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Topical Questions

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2009

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.