Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

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.