area’s housing built last year was affordable? Given that the Mayor of London now appears to be set on tearing up the target of half all housing built in London being affordable, will she take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we meet the growing demand for social and other affordable housing across the country?

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point, and share her disappointment that more was not achieved last year in her constituency and her area. She says that the new Mayor does not propose to continue with the targets set by his predecessor. She may be pleased to learn that the Mayor has assured me that he expects to be able to deliver as much, perhaps even more, through agreement with the boroughs, and I am sure the whole House will wish to hold him to that.

The target of 3 million new homes by 2020 was a very challenging one when it was announced many months ago, before the economy entered its downturn. Does the right hon. Lady believe that it is still attainable?

My understanding is that that was an ambition, whereas some of the more short-term numbers in the programme are definitely targets. Of course I appreciate that, owing to the present difficulties, people will consider whether and on what trajectory we should meet the need, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees that because the need is not going to go away, the targets cannot just disappear either.

In a difficult economic situation, there may be a tendency for developers to build on greenfield or green-belt sites before moving to the more expensive and difficult brownfield sites. The Government have an excellent record in the east midlands, where 75 per cent. of development is on brownfield land. Will my right hon. Friend continue to make her policy “brownfield before greenfield”?

I take my hon. Friend’s point. He is right that the Government have an excellent record, and this is one of the many targets that others said we could not possibly meet but we have met; in fact, we have exceeded the targets on building on brownfield. I understand his concerns, and I feel sure that all Members will agree with him that we should do this, rather than, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) mentioned, go for greenfield development.

Now that the new Minister for Housing has, we understand, dumped the Prime Minister’s 3 million by 2020 target for house building and has stated instead that it was only ever an ambition—it certainly was a target according to the quotes of the Prime Minister that I have to hand—can she tell us whether eco-towns were also only ever an ambition, or does the faltering eco-town project for 10 new eco-towns remain on target?

The eco-towns programme is totally on course. As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, we have only recently published the draft planning guidance and the sustainability appraisal. I am not committed to any specific number. It is certainly the case that under the programme that was previously put forward, one site has met the “generally suitable” criterion, and we believe others can meet it. They all have ambitious and difficult targets to achieve, however, which will be different for each one. What is important is that every site in that programme achieves the standards that would be required for eco-town status, and I have said—clearly, I hope—to those who are ambitious to take part in such developments, of whom there remain many, that they will be required to meet those standards. The standards will not be lowered, and that is why I say that I am not—neither are the Government, and nor have we ever been—fixed to any specific number. That will depend on which of those involved meets the targets, but I shall be extremely disappointed if there are not substantially more than the hon. Gentleman is trying to pretend.

Local Authority Housing Revenue Account

2. If she will hold discussions with Treasury Ministers to ensure that revenue from the local authority housing revenue account is directed to social housing. (236263)

The current review of council housing finance is a joint review between my Department and the Treasury. It includes a thorough exploration of the housing revenue account—HRA—subsidy system. DCLG and Treasury Ministers regularly discuss the progress of the review.

Council tenants in the borough of Kettering pay £12 million a year in council rent, £3 million of which goes into the Treasury coffers and is not reinvested in council housing in Kettering. Why should council tenants in my constituency pay £1 in extra stealth tax for every £4 they pay in council rent?

I know that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents are concerned about this, and the Government recognise that the current system can be unpopular and perceived as unfair. That is precisely why we undertook the review of council house financing. The review of the HRA subsidy system will look at how local authority housing is financed. It will cover such issues as the recycling of rental income subsidies and the concept of negative subsidy, and I hope that that will address the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

After years of neglect by the previous incumbents in government, there has been substantial investment in social housing in my area. Slum houses have been removed and new buildings have been put up that are far more suitable for the people in our community, and we thank the Minister and this Government for that—[Interruption.] It needs to be said—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. On this point, can my hon. Friend reassure me that in the current investment in social housing, which is part of a massive rolling programme, young people who are doing skilled work at college are employed in local projects, so we can take full advantage of that significant investment?

I thank my hon. Friend for that challenging question; I agree with her completely on this. When we came to power in 1997, some £21 billion of spending was needed to refurbish the council housing stock. That was disgraceful, and a terrible legacy of the previous Tory Government. By the end of 2010, we will have spent in the region of £40 billion—a once-in-a-generation opportunity to refurbish a generation of council housing. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that in the next comprehensive spending review about £8.4 billion—a 50 per cent. increase—will be provided in order to provide the social and affordable housing that this country needs.

Is the Minister aware that social housing depends hugely on the health of the private sector? A huge part of social housing is a by-product of housing that is in the marketplace. Given the recession that we are entering, is he aware that the Housing Corporation is permitted to finance only up to 40 per cent. of social housing developments, and that the rest must come from sale-for-market properties or from borrowing? Given the dependence of social housing on the private sector, would it not be intelligent to raise the 40 per cent. limit so that the Housing Corporation could make a proportionately bigger contribution to social housing? Would that not be a good recommendation for the Treasury’s pre-Budget statement?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He is a former housing Minister, and I know that he is well versed in these arguments. His point is well made, and my response to his question is twofold. First, we are aware of the need for a vibrant construction industry. The £1 billion package that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in September is part of a package to help the construction industry prepare for the upturn and manage the current difficulties.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the grant regime. The Housing Corporation—as of 1 December, the Homes and Communities Agency—is looking at that issue, and Sir Bob Kerslake, the chief executive designate, is keen to have increased flexibility to ensure that delivery can happen on the ground so that we can help the industry to provide more houses, particularly social and affordable housing.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that problems with the housing revenue account, among other difficulties, lead to a great deal of uncertainty about financial wherewithal for organisations such as Sheffield Homes, the ALMO—arm’s length management organisation—that runs homes in Sheffield. It also leads to a disconnect between the rents charged and services provided to tenants collectively and individually. Is he committing the Government in principle to a reform of the housing revenue accounts system, and could he give us some idea for his timetable on that?

I thank my hon. Friend. He is a former housing portfolio holder in Sheffield, and is well versed in these matters. He is absolutely right: there is a great deal of volatility with regard to planning, particularly in the repair and maintenance of council houses, which we need to address. He is also right that in the current national system, there is a disconnect between rents paid for by tenants and the services provided. I am not in the business of tinkering around the edges of the housing revenue accounts system; it needs wholesale, fundamental change. My hon. Friend asked about the time scale, and the review will report to Ministers in the spring of 2009, with a hope to introduce some sort of legislative vehicle in 2010.

Can the Minister do more as a matter of urgency to help local authorities and even housing associations to buy up unsaleable flats and other developments for social housing? That would help the economy, the housing market, which needs a lot of help at the moment, and our constituents who need social housing.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is happening already. Throughout the country, £200 million has been provided to allow it to happen. We have said that more is possible; the Homes and Communities Agency will be actively engaged in the process. I would temper that by saying that the public sector does not want to buy inferior quality. We need high quality, so it is important that the public sector is well provided for with adequate space standards.

Affordable Accommodation (Private Rented Sector)

3. What assessment she has made of the future prospects for the private rented sector as a provider of affordable accommodation. (236264)

Julie Rugg’s review of the private rented sector, which the Government commissioned in January, includes an assessment of how well the sector caters for those on low incomes and in housing need. The review reported last month. We are currently considering the report’s findings, including its suggestions for delivering new and affordable property supply, improving rental property quality and professionalising rental housing management.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. One of my main concerns about the impact of the credit crunch on the housing market is that it could push even more people into the private rented sector. While there are some good private landlords out there, there are also some rogue ones. The Rugg review suggested an independent procedure for complaints and redress, particularly for long, drawn-out complaints. Can my hon. Friend confirm whether the Government are looking at implementing that suggestion?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been championing the idea of tackling unprofessional landlords in his own patch. There is a similar problem in my area, particularly with regard to more vulnerable households. We need to do more. The Rugg review provided a range of options on how we can increase the professionalism of landlords. We are considering those options, and hope to respond in the housing reform Green Paper some time in the new year.

The House was delighted when the Government introduced deposit protection for people renting under assured shorthold tenancy agreements back in April 2007—I believe that the whole House supported that. The threshold for the scheme remains at £25,000, but if it had been index-linked, it would be £52,000. The reality is that many young and vulnerable tenants are simply not covered and need to be, so will the Minister urgently examine the issue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I shall take them away and examine the matter. He will be aware that under the tenant deposit protection scheme about £1 billion of tenant money has been protected. We are anxious to build on that to ensure that further protection is provided for vulnerable tenants.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Brighton and Hove city has one of the highest proportions of private rented housing in England outside London, and that it is also a successful university city. It has two successful universities, whose students not only contribute to the economy and the vitality of the city, but put pressure on the private rented housing sector. When will guidance be issued to councils stemming from the ECOTEC report, which I know his Department recently received?

I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a strong Brighton Member of Parliament, but I do not want to do so because Hartlepool United are playing Brighton and Hove Albion in an FA cup replay this evening. He makes an important point; Brighton is a fantastic place, but its large proportion of private rented properties creates an issue. On studentification and its associated problems, he will be aware of a range of possible planning proposals and non-planning proposals. He also mentioned the ECOTEC report, on which I am hoping to consult later this year.

Despite the current market correction, the need for affordable housing in south Devon remains as great as ever, yet both the proposed new towns, which were intended to deliver much of that affordable housing, are now unlikely to happen for many years because of the credit crunch. Can the Minister tell us what plan B is?

I am not entirely certain what that had to do with the private rented sector, but one of the things that the Julie Rugg review says is that we must grow the business of that sector—we must improve the supply. That is true of not only the private rented sector but social and affordable housing. As I mentioned in an earlier response, the Government are providing about £8.4 billion to help improve the supply of affordable housing. We need to do that, and we need to correct the imbalance between housing demand and supply, which persists in this country. I hope that Conservative Members will support us in that.

My hon. Friend will be aware that many local authorities in London have to cope with homelessness by leasing properties in the private rented sector and that such properties are anything but affordable. I saw an example this week where someone was living in a poor-quality three-bedroomed flat, yet the rent was £380 a week. The only consequences of this situation are huge housing benefits bills for local authorities, and people not being able to afford those properties and get into work. What steps does he intend to take to tackle it?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which demonstrates how this is not solely a departmental issue; it involves working in partnership with local authorities and other Departments. He may be aware that I published the Government’s new rough-sleeping strategy this morning, which pledged that we will end rough sleeping once and for all by 2012. He will also be aware of the housing benefit reform package that the Department for Work and Pensions is taking forward. On his point about unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of the system, I am working closely on that issue, particularly with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher). I am keen to take a cross-governmental approach, so that we can tackle the problems that he rightly identified.

Gypsy and Traveller Sites

Between 2006 and 2008, the Government have awarded grants to provide more than 400 additional socially rented pitches, and 120 sites have been refurbished. The timetable for allocating suitable land for Gypsy and Traveller sites is set out in local authorities’ local development schemes. However, where there is a clear and pressing need, work should begin now on identifying land for sites.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate the Government on their initiative in trying to provide an adequate number of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Does he believe that there is a net increase in the number of pitches being provided? In some situations, refurbishment leads to a reduction in the number of pitches because it expands the size of individual pitches. Does he feel that there is an expansion in the number of pitches that are being provided by local authorities at the moment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend; as chair of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform, she has been the catalyst for much of the progress that has been made. She raises a serious point about whether, in our enthusiasm for investing in refurbishment and providing additional pitches, some may be lost in other parts of the country. The important point for local communities and local authorities to recognise is the benefit that the provision of well-managed, authorised sites can offer. They help to reduce the number of unauthorised sites and mean that there are more levers at the disposal of local authorities when it comes to removing unauthorised sites. We will ensure that we encourage local authorities to continue to provide additional pitches and to refurbish those pitches that are already in existence, as they should do.

Does the Minister agree that the rules and laws of this country should apply to everybody equally? If so, does he understand how my constituents in the villages of Wilburton and Haddenham feel at the prospect of another 14 Traveller pitches being granted permission? That permission is being granted not because those sites are wanted there and not because the district council wants them, but because the council is being forced to grant permission on land for which it would not otherwise do so, because of pressure from the Government and from the regional planning policy. One of the two sites has already been rejected for use in building conventional housing. The other is a greenfield site. If anybody else applied to carry out normal development, they would not have a prayer.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that demonstration of his prejudice against Gypsy and Traveller sites—[Interruption.]

Gypsies and Travellers are bound by the same planning laws and human rights legislation as everyone else, which means that they should apply for planning permission before moving on to or developing land that they own. In the same way as everyone else, they are subject to enforcement action if the proper planning processes are not complied with. Local authorities, rather than the Government, should decide what happens in local communities.

Traveller provision might not be politically popular, but does my hon. Friend agree that if every local authority made good provision for Traveller families there would be an overall saving, as illegal sites would not be used, saving all the money that dealing with them frequently costs—not to mention the rental income that would come from official sites?

I thank my hon. Friend for that sensible question. The independent taskforce on site provision and enforcement concluded that the Government’s policy framework was sound, but her point is very important. The provision of additional well-managed and authorised sites will help to reduce the number of unauthorised sites. Authorised sites also enable rent and council tax to be created and utility bills to be paid. I hope that we would all welcome that.

The Minister must recognise that no one on the Opposition side of the House objects to reasonable rights being given to Gypsies and Travellers. However, he and his Government are taking away the rights of other people in my constituency. Decent, normal, law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying people are under threat of having the little pieces of land right next to their houses taken away by his Government, by compulsory purchase, to provide sites for Gypsies. What about the rights of the decent, hard-working taxpayers in my constituency?

Let me deal with the hon. Lady’s first point. Local authorities spend £18 million a year on enforcement action on unauthorised sites. If we can reduce the number of unauthorised sites by encouraging local authorities to provide authorised sites, that will reduce that bill. Secondly, I know from a letter that I have been passed by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), that the hon. Lady has been involved in a campaign that some would characterise as scaremongering about compulsory purchase orders in her community. There is no truth in the headlines. There is no requirement for local authorities to compulsorily purchase land for Gypsy or Traveller sites. I would ask, caution and counsel hon. Members to use their words carefully and to temper them when it comes to spreading stories that are factually incorrect and misleading.

Leicestershire lies at the heart of England and is very well served by the motorway network, including the M6, M1 and M42, but the county has much more than its fair share of unauthorised Traveller encampments on both private and public land. Would my hon. Friend like authorities to share best practice in respect of how rapidly they deal with such concerns? Northamptonshire, for instance, has a far better record than Leicestershire in that regard. Does he plan to give authorities greater powers in legislation to move Travellers on rather more quickly than they can at the moment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he is doing with his local community. I should be more than happy to visit examples of good practice, and MPs who articulate it. He is of course aware that the police have greater powers to move Gypsies and Travellers from unauthorised encampments if there are suitable pitches available for them to move to. I hope that the examples of good practice in his community will be adopted elsewhere in the country.

The Minister will be aware of how controversial this issue is. He said that the point about compulsory purchase made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was unreliable, but will he confirm that in 2006 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued guidance instructing councils to meet their regional targets for Traveller camps by using compulsory purchase powers? Does he appreciate the ill-feeling that that advice and guidance has aroused, and the harm that such heavy-handed, top-down state interference has caused to community relations?

Frankly, the hon. Lady should know better. Compulsory purchase orders are entirely a matter for the local authority. If a local authority wished to compulsorily purchase any land, it would have to demonstrate that there was a compelling case in the public interest before confirming a compulsory purchase order. Such an order should be a last resort that is used only when efforts to purchase land by agreement have failed. However, it is a basic courtesy—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister has been asked a question, and hon. Members should let him reply. [Interruption.] I do not see what is difficult about it: people should just keep quiet while the Minister replies.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was going to end by saying simply that it is a basic courtesy to listen to the answer when a question is asked.

Council Tenants (Fixed-term Contracts)

5. What plans she has to introduce fixed-term contracts for council tenants; and if she will make a statement. (236266)

The Government have announced plans to publish a housing reform Green Paper to create a fairer and more effective system for those living in rented housing. I am currently considering all the evidence and arguments in favour of reform.

The speculation in The Times on 10 November described proposals published by the Chartered Institute of Housing. They are not, as was said, Government policy.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. My purpose in tabling that question was to enable her to knock very firmly on the head the report in The Times on 10 November. For the avoidance of doubt, will she confirm that, whatever else it contains, the Green Paper will not contain proposals for issuing fixed-term tenancies to council tenants?

As I said to my hon. Friend a moment ago, I have made no decisions about what will be in the Green Paper, but I can certainly tell him that I am not at all sympathetic to the notion that council housing residents should somehow lose their security of tenure. Indeed, I cannot think of a worse time to make such proposals. However, I fear that my hon. Friend—who I know is himself a distinguished journalist—may be mistaken in thinking that it would be easy to knock this notion on the head, since I have observed that, once something gets into the press cuttings, it is liable to be repeated, whether it is accurate or not.

The Minister’s words will be heard with support and encouragement by thousands of constituents who are council tenants in boroughs such as mine, Southwark. May I therefore ask her to be explicit about what I understand to be her view? Is she saying that no council tenant in England will have their status changed and their security of tenure removed, and that the Government will not force those who wish to remain council tenants into a different relationship—one that they do not support—with the council, for example through the involvement of an arm’s length management organisation?

I am tempted to make a joke about “Focus leaflets,” but I will refrain from doing so as the hon. Gentleman is in agreement with me. I can certainly say that we have not the smallest intention of removing security of tenure from existing tenants. I understand entirely his point about those who wish, for a variety of reasons, to remain council tenants, and to retain the mobility that comes with that. One thing is slightly worrying, and makes it important for us to look into and pursue these issues: it is counter-productive to say, on the one hand, that if people are beginning to earn a little more, perhaps they should think about moving out of council housing, whether they wish to or not, and to say on the other hand that we need mixed communities. I understand that right across the House there is acceptance that mixed communities are highly desirable. Let us see how we can maintain them.

I think all Labour Members thank my right hon. Friend for that good answer. As I think she knows, there are other council tenants, including those who live in pre-fabricated accommodation built after the second world war, when materials were scarce. There is a problem with some of that accommodation, including the Tarran bungalows in Bolsover. Will she meet relevant representatives to discuss the problem? It will need a bit of money, and will mean borrowing. We on the Labour Benches are in favour of that, and we can then solve the problem, and those council tenants can remain where they are.

I understand my hon. Friend’s description of the value and benefit of that accommodation. I think that Members across the House are aware that although pre-fabs were intended to last only a short time, they have been extremely popular, and I can completely understand the point of view of those who wish to see whether there is a way of extending the life of that accommodation. Of course I will meet his constituents. As to whether we would be able to find funds, and in what circumstances, that is not something that I dare guarantee from this Dispatch Box, but I certainly heed his remarks.

As year follows year under Labour, the number of people despairing and desperate in their pursuit of an affordable home grows and grows. There were 1 million people on the social housing waiting list in 1997, and there are 1.7 million people on that list today. Fewer than a fifth of the number of council houses built in 1997 are being built today. Given the Government’s inexcusable failure to provide affordable homes when times were good, how can they possibly hope to meet their targets when the Brown boom has turned to bust?

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, despite his remarks, 1 million more people are in home ownership than when this Government came to power? He talks about “inexcusable failure”, but it seems an utterly inexcusable failure that when this Government came to power, we found a backlog of £19 billion of needed repairs and maintenance, particularly in the social housing sector. Investment was made in putting roofs on while the sun was shining—they were left off by the Conservative party—and that has perhaps meant that fewer resources went into new build than might otherwise have done. That was a scandalous failure of the previous Government, but one that our party has rectified.

Small Business Rate Relief

6. What change there has been in the level of uptake of small business rate relief since the start of the current economic downturn. (236268)

The Government do not keep an ongoing account of the take-up rate of small business rate relief, but the latest reliable figures show that on 31 December 2006, some 392,000 businesses in England were claiming small business rate relief. The next figures will be available at the end of December this year.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. So many small businesses are suffering from cash-flow problems, but is the benefit not a source of help that is available now, waiting to be asked for? Does she agree that the Department could carry out a campaign to promote take-up of that relief, that there are good examples of local authorities already doing so, and that all of them should do so? Would she encourage all hon. Members to join in promoting take-up of that relief—even those who voted against setting it up in the first place?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a relief that helps more than 400,000 businesses, and in the current economic circumstances the smallest businesses are feeling the greatest strain. I wrote to all local authorities on 17 September, encouraging and urging them to start a take-up campaign for small businesses, and Members from all parts of the House will be delighted to join us in that. As my hon. Friend says, we introduced the measure in 2003, but at that time, I am afraid, the Opposition voted against it. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition voted against it on two separate occasions, but now, apparently, they are campaigning for it. They say one thing; they vote for another.

If the Secretary of State really wants to help small businesses, will she explain what possible logic there is in charging 100 per cent. business rates on empty commercial and retail properties at a time when those properties cannot be sold and cannot be let?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue, and I am very aware of the impact on commercial and industrial properties. However, he has never mentioned the context of those empty property rates. There is a three-month full exemption for non-industrial premises, and a six-month full exemption for industrial premises. When we brought in the measure, we reduced the rates for charities and sports clubs to zero, and we have a done great deal to help on empty property rates. If the hon. Gentleman wants further rate reductions, the money will have to be found from somewhere. Obviously, we are aware of the pressures, we are keeping the issue under review and we are engaged with the property sector, but it is right that we establish the context of those empty property rates.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says and I warmly congratulate her. Will she talk to her colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about how post offices are now able to take up the small business rate relief, because now that we have recognised the value of sub-post offices, is it not right that we give all of them the opportunity to stay in business by ensuring that communities invest in them? That idea is one way they can do so.

That is an excellent idea from my hon. Friend, and, again, I am sure that Members, particularly on the Government Benches, will have welcomed the announcement about post offices which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made last week. I also think that local authorities can do much more to ensure that services are provided through the post office network, and we are already engaged with a number of local authorities that are seeking to maintain as a key anchor in their communities post offices that have played a very important role.

The right hon. Lady was very quick to dismiss the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). Does she dismiss the concerns of the Government’s own Chief Whip, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who labelled the charges on empty properties “destructive”? Indeed, 60 colleagues have called for them to be scrapped. That £1 billion tax increase on empty buildings at the beginning of a recession will cost jobs now and seriously hamper the recovery. Will the right hon. Lady next week advise the Prime Minister to undo the damage that he inflicted as Chancellor of the Exchequer?

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of empty property rates, but he will know, as I do, that if we get rid of empty property rates, we will have to look for funding elsewhere. Very interestingly, we have seen a very dramatic development this morning: we have seen from the Leader of the Opposition—

The right hon. Lady should just stop digging. Her right hon. Friend the Chief Whip may have a different view. The Government’s policy on retrospective taxation states that backdating should take place only when it is fair, proportionate, necessary to protect revenue and in the public interest. In what way do the Government’s backdated business rates on ports meet those criteria? How can it be proportionate that the rates bill for one port operator alone has gone up from £50,000 to £1.25 million? How can it be fair that that backdated tax will cost 100,000 jobs throughout the United Kingdom? And how can it be in the public interest for such companies to be transferred to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge?

The hon. Gentleman will know that in the past 11 years the Government have done more to regenerate communities, support businesses and create jobs in this country than his Government ever did. He will also know that when empty property rates were brought in, a whole range of companies were deliberately leaving properties empty in order to find homes, sometimes for offshore funds; it was absolutely right to encourage those empty properties to be let.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that there is an issue about valuation in relation to ports and that we are seeking to take whatever steps we can to ensure that the impact on the port sector is measured and moderated. However, for the Conservative party to talk about building—


We are working with a range of stakeholders, including mortgage lenders, local authorities, the courts and third sector advice agencies, to ensure that appropriate support is available for all households in financial difficulty. On 2 September, we announced plans for a mortgage rescue scheme targeted at the most vulnerable households facing repossession.

My right hon. Friend has made an extremely important statement. It is vital that we get the message out through local authorities, building societies, mortgage lenders and in particular the courts. What can she do to work with other Departments to make sure that the message gets through loud and clear and that there are no further unnecessary repossessions?

My hon. Friend is entirely right: is important that we convey the message of where people can seek help—and that they should seek help, rather than waiting until the last minute. Some 340 local authorities, as well as lenders, money advice agencies and officials from the Housing Corporation, have attended briefings, at a regional level and in other ways, to try to get information across. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are working particularly with the Ministry of Justice to improve provision of advice at the courts.

I hope that hon. Members across the House will take on board the fact that it is very important that people in difficulties contact their lenders as early as possible; it will often be possible to make arrangements with which those people can live and which they can readily meet. However, for those who go as far as the door of the court before seeking advice, we, with the Ministry of Justice, have funded court desks in about 90 per cent. of courts across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They have had an average success rate of 85 per cent. in averting repossessions, even at that late stage.

The pre-action protocol is intended to encourage communication between borrowers and lenders, but will the Minister concede that it does not require lenders to do anything at all and that it offers the courts no sanction for non-compliance? Does the guidance not need to be accompanied by changes in legislation, and will the Government finally agree to support amendments to that effect in the Banking Bill next week? That would give courts the power that they need to make a real difference on repossessions.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the position does not place a requirement on lenders, but it is a heavy encouragement to lenders to know that what they are doing will be scrutinised. I hope she is aware that, quite apart from the encouragement given by the Government and the justice system through the protocol, the Council of Mortgage Lenders itself has issued guidance strongly advising people to take the same kinds of steps. The whole thrust of the approach, whether from the council or the courts, is to make sure that repossession is a last, not a first, resort.

Does the Minister accept that if the Government are genuinely to take a sensitive approach to the growing problem of debt for families, a further step would be to set the issue in the context of the enforcement of other civil debt? They should cancel their current plans to implement proposals to give bailiffs powers of forced entry into family homes to pursue things such as parking tickets and credit card debt.

The hon. Gentleman is rather taking us away from the issue at hand. I completely understand and sympathise with people who feel distressed when they are approached on such grounds. However, the issue is not of the same order as the threat of losing one’s home. The hon. Gentleman should recognise and concede that the Government are doing a great deal to help people in those very worrying circumstances, and they hope to do more.

Topical Questions

My Department continues to work to build strong, safe communities where people want to live, work and bring up their families. In recent weeks we have been especially focused on the effects of the tough economic times on communities. We are working hard to keep people in their jobs and in their homes, and we are giving them real help in tough times.

I am grateful for that answer. I want to have my say in support of eco-towns, just as others want to speak against them. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been consultation on the general principle of eco-towns? There is currently consultation on the proposed planning policy statement, and there will in future be consultation on each individual site through the planning process.

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am grateful to him. We sometimes get the impression in this House that absolutely nobody is in favour of eco-towns. The second round of consultation has now begun, and I hope that people will respond to it as thoroughly and enthusiastically as they did to the first round. He is also right to say that when all the processes are completed and we have the final set of proposals for places that may be suitable for an eco-town, ordinary planning procedures and decisions of local authorities will then come into play.

T2. The Secretary of State recently ruled that the large and entirely illegal Gypsy encampment at Minety in the middle of the countryside in my constituency should remain indefinitely on the grounds that there was insufficient provision elsewhere. In view of that, will she now tell the House, first, how many Gypsy caravans there are in England; secondly, how many pitches there are for them in England; thirdly, how many Gypsy caravans are illegally parked; and fourthly, given that these people are nomadic and coming from as far away as southern Ireland and Romania, how she knows those figures? (236288)

The hon. Gentleman has raised with me on several occasions the issue of Gypsy and Traveller encampments in his constituency. I can give him the information, although I think I may already have done so in a written parliamentary answer. Let me reiterate the point made by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan). The provision of authorised sites helps to improve planning, has ensured that we have better social cohesion between the settled community and Gypsy and Traveller communities, and can help to reduce council tax bills. Everybody wins with the provision and assessment of authorised sites, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

T4. Last week, I met four firefighters from Wakefield who were concerned about the level and quality of training in the fire service. Will my hon. Friend work to ensure or at least consider the idea of a national training framework for firefighters so that the brave men and women who enter burning buildings to rescue others can take that decision without putting their own lives at risk? (236290)

I know that my hon. Friend, like me and my colleagues, takes the issues raised by the recent lobby and report very seriously. I hope that she will be reassured that all firefighters, whether whole-time or retained, are trained to the same standards. Firefighter training is based on national occupational standards, which ensure that a consistent and appropriate level of training is maintained across the country. Those standards also give individual fire rescue services the flexibility to ensure that all their staff are trained for the particular risks that are identified in their local integrated risk management plan.

T3. Following the end of the consultation on the south-west regional spatial strategy, will the Secretary of State, when she comes to consider her response, take into account the many objections that have been submitted, not only by me but by many other people in Tewkesbury, to the building of houses in flood risk areas? Only last week, when it rained rather heavily on the Monday, we had further flooding on fields and roads, and although no houses flooded on that occasion it would not have taken much more for that to have been the case. Will she bear these objections in mind? (236289)

The hon. Gentleman has pursued these issues conscientiously on behalf of his constituents on a number of occasions. There have been some 35,000 responses to the south-west strategy. I am in the process of considering them very carefully, and we will respond in due course.

T5. What curbs does the Minister intend to put on landlords who are abusing the assured tenancy scheme, which means, in the current credit crunch, that companies are going around buying up family properties at vastly reduced prices, with the promise that people can stay there and rent the family home, only to kick them out on to the street six months later? (236291)

My hon. Friend raises a serious and alarming issue. I am indeed aware that such scandalous behaviour is occurring. I assure him that we are ascertaining what we can do to discourage it heavily. It is clearly alarming and to the disadvantage not only of the individual families, but of the whole sector in the long term.

T8. The shadow Cheshire East council has voted for a mayor rather than a chairman, which its predecessor, Cheshire county council, had. Bearing in mind that there is no historical precedence for it, unlike in Congleton, which received its charter in 1272 and Macclesfield, which received its charter even earlier, in 1261, will the Minister ensure that local people are enabled to express their view of the matter, one way or another, bearing in mind that the proposition is rather pretentious? (236294)

I note the hon. Lady’s views on the matter. In setting the framework for the new unitary authorities, we are having detailed discussions with them so that they can keep some of their chartered rights and ceremonial positions intact. It is for the respective new unitary authorities to make such decisions. We will work with them to enable them to set up their authorities in the way they choose for their area and their residents.

T6. Those on the Front Bench know that councils throughout the country have sat on section 106 money that has not been spent. Much of that money has been earmarked for social housing. What can they do to ensure that local authorities such as Chorley, which has sat on millions and does not provide much-needed social housing for families, spend that money? It would give a real injection not only to the housing market but to the construction market. (236292)

My hon. Friend asks an interesting question. Like him, I deplore it if his local authority has retained section 106 money, which could be put to good use for the people of his area. I am not entirely sure whether we can do anything to encourage local authorities to use it in that way, but I assure him that, following Question Time, I shall find out.

Will the appropriate Minister give further and sympathetic consideration to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and Opposition Front Benchers made about empty property relief? There is a crisis. Three business men approached me separately at the weekend, requesting that I make representations to the Government for such relief, even if it is reintroduced only for the period of the recession and the financial crisis. The only way they can currently get around the problem is by taking the roof off their property. That cannot be considered value for money. Will the Government reconsider the matter for the period of the recession?

In responding to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), I said that we kept such matters under review. I am aware of the impact, especially in the current economic climate. I wanted to stress the steps that the Government had taken to try to ensure that we provided some relief and support. If the hon. Gentleman was approached by only three members of the commercial property sector last weekend, he was probably lucky. I have been approached by many more members of that sector and I am well aware of the position. Indeed, we are very much engaged with the sector and we are examining the impact of the empty property rates in different places.

T7. My right hon. Friend may not be aware of the 68 per cent. vote in favour of a stock transfer that was announced in Plymouth today. However, I know that she is aware of the concerns that have percolated through the media this week about security of tenure. Has she had time to consider and revisit the Law Commission report on a single form of tenancy, which has benefits for all tenants, whether council tenants, those opting for stock transfer or private tenants? (236293)

I am indeed aware of the Law Commission’s report and anticipate hearing something further from it in the near future. I will not disguise from my hon. Friend the fact that, although I respect the work that was done and the careful thought that went into it, I have concerns about some proposals in the report. For example, private rented sector tenants have been mentioned during today’s Question Time, and there is concern that some of the proposals might reduce security of tenure for some in that sector. That would worry me. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I will consider the matter with great care.

I thank the Secretary of State for refusing HelioSlough’s proposed 3.5 million sq ft rail freight interchange in my constituency. However, I am extremely disappointed that only five weeks after that refusal, which cost my council and my residents several hundreds of thousands of pounds in defending themselves, HelioSlough has yet again asked to make a planning application. Although I am aware that under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 councils can stop similar applications, HelioSlough was apparently somewhat comforted by the Secretary of State’s comment that she might have agreed the proposal if the site specification and assessment work had been done first. The fact that HelioSlough did not do so correctly—

Order. I would have thought that an Adjournment debate was in order for the hon. Lady. The Secretary of State will try to answer.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady and her residents were pleased, but clearly we have not managed to please her enough in this instance. If commercial operators want to bring forward applications, it is not within my power to prevent them from doing so. It is a matter for the market to determine whether such applications are made.

May I ask my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and the Minister for Local Government in particular, about the situation regarding Icelandic banks? I am thinking of those local authorities that looked at the credit ratings and made sensible judgments about investing in those banks. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement to the House about that matter? In particular, will he meet some of the leading councils that suffered because of that advice, not least my city council in Nottingham?

Our first priority has been to help those authorities and other depositors in the Icelandic banks to get their money back and to be treated fairly. Led by the Treasury, that has been happening over the past few weeks. Our second priority has been to ensure that we send in financial experts to work with authorities that have deposits in Icelandic banks, so that we could reassure them and residents that there was no short-term threat to services or staff, and we have done that.

Beyond that, there is currently no evidence that the guidance for local authorities on investment that has been in place since 2004 is faulty. Indeed, most authorities have spread their investments, which is one reason why none is experiencing serious short-term difficulties. I will of course meet my hon. Friend—indeed, I believe that I am due to meet him shortly. I look forward to that meeting with him and leading members of Nottingham city council, which was one of the authorities with deposits in a failed Icelandic bank.

Could the Minister offer any additional guidance to councils such as West Lancashire district council to ensure that affordable housing schemes are progressed to positive fruition? Sadly, I have to report a number of incidents, including one in which the housing association, working with the council’s housing department, brought forward a scheme costing £800,000, only to find that the planning department preferred it on an adjacent site for which there was no grant. The whole scheme therefore fell apart, with £800,000 or £900,000 lost and no affordable housing built. That is an absolute disgrace. We need some help with things like that.

I completely understand the distress that my hon. Friend expresses and I share her disappointment that, owing to what sounds like a series of unfortunate decisions not being connected, such proposals fell through. I am not sure that guidance from us would help in such circumstances, unless it was “For goodness’ sake, show some sense.”