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Topical Questions

Volume 486: debated on Tuesday 20 January 2009

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.