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Communities and Local Government

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Building Regulations (Thermal Efficiency)

1. What plans she has to improve levels of compliance with the provisions of building regulations on thermal efficiency of houses. (259884)

Before I reply to the question, let me say that I am very conscious that Ivan Cameron’s funeral took place today. I am sure the whole House will wish me to say that our thoughts and prayers are with David and Samantha on what must be a particularly unbearable day.

Our proposals to strengthen the energy efficiency provisions of the building regulations in 2010 will include comprehensive plans to build on previous measures to improve compliance. A number of other initiatives are also under way, including reform of the building control process, extending the powers for prosecution, and simplifying guidance.

I am pleased to hear of the revision of enforcement measures. Does the Minister acknowledge that there is plenty of evidence that, with the development of new technologies and materials, there is an increasing shortfall in the standards of energy efficiency measures applying to new homes? Will he use the problems created by the slump in the building industry as an opportunity to develop an effective enforcement regime and to ensure that there is proper training in the construction industry so that it can deliver the standards that are necessary?

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a particular interest in this subject, and what he has said makes a good deal of sense. We have been working closely with key industry stakeholders in the run-up to a public consultation scheduled for April this year. It is vital for us to try to increase the skills and capability of the industry in order to improve energy efficiency. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the present circumstances present a huge opportunity for Britain and the British economy to ensure that homes are energy-efficient, and also to help to stimulate the construction industry.

Two or three companies in my constituency want to engage in new kinds of house construction, and are keen to discuss with the Minister how new systems of build can be delivered. Will he agree to meet those companies so that we can help them to grow, build new homes and provide new jobs in our local economy?

I am aware that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in housing. I greatly enjoyed the housing summit that he arranged in Telford a couple of weeks ago. He is playing a leading role in trying to secure the housing that is needed there and elsewhere. I should be more than happy to meet him and representatives of construction firms in his constituency to ensure that modern methods of construction are adopted, both in Telford and generally.

I thank the Minister for his kind words to David and Samantha Cameron.

I am sure we all agree with the thrust of this question. Of course we should all like to see an improvement in the thermal efficiency of housing and a reduction in its carbon footprint; no sensible person would not. However, does the Minister agree with me, and with representatives of the Council of Mortgage Lenders with whom I had lunch in the House a short time ago, that a significant brake is being put on the housing market at present by something that he could put right at a stroke—the problem of home information packs?

A key aspect of HIPs is the energy performance certificate. At a time when people are concerned about rising fuel bills and the economy in general, up-front information about the energy efficiency of a home is helpful to them. In this day and age we need to provide real help with a range of matters, and the energy efficiency of homes is an important part of that.

The manufacture of building materials is a very important industry in my constituency, which is part of a mineral-rich county. Relatively recently, I talked to a manufacturer of chimney linings who suggested that over-zealous implementation of the revised building regulations was leading to the slow death of the British chimney because of its thermal inefficiency. Does the Minister agree that the chimney is important, aesthetically, structurally and in health terms, that we need ventilation, and that we do not want to live in hermetically sealed tombs? Will he agree to discuss the topic with me?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. In revising the relevant part of the building regulations, we have tried not only to improve compliance and provide extra training, but to issue more guidance to contractors and others so that they can perform the vital task of ensuring that such things as chimneys are energy-efficient. I should be more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.

May I pursue the question asked by the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright)? Has the Minister had any discussions with the Department of Energy and Climate Change about the development of zero-carbon homes? I believe that the current situation would provide an opportunity for pilots to be set up if grants were available. I understand that none is available at present.

We are still consulting on the definition of zero carbon, and we are working closely with DECC colleagues. As the hon. Gentleman will know, on 12 February our two Departments launched the heat and energy saving strategy, which is arguably the most ambitious climate change-related initiative in the world. It sets out the Government’s ambitious long-term plan to draw up a route map with the aim of enabling all United Kingdom homes to produce near-zero carbon emissions by 2050. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us in ensuring that it works, and that we see real energy efficiency in homes.

I thank the Minister for his typically decent and kind words of sustenance for David and Samantha Cameron.

Is it not a cheek for Ministers to lecture everyone else when their own modern headquarters at Eland house has one of the worst energy efficiency ratings of any building, with its display energy certificate getting a risible F rating, which is the second lowest? Does that not reinforce the criticism of the Sustainable Development Commission that

“The government’s own record looks weak”?

Should not Ministers start to show some leadership and sort out their own backyard first?

Eland house was built in the 1990s, I believe by Michael Heseltine, and it is somewhat showing its age—rather like the Opposition Front Bench. We are keen to ensure that we have the most efficient type of buildings available. The energy performance certificate for Eland house can provide information on how we can improve the energy efficiency of the building. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in ensuring that such certificates provide relevant information to improve matters, rather than sitting on the sidelines sniping.

Icelandic Banks (Local Authority Finances)

2. What assessment she has made of the effects of the recent performance of Icelandic banks on local authority revenue and reserves in 2009-10. (259885)

I, too, would like to send my very warmest thoughts to David and Samantha Cameron at this difficult time for them.

We are regulating to ensure that authorities need not make provision in their 2009-10 budgets for possible capital loss on these investments. The regulation will come into force on 31 March and will give local authorities time to be clearer about the effect on their budgets and indeed their council tax. We have worked closely with the Local Government Association on that approach. It has been warmly welcomed on all sides. No authorities at the moment are facing cash-flow problems or an impact on their key services.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that welcome reply. Sadly, Newcastle-under-Lyme borough council invested £2.5 million—more than 5 per cent. of its reserves—in the subsidiary of Landsbanki on 14 September last year, just three weeks before the bank collapsed. In doing so, it ignored the warnings of a previous Conservative cabinet member for finance to avoid Icelandic banks. However, since then it has been saying that it is confident that it will get the money back. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that councils are open and honest about the investment decisions they make, and that they should not mislead council tax payers about the losses that they face in such circumstances?

Clearly, transparency and openness in relation to financial decisions are essential. Integrity and probity go to the heart of local government. I am not in a position to comment on my hon. Friend’s individual council. That would be a matter for the district auditor. Clearly, those issues will be raised. What I will say is that the Government guidance said to local authorities that they need to have regard to both security and liquidity, and that in those investments the rate of return has to be consistent with proper levels of security and liquidity.

In the present political situation in Iceland, with whom are negotiations being held and what progress is being made to restore to local authorities, including the district council in my constituency, the substantial losses incurred as a result of having deposits with an Icelandic bank?

The Treasury has for some months been in negotiations and extensive talks with the Government in Iceland. The International Monetary Fund has approved a £2.1 billion loan to Iceland to ensure that Iceland can have a sound banking system. Those negotiations will continue. The Local Government Association is also in negotiations on behalf of individual local authorities to ensure that their position is protected.

The Secretary of State will know that the county of Cheshire disappears in just over three weeks and becomes Cheshire East and Cheshire West and Chester. The existing county council had some £8 million invested in Icelandic banks. Is not it inevitable that the new authorities will suffer financially as a result, particularly when account is taken of the £3.5 million that has been paid to chief executives of the current authorities who have not got jobs in the new authority? That will have to be paid for. In Cheshire East, the transition from the old council has not cost £10 million—it has cost £20 million. Is not that going to prove a problem financially for the council tax payers of Cheshire East?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the money held with the Icelandic banks is not money that has been lost; it is money that could be at risk. We are pressing extremely hard to make sure that local authorities recover the maximum amount of money that is due to them, in order to protect council tax payers. He will also know that although the reorganisation in Cheshire may involve some up-front costs, in the longer term it will save people in that area a significant amount and improve services for them.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government is conducting an inquiry on this issue. We found that many local authorities do not have the necessary internal expertise on these matters, so they commission outside firms. What came as a shock to the Select Committee and the Local Government Association, however, was that in some cases that external help was not advice in the properly understood meaning of the term, but amounted simply to passing on to local authorities information that could have been gained from the internet, such as information about credit rating agencies. Does she agree that the guidance to local authorities should be changed to ensure that all of them have access to proper financial advice, either external or internal, on these matters?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the Select Committee for conducting the inquiry, and I very much look forward to seeing the report. It is essential that local authorities take proper advice and guidance on making investments. Our national guidance was issued in 2004. Of course, we keep it under review, but it was very clear to local authorities about the need to be conscious of security and liquidity, as well as about trying to get a decent return on their investments. I am delighted that the Committee has conducted the inquiry, and I have no doubt the report will have some lessons for all of us.

I will, of course, draw the attention of the Leader of the Opposition to today’s Hansard, which will contain the very kind comments that have been made in all parts of the House.

Parliamentary questions show that the Financial Services Authority knew in early 2008 that the Icelandic banks were in trouble. It is obliged to warn both the Bank of England and the Treasury of any concerns, so given that Ministers knew that alarm bells were ringing, why was no advice given to local authorities or other investors about the higher risks associated with Icelandic banks? Even the Audit Commission was misled into investing in Iceland. Given that the Secretary of State’s Department is responsible for issuing investment guidance to councils, is it not the case that both her Department and the Treasury were asleep on their watch?

No, I entirely reject that. Clearly, there has been an issue concerning the behaviour of banks and the investments that have been made in this country and in countries right across the world. The hon. Lady will be aware that Lord Turner, the new chair of the Financial Services Authority, has been asked by the Chancellor to conduct a review of the FSA’s approach and to report to him. I entirely reject the allegation that the Department was in some way negligent in its guidance. That guidance in 2004 made it absolutely clear to local authorities that they should look at security and liquidity and make sure that the return they sought was consistent with a very prudent approach.

Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (Section 106 Agreements)

3. What estimate she has made of the sums local authorities have received under agreements under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which are held in local authority bank accounts. (259886)

Information on moneys collected by local authorities in this way is not held centrally. Government policy is clear that local authorities should not amass significant levels of unspent developer contributions without good reason.

I might be able to help my right hon. Friend. The Library suggests that about £4 billion of section 106 money is held, and I can say that in my own authority of Chorley, which is a small district authority, almost £9 million in section 106 money is held. As I have mentioned before, we know that there is £3.5 million that can be spent on social housing that is not being spent at present. A new railway station or community centre could be built, as could many other facilities. That would get those in the construction industry back to work, and it would provide the social housing that is needed, as we have an increasing housing waiting list in Chorley. What can my right hon. Friend do to make sure that this money is spent not just in Chorley, but throughout the country, to get us out of this recession now?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has a long-standing concern with this issue. I think there is perhaps a slight misunderstanding here, as the figures that the Library will have given him are for the totality of section 106 money across the country, and we understand that about 90 per cent. of that is not cash going to the local authority, so to speak, but direct provision of various agreements and planning obligations, and only some £340 million—although that is still a substantial sum—is available through cash contributions, which must, of course, be used or returned for the appropriate purposes.

I understand completely the point that my hon. Friend makes about wanting to see better use of this money. We give strong guidance to local authorities, and I think he would like to know that, in no small part as a result of his questions on the matter, we have commissioned new research to investigate the use and value of planning obligations for the last full year for which we have data available—2008—and that it will report in the summer. In addition, I have asked my officials to have some research done to understand better the scale and extent of unspent section 106 contributions and to explore the feasibility of pursuing further our work with local authorities to ensure that such money is used for the intended purposes.

Does the Minister accept that section 106 money and other incomes that all local authorities have put into bank accounts are being adversely affected by the significant drop in interest rates, which is leaving a significant shortfall in the income that local authorities can spend? Do the Government have any plans to tackle that problem, which is no fault of local authorities?

We are indeed helping local authorities to manage their moneys, with greater investment in authorities and more freedoms and flexibilities, and we are giving what advice and support we can. We have commissioned this research to assess the scale of any problem that there may be because it is our understanding that it is not the norm for local authorities to accumulate moneys in this way—indeed, it would be contrary to our guidance—unless they have some particular long-term infrastructure project for which they are pooling resources. We are anxious to help local authorities maximise the use of their resources.

The Minister will not be aware that £160,000 of section 106 money from one development has sat in Manchester city council’s bank account for possibly up to four years because of the rules and regulations on how it can be spent. Will she commit to simplifying the rules, so that this money can be spent more quickly?

If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about the matter, I shall certainly inquire into why such moneys are tied up. As I say, this situation is not the norm, but it is clear that he is aware of some of the issues in his own local authority area. We are encouraging all local authorities to keep and publish records so that local communities can be aware of what resources are available and press to make sure that they are used well.

May I, too, associate myself with the remarks that have been made in all parts of the House? I am sure that the whole Cameron family are in everyone’s thoughts this afternoon.

The fall in section 106 receipts is having a massive impact on affordable and social housing development locally. Could the problem not at least be tackled in part by freeing up councils to start rebuilding council homes? The Prime Minister indicated at the end of January that local authorities could play an important role in delivering social housing, but rather than just the promise of yet another report, do we not desperately need action to be taken now?

I just say gently to the hon. Lady that we are already consulting on regulations that would allow local councils to do precisely that; of course one must never anticipate the outcome of consultation, but I anticipate that it may well be possible that we can go ahead in the near future.

It is five years this month since the Government’s own Barker review identified the problems that arise from reliance on the section 106 system and its attendant complexities as a means of driving development. Since then, the Government have added to those complications with measures such as the community infrastructure levy. Against that background and the decline in receipts, to which reference has been made, is it not better to move away from that complicated regime and a system of top-down development targets to one of incentivising local communities and local authorities to accept development by allowing them to keep some of the proceeds that arise to their own tax base from encouraging development?

I think that the hon. Gentleman left out an important development: in the meantime the Government have made available some £8 billion of resources for investment in housing. That is twice as much as the amount that was available in the previous period, which was itself substantial. I think that he was probably referring to the proposals, in so far as one can call them that, in the Conservative party’s latest publication of its policies—[Interruption.] I accept that it is a very short read. It is perhaps not entirely well-founded in the statistics that it cites, but I am sure that we will be examining it in future in the House.

Homes and Communities Agency

The one-off costs of setting up the Homes and Communities Agency will be approximately £20 million over three years.

Ministers have made it clear that the agency will have a key role in carrying forward the eco-towns initiative. In doing so, will it make any concession whatever to democratic accountability?

The eco-towns initiative is under continuing consultation. When proposals are made, which will not be for some little time yet, they will go through the ordinary planning process in the normal way. There has been plenty of consultation so far, and I have no doubt that there will be more in the future.

Will the Homes and Communities Agency have a remit over land maintenance companies? As chair of the all-party group looking at land maintenance and factoring companies, I have been inundated with complaints from all parts of the House about how such companies are treating their customers. That includes companies such as Greenbelt, which this week is using a debt collection agency to take money off my constituents who have refused to pay for an inadequate service. Will that be part of the body’s remit?

Part of the main purpose of the agency, and why it was set up to replace the previous bodies, was to facilitate a single conversation that takes into account the range of issues around land, planning, homes construction and so on. I know that it will be concerned about the points that my hon. Friend makes, but if he would like to write to me about the particular issues arising in his constituency, I would be happy to look into them.

Does the Secretary of State have any plans to alter the system whereby local authorities that own their own housing stock, such as Stroud, part of which I have the honour to represent, are at a considerable disadvantage under the housing association grant system in comparison with housing associations with regard to the amount of money that they can either reinvest in their housing stock or use to fund future social housing? Does she have any plans to review that system?

Yes; as I said to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), we are consulting at present on changing the regulations that have hitherto disadvantaged local authorities in the same position as his own in benefiting from new housing build, and we also propose to make it possible for them to apply for housing grant.

As the right hon. Lady is sensibly reviewing so many things, will she review the whole eco-towns initiative, which is seen by many of us as expensive gesture politics?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but let me say two things to him. First, it is beyond question and clearly accepted, including across the House, that there is an unmet and growing demand for housing, because of the growth in the number of households. Secondly, I think it is also common ground across the House that something that must be done to address that demand. If it has to be addressed, surely it is better to seek on the basis of some exemplar programmes to provide new housing that meets the standards that the housing of the future will need to meet if we are to tackle climate change. Incidentally, that will also make those houses much more affordable to run. I understand that Opposition Members have sought to use this issue as a campaigning tool in a number of cases, but I am not sure that that is acting in their constituents’ interests in the long term.

When the Minister was establishing the remit of the Homes and Communities Agency, did she consider changing the rules to allow housing associations to apply for money to refurbish or upgrade empty properties? Does she recognise that the current rules are a disincentive for housing associations to buy up empty properties that could be hugely useful for many people already on waiting lists?

I am always willing to look at anything that is considered a disincentive, but I remind the hon. Lady that, as a result of the September package, we made money available to housing associations to buy up new-build empty properties on which they do not need to do any maintenance. Those properties are ready to be occupied now, and associations have now bought almost 6,000 homes to sell or rent.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her answer about the set-up costs of the HCA, which will be some £20 million. She is no doubt also aware that the running costs of the HCA in administering itself will be £100 million per annum, but is she aware that the HCA is reported to be in the process of employing 28 press officers? Does she think that that is appropriate in these austere times?

The hon. Gentleman’s numbers are out of date. I think that £100 million was the original prediction for the HCA’s running costs. The figure is now expected to be more like £86 million—[Interruption.] As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate—judging from the noises off, not all his colleagues do—it is believed that the amalgamation of the agency and English Partnerships, and the new structure of agencies, will result in substantial savings. From memory, I can say that those savings will be some £400 million, which will allow funding for a substantial number of new homes. I have not been scrutinising the detailed staffing arrangements for the agency, and neither do I think that it is necessarily useful for me to do so. However, it is typical of the Opposition to be much more interested in the number of employees, which they think they can criticise, than in the work being done by the agency, which is releasing thousands of new homes for the use of the British public.

Affordable Accommodation (Private Rented Sector)

5. What assessment she has made of the role of the private rented sector as a provider of affordable accommodation. (259888)

Julie Rugg’s review of the private rented sector, which the Government commissioned last year, includes an assessment of how well the sector caters for those on low incomes and in housing need. The review reported in October last year. We are currently considering its findings, including proposals for improvements in the sector and for how we can best provide affordable accommodation.

The private rented sector certainly has a role to play in providing affordable accommodation. However, may I urge my hon. Friend not to rely wholly on the private rented sector, but instead to launch a mass programme of council house building to provide affordable housing and jobs for construction workers?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in a previous answer, we are putting in place consultation to ensure that councils have a direct delivery role in the building of homes. The Prime Minister said in a speech last month that he is very keen to see local authorities build quickly and wants any barriers to be removed quickly. In the current economic situation local authorities have a direct delivery role to play, as well as a major role alongside registered social landlords and the private rented sector in providing the accommodation that this country so badly needs.

Given that there are some 2 million-plus empty homes in Britain, does the Minister regret the fact that the empty dwelling management order legislation has been totally and utterly ineffectual in bringing private houses back into use, particularly for low-value rents?

No, I would disagree with that conclusion. The empty dwelling management order was always seen as the nuclear option, as it were, for local authorities. It is up to local authorities to determine whether they need to press that nuclear button. I think that the threat of the orders has ensured that empty homes have been brought back into use. It could well be that those empty homes are not in areas where people want to live. The local authority has not only a direct delivery role, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), but a strategic role in determining what accommodation is needed in each particular locality and what type of accommodation is needed. I suggest that the hon. Lady speaks to her local authority to ensure that it is using the tools that it needs.

In the London borough of Newham, about 34,000 families are sitting on our council’s housing waiting list. If we count those who are in full-time employment, we see that their wages are about £24,000 a year. What does my hon. Friend think of the London Mayor’s affordable housing strategy, which is predicated on 40 per cent. of social homes being only for families with incomes above £72,000 a year? Is that fit for purpose, especially in these austere times?

I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing; she is a real champion of people who need affordable accommodation not only in London, but elsewhere. I am keen to work with the Mayor of London to ensure that people in the capital have the homes that they need. I am disappointed by the fact that his housing policy seems somewhat confused. His proposals about affordable accommodation seem bureaucratic, burdensome and counter-productive, and I certainly think that the £72,000 limit is not fit for purpose and is somewhat elitist.

The Minister will know that many private sector landlords are reluctant to accept people on housing benefit as tenants. Will he initiate discussions with local authorities and representatives of the private sector to overcome that resistance and to make sure that the private rented sector plays a much fuller part in meeting the needs of those with housing problems?

Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in housing matters, and he was also a very good Housing Minister, so he will know that Julie Rugg presents a valuable analysis of the different segments of the private rented sector, including the housing benefit market. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and I met the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), this morning to discuss housing benefit reform and how our two Departments can work together to make sure that tenants who use housing benefit are not unfairly penalised. That will certainly be part of the response to the Rugg review.

The value of the private rented sector is that it provides some mobility and fluidity in a sector that often does not provide that, but it is particularly ill suited to families. Is my hon. Friend aware that some families in my constituency have had to move 10 times in 10 years, either through homelessness or simply because they were placed in the private rented sector? In implementing the private sector review, will he look urgently at what can be done to ensure that families in housing need in private rented housing have some security, for the sake of themselves and their children?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who, like my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), is a real champion of people who need affordable housing in her constituency—in her case, that is Regent’s Park and Kensington, North. The Rugg review provides a somewhat contradictory analysis of the matter. Some 21 per cent. of tenants have been in their homes for five years or more, but there also seems to be something of a churn, with 40 per cent. of tenants in the private rented sector having moved within 12 months. As I have said before, the Government are considering very closely the recommendations of the Rugg review, and we will be in a position to respond very shortly.

As the Minister knows, the Rugg review last October recommended a light-touch licensing system for landlords. Obviously, no one wants that review to be followed by another, given that it followed earlier reviews itself. That approach would be “bureaucratic and obstructive”, to quote the Minister’s own words back at him, so can he simply tell us by what date that recommendation, or any of the Rugg recommendations, will be put into effect?

No I cannot, because the Government need to make sure that we respond in a comprehensive manner to the Rugg review. Our objective is to ensure that we have a growing and professional private rented sector. The Julie Rugg review has been enormously helpful in allowing us to consider what needs to be done to ensure that we achieve those objectives. We will be in a position to respond to the review very shortly, and I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until then for an answer to his question.

Playing Fields

6. What guidance her Department has issued to planning authorities on protection from development of playing fields that have been out of use for five years. (259889)

Our planning policy guidance note 17, “Planning for open space, sport and recreation”, makes it clear that playing fields should not be built on other than in a very limited set of circumstances. In addition, Sport England is a statutory consultee on all planning applications affecting open land that has been used as a playing field in the past five years.

The Minister is right, of course, to say that the protections in place now mean that fewer playing fields are built on. Under the so-called five-year rule, however, it is possible for playing fields that have not been used in that period to be developed. It is not beyond the wit of some unscrupulous people to fence off areas of playing fields and then develop them five years later. Will he give some reassurance that he is looking at that problem? I am willing to work with him to make sure that there is a way to protect the small but important number of playing fields that are lost as a consequence of the so-called five-year rule.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that offer, and I pay tribute to the enormous amount of work that he does in Loughborough and elsewhere on sporting matters. The figures that we have show that in the latest year for which data are available, something like 97 per cent. of all planning applications involving playing fields have resulted in improved or protected playing fields and sporting provision. However, I am aware that there may be loopholes in the system, and I have worked and had meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport on the matter. In addition, we are hoping to review PPG17 in the summer and, given my hon. Friend’s expertise in the matter, I would be keen to work closely with him to ensure that we close any potential loopholes.

Following that helpful reply, when the Minister reviews the planning guidance, will he consider the proposal that if there is any land in urban areas that has been used for playing fields, allotments or other open space—even more than five years previously—and if anybody can give it a future that is viable and sustainable, whether for sport or other activities, that should be sufficient to guarantee that it stays as open land and is not built on?

The current planning provision in PPG17 already says that building cannot take place on playing fields if a strong case can be made that alternative sites are available. That remains a strong provision in the planning framework, but as I said, we will look at it again in the summer. I would be keen to listen to representations from the hon. Gentleman on this subject. Protecting and preserving sporting facilities and open space is a key part of what we need to do to make sure that they are available for the community to enjoy.

Traveller Sites

7. What planning guidance and circulars have been issued relating to the provision of Traveller sites since 2005. (259890)

Planning policy for the provision of sites for Gypsies and Travellers is set out in Office of the Deputy Prime Minister circular 01/2006, which is helpfully called “Planning for Gypsy and Traveller Caravan Sites”. There are additional publications that supplement that planning guidance and are part of the overall planning framework for Gypsy and Traveller sites. All those publications are available on the excellent DCLG website.

I represent an area that already has quite a large number of Traveller sites in it, and the Government are asking us to take more sites. Most of the Travellers in my area are foreign nationals from other EU countries, which make virtually no provision for foreign Travellers in their own countries and do not even make provision for Travellers from those countries themselves. Can the Minister explain to my constituents why the United Kingdom seems to be rather out of step with those other countries in this matter?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supplementary question. The basic principle is that it is for local authorities to decide the needs of the local community. They identify where there is a need and make plans and provision to meet it. [Interruption.] The problem with the alternative is more and more unauthorised sites. From his own example, and from his colleagues’ experience, too, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the cost in human misery that those cause.

As chair of the Gypsy and Traveller law reform all-party parliamentary group, may I ask my hon. Friend what discussions he has had about the 90 Gypsy and Traveller families who are due to be evicted from Dale farm, and who include many young children and elderly people? I gave notice to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that I would raise this question.

Again, this may not please hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, but it is for local authorities to decide whether enforcement action should be taken, what enforcement action should be taken, and how it is carried out. The example of Dale farm is one in which enforcement action is being taken by Basildon district council. I know that my hon. Friend has highlighted the fact that vulnerable people—the very young, children and disabled people—are involved there, and I hope the council will take on board the concerns that she has expressed and make sure that it deals sensitively with the people affected.

Returning to the subject of Dale farm, the Minister will be aware that some Travellers are reported to be preparing to resist an eviction, despite having exhausted all their arguments in court. No one wants to see a forced eviction and the sorrow that that would bring, so will the Government do what they can to use their influence to persuade Travellers to move on peacefully? To this end, will the Government help to identify transit sites, so that families are not made completely homeless?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is for the council to consider what to do. He will be aware that the Travellers have sought leave to appeal to the House of Lords, so we will have to wait and see what the House of Lords decides to do. As he knows, if there are authorised sites available, the police have more options for moving Travellers and Gypsies on. One of the incentives for Basildon to try to find authorised sites is that that gives the police even more powers to take action against the Travellers and Gypsies to whom he refers.

Government Offices for the Regions

8. What assessment she has made of the role of Government offices for the regions in enabling people to cope with the credit crunch. (259891)

Government offices play an important role in supporting the delivery of local services, including advice on credit information and money management. The network of Government offices is also working closely, particularly at the moment, with regional development agencies on supporting local businesses, and with the Homes and Communities Agency on the supply of housing that people need.

The Minister mentioned RDAs. Does he agree that the part played by One NorthEast, my local RDA, as part of the rapid response group dealing with the loss of 1,200 jobs at Nissan, goes to show how important it is for RDAs to have our continuing support?

Nissan is important to the region, and its job cuts are going to hit the whole of the region. That is why it is important that the regional development agency has stepped in to co-ordinate the Government action that can be taken to help the workers at Nissan and those in companies affected through the supply chain. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those who argue that we can do without regional policy or regional development agencies are wrong: without RDAs, regions such as the north-east would lose out on the jobs, investment and business support that they need, particularly during this difficult economic time.

Would not cutting out the expenditure on Government offices and unelected regional government in England be a no-brainer at a time of a massive increase in public borrowing—to the point at which every man, woman and child in this country has had £70,000 of liabilities and borrowings imposed on them by the reckless financial incompetence of this Administration?

The right hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong; he does not get it. In the past few years, the regional development agencies have brought in additional investment of more than £8 billion to deprived areas. I was the Minister responsible for floods recovery, and let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that within four days of the start of the floods that affected wide parts of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire RDA had set up a helpline and a £5 million scheme to support local businesses, the first payment from which was made within seven days. Can the right hon. Gentleman imagine Whitehall, or any single local authority, responding as quickly? That is the value of our regional development agencies, and that is the importance of their work. All that would be lost if he had his way.

Topical Questions

My Department continues to work to build strong, safe and cohesive communities. Our priority now is to focus on supporting individuals, businesses and communities through the downturn, and to create opportunities for when the upturn comes.

How does the Minister believe the introduction of supplementary business rates—on top of the impending 5 per cent. rise—helps the more than 3,000 local firms in Crewe and Nantwich that currently pay business rates to get through the recession?

Clearly, that is a matter for the local authorities, which reflect the views of their communities and their local businesses as to whether they want supplementary business rates. We built a whole series of safeguards into the legislation to make sure that we give people flexibility to raise funds, and so that varying economic circumstances can be taken into account. Hopefully, that is local government at its best, reflecting local priorities.

T2. Before the end of 2008, the Government took the decision not to extend the finalisation date for projects funded through EU objective 1 moneys. An extension might have allowed surplus moneys to be utilised in those projects. Has my right hon. Friend any proposals to revisit that decision? (259910)

As my hon. Friend will know, that is not simply new or free money available to us—it was an extension. The terms on which it was offered by the European Union were extremely inflexible. We have to be aware of how to get the best value for money from these programmes. Nearly £3,000 million is available in the new set of programmes from 2007 to 2013, with nearly £600 million—£531 million, in fact—for Yorkshire and Humber. It may well be that concentrating on those new programmes will be better value for money than simply seeking a bureaucratic extension on very inflexible terms.

T6. In a speech to the London School of Economics at the end of February, the Secretary of State said:“Ministers should be ready to draw a clear ‘dividing line’ between groups which”the Government “will and will not talk to”.She went on to say:“There is a need for moral clarity”. Will she therefore demonstrate that moral clarity, and join me in seeking from the Home Office the banning of the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which clearly operates outside any core values of Britain? (259914)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir are kept under extremely close review by the Government. He will also know, however, that in order to proscribe a group, it has to be concerned with or involved in terrorism. The moral clarity that I absolutely believe we need to have in this area is to say that even where groups are not acting illegally, when they promote values that seek to undermine the shared values of this country, we seek to engage with and to challenge the values that they seek to promote.

T3. This year, housing completions in Milton Keynes are above target, but housing starts have fallen drastically, in large part because developers who have planning permission for quite large developments are fearful of going ahead because of cash-flow problems. Will the Minister consider giving the Homes and Communities Agency greater flexibility so that it can explore risk sharing with such developers to allow these developments to go ahead? (259911)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on behalf of her constituents and their housing needs. I have already, in various respects, given the HCA greater flexibility to deal with a number of issues that have arisen. I assure her that should it come and say that it has a problem in this respect, I will certainly look on that approach favourably.

T7. Would the Minister for Local Government find it helpful if I were to repeat in public an assurance that I gave him in his office last week—that I will welcome and accept any amendment from him that improves my private Member’s Bill on the payment of small business rate relief? I hope that that might encourage him to support the Bill’s Second Reading on Friday. (259915)

The hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise so well, has a persuasive way of putting his arguments. I am glad that he supports our small business rate relief, which we introduced three years ago. He is right that it is valuable for small businesses; last year it was worth about £260 million. We are considering whether some degree of automatic operation of the system may be the right approach —and as he knows, his Bill would not achieve that. We think that such action is right, and we are looking at the case for it alongside other measures that may help businesses in other ways, particularly at this difficult time.

T4. For seaside towns such as Blackpool, effective policies to control the concentration of houses in multiple occupation in deprived and tourism areas are key to regeneration, and particularly to incentives to regenerate brownfield sites. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Homes and Communities Agency to give urgent priority to this problem in seaside and coastal towns, and if necessary to revisit its budgets to suit? (259912)

I know that my hon. Friend chairs the coastal group of MPs, and that the subject of HMOs is of great concern to him and to his colleagues in that group. I will certainly consider discussing with the HCA ways in which it can help. As he has in the past raised the issue of licensing, I hope that he is aware that my Department has met his local council and is discussing with it whether there are ways in which a suitable additional licensing scheme, at local discretion and at the invitation of the local authority, might be considered.

Ministers will know of the scam occasionally used by Travellers—it happened recently in Enderby in my constituency—of buying agricultural land, moving on to it on a Friday night, putting in concrete standings and utilities, and then applying for retrospective planning permission after the weekend is over, when the council offices reopen. Will the Secretary of State pledge that her guidance will give absolute support to any planning authority that refuses such retrospective applications, and that it will state that all members of society, whatever lifestyle they wish to enjoy, must abide by and are subject to all laws, including planning regulations?

I can certainly agree with the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question: there is one law in this country, both for Gypsy and Traveller communities and for the settled communities. The concept of the retrospective planning application is an important part of our planning framework, which can take into account ignorance or a genuine mistake, and I do not think that we would want to revisit that. I am certainly keen to enforce the idea on local authorities that each case needs to be decided on its own merits, but allowing for retrospective planning permission does not necessarily mean that planning permission should be approved.

T5. My hon. Friend will be aware of the recent report by the centre for housing and planning research on behalf of Shelter, which showed that the previous Mayor of London’s targets for affordable rented housing underestimated, if anything, the need in London. What can the Government do to ensure that affordable rented housing is built in London, given the current Mayor’s abandonment of any targets and his replacement of them with the sort of bizarre, ad hoc announcement that he made last night, without any consultation or Government funding? (259913)

I know of my hon. Friend’s great concern, and that of many of my colleagues throughout London, about the provision of affordable housing and the considerable housing need that Shelter identified in London. I too have concerns. I am perfectly willing in principle to work with the Mayor on a different way of delivering the affordable housing targets, which he seemed to feel that he could do simply by asking local authorities to co-operate. So far, that does not seem to be delivering. I share some of my hon. Friend’s concern, in principle. If the Mayor wants to work with the funding that the Government have made available for London, and to follow in the footsteps of the schemes that we introduced as early as last summer—it sounds as if he is looking at something like our rent-to-buy scheme—I am perfectly willing to work with him, in principle, if it is a way of delivering affordable housing. I am concerned, however, that the proposals in question were not put forward for proper scrutiny and agreement in advance, which does seem a rather chaotic way to continue.

As the recession bites, have we yet seen an increase in the number of rough sleepers? Given that homeless people sometimes hide from view, that local counts are recorded as zero if they are less than 10, and other such recording problems, does he agree that it is time to look at the methodology of recording rough sleeping, so that we can get an accurate picture of how many people are, unfortunately, sleeping rough in this country?

I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. I visited Leeds a couple of months ago, where Faith Lodge and St. George’s Crypt are doing tremendous work on provision for rough sleepers. We have not seen an increase in the numbers of people rough sleeping as a result of this recession. That is a result of the biggest ever cash injection we have seen in this country, from this Government, and of better partnership working between local authorities, the voluntary sector and ourselves. But the hon. Gentleman’s point is a sound one. We need to ensure that the methodology is the start of the process rather than the end, so that that count, which provides for a consistent process, allows us to see what help is needed to get people off the streets permanently, to ensure that we end rough sleeping once and for all, which is the centrepiece of our revised rough sleeping strategy.

T8. May I tell the Housing Minister that the biggest single spanner in the works as regards the delivery of the Government’s policy for the Thames Gateway is the eastern region office of the Environment Agency, which perversely, and not in kilter with the London office or the national Environment Agency offices, is blocking all planning applications in the Thurrock area? As a consequence, the Government’s policy for residential development, job creation and the building of a new environment is being frustrated. Good developers who have marshalled sites and are up to their necks in debt are now really sweating, and are likely to go under if immediate action is not taken by her, along with the Thurrock Thames Gateway development corporation, to kick the backside of the Environment Agency in Ipswich. It is perverse, bonkers and— (259916)

I hear my hon. Friend’s concerns very clearly, as does the whole House. If he would care to give me more details of the particular projects that he feels are being impeded, I would be happy to look into the matter.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said a few moments ago that in the matter of providing sites for Gypsies and Travellers, it is up to the local authority to make provision according to its own discretion. How can it be then, that the Under-Secretary himself—I have a letter to show this—has directed Epping Forest district council to provide an extra 39 sites for Travellers in our small area, on top of the 94 sites that we already have? That direction has come from the Government. Why are they being so unfair in requiring proportionately more from Epping Forest district than from any other district in the region?

May I give the hon. Lady a short lecture on how the policy in this area works? It is for local authorities to assess need in their Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessments. The results of those assessments are passed to the regional planning body, which uses them to make the pitch allocations for local authorities. Local authorities then draw up development plan documents to accommodate the pitch allocations. I would hope that politicians would not try to scaremonger local people into supporting them by using Gypsies and Travellers.

T9. Conservative-controlled Calderdale council is hiding behind equal pay legislation to try to cut the wages of some of its lowest-paid staff by a fifth. Will the Minister confirm that that legislation was not introduced to cut the wages of hard-working council staff? Will he tell Calderdale council to get its act together and protect the terms and conditions of those low-paid staff? (259917)

Our commitment to equal pay for work of equal value is unshakeable, and we want every local council to undertake to put in place its obligations on that front. I understand that Calderdale council has completed its job evaluation, and it now has a difficult job to do, in consultation and negotiation with the unions, to put in place equal pay arrangements.

The council will be helped by what I have been able to announce today, which is a further programme of capital cover to help with the back pay costs of equal pay. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that the general secretary of her own union, Dave Prentis, welcomed that today as

“a great step forward for thousands of women working in local councils who have suffered pay injustice for years…It shows that the Government is sticking to its commitments to deliver equality and fairness throughout the local government workforce.”

He is right.

Returning to the subject of the business rate, what recompense can the Government give a local authority that exercises its discretion in order to save local businesses that might go under, particularly in weak economic areas? For a number of businesses, that is the difference between whether they survive or fail.

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that there is a hardship scheme, including arrangements that give local authorities some flexibility to take such steps. It is limited, but I will send him the details of it, and if he wants to make further representations I will gladly welcome them.

T10. May I ask, in the wake of Gaza, what progress my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made on arranging the engagement of young people to make communities more resilient against violent extremism? (259918)

My hon. Friend will know that there has been a series of meetings involving Ministers from my Department, myself and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to try to ensure that we engage young people in particular, but the whole community as well. We have also provided additional humanitarian relief for reconstruction in Palestine, and there is a conference on reconstruction today. At this time, it is vital that as well as involving the Muslim community, we say that whatever the events abroad, they are never an excuse for anti-Semitic attacks in our country. I know that we have the support of the whole community on that.