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Topical Questions

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2008

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.”