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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 20 January 2009

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Public Transport (Rural Areas)

1. Whether her policy on community engagement and empowerment takes account of public transport provision in rural areas. (248939)

Before I answer the question, may I congratulate and welcome the new members of the Opposition Front-Bench team and wish well those who have gone to pastures new and less green?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes. The White Paper, “Communities in control”, shifts power and influence to citizens and communities across the whole range of public services. In engaging local communities, public bodies need to take account of transport provision and ensure that everyone has fair access.

That is very good news. The problem is that local authorities provide or subsidise transport in the case of school transport, youth services, social services, bus subsidies, car share schemes and over-60s free bus travel; the NHS provides ambulances, hospital car services and hospital patient transport; and Royal Mail provides for 50,000 people a year travelling in their post buses—we have so much ad hocery that it is time for a Government strategy. At the moment, the poorest in our communities always suffer, particularly in large rural areas. I would like this issue to be pushed down to local authority level at the same time as having a coherent strategy and working out the cost of not having a coherent and sustainable transport policy.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a lot of important and serious points. One of the reasons why we are passionate about community engagement and participation is that it improves a service. We need to see in rural communities the same levels of engagement that there are in urban communities. That will lead to improved transport systems. It is for local authorities to decide what bus services to support in their area according to local needs and priorities. In that regard, the hon. Gentleman will welcome the increased investment that there has been this year, as in the past 11 years, for local authorities.

The Department’s report some time ago found that phoney consultation was a significant source of distrust among the electorate at large. When people travel a great distance to make their views known to a particular public body, it is very frustrating if they feel that such bodies are only going through the motions. How can the Government prevent charges that they sometimes have phoney consultations and do not listen to the overwhelming results that flood back?

Obviously, we are all against phoney consultation. We must be clear that consultation does not always mean that stakeholders who respond will have their views heard. However, my hon. Friend raises an important point. We must not see a façade where an impression is created that citizens are being consulted, because that only leads them up the garden path and they become more frustrated when services do not improve and meet their desires and needs. We are obviously against that sort of consultation, and if he has any examples to give us we will ensure that we take on board seriously the concerns that he has raised.

Local Involvement Networks

2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on mechanisms to ensure that local authorities with social care responsibilities use funding allocated for local involvement networks for that purpose. (248940)

Health Ministers and we agree that it is for local authorities to decide how to use the funding that we have given them for local involvement networks. However, they have a clear legal duty to establish LINks and to support their work.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does he agree that, although it may be for local authorities to make those decisions, they are not all doing so with equal expedition and efficiency? Some networks remain to be set up, and some local authorities are providing an excellent service such as that in Norfolk while others are charging whacking great management fees yet not providing an adequate service. Does he think that there is a role for central Government in taking another look at this?

I think that I was clear in my first answer that having provided £84 million from the Department of Health in order for local authorities to be responsible for ensuring that LINks are set up locally to give service users, residents and citizens a greater influence over health and social care services, it is right to let them get on and do that job. Every LINk will have to produce an annual report to the Secretary of State for Health. That annual report will have to identify how much money it is receiving, so if any local authority were tempted to take a slice as a management fee, that practice would become clear—and, I am sure, be discouraged—as LINks get up and running fully.

Why is it taking so long to set up LINks, to follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon)? In Lancashire, we have been without any patient representation for more than a year now, and the nascent, embryonic LINk is going out to consultation again. Why can Lancashire county council and the Government not just talk about the problems that are delaying the formation of this important new body?

The first thing to say is that LINks were established only last year through the Local Government and Public Involvement act in Health Act 2007. Money was available for local authorities to start their work in ensuring that those were set up properly from April last year. Every local authority has a clear legal duty to ensure that they are established. If my hon. Friend feels that his local authority is falling short in that legal duty, I encourage him to let me have the details, and I and my hon. Friends in the Department of Health will look into the matter.

Small Business Rate Relief

3. Question No. 2—[Hon. Members: “Three.”]What recent representations she has received on the rate at which small businesses receive relief from business rates. (248941)

It is very important that we get our numbers right in this debate. I have not received any recent specific representations on the rate of small business rate relief.

May I make one, then? If the right hon. Lady wishes to give an across-the-board boost to the economy in a recession, will she consider dramatically increasing the rate of small business relief, and will she fund it by abolishing the useless and wasteful regional development agencies? They do absolutely nothing—certainly in the south-west—apart from looking after themselves and expanding the public sector. If she does that, I am sure that her colleagues in other Departments would agree that we may even see some green shoots in the economy next year, after we have won the election.

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should be asking for an increase in small business rate relief. Perhaps he has a very short memory, but when the rate relief of 50 per cent. for small businesses was introduced in 2003, the Opposition voted against the Bill, and the Leader of the Opposition voted against it. Now we have a request for an increase. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Government have done a huge amount to help small businesses in the current economic downturn, such as the small firms loan guarantee fund, the enterprise fund and the working capital fund. All of that stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the Opposition, which is to do nothing. If he thinks that the regional development agencies have done nothing to help, I suggest that he contact his regional development agency and look at the ways in which it has been able to sustain jobs and business in the current economic climate.

Business rates are, in some cases, a significant expense for small businesses. Given the current Government approach to corporation tax and VAT return, and the problems that some small businesses are suffering, will my right hon. Friend examine the possibility of a flexible approach to the collection of business rates?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and we are constantly examining the ways in which we can help businesses get access to credit to meet their liabilities. We have introduced measures on prompt payment to try to increase cash flow for small businesses, which is important. Small business rate relief benefits just short of 400,000 firms, so they are getting extra help. The changes introduced in the pre-Budget report mean that someone setting up a small business can get rate relief in the year that they set it up, instead of having to be registered from 1 April. That will significantly help small businesses to cope with the demands from non-domestic rates. I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but it is important that we continue to ensure that local authorities have the income they need to provide services. Nevertheless, we are constantly looking at ways in which we can help businesses.

The Secretary of State knows my constituency well, and sadly, last week, we heard the news that the Kaydee bookshop, which has been in operation for more than 60 years, is to close. She knows that 37 pubs a week are closing in this country, and I have heard of a couple of pubs that have closed their doors recently, perhaps for the last time. She knows that business rates could tip a marginal enterprise into closure. What more can she do, particularly at this time of recession, to ensure greater relief for small and medium-sized enterprises?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion from a sedentary position.

The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about small businesses, and the campaign on pubs is a matter of general concern. However, it is a question of pubs not just in rural areas, but in some urban areas, too. Some rate relief is available, but I am concerned to ensure that those centres of the community are able to continue, and I am looking at some innovative ways to tackle that issue. We all know that many small firms are experiencing difficulty and the Government are putting in place some measures—I read out some of them earlier—to ensure that they get access to finance, which is the overriding issue for small business at the moment. They need that finance on reasonable terms, and without interest rates being hiked up. That is at the centre of our concerns.

I say to the hon. Gentleman in the kindest way possible that this Government are focused on introducing a range of measures to help business, which stands in marked contrast to the Opposition, who would simply say, “There’s nothing we can do.” I do not think that that is good enough.

We on the Labour Benches do welcome the rate relief that was brought in; it has been beneficial to small businesses. The question is whether we could extend it and give a little more—we know that the current figure is 50 per cent. Perhaps we could extend it to those medium-sized businesses that are also struggling, and put pressure on local authorities, which chase the money with great zeal and put businesses over the edge. Perhaps if they worked together, we could save businesses; that would be a common-sense approach. Any more help is always welcome.

My hon. Friend is renowned for his common sense and practicality. I assure him that we are constantly looking at ways in which we can help; we are not inflexible. If hon. Members look at the changes that we made to empty property relief in the pre-Budget report, they will see that we raised the threshold of rateable value from £2,200 to £15,000 because we received a lot of representations. We listened and we acted. That is evidence of the Government genuinely trying, in good faith, to do what they can to help businesses at this difficult time.

Whatever the past may hold, I think that we all now believe that small business rate relief was a very good idea. The problem is that only half the small businesses in England apply for it. In Scotland and Wales, the rate relief is given automatically. May I express the tentative hope that the Secretary of State will look sympathetically on my private Member’s Bill, which is being introduced tomorrow? It will make small business rate relief automatic for small businesses, just as it is in the two other parts of Great Britain that I mentioned.

The word “Damascus” came to mind when the hon. Gentleman sought to draw a veil over the Conservatives’ opposition to rate relief in the past. I am aware of his Bill. We wrote to local authorities in October last year, reminding them that it is their job to promote the scheme and encourage small businesses to make applications. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his private Member’s Bill. It is important to note that the rate relief is designed for those small businesses that occupy only one property. We have to make sure that there are checks in the system so that we do not get applications from multiple property owners. However, I am pleased to facilitate that discussion.

The Secretary of State’s Department has a very important job to do in supporting local small businesses through the credit crunch, not least because despite the billions thrown at the banks, the terms and charges for many small businesses locally are still being changed without any notice. The Secretary of State has given updated claim figures for small business rate relief, but many businesses still do not receive it. Will she give a clear indication of what her Department is doing to investigate making the entitlement automatic, so that businesses do not have to claim it, and will she also pursue making the payment terms more flexible, if it is possible for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to do that? What can the Secretary of State do to support local authorities in offering similar support?

I have responded on the issue of automatic payment. As I say, we will look at the private Member’s Bill, but I want to make sure that the system has integrity and is very good. At the moment, the information about the small business rate relief scheme is sent out with the business rates bill. Perhaps there is more that local authorities can do to draw people’s attention to that application, and we will pursue that. We certainly do not want to hide the relief; we want to maximise take-up, because we recognise the contribution that small businesses make.

Several hon. Members have made points about the terms of payment and whether we can be more flexible on that. Again, we do not close our minds on that issue, but I remind hon. Members that local authorities have to provide essential services to the community, and that is dependent on high rates of collection of both council tax and non-domestic rates. The money has to be found somewhere. Equally, I am conscious that we do not want to tip an otherwise viable business over the edge and so lose employment opportunities. It is all a balancing act, but we have to make sure that we maximise our income as well as supporting business.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for his warm welcome, and may I say to colleagues how nice it is to be back?

Business rates are set to rise by 5 per cent. in April, taking the average bill to £12,000 a year, yet today we heard that inflation has already fallen to 3.1 per cent., and the Government’s pre-Budget report predicts deflation, with the retail prices index inflation plummeting to minus 2.25 per cent. this year. How can the Secretary of State justify an inflation-busting business rate at a time when so many businesses are fighting for their very survival?

I welcome the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) to their posts. It is nice to see so many women on the Front Bench. I thoroughly enjoyed debating these issues with the hon. Lady’s predecessor—I cannot for the life of me think why, but I did—and I have no doubt that we will enjoy such exchanges, too.

The hon. Lady may have been away from her current brief for some time, but the non-domestic rates system has not changed. It has always been tied to the assessment of inflation at a particular time in the cycle. She knows that it is essential to try to maximise the take from non-domestic rates, as I said to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), in order to maintain the vital services that local government has to deliver to the communities out there. We all recognise that businesses and individuals are currently hard pressed, and we are doing everything that we can, including raising the reliefs on empty property taxes. The position on that has changed as a result of this Government’s decision since the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) previously had her current brief. We are flexible and willing to take whatever steps are necessary to help people through these times, which, as I have said, stands in marked contrast to the policy of the Opposition to do nothing.

I am sure that the right hon. Lady would agree with me, however, that one of the saddest features of this recession is the increase in the number of empty premises on the high street. Will she therefore confirm that, even with the tiny relief in the pre-Budget report, the new empty property business rates are still set to raise £700 million this year? Does she accept that that additional tax could well make the difference between a business getting by and a business going to the wall?

I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that empty property in this country has been subject to taxes for 40 years or so. We are not talking about an innovation. In fact, the extra reliefs that have been introduced as a result of the pre-Budget report will give relief amounting to £205 million to businesses that would otherwise have to pay those taxes. That is not an inconsiderable sum and is a result of a decision made by this Government. She talks about inflation, but she will know that local authorities had to cope with the spike in fuel and energy prices. Although inflation is now coming down, they have had to cope with real volatility in the system. Therefore, it is important that business rates make their proper contribution to local services. Again, we are bringing forward a raft of measures, ranging from skills support, training and help for apprentices to support for small businesses, the enterprise guarantee system and the working capital system. Those are all innovative steps taken by this Government in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives, who simply want to stand on the sidelines, wring their hands and do nothing to help people through this difficult period.

Home Information Packs

4. If she will use her powers under the Housing Act 2004 to suspend the requirement for sellers to provide home information packs. (248942)

Surely the Minister has realised by now that home information packs were a bad idea from the outset. Even when the housing market was buoyant, neither sellers nor buyers had the slightest interest in them. Now that the housing market is so stagnant that estate agents are going out of business, the Minister could take this opportunity to abolish the utterly superfluous home information packs without loss of face. Will she do that?

First, let me say to the hon. Lady that the intention—and, indeed, the effect—of home information packs is to provide much needed information for consumers on the most important purchase of their lives. She talks as though home information packs have had no impact and no benefit, but 1.2 million such packs have been issued. They are the most simple way of getting information for that most important purchase. She may feel that it is not important to protect consumers; consumer representatives do not, and nor do the Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem in the housing market currently is not a shortage of people wanting to sell their homes—one just needs to see the number of estate agents’ boards around the place—but a shortage of people able to afford houses and, in particular, of first-time buyers able to afford mortgages? Does she agree, therefore, that it would be completely counter-productive at this time to transfer costs from people who are desperate to sell to buyers, particularly first-time buyers, who are working at the very margins of affordability in seeking to buy a home?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the key to the housing market in many ways is the role of the first-time buyer, who will incur no such costs but to whom the packs can provide extremely useful information. We recognise that this information does not take a great deal of time to obtain or, in the context of a house purchase, involve a great deal of cost, yet it can make a big difference to consumers.

I pressed the Minister on this issue when she appeared before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 27 October. At that time, she estimated that £5 million had been spent on marketing the packs, to provide a benefit of only £30 per pack. I said that I was concerned that the packs were becoming outdated in a slack market, to which she said:

“Of course that is an issue that we are looking at with the relevant authorities”.

She accepted that it would be a problem in a slack market. What exactly has she done since then to ensure that the arrangements are not affected by the slack market?

All I can say to the hon. Lady is that there is no evidence that this is a growing problem, and yes, of course we keep the matter under review; it would be unwise not to. However, while a house remains on the market, the same HIP can continue to be valid. Even if a house is taken off the market, the pack can be used again if the house is put back on the market within 12 months of the first day of marketing. So, in fact—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady makes a great deal of noise, but the consumer representatives share our view that this kind of information, on the biggest purchase that most people will ever make in their lives, is of real potential value and actual value. That remains our view.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the packs contain information about factoring and land maintenance companies? I am the chairman of the all-party group on land maintenance, and I have been inundated with complaints from people throughout the United Kingdom who buy a house without realising that they will have to pay up to an additional £400 a year to a factoring company. Nor do they realise that, even if the company provides an inadequate service, they cannot get rid of it.

My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that, in many cases, people faced with making such a substantial purchase are looking for more information, rather than less.

I am not convinced that the Minister really believes that home information packs are the right way forward. If they are so beneficial to the housing market, why was the former grace and favour residence of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)—Government house in Pimlico—placed on the market by the Minister without a fully completed home information pack?

Any property that is put on the market has to have a fully completed home information pack, and I am sure that that one will. I am not familiar with the case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I am sure that the law will be met by those who are placing that property on the market, as with any other. I would simply say to him what I have already said to his hon. Friends: this provision is of real potential benefit to consumers, and I wish I could say that it was untypical of the Conservatives not to share that concern.

Can my right hon. Friend tell me what evidence there is that home information packs have, in practice, saved people buying or selling houses any money whatever, or speeded up the process in any way?

Yes, I can. In practice, the evidence shows that the average cost of searches has gone down by some £30, and there are examples of the cost coming down by as much as £120. There has also been some welcome, and expected, market-led innovation. For example, if, for whatever reason, a search needs to be refreshed, or a second search is needed, some estate agents are beginning to provide them free of charge. I assure my hon. Friend that there is an indication that, in some cases, the packs are speeding up sales. They are certainly giving valuable information and, as I have already said, they are reducing costs.

South-west Regional Spatial Strategy

The Secretary of State received about 35,000 responses from individuals and organisations to the consultation on her proposed changes to the south-west regional spatial strategy. This is the largest number ever received to such a consultation. My officials at the government office for the south-west are assessing the responses, and the Secretary of State will consider proposals for a revised timetable shortly.

The Minister will be aware of a number of Adjournment debates secured by me and other hon. Members on this issue, in which he has been unable—following guidance, I am sure—to discuss the details. We are constantly told that Ministers cannot talk about the details of the regional spatial strategy. The Minister kindly agreed to a meeting with Gloucestershire MPs tomorrow, but said in an e-mail that he cannot discuss the content of the RSS, and cannot communicate the points raised at the meeting with decision-making Ministers because that would avoid new issues arising that might necessitate a further round of consultation. Surely Members of Parliament should be given the right to discuss with Ministers such an important issue that affects their constituencies. It is not just me who is pressing for this: hon. Members from different political parties across the south-west are very unhappy with the RSS. Surely we have a right to a proper discussion of it.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point and summarises the planning position extremely well. He alludes to the fact that we have had a number of Adjournment debates on this issue—he secured one in May 2008—and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has answered questions on the issue on the Floor of the House. I take the position that hon. Members should have quick and rapid access to Ministers in order to put their concerns. Having said that, it is also very important to be mindful of the propriety of planning guidance. Paragraph 26 of that guidance is very clear: at the current stage of proposals, when the draft stage has been out to consultation and the Secretary of State is considering those consultations, Ministers involved in the decision-making process cannot make representations. That is fair; otherwise, as the hon. Gentleman says, we would have to have a further round of consultation. That would not be fair and it would delay the consultation still further, which I do not think he wants.

May I say thank you to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government for his welcome visit to Plymouth, where he heard of our ambition to be the engine driver of the far south-west? I would also like to thank colleagues for listening during the period in which we could make representations and be heard. Finally, I would like to observe that we really hope that Plymouth will be reinstated in the final version of the regional spatial strategy to reflect its role as engine driver of the far south-west economy.

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment and her question. I was down in Plymouth last week—not in my hon. Friend’s constituency—and saw first hand the ambition and how good community representatives are in that area. She is aware that the consultation has now finished, so I cannot put what she has said forward to the planning decision maker, but I certainly take on board those points.

My constituents find it very difficult to reconcile statements from Ministers that the Government are absolutely committed to protecting the green belt with proposals in the regional spatial strategy for large-scale development in the green belt. Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, what assurances or reassurances can he give my constituents about the criteria and methodology that the Government will use in assessing the green-belt issues?

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made it very clear that the planning policy arrangements surrounding green belt are robust and have stood us in good stead for something like half a century—and we continue to adhere to them. There has actually been an increase in the number of hectares of green belt since 1997. We have been protecting the countryside—something that the Government will continue to do.

I entirely appreciate the constraints on the Minister in responding to questions today, but I urge him and his colleagues to take into account the concerns of people in urban areas that implementation of the regional spatial strategy may make it easier for developers to pick off sites in undeveloped areas rather than put their resources into developing regeneration sites on brownfield sites in city centres. I urge him to ensure that we do not lose sight of that objective.

I certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s points. I think that that was made clear during the consultation process. She is aware that I cannot take that forward at the moment, because the consultation period has closed and the Secretary of State is considering the responses, but the issue certainly came out during the consultation period.

The Minister will be aware that last week the planning inspector upheld a decision of East Dorset district council to refuse planning permission for 60 houses in the green belt at Colehill in my constituency. Can my constituents take heart at that decision, in that the Secretary of State will not persist with her proposals to build in the green belt in south-east Dorset?

I am reluctant to comment on specific proposals because of the quasi-judicial nature of the function of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this context, but I repeat what I have said in earlier responses. We have robustly defended the green belt, and we have actually expanded it since 1997. We see it as a major, powerful planning tool to help prevent urban sprawl. It is absolutely essential, and we will continue to defend it wherever necessary.

Perhaps the Minister would like to explain to us how many of those representations relate to the removal of green belt protection from land around Bristol, Bath, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bournemouth and south-east Dorset. He referred to the quasi-judicial nature of the Secretary of State’s function. Will he bear in mind that the Secretary of State’s own statement that

“the proposed changes would result in loss of green belt land”

flatly contradicts his own assurance to the House, and the Prime Minister’s, that such land would be “robustly” protected? May we have quasi-consistency as well?

Nice line, but I think I can do a bit better than that.

As I said earlier, we received 35,000 responses to our consultation, the largest number ever. The consultation featured three broad themes: the overall level of housing provision, infrastructure and the regional distinctiveness of the south-west. All those points need to be taken into account, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that they are addressed.

Community Land Trusts

The Government are committed to community-led development. In October last year, we launched a consultation on how a sustainable community land trust sector could be developed. The consultation closed on 31 December. We have received 63 responses from a wide variety of stakeholders, which we are currently analysing. We will publish the results in the near future.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I am pleased that progress has been made with community land trusts, but will she have a word with the Homes and Communities Agency, whose representatives I shall be meeting in my constituency on Friday, to ensure that development of the Cashes Green site—which, as she knows better than I do, is a pioneer site—is accelerated as a matter of urgency? I hope that the whole site will be available because otherwise there will be piecemeal development, which does not help the concept, let alone the practice, of community land trusts.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s determination and tenacity. This is an innovative policy that requires forward-thinking people to push it forward, and that is exactly what we are doing. A master plan has been developed for the Cashes Green site, which was presented to the public on 8 January, and the matter will proceed.

The concept of community land trusts is important, and not just for housing development. The whole point of such trusts is to secure community ownership and give communities a sense of being able to influence local services and assets. This is new territory, involving co-operatives, mutuals and, of course, community ownership, which is why it is so important for us to get it absolutely right.

Will the Secretary of State examine the role of community land trusts, and the possibility of genuinely community-led development, in relation to the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites? In my constituency it is private developers who are currently submitting applications for development on those sites, and, although such development is entirely contrary to the wishes of the community and local people, it seems likely that the applications will be imposed on them by virtue of the regional assemblies that we thought we had got rid of in the referendum.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in drawing those issues together.

The sites proposed for Gypsy and Traveller provision were proposed by the local authorities. It is not a case of imposition; there has been consultation on the proposals. Provision of this kind is always a matter of controversy, but I think all Members will recognise that unless provision is adequate, we shall continue to experience the problems of people moving from site to site that have caused difficulties to many communities in this country.

My right hon. Friend referred to community land trusts in the context of a co-operative and mutual approach to housing. She will know of the Commission on Mutual and Co-operative Housing, which was launched at last year’s Co-operative Congress. Will she examine the findings of the commission’s report when it is published, with a view to establishing what further support the Government can give the co-operative and mutual sector in the provision of affordable housing?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is now a call for evidence and an inquiry into the roles that co-operatives can play in this respect. It is interesting that when people become involved in housing co-operatives, they often go on to set up social and business enterprises in other areas. I am told that in one co-operative in Redditch, around 15 per cent. of the tenants who have been involved in managing their properties are now school governors, and are trying to improve the education system in their area. There are many spin-offs and benefits to mutual ownership.

Social Housing

8. What recent discussions she has had with housing associations on fulfilment of their current plans for social housing in Greater London. (248946)

Ministers and officials have been meeting housing associations and the National Housing Federation to discuss provision of affordable housing in the current downturn. In response, we have taken a number of steps to encourage delivery, including bringing forward £550 million of spending to help to provide up to 7,500 new social rented homes earlier. The Homes and Communities Agency has increased flexibility on levels of grant funding to support development. The HCA is working closely with housing associations, including those in London, to maximise delivery.

I welcome the Minister’s reply. She may know that Southwark council has two very large schemes to demolish the Haygate estate at the Elephant and Castle and the Aylesbury estate a bit further south in Walworth, and to replace them with more affordable housing. Both are supported by London government and by Ministers. Will she ensure that both her officials and people at the Homes and Communities Agency facilitate the passing of the money to the housing associations now? The plans are there and everyone wants the homes to be built, but something in the pipeline is holding them up. The communities of south London would welcome those thousands of good, new affordable homes soon, and they would help the building companies that are looking for work in the affordable sector.

I am aware of the schemes that the hon. Gentleman identified, as well as the need for them and the local community’s desire that they should be completed. I am also aware that there have been recent concerns about delivery, and both the council and the HCA are working closely together to decide how to resolve the problems and, hopefully, to overcome them.

The business model on which housing associations funded affordable homes for rent through shared ownership sales is, effectively, broken. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she is working with the Homes and Communities Agency to ensure permanent adjustments to the grant regime to plug that gap, to undertake an urgent stocktake of unsold shared ownership properties across housing associations to ensure that none stays empty, and to reject the Mayor of London’s proposal to give priority for shared ownership to families whose household income is greater than that of Members of Parliament?

My hon. Friend takes a great interest, and has great expertise, in these matters. I recognise the difficulties that housing associations face at present, and how the expectations about their funding sources, which they have had for some time, have changed. She will know that increased flexibility is being shown, and I hear what she says about her belief that that will need to be the case for some time into the future. We will certainly discuss that with the HCA. I also understand her concern about unsold properties, including those designated for shared ownership: it is my understanding that there is no substantial backlog of unsold units at present, as has been the case. However, if my hon. Friend, or any other hon. Member, has concrete evidence that that remains a problem, I would be happy to look at it.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) for his earlier words of welcome.

Back in April 2006, the Government introduced their flagship Social HomeBuy scheme. It was meant to help those people who were ineligible for right to buy, or unable to afford it. But as of June last year it had helped only 103 house purchasers across London, or just four a month. What are the latest figures for Social HomeBuy across London, and why has it not helped more people?

First, like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, I welcome the hon. Lady to the Front Bench. May I give her a piece of kindly and well meant advice? She should not pay too much attention to the colleague who is sitting on her immediate right because Social Homebuy is one of his obsessions. It is true that large numbers have not taken it up, but the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) always omits to mention that it was a pilot scheme. It is neither the Government’s flagship scheme nor the chief element of our HomeBuy Direct scheme. The latter is a portfolio of schemes, which I know that the hon. Lady will find interesting when she has had a chance to study it. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s observations about a couple of hundred people, 110,000 people throughout the United Kingdom have benefited from our HomeBuy Direct programmes. Recently, we have provided some £400 million of funding in partnership with developers to ensure that 18,000 properties throughout the country are offered to first time buyers. Barratt released some 3,000 towards the end of last week. The hon. Lady will find HomeBuy Direct offers an interesting series of options, which are popular, especially with many first time buyers. I repeat the suggestion that she does her own research in future.

Council Housing Rents

The subsidy determination to which my hon. Friend refers includes additional measures, aimed at maintaining affordability for tenants, while addressing councils’ ability to raise income. They include the pre-existing protection for tenants, which limits rent increases to retail prices index plus ½ per cent. plus £2. We are aware of the concerns now being raised about inflation and the fixed guideline rent increases. I am looking closely at the position to consider what action may be appropriate.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her reply, but she knows that council tenants throughout England face rent increases of between 5.5 and 7 per cent. That is a heavy burden and councils place the responsibility for it at the door of the Government’s formula rent guidelines. May we reconsider the matter? Nine thousand tenants in the city of Newcastle pay full rent and the burden on them is especially heavy. They do not want to be in the Cabinet; they want to get through the week. Is my right hon. Friend willing to meet council tenants from Newcastle and me so that we can explore ways through that genuine difficulty for so many decent people?

Of course, I understand and appreciate the concerns that my hon. Friend raises—I am always happy to hear from him about such issues. I am well aware that local authorities tend to say that the instructions are the Government’s—I suppose that that is inevitable. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that, although the Government issue guidelines, it is for councils to determine the rents that they set. For example, last year, I believe that the guidelines suggested 5.7 per cent., but the rent levels were 5 per cent. Clearly, there is room for manoeuvre and councils have freedom to act and their own responsibilities. As I said, I am considering the position. A well meant desire to give local authorities certainty about action over two years led to issuing guidelines for two years. Obviously, this year’s guidelines must stand, but I will re-examine the implications.

Topical Questions

My Department continues to work to build strong, safe communities where people want to work, live and bring up their families. We continue to focus on providing real help for people through the downturn and ensuring that our communities are ready for the upturn. Our genuine help for families and business continues to stand in sharp contrast with the position of the Conservatives, who would do nothing.

Hundreds of my constituents live in residential park homes. Those parks are mostly run by site owners who treat the residents with respect, but a minority of park owners exploit vulnerable residents through unfair terms and conditions. When will the Government introduce proper measures to deal with those individuals? Will the Secretary of State meet me and representatives of Lancashire trading standards to try to find a way forward so that we can take genuine, concrete action against those despicable rogue owners?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and acknowledge his concerns. We have already introduced measures to try to improve the conditions for the residents of park homes. He will be aware of proposals, about which I will consult shortly, to ensure that owners and managers of residential park homes are fit and proper people. I would be more than happy to meet him and a delegation from Lancaster to discuss those issues further.

T3. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State express her concerns at the weekend that the recent events in Gaza will have a negative effect on community cohesion, particularly within the Muslim community, and that they could promote radicalisation and the growth of extremism among Muslim youth. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to ensure that we do not see that negative outcome, and to ensure that we do all we can to work within that community, and to prevent it from being exploited by extremists from outside it, such as those far-left groups who are keen to jump on the bandwagon and exploit recent events? (248966)

My hon. Friend has raised a vital issue for all of us to consider in our communities. It is clear that the events in Gaza and the horrific scenes we have all witnessed, particularly the killing of women, children and other civilians, have had a real impact, not just on our Muslim communities, but particularly on those communities in our country. Our prime responsibility now is to ensure that our communities come together and work together, and that we keep the resilience that we have built up over such a long period of time. Naturally, people are angry, but there is no reason why that anger has to be translated into extremism; however, there are some people who will seek to do exactly that.

Over the last few weeks, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and I have met with a range of community organisations, and made sure they are up to date with the briefing and that people are getting the message about what this Government are doing to ensure we get a peaceful resolution of the international situation. We also have to be mindful of the increase in—

Order. If the right hon. Lady will take her seat, let me say that I did give some leeway in the earlier questions, but on topicals I want sharp answers, and sharp questions as well. I cannot have long answers on topicals; it is unfair to Back Benchers.

T2. Is the Minister for Local Government aware that the boundary committee’s proposal for a single unitary authority for the whole of Norfolk has met with overwhelming opposition? Indeed, I have not yet met a single MP or councillor who is in favour. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that these proposals are a classic product of a boom economy? Now that our economy has turned to bust, has not the time come for him to say to the boundary committee that it should abandon these very costly, extravagant and political plans? (248965)

In fact, the new unitary authorities that are due to come into place on 1 April this year are finding that reorganisation is helping them to deal with some of the financial pressures from this economic downturn rather than the opposite, so I am not clear about the argument the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. On the boundary committee’s work, he will know that the period before which it must submit proposals formally to Ministers has been extended until 13 February. I know that representatives of the boundary committee have been listening and will continue to listen until that date; they will welcome the representations that the hon. Gentleman and others make, and those representations will no doubt play a part in the proposals that the committee then submits to us.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s comments in recent weeks about its being incumbent upon Government to confront and address the racist propaganda that some organisations put around in some of our communities. What are her views on this, and what else can the Government and her Department do to make sure that this vile propaganda is expunged from our local communities?

It is a responsibility not just of our Department but of all of us in politics to make sure that we isolate those far-right extremists who seek to divide our communities. It is essential that correct information is available to all our citizens, to dispel the myths that people coming into our country are somehow getting entitlements which they are not due. Getting proper information about housing and facilities is vital, but so, too, is bringing people together and being united against this far-right extremism that seeks to poison our politics in this country.

T4. After almost 12 years of a Labour Government, the housing crisis in the country is worse now than it was in 1997. That is because the Government have failed to build council houses. When will this Government bring in and implement the policies of the Labour party conference, or at least try to match the house building programme that even the Thatcher Government achieved? (248967)

What the hon. Gentleman entirely overlooks is that when we came to power we inherited a backlog of £19 billion of needed maintenance and repair work in the council housing sector. Had that not been met by the decent homes programme, it would have led to serious difficulties in the future. He asked what we intend to do. We are consulting this week on how to remove the barriers erected by the Thatcher Government that made things extremely difficult and actively discouraged local authorities from being engaged in building.

It is welcome for house owners with mortgages that interest rates have fallen, thus reducing their monthly payments. The other side of that is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins) mentioned, that council tenants face rent increases of between 5 and 6 per cent. Although it is within the gift of councils to ameliorate that, the grant regime structures the outcome, and I understand that this year it has led to the Treasury benefiting to the tune of about £200 million. Does she appreciate that that is not equitable and that, in the interests of introducing good Labour policy, there should be either a complete stop on this year’s rent increases or at least a considerable reduction in the proposed increases?

I know that my hon. Friend has great concern about this issue and that he has encountered some problems in his constituency, about which he has written to me. I simply say to him that if there is a surplus this year, it will be for the first time, because over the years the Treasury has historically made a substantial net contribution towards both house building and house repair. May I also tell him that, as he may be aware, we are undertaking a fundamental review of the structure and system of housing finance, which I hope will report a little later this year? Of course, that underlies the formula and the root of settling rents, to which he has referred.

T5. What can Ministers do about the impact of the well-established practice of upward-only rent reviews, particularly on our town centre shops? As such reviews are accompanied by upward-only rate increases, they are making a major contribution to business exodus from our town centres and creating ghost town centres during the downturn. (248968)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point in the current economic circumstances—trying to ensure that properties in our town centres are let is about not only income for the business, but the vibrancy of the town centre. Clearly, many of the negotiations are private ones between landlords and tenants, so the Government are not in a position to intervene in those circumstances. Trying to provide as many incentives as we can to ensure that properties remain let is a high priority for us and for local authorities, and we will certainly examine whether we can give further assistance.

Will my right hon. Friend tell me what progress is being made on the multi-area agreement for the Olympic boroughs? Can she tell me what difference she thinks it will make to my constituents?

I can tell my hon. Friend that excellent progress is being made on the multi-area agreement for the five Olympic London boroughs. They have come together to work co-operatively—dare I say it, as never before—and they are making great progress. They are concentrating on skills, employment and raising the aspirations and ambition of young people in the area, and that will make a significant difference to her constituents for the future.

T6. In 1998, the then Deputy Prime Minister set up the compulsory purchase policy review advisory group. It reported in 2000 in an attempt to make the arcane compulsory purchase legislation simpler, fairer and quicker for all sides. Its report, and a subsequent Law Commission report, means that all the work has been done, but it has been parked in a file marked “Too difficult to deal with”. Will the Secretary of State meet the Compulsory Purchase Association and bring this review forward, so that we can have more up-to-date laws that suit both sides of the compulsory purchase argument? (248969)

Yes. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that compulsory purchase legislation has been visited from time to time since the report that he mentions was published. Changes have been made to try to ensure that the system is more responsive. I have recently responded to a letter from the Law Commission, which, again, seeks primary legislation. All I can say is that there are clearly other priorities at the moment for primary legislation. If people wish to make representations and have a meeting, I am sure that that can be facilitated.

The Minister for Housing will recall that in December she met a delegation from Bolsover district council regarding the need to replace more than 100 prefabricated bungalows and to rebuild in order to start the housing boom in Britain. She said that she would look at the matter. Has she anything to add, because we want to get started? We are not the bankers you know—we mean business.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have not forgotten the very strong case made by his constituent. He will know that there were some difficulties, and we were looking to see whether they could be overcome. I shall pursue the matter with some urgency and write to him again.

T7. The last national census resulted in 20,000 people being left off the register in Southend, with dire financial consequences. Will the Government ensure that houses in multiple occupation are properly identified and registered, and will they encourage ethnic minorities, particularly from eastern Europe, to have no fear whatever in returning the forms? (248970)

Concerns about the accuracy of population and migration data go beyond houses in multiple occupation. That is why the national statistician is leading a detailed programme of work with other Departments and local government, which have a considerable amount of administrative data that can be used to help improve the statistics. That work is important in preparing for the next census, so that we do not have the same flaws as in the last one. It is important also for the next spending review period, so that the Government have the best available population data on which to base policy and funding decisions for the future.

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State know that the regeneration of many of our communities depends on the rebuilding of their further education colleges? What plans does she have to reassure local authorities and colleges that all will be well when her Department gives local government the Learning and Skills Council’s responsibility for capital funding?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Many of the most significant regeneration schemes across the country are a combination of retail, commercial and educational facilities. That is why we are seeking to ensure as far as possible that those projects proceed. I am aware of a number of applications that have been made to the Learning and Skills Council, and it is important to ensure that its processes and procedures result in swift decisions. I shall liaise with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to ensure that that is the case.

T8. Given that cutting fuel bills and the use of energy is the best way of meeting the environmental challenge, when will Ministers be able to meet the target put forward by many groups last September of an energy efficiency rating of 81 out of 100 for our homes? How many UK homes already meet that target? (248971)

I am afraid that I am not carrying that number in my head, but I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman about it. I shall also provide an answer to his query. I am not sure whether anyone has set a date by which they think that standard can be met, but it is an important point and I shall write to him about it.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Luton borough council, which this week has successfully tendered all its infill housing sites to one housing association, providing much-needed housing and community facilities in areas such as Hart Hill, in my constituency? Will she use her considerable influence to ask housing associations to invest in extending existing registered social landlord properties where there is severe overcrowding, as in the case of families in my constituency who have no prospect of ever getting a transfer?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend, who I know takes a great and expert interest in these matters, in congratulating her local community and welcoming the housing provision to which she refers. I certainly take her point, and I am mindful of the fact that, not just in her constituency but across the country, one difficulty is that even where housing has been provided, it is not always the larger housing that families need. I take her point entirely and I am grateful to her for making it.

T9. When does the Secretary of State plan to publish her biennial report on the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which was due to be presented to the House last October? (248972)

For the third successive year, I am afraid that I must complain about the huge increases in the salaries of chief executive officers of housing associations. The highest-paid this year, including his bonuses, has crashed through the £300,000 per annum level for the first time. Who makes these decisions, and is my right hon. Friend ever consulted on them?

I am certainly not aware of ever having been consulted about them. The boards of housing associations would make those decisions. My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I know that there is concern across the House—certainly among those on the Labour Benches—about the levels of some of the salaries and about whether or how they can be justified. We will certainly continue to discuss the matter.

T10. Does the Minister agree that it makes no sense in this very difficult housing market for councils to charge full domestic rates on properties that are empty because of a bereavement? It also does not help a sale if the furniture has to be removed. What action can the Government take to persuade local government to be more pragmatic and to react sensibly to what is, after all, reality? (248973)

I take on board what the hon. Lady says. We have put in place a package of measures so that councils have more powers to be more mindful of specific circumstances. She will be aware, for example, of the empty dwellings management orders that can be used. However, the whole point, as she suggests, is to act sensitively and co-operatively with the family concerned. That is what we will encourage local authorities to do.