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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Non-Domestic Rate (Small Businesses)

1. What assessment she has made of the effects of the transitional arrangements for the national non-domestic rate on small businesses in (a) London and (b) Northamptonshire in 2009-10. (277598)

No formal consideration is made of the effect of the transitional relief scheme in each financial year, but the Government are aware of the impact that large increases in business rate bills can have on all businesses when the transitional rate relief comes to an end. That is why we are allowing businesses to defer, over two years, 60 per cent. of the increase in their business rates bill for 2009-10 caused by the ending of transitional relief. That is in addition to allowing the deferral of 60 per cent. of the increase caused by the annual inflation adjustment.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the business rates deferral scheme will start to take effect from the end of July and will she give a commitment that the new costs incurred by local authorities in sending out the new bills will be fully funded by central Government?

With 41 businesses now going insolvent every day, the decision by Ministers to withdraw transitional relief has been taken in a totally fact-free zone. No assessment was made of how withdrawing the relief in the first place would hurt businesses. Two months after the decision to introduce the business rate deferral scheme, Ministers have still not calculated the cost of the scheme to local authorities nor assessed its impact on businesses. Is the Secretary of State still going ahead with the next big challenge for businesses, the 2010 revaluation, and will that decision be taken in a fact-free zone too, with no account taken of the impact on businesses, communities and jobs?

The hon. Lady is in a knowledge-free zone. She has failed to acknowledge the tremendous help that the Government have given to businesses. The help includes the small business rate relief—nearly 400,000 businesses have taken advantage of the 50 per cent. relief, which was opposed by the Opposition—the deferral of 60 per cent. of the retail prices index increase, the deferral of 60 per cent. of the transitional element, and the deferral of tax and VAT for more than 100,000 businesses. That is what real help is, and I am afraid that the hon. Lady is not even on the playing field.

Regional Spatial Strategies

Regional spatial strategies have been published for all regions, with the exception of the south-west, where we expect to publish shortly, and the west midlands, which is currently holding an examination in public. All regional planning bodies have agreed timetables for further reviews, and I have put details in the Library.

Will the Minister not admit that she has made a mistake and that instead of revising regional spatial strategies, she should be abolishing them and their unsustainable and undemocratic approach to the UK housing market?

No, I think that would be a disastrous course of action. The Opposition have said a lot of sweeping things about there being no need for a regional tier of consideration or decision making, but one of the reasons this Government implemented such proposals is because of representations that we received from across the country, including from the business community in particular, about the gap that existed in our decision-making procedures when there was no regional tier.

In the current economic climate, the aspiration to build 3 million new houses by 2020 looks ambitious. In the review of regional plans, will the Minister recognise the pent-up demand for housing that still exists and commit herself to development, in the east midlands and elsewhere, on brownfield sites rather than on greenfield sites?

First, my hon. Friend is entirely right. I hope that everyone in the House recognises the tremendous pent-up demand that exists for new housing and the serious social and economic problems that would be caused if we could not do more to address it. I also entirely accept his other point, although he will know that this Government have a strong record of construction on brownfield sites. I accept completely that that is much the most desirable way, and we will continue to try to pursue it.

In the determination to move government closer to the people, what was the deciding factor in moving planning strategy from one unelected quango to another?

If the hon. Gentleman is referring, as I think he is, to the proposals currently before the House, may I inform him that what we are basically trying to do is streamline and simplify the system? He will have many opportunities to make his contribution on those issues as the Bill proceeds through the House. However, I am sure that he will know that there is a strong element of participation by local authorities; perhaps I could therefore remind the Opposition, who sometimes seem to forget this, that the members of those authorities are elected.

Is it my right hon. Friend’s intention that the spatial strategies will respect the Government’s target for new house building on brownfield sites, as measured at the local government level, not the regional level?

It is certainly our hope that people everywhere across the country will take account of that approach, which is obviously the most desirable from every point of view. My hon. Friend will appreciate that sometimes there are greater difficulties in finding suitable sites that meet those criteria, but the Government certainly retain that approach, and we will encourage local authorities to do so too.

But why should anyone believe what the right hon. Lady says when she talks about building only on brownfield sites? She will know that many of the eco-towns proposed by her predecessor were going to be built on greenfield sites. Does she not accept that there needs to be a balance between the urgent need for extra housing and maintaining the rural environment?

Of course I accept that; I do not think that anyone would dispute it. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that the reason that people should believe what we say about brownfield sites is that the Government have delivered—in fact, more than delivered—on our targets for brownfield sites. We have had many discussions in the House about the proposals for eco-towns, and he is correct to say that some of those proposals involved greenfield development. They involve a variety of types of development, and we shall return to that issue later in the year.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister admitted on Radio 4 that people felt powerless and that politics was not as accountable as it should be. Was there any point at which the right hon. Lady felt that he might have been referring to the unelected, unaccountable regional spatial strategies, which ride roughshod over local communities?

That is certainly not the case. I am sure that is not what the Prime Minister meant, not least because—as I reminded the Opposition a moment ago—there will be very strong local authority involvement and representation in the new bodies that will consider the proposals. They are, as I have said, elected.

But does the right hon. Lady not understand that local government involvement and participation is no good if it is overridden? Unelected regional bureaucrats arbitrarily doubling or trebling the number of homes that local authorities have offered to build on a sustainable basis gives people a feeling of being completely disempowered and confirms their sense that the only way to get a change in politics is to get a change of Government.

I think that the hon. Lady is subtly trying to work round to the proposals that have been put forward by her party, in which, instead of having overall targets that recognise the substantial unmet housing demand identified a moment ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), we should somehow let a thousand flowers bloom and thereby allow local authorities to build up to meet the housing need. I would simply say to her that I have read with great care the many comments on her party’s proposals, and that I note with interest and some amusement that many official bodies have said, “What a fascinating idea. We look forward with great interest to hearing from the Conservative party how it can possibly deliver housing.”

Housing Revenue Account

Since the launch of the joint review of council housing finance with the Treasury in March 2008, we have received position papers from key organisations in the sector, approximately 45 written submissions in response to our call for evidence, papers from a number of housing experts and four petitions. We have also received direct representations in face-to-face meetings with housing representative bodies, local authorities and trade unions.

Despite our pledge to get councils building again, they are doing so at a rate of only about 200 homes a year, although registered social landlords are completing something like 20,000, suggesting a continuing bias against local authorities providing decent, affordable, accountable new homes for rent. Will my right hon. Friend grasp this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform seriously flawed housing revenue accounts by announcing a self-financing system in which councils can keep their own rents, reinvest surpluses in existing and new stock and have the same freedom as housing associations to access grants and loans for much-needed new developments?

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the barriers that had been put in the way of local government’s freedom to provide housing for its local communities by the Conservatives when they were last in government. I can assure him, however, that we are in the last stages of removing those barriers and that local authorities will be able to bid for grant. They will have the special opportunity that was made available to them in the Budget of accessing funds reserved for local authorities, but they will also have an opportunity to bid for social grant on the same basis as housing associations and other bodies.

Back in January, the Prime Minister said that he would

“put aside any of the barriers that stand in the way of”

local authorities providing more housing. The right hon. Lady has mentioned the money announced in the Budget, but that equates to only three homes per authority. Is it not time to acknowledge that the real barrier is the housing revenue account subsidy? Why are the results of the review so overdue? In the current economic climate, surely what we need is swift action, rather than further delay.

As I pointed out a moment ago to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), we are removing the last of the barriers that obstruct local authorities. I share what I deduce to be the hon. Lady’s hope, which I hope in turn is shared across the House, that local authorities of every political shade will take advantage of this opportunity to begin greater construction. I also understand her point about the structure of the housing revenue account. The review has not, actually, been massively delayed—we had hoped that it would report in the spring, and we now hope that it will do so this summer—but I fully recognise that there are many criticisms of the present system and that they have a great deal of validity. While I very much hope that we will be able to come forward with radical proposals for change that will attract support across the parties, I am conscious of the unwarrantable precedent of the poll tax, whereby it was thought that anything would be better than the then system. Unless we can come up with anything better than the present system, we may have to tinker with that.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of the uncertain feelings that managers of arm’s length management organisations are experiencing at the moment. Since the stock is still owned by councils, will she please tell the House when it will be announced that those ALMOs are going to have a certain future ahead of them?

I cannot put a date on the particular concerns that my hon. Friend raises and I recognise, of course, that there are, sadly, a plethora of uncertainties about some of these issues. We will certainly do our best to resolve them as speedily as possible, and if it is helpful, I will write to him if any further information becomes available.

Last year, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee reported:

“The national Housing Revenue Account system creates uncertainty and resentment and does not reward best practice.”

We are now 18 months into the Government’s review of the HRA. When can we expect a conclusion to the review—one that is fair, that supports local autonomy and that will increase the provision of much-needed social housing across the whole country?

It is not 18 months, but never mind. I told the House a few moments ago that we hope to publish some proposals this summer. I fully recognise the justified criticisms of the present system, particularly the volatility and the unfairness, but I view with slight cynicism some of the criticisms we have heard from some Conservative local authorities, which were perfectly happy with the surpluses built up—four and more times the size of last year’s—when the Conservative Government were in power. We will put that aside and welcome their conversion to a better approach.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

4. What progress her Department has made towards implementing those proposals it accepted from the ECOTEC report on houses in multiple occupation. (277601)

Following on from the research work undertaken by ECOTEC, the Department published on 13 May a consultation paper on houses in multiple occupation and possible planning responses.

I thank the Minister for that response and, indeed, for his interest in this subject. He will know that my constituents would like the local authority to have more tools to control the amount of private renting and HMOs in some areas. Will he tell us when proposals to license all private landlords and to alter use classes orders relating to HMOs will be put before the House?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has done a great deal of work in this sector, not least in her role as chair of the all-party group on balanced and sustainable communities. She has really cajoled me and other Ministers in that respect. On her point about the powers available to local authorities, I have to say that she and her constituents are being badly let down by the City of Durham council, but I believe that the new unitary authority for Durham county will do an awful lot better. Powers are available in the Housing Act 2004 to enable local authorities to exercise control on the basis of evidence of antisocial behaviour. Our consultation on use classes orders and aligning housing and planning definitions of HMOs will end on 7 August. We look forward subsequently to consulting the House on that.

Business Rate Liabilities

5. When she plans to bring forward legislation to give effect to the planned partial deferral of business rate liabilities in 2009-10. (277602)

We are preparing the regulations now, we will introduce them as soon as possible and they will be in place and in effect by the end of July.

Assuming that the regulations are introduced and pass into law before the summer recess, may I point out that all that they do is defer the payment? Will the Minister explain in a little more detail why he decided against supporting the Small Business Rate Relief (Automatic Payment) Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), which would have enabled all eligible small businesses to halve their rate bills?

We wanted to deal with a bigger problem. The retail prices index meant a 5 per cent. increase in the rates bills of every business, not just small businesses, and there was a particular problem for businesses that experienced the end of the transitional relief for this year. Given the current economic circumstances and the pressure that people are under, we wanted to help them to manage their cash flow and manage this increase by allowing them to pay a lower level of increase this year and spread the payments over the following two years. That is why we are introducing the regulations, and that is why they have been welcomed by business organisations.

Traveller Sites

6. What assistance her Department will provide in identifying publicly owned land for use as a transit site by Traveller families facing eviction from the unauthorised site at Dale Farm. (277604)

It is for Basildon council to manage the process of managing the unauthorised development at Dale Farm. If and when it decides to proceed with eviction action, I expect the council to hold talks with neighbouring authorities to ensure that any eviction that takes place does so in a calm and orderly fashion.

The Minister will be aware that the 85 Traveller families at the illegal site have now exhausted their legal and planning options. The council rightly seeks to reclaim the unauthorised site and return it to the green belt. It hopes to avoid a forced eviction, as we all do: I know that the Minister does as well. The ball is now in the Travellers’ court, and they have to move off peacefully if that is to happen. However, as the Minister will know, there is a shortage of sites.

Given the scale of the problem and given that the Government are partly responsible for it, having granted the Travellers two years’ leave to remain—during which time the number of caravans on the site shot up—will the Minister do what he can to help to identify transit sites outside the district, as Basildon has done more than its fair share locally? Will he also meet me to discuss this important issue?

I understand the concern felt by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents about the friction caused by the unauthorised development and the problems that it has caused for the settled community, but he was present during yesterday’s debate, and will have heard Conservative Front Benchers criticise the Government for trying to work in partnership with local authorities and complaining about the fact that authorities are not given autonomy and power to solve problems.

I told the hon. Gentleman a few moments ago that it was for Basildon council to work with neighbouring authorities. He is now telling me that he does not think it will be able to do so, and that he wants me to intervene and help. I am happy to meet him and discuss with him ways in which he feels that his local authority may need assistance, but it is worth my reminding him of the contradiction between what was said by his party’s Front Benchers yesterday and what he is asking for today.

May I also ask my hon. Friend to do his utmost to find a solution to the situation at Dale Farm, and to do anything that the Government are able to do? As I am sure he knows, yesterday we launched Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month here in Parliament. It was a huge celebration of Gypsy culture, and hundreds of Gypsies, Roma people and Travellers were here. Overlying everything, however, was the worry about the lack of sites.

My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the causes of the problems is the fact that large numbers of Traveller and Gypsy families are on unauthorised encampments and sites. We need to encourage local authorities to provide more and more authorised sites. There are pitches where Traveller and Gypsy families can go, which will lead to fewer of the problems described by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron).

I am puzzled by the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that the problem at Dale Farm could be solved by Basildon borough council. In relation to the problem in Wiltshire, he has said that not the elected Wiltshire county council but an entirely unelected, undemocratic quango, the South West regional assembly, must make the necessary decision. How do those two answers stack up?

I am always happy to lecture Opposition Members about the planning framework. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that local authorities assess Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs, and that the results of those assessments are passed to a regional planning body which uses them to allocate pitches to authorities as part of the regional spatial strategy. The proposals are assessed during a public examination at which arguments can be advanced for raising or lowering the number of allocations. It is then for local authorities to draw up development plan documents to accommodate pitch allocations. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to explain how the planning framework operates.

Unauthorised sites such as Dale Farm exist the length and breadth of the country. What measures are in place to assist local authorities, as it is they—and therefore taxpayers—who have to pick up the cost of clearing up the damage done to sites? What tangible legislative powers does my hon. Friend have to sort this out?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question. Last year, local authorities spent £18 million on enforcement action. There is a local authority in England which has authorised sites, and the cost of enforcement fell from £200,000 a year to £5,000. That is an example of authorised sites reducing the cost to local authorities, and also the huge distress caused to the settled community.

Mortgage Assistance Schemes

7. How many households have received assistance under the mortgage rescue scheme and homeowner mortgage support scheme. (277605)

Our objective is to ensure that repossession is always the last resort. The mortgage rescue scheme and homeowner mortgage support scheme are just part of a comprehensive package of measures that we have put in place to assist families at risk of losing their homes. The MRS has been operational across the country since 1 January 2009. Since its launch, local authorities have reported that more than 1,000 households each month have come forward and received guidance on what support may be best for their circumstances. Seventy-seven households are in the final stages of receiving assistance and have had repossession action against them frozen by their lenders. Two households have so far completed the Government mortgage-to-rent process, whereby a registered social landlord has agreed to purchase their property and enabled them to remain in their own home as tenants. We expect many more households to be helped in this way in the coming months.

The homeowner mortgage support scheme opened with the first group of lenders on 21 April. Official figures on the number of households entering the scheme will be published later this year, and we are working closely with lenders and money advisers to monitor progress and ensure that the scheme is working effectively.

Well, there we have it. Since the Chancellor announced this scheme, a house has been repossessed every seven minutes, yet the scheme has helped only two families since it was launched. Is this not another example of the Government seeking publicity—in a blaze of glory—to pretend they are helping people when in reality they are failing to deliver any tangible help to people suffering hardship through no fault of their own?

As I have just pointed out, thousands of households have approached the relevant authorities to seek advice. [Hon. Members: “Two.”] Only two have completed the full process. I also pointed out that more than 70 households—77 to be precise—are now well on the way to receiving a formal offer, and I can also tell the House that a further 10, making 87 in all—[Interruption.] I am glad that Opposition Members find this so amusing; 87 households in all are now in the final stages of having a formal offer of assistance. That is 87 more households than received any help whatever under the Conservatives when they were last in government and when repossessions were taking place. They did not lift a finger. I am glad that they think it is funny that people are at risk of losing their homes, but I do not.

Does the Minister agree that if Opposition Members were to consult the transcript of the proceedings of yesterday’s Select Committee on Communities and Local Government and read the remarks of the Council of Mortgage Lenders on this scheme, they would, perhaps, moderate their mirth? The CML is broadly supportive of these two schemes, and it pointed out that the MRS had been extremely helpful in making sure that many more people at risk of repossession were now approaching their lenders at the outset and getting decent advice, instead of burying their head in the sand and waiting for things to hit them. That might be one of the reasons why relatively few of them are going through this entire system and requiring the MRS; instead, they are coming to an agreement with their lenders early on. If the demand is in fact lower than envisaged, will the Minister consider sending the money through for the building of more homes, instead of leaving it in a scheme that might not be required to the level that was originally thought?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I agree that it would be wise for the Opposition to look carefully at the evidence that has been given to the Select Committee that she chairs. Opposition Members are so busy trying to be clever about this issue that they completely overlook the fact that, for everybody who is being considered for schemes of this kind, there is forbearance of action that could otherwise be taken against them that could lead to their homes being repossessed. One of the reasons we took the step of making the announcements that we did earlier in the year, which has been much criticised since by the Conservative party, was precisely to encourage people to go to their lenders and get advice at the earliest possible stage, instead of burying their heads in the sand. It is very clear from all the professional evidence that people believe that that has had a substantial effect.

The second effect that we hoped to achieve, which, again, seems perhaps to have come to fruition, was to get lenders to think more carefully about whether taking such as approach is worth their while—the suggestion is that repossessing a home costs a lender, on average, about £37,000. One of our chief aims was to convince lenders to consider the fact that for a lesser expenditure they might save all that misery and disruption to so many families. I am frankly appalled by the frivolous attitude of the Conservative party—I mean that quite sincerely, Mr. Speaker. It is a shattering blow to people when they lose their home—it is much harder than losing one’s job and much harder to recover from.

On the mortgage rescue scheme, it appears that what is happening is that those who are coming through to the end of the scheme—I appreciate that the numbers are comparatively small on the official statistics—are agreeing to forgo their home ownership in order to stay on as tenants. That, in itself, is a major decision, so we should not be surprised that people are taking time to arrive at it.

The Minister will be aware that 75,000 families are expected to face the misery of repossession that she spoke about. Even if we were to add in all the package of measures to which she referred, tens of thousands of families would still be left facing that misery. Why then has she been unwilling to reform mortgage law—Shelter has consistently argued for this—so that we can give the courts the power to intervene? That would give the Government’s pre-action protocol some decent teeth. Why is she unwilling to do that?

I simply say to the hon. Lady that we believe that the pre-action protocol has been really quite effective. I appreciate the point she makes, which is that, sadly, many people could still lose their homes, but she may be aware that even in the best of years over the past decade or so—it was in 2004, as I recall—some 8,000 families lost their homes. There are a variety of reasons why people may find themselves in those devastating circumstances. She referred to the forecast of some 75,000 expected repossessions this year. That forecast came from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, but it has recently said that it now believes that, as a result of the action that this Government have taken, it has been too pessimistic. We certainly all hope that that is the case.

I cannot honestly say that everybody was enthusiastic, but the most important thing is that they have been willing to join. As my hon. Friend may know, 50 per cent. of the lenders in the marketplace have joined the home owners mortgage support scheme and taken advantage—or they could take advantage—of the Government’s underlying guarantee. Although some major lenders did not feel that they needed to use that guarantee, 80 per cent. of mortgage lenders are, in fact, offering comparable schemes.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that although these two schemes are both welcome, the process can be slow and bureaucratic? Will she undertake a review to see whether it might be streamlined?

We are indeed keeping the schemes under review. The right hon. Gentleman may know that in the Budget we brought forward some extra funding, because early experience of the mortgage rescue scheme suggested that there was a greater problem with negative equity than had been anticipated. So, we have already made that change to the scheme and put forward the funding that will enable us to cover that. We are continuing to monitor how the schemes are developing because, obviously, as I said at the outset, our goal is to be as effective as possible in preventing repossessions, by whatever means.

Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is no amusement on this side of the House at the Government’s situation, but there is a great deal of anger at their unwillingness to recognise the failure of these programmes, however well intended they might be, to deliver in practice? She neglected to tell the House that, of the 1,000 a month who register and express an interest in the mortgage rescue scheme, more than half are told that they do not qualify on the Government’s own criteria. She neglected to say that on the current rate of progress the 6,000 who are supposed to be helped over the course of the scheme would, in fact, total about 12.

The Minister refers to the home owner mortgage support scheme. Would it not have been better if she had owned up to the fact that the 50 per cent. of mortgage lenders coming forward is fewer than the 70 per cent. that she said would come forward when the scheme was first trailed? Will she explain why major players such as Santander, Barclays, HSBC and Nationwide have all ruled out participation in the scheme? There is nothing amusing about this: indeed, the Government’s failure is tragic, if not scandalous.

The hon. Gentleman accuses me of misunderstanding the Opposition’s approach. I admit that I was guilty of thinking that people who were roaring with laughter were finding something amusing.

What the hon. Gentleman says is straightforward nonsense, as he should be aware. He talks about a failure to deliver in practice and about the criteria for the scheme. If he has been paying any real attention to the schemes, he will know that the mortgage rescue scheme was only ever intended for some 6,000 families, and was geared towards the most vulnerable households who would be legally entitled to be rehoused by their local authority. That was all announced at the time. It was precisely because that scheme was funded only to deal with a small number of households that the Government then introduced the home owners mortgage support scheme, which is designed to deal with a much larger number—potentially tens of thousands—of households. All the strictures that the hon. Gentleman has levelled against the mortgage rescue scheme are therefore misplaced.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that Barclays, Nationwide and Santander are not participating, but he is wrong. They are offering comparable schemes and therefore have said that they do not see the necessity for the underpinning Government guarantee, and that is why they have not entered the guarantee scheme. They are certainly offering similar schemes, alongside our scheme, which they would not be offering were it not for the fact that this Government have urged them to enter our scheme. They do not need the support and that is why they have not come into that aspect of the scheme.

Home Information Packs

9. What her latest assessment is of the effect of home information packs on the housing market; and if she will make a statement. (277607)

Independent research into the impact of home information packs was undertaken by Europe Economics. The implementation of HIPs is being kept under review and an evaluation of the HIPs programme is currently planned for 2010 by updating “The HIPs Baseline Research Report”.

In another survey, 89 per cent. of professionals said that HIPs would not benefit buyers. In the age of rhetoric and of trusting professionals, why should we believe what the Government say, not the professionals?

I dispute what the hon. Gentleman says. Professionals are telling us that information is vital, and giving buyers information about probably the biggest purchase in their lives benefits the whole home buying and selling process. Roger Wilson of Connells, one of the country’s largest estate agents, has said:

“Knowledge is key when it comes to building confidence for any big purchase and prospective home buyers need to do their research and gather as much information as possible. The new PIQ, EPC and other elements of the Home Information Pack mean buyers will have more information about a home from the very first day it goes on the market.”

Professionals are actually welcoming the HIP.

Professionals such as LMS in my constituency are proud of the work that they do in providing HIPs to many people. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to say how he intends to continue his drive, after the review, to relieve the downward pressure on conveyancing by moving towards a system of electronic conveyancing?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Electronic conveyancing can speed up the process hugely. We remain committed to ensuring that we can simplify and streamline the home buying and selling process. Some £1 million a week is wasted in abortive home purchases and sales, and that can cause heartache to the people involved and disruption to the economy, so we remain committed to HIPs. We want to provide information up front to allow buyers to make an informed choice.

Further to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), will he guarantee that the review will include consultation with estate agents up and down the country to assess the level of demand from house buyers for home information packs and to assess the number of packs that have been produced but never used, and the cost involved? If the demand is extremely low, as I predict it will be, will he at least make them voluntary and not a statutory requirement?

No, we have no plans to make them a voluntary requirement. The hon. Lady touches on an important point. Sometimes, buyers and sellers—particularly buyers—do not get to see the HIP. That is not in anybody’s interests. One key idea that we are trying to push forward, along with the industry, is that estate agents and others involved in the home buying and selling process should ensure that home buyers see the HIP. As I said in a previous answer, information is key. This is the biggest purchase that someone will make and it is important that home buyers get to see the home information pack and make informed choices accordingly.

Social Housing

11. What plans the Homes and Communities Agency has to increase the supply of social housing; and if she will make a statement. (277609)

We have announced a series of measures over the past 12 months designed to improve delivery of social rented housing in the current difficult market conditions, including a £1 billion housing package in the Budget, focused on maintaining activity and jobs, and further help for those who need it in the short term. We remain committed to the delivery of affordable housing for social rent and low-cost home ownership and we are assessing delivery and targets with the HCA as part of its corporate plan process.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In my constituency, there are 26 applicants for every social housing vacancy. The Homes and Communities Agency has made a good start in giving £12 million to the Chester and district housing trust to build 350 homes, but 3,500 homes are needed. What more can she and the agency do to put pressure on the banks and building societies to make borrowing affordable for housing associations?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Perhaps I can direct her to the evidence given yesterday to the Select Committee, which will be published. Questions were asked about housing associations’ capacity to raise funding. Although there is general recognition of their concerns about the loans that lenders are making available, it appears that the situation is easing to some degree. I share her anxieties and can assure her that we keep this matter under review.

The Minister’s hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), recently gave an interview to that excellent newspaper the Leicester Mercury, in which he commented on social housing, in particular with regard to Pembury and the proposed eco-town. Is he aware that, with or without social housing, local feeling is entirely opposed to the proposal to build a huge town on a greenfield site? Frankly, I wish that the Government would stop backing that plan and that Ministers would stop interfering in Leicestershire’s affairs.

Yes, I am aware of that, as I see people waving placards and shouting on regional television. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I hope that this summer we will have some news for his constituents and others about progress in this matter.

Will the Minister do her best to ensure that the agency secures rapid delivery of affordable socially rented homes, to get people out of private rented accommodation where landlords are making a killing at the public expense through the housing benefits system? Will she also ensure that houses that are built or bought are appropriate, particularly for two very needy groups—large families and single people, who often do not get any social housing options whatsoever?

I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that I know that the HCA shares the concerns that he has expressed, as do the Government. The agency met its targets last year, even in the present difficult economic circumstances, and will be using the funding put forward in the Budget to the best possible effect to build more housing, which is much needed, as fast as possible.

Decent Homes Programme

Between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the overall capital sum provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government and its predecessor Departments for capital investment in council-owned housing stock was £25.8 billion.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree with me and many others in this place and elsewhere who say that if the fourth option had been agreed to, the sum would have been spent more efficiently, effectively and quickly, and to the greater benefit of our tenants and certainly taxpayers, who, of course, ultimately own the housing stock?

But I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with me that when we came to power in 1997, there was a backlog of about £19 billion in council house maintenance and repairs. We have had to do something about that. One of the true successes of this Government has been the massive investment in a whole generation of social housing. He is right to say that local authorities have a key role to play, and not only in providing the broad strategic assessment of what housing is needed in their area; they have a direct delivery role. In answers to previous questions, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has said that we are removing disincentives for local authorities, providing additional money in the Budget and elsewhere, and making sure that councils start building council houses again.

The decent homes initiative has transformed social housing in my constituency, but my hon. Friend is aware that the losers among residents are leaseholders who have bought properties that are now subject to major works bills, in some cases of £60,000—works that, in many cases, the leaseholders are totally unable to pay for. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he is, once again, urgently reviewing whether special, targeted help can be given to leaseholders who have, through no fault of their own, ended up owing bills of tens of thousands of pounds?

I am very sympathetic with regard to the scenario that my hon. Friend sets out. She has played a wonderful role in hassling me to death, frankly, on the issue—and she was right to do so. It is important to ensure that we provide targeted help. There is a range of powers in place. The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 provided interest-free loans and deferred payments for leaseholders in the situation that she describes, but I am continuing to look at the issue, and I will keep her informed.

Topical Questions

My Department continues to work to devolve power to councils, communities and citizens; to build strong, cohesive communities; to build new homes where people want to live and bring up their families; and to prevent violent extremism.

I applaud my right hon. Friend’s strong stand against extremism. Does she share my concern about the fact that al-Muhajiroun has regrouped under different names, and about the fact that on 1 March this year, Islam for the UK held an event at a Harrow primary school that featured a live link with the banished Omar Bakri Muhammad? What assurances can she give me that public facilities will not be used to promote extremism in such a way in the future?

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the activities of extremist groups. I am aware of a number of groups that have used council premises in places including Ealing and Tower Hamlets. Some of the councils concerned have very courageously taken steps to ensure that those groups are banned from their premises on the ground that their activities seek to divide communities. I can also confirm to my hon. Friend that my Department is in contact with those local authorities to support them in making the right decisions to bring our communities together, and not to divide them with the views of extremists.

T6. May I raise with the Secretary of State an issue that I have raised before—the recognition of pigeon racing as a sport? Of course, the significance as far as her Department is concerned, is that if it is not a sport, pigeon-racing premises have to pay business rates. She may not be aware that the application of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association for pigeon racing to become a sport has been rejected by Sport England. Will she, on behalf of the pigeon fanciers of Croydon and Salford, join me in supporting an appeal, so that our pigeon fanciers can get the deal that they deserve? (277628)

As I remember, the last time the hon. Gentleman raised the issue he had a particular fanciable pigeon in mind; I have forgotten its name. I can say to him that I did personally take up the issue and found out why pigeon racing was not defined as a sport. Apparently it is because the owners do not take part in any physical activity. [Laughter.] If they ran behind the pigeons, it could be a sport. In terms of empowering the pigeon fanciers, perhaps I can suggest to him that they might like to draw up a petition, so that we can see whether we can take action on the issue.

T3. What progress has Derbyshire county council made in meeting its local area agreement targets in the light of the credit crunch? (277625)

We undertook a first annual review through the Government office in January, and Derbyshire is making good progress in meeting the priorities that it set itself. The first full independent assessment will be carried out in Derbyshire, as elsewhere, in November. Derbyshire has set itself five important economic priorities, on which it is working and making progress. It has also led a response locally, which is very impressive, helping to make sure that businesses receive the business relief that they deserve; that welfare claimants receive the benefits that they need; that buy-in from the council comes from local firms; and that invoices are paid promptly. It is a council with a proud, successful record over the past four years, and I hope that it will be judged as such by the electorate on Thursday. It certainly deserves to be back as a Labour authority after Thursday.

T9. The Campaign to Protect Rural England says that while it recognises “the need for more homes we do not believe the aspiration for 240,000 new homes a year is either achievable or desirable”.I agree. If I may return to the question that I asked earlier, how are we going to balance 240,000 new homes, 8,000 of which will be in Lichfield district, against the need to maintain the quality of life in rural areas? I do not think that that is a conundrum that can be solved. (277631)

I have great respect for the CPRE, but in this regard its views are profoundly misconceived. It is all very well to say that it is not going to be easy—I accept that completely—to maintain the balance with quality of life, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. However, if we ignore the number of households who need to be housed, and assume that because the CPRE thinks so, it is not desirable to build them homes, that will certainly damage people’s quality of life, especially among the many thousands of families who will be without homes.

T4. With the construction industry still severely depressed because of the recession, what is the Department doing to try to make sure that there is work for construction workers, especially in new house building, and with particular reference to the west midlands? (277626)

My hon. Friend will know, I hope, that we have initially purchased substantial numbers of unsold homes; in fact, we have mopped up a large amount of stock. He will also know that in the Budget proposals, provision was made to kick-start schemes that are frozen. Every scheme that is being considered will be assessed to see whether housing can be made a priority, and that will very much be part of the key judgment that is made. That is true in the west midlands and across the country.

I was interested to hear the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), to the question on planning powers and the interaction with houses in multiple occupation. An issue that I have raised several times with the ministerial team, as have my hon. Friends, is the classification of second homes and whether there is some way of looking at planning and change of use classes orders to deal with the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) raised that possibility in the report that he provided for the Government, in line with previous reports that the Government have received from, among others, Elinor Goodman. Is there anything that they have drawn on in those reports in order to look at the issue of second homes?

I am afraid that I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there are currently no plans to require that people receive planning permission to have a second home. We would find that difficult within the planning regime. Planning legislation and the planning framework are based on land use, and if someone lives in a house, the position is similar to that for someone living in a second home, as it were. Nevertheless, councils have considerable powers regarding council tax discounts to provide resources that can be put into the community to help combat the problems experienced in large areas of the country where there are second homes.

T5. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows, I have about 10 park homes in my constituency. Some of them are well run and managed, but the vast majority are not. What can he do to ensure that local authorities are given far greater powers to enforce park home licences? (277627)

I have spoken privately with my hon. Friend about that. I know that she plays a leading role in her area in bringing together various agencies to help enforcement. We have put in place a number of powers to help enforcement. The key factor is local authorities, the police and other agencies using those powers. Directly after oral questions today, I have a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing to discuss how local authorities and police can work effectively together. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) will be aware that on 12 May we published a consultation paper, “Improving the Management of Park Home Sites”, which proposes the introduction of an improved park home site licensing system. In particular, that will require site owners to be fit and proper people to hold a site licence. We believe that that will drive up management standards. The consultation closes on 4 August, and I encourage my hon. Friend and others to get involved in it.

May I take the Ministers back to the subject of eco-towns, particularly that proposed for Leicestershire in Pembury, which is causing tremendous upset to the people of Leicestershire? There is no demand for it among the people of Leicestershire. Yes, there is a demand for social housing, but what about using brownfield sites? There is a real feeling that the fact that the Co-op is leading the charge for this eco-town may be a conflict of interest between Labour and the co-operative society.

I was about to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in managing to raise the issue twice, having already worked it into one question to which it was wholly unrelated, although this time, of course, he can raise any topic he chooses. I say to him what I said to him a moment or two ago. We will, I trust, be able to come forward in the not-too-distant future with the results of our consultation and discussion on the set of proposals about eco-towns, and no doubt he and his constituents will have things to say then.

T7. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently visited my constituency and the small town of Thornaby, which has been regenerated. Will she join me in complimenting the developers, Thornfield, and Stockton borough council for delivering an excellent scheme? Will she also acknowledge that it is not just a matter of the physical environment, as when such improvements are made, people’s confidence rises and their keenness to be much more involved in the governance of their town becomes much more evident? (277629)

My hon. Friendis, as ever, a champion for her community. She will know that I have visited Thornaby probably half a dozen times over the past 10 or 12 years, and I have seen the dramatic transformation that there has been in that community, which has suffered from a range of deprivation. The shopping centre that has been developed is a marvellous, light, airy, attractive place that will bring people to businesses in that community. The hairdressers in my hon. Friend’s shopping centre did an excellent job, and I was delighted to be able to pay a visit there on my most recent visit.

When local councils are under pressure to identify land for house building under Government targets, can they now adjust the targets downwards to allow for the fact that the actual building rates have fallen dramatically owing to the credit crunch and recession?

Of course we are looking at housing delivery, but we are also very conscious of housing need, which has been mentioned a number of times during this Question Time and which is not going away.

T8. I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the great need for regeneration in Stourbridge, and of the series of public meetings that I have recently conducted with business and local people on that topic and on the recession. At our last meeting, people were greatly excited by the announcement of a fund for temporary use of empty shops. Can she elaborate on that, and tell me how we can access that funding in Stourbridge? (277630)

I have had the pleasure of visiting Stourbridge with my hon. Friend. She, too, is a champion for her area. We hope to ensure that the £3 million town centres fund is up and running very shortly, and to get the money out so that we can provide support, particularly for local authorities to cover the temporary costs of using those empty premises for something worth while, whether for arts activities or cultural activities, as a drop-in centre for the police service, or for a rehearsal space for young people in bands—a range of activities which, just as in Thornaby, can help to draw people to the town centre. If we get people in, shopping and spending their money, that will help the businesses enormously in my hon. Friend’s area. I will ensure that she gets the details as a matter of priority for her community.

T10. Have Ministers had the opportunity to study the recent report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux on the dodgy practices of the more unscrupulous letting agencies? I welcome the direction of travel in the Green Paper on the private rented sector, but will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), assure me that during the consultation he will look at whether the Government can take action to control excessive charging and poor service by some of those agencies that, frankly, rip off people who go into private sector tenancies? (277632)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. She will be aware of the private rented sector review that we commissioned from Julie Rugg and David Rhodes of the university of York, and we announced our response to the Rugg review on 13 May. One key element of our proposals is mandatory legislation on letting agents. We think that it will be an important step in improving the quality of letting agents—both for good landlords and good tenants.

West Lancashire borough council tells me that if it were to reduce total rents by using the figure of 3.1 per cent., the formula would unfortunately have a perverse consequence when applied to the area. The council would have to reduce services by £67,000, and would risk a potential £500,000 problem on the housing revenue account. Will the Minister look at how those perverse consequences play out when applied to West Lancashire?

Certainly I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that she has been anxious and extremely active on behalf of her constituency and local authority. We believe that there is actually some misunderstanding on the part of the authority about the implications of the change for it, but my officials are, I think, meeting representatives of her local authority this week, and we will work carefully through the detailed implications. I can certainly assure her and other Members that it is no part of our intention that any local authority will be disadvantaged by making the change.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), from the bottom of my heart on the changes that he has announced to the building regulation part G in order to reduce bathwater scalds in the home. I pay tribute to him on behalf of the Children’s Fire and Burn Trust, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the British Burn Association, and the plastic surgeons and the anaesthetists who deal with some of the 600 individuals who suffer severe bathwater scalds each year. They say that because of my hon. Friend’s decision, a lot of people will be saved a lot of pain and suffering in the years to come.

I thank my hon. Friend for those kind words, but I must say that through her leadership of the “Hot Water Burns Like Fire” campaign and her enormously positive work with my officials to provide the evidence to push forward the impact assessment that allowed us to make those changes, she has been at the very heart of the work to ensure that vulnerable people, such as young children and older people, can be safe in their baths. It is thanks to her hard work that we have been able to change the building regulations.