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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2009

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Housing

1. When he plans to introduce revised guidance for local authorities on social housing allocations; and if he will make a statement. (284335)

Part of Sedgefield has been designated a growth point in south Durham and is attracting a lot of economic investment. What more can the Minister’s Department and Durham county council do to enhance investment in social housing in Sedgefield and other parts of County Durham?

I am aware of the commitment that my hon. Friend’s council in Durham has to helping people through this tough period of recession. I am also aware of its long-term plans to lift the county and its residents. He asked me what more the council could do. I suggest that it look at the announcement that we made last week of £1.5 billion extra in order that we can build this year and next year the homes that people need—affordable homes that people can rent and buy. My hon. Friend and his council will notice that we have increased fourfold the funding and therefore the number of homes that councils can build over this year and next year. In short, it should bid for the money.

The Minister will know that tenants in the social housing sector need to move from one local authority area to another for family or employment reasons. Does not the injunction from the Prime Minister to give priority to local people inhibit tenant mobility?

No—exactly the opposite. As a distinguished former Housing Minister the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we need new homes and we need to build homes that people can afford to rent. He will also know that there is a perception that the system for allocating council and housing association homes can be unfair, inflexible and can stop people who need to move in order to take up or pursue work from doing so. The Prime Minister announced and I will set out in detail before the end of the month ways in which local authorities can give greater preference according to the priorities and pressures in their area. That might include, for some, supporting those who want to work but who need to move in order to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that giving more priority to people with local needs is not about race but about trying to help people such as Katie Wilson, in my constituency, who has been on the waiting list for 17 years and simply wants to be housed in the community where she was brought up, where her family and friends are? It is about allowing people to move near grandparents so that they can support the children and allow the parents to go out to work. It is those sorts of issues that are important and they are currently not given sufficient priority in the allocation systems.

I hope that we can move beyond this argument about immigration. I am not proposing to change the rules about who can apply so that foreign migrants do not have a right to go on to council housing lists. I want to give councils greater freedom and greater scope to be able to make judgments about whom to give preference after they have housed those who are in the most serious housing need. The views of my hon. Friend’s council in Sheffield might be very different to the support that councils in Southwark or Somerset might want to give. The principle for this Government is that we should give councils that greater scope to be able to devise and run their lettings list in a way that best meets local housing needs.

I take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and to congratulate the Housing Minister—although he is a familiar face in the local government Front-Bench team—on his elevation. I would also like to express my sorrow at the deaths of the six adults and children who died at the Sceaux Gardens estate the other day. I am sure that we all want to ensure that such a terrible tragedy cannot be repeated in any of our social housing estates.

It was slightly cringe-worthy to hear the Housing Minister trying to explain this morning why his priority is to tackle a misperception about access to social housing when the fundamental problem, surely, is the lack of social housing. Is not the key way to solve that to get rid of the housing revenue account subsidy system? Given that the Prime Minister trailed such a move in January and that we now have a further consultation on a review, is it not time that the decision was brought forward rather than delayed further?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. She might have missed my statement last week, which set out my aim to dismantle the housing revenue account and the announcement that, from last week, councils that build new homes will be able to keep in full all rents and any capital receipts from them. It is a first step in making wholesale reforms, which are long overdue, and a part of removing the barriers to councils’ being able to build, commission building and see the provision of homes in their areas that people need.

I am aware of the consultation document seeking views on options for addressing the impact on local communities of high concentrations of houses in multiple occupation. Local residents in the centre of Ormskirk are affected by homes in multiple occupation, and in particular there is a high concentration of students. May I urge the Minister to take their views into consideration and to bring into reality changes to the legislation, as he sees fit from that consultation?

I am looking at this matter very carefully, and will take into account the views of the residents in Ormskirk that my hon. Friend has reported to the House. I shall also take her views into account, and I am looking to make decisions on this matter pretty shortly.

I also congratulate the Minister for Housing on his promotion, and welcome him and the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination to their new roles in the Department. Like the whole House, I am sure, I wish to share in the condolences extended to the bereaved from Camberwell.

I had to replay the Minister’s interview on the “Today” programme this morning twice to understand precisely what the Government’s position on housing now is. Will he confirm that the Government’s plans may change the requirement in primary legislation to give housing priority to the homeless, families with children and the overcrowded?

I am glad that the hon. Lady is following our announcements so closely. To be clear, I have said consistently—and I confirmed it last week, well before today’s “Today” programme—that I am not changing the requirement for local councils to give priority to those in most serious housing need. In other words, I am not touching the reasonable preference categories. What I am looking to do, and I shall publish this at the end of the month, is to set out new statutory guidance that will allow councils more scope to give preference to people in their area who they believe are in most need, or to relieve the pressures that they are under. However, that can work only when placed alongside a serious programme to build more homes. That was what the housing pledge and the Prime Minister’s commitment last week was all about.

But given that waiting lists have soared by 800,000, and the legal requirement to house priority groups, is not the Prime Minister’s pledge of

“local homes for local people”

simply empty rhetoric—a dog whistle to Labour’s disillusioned and abandoned core vote?

No. What would be empty rhetoric would be a professed concern for housing in this country alongside a plan to take £800 million out of the housing budget this year and 10 per cent. in every year after that, because that would mean that we could not build the homes that we need for the future.

Changing Places Toilets

New guidance for British standard BS8300 which was published in March includes for the first time detailed guidance for Changing Places toilets. A review of part M of the building regulations, which covers the access to and use of buildings, will begin this year and will consider the possible inclusion of such toilet facilities.

The Minister may not be aware that one of the first Changing Places toilets was installed in the centre of Milton Keynes. It means that families with disabled children can enjoy a day out just like any other family. When part M of the building regulations is looked at, may I urge him to ensure that it includes a requirement that a Changing Places toilet is put in every newly built major public building?

First, may I thank my hon. Friend and the many hon. Members of all parties who have written to me about Changing Places? I also thank all those hon. Members who attended the recent Mencap reception for everything that they are doing to highlight the importance of providing suitable facilities for disabled people. No one who attended the reception and who saw the film about Lowri and her mother Bethan could fail to be moved about what they and many other disabled people have to experience.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the impact that she has had at a local level in ensuring that Milton Keynes was one of the first towns in the country to install one of the 85 new facilities that I am pleased to say have been developed. I can give her the assurance that she seeks, and I believe that the 85 facilities that have been developed are a very good start. I encourage all hon. Members to work with their local authorities, as she has, so that more can be provided in future.

East Sussex Waste Plan

3. What funding his Department has provided to local authorities in connection with the East Sussex local waste plan since that plan was adopted. (284337)

The Department has provided approximately £70,000 to East Sussex county council and Brighton and Hove city council through a combination of planning delivery grant and housing and planning delivery grant.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he might also have mentioned the private finance initiative credits provided previously by the Treasury. Does he share my concern that some of the promises from East Sussex county council, especially about its disliked incinerator, have simply not been carried through? For example, it promised that the incinerator could be accessed by rail, but in reality every deposit will come by road, with a lorry passing through Newhaven every two minutes. What can the Government do to ensure that the county council pays some attention at least to the environmental effect of its actions?

We expect local plans to be based on a strong understanding of the potential for supplying energy to local developments by renewable and low-carbon technologies. We publish practice guidance to help do that and to show how it can be done.

Business Rates Revaluation

4. What impact assessment his Department has conducted in preparation for the 2010 business rates revaluation. (284340)

As business rates revaluation is a regular exercise every five years, no impact assessment is carried out in preparation. However, an impact assessment of the transitional arrangements for the 2010 business rates revaluation will be published shortly, alongside a consultation document setting out the Government’s proposals for a transitional relief scheme.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I am sure businesses will be grateful too. In a recent survey that I conducted in Beckenham, 46 per cent. of small businesses said that they needed help already with business rates. Given that the threshold for the supplementary business rate is only £50,000, and the effect that that will have on small businesses, does the Minister agree that a revision of that level should be included, otherwise the Government will be accused of sneakily increasing the burden on small businesses?

In fact, the small business rate relief scheme is extremely effective. Overall, the assistance to businesses has been about £260 million in the past year. That is something that we introduced alongside a range of other measures to assist businesses during these difficult economic times, very often in the teeth of opposition from the Conservative party.

No one in the House can be unaware of the difficulty of imposing additional costs on small businesses, in particular at this time. The other side of that, of course, is that businesses continue to make demands on local services, especially the emergency services—fire and police—and especially where premises may be empty for whatever reason. So whatever else happens in the present exercise, will the Minister ensure that while protecting the interests and the balance sheets of small companies, local authorities are properly compensated for any income forgone as a result of that effort to protect small businesses?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some £20 billion in business rates is collected and distributed to local authorities around the country. Given that the business rate increase is based on the retail prices index and that there was a spike from last September, we are introducing the transitional rate relief this year in order to ensure that there is not a big impact on businesses, while maintaining the income to the local authorities.

This year business rate tax rises were so unaffordable that Ministers have had to introduce an emergency rates deferral scheme. Next year’s revaluation could see thousands more struggling businesses hit again, just because of their location. If, in 2005, 700,000 properties saw their rateable values rise by 20 per cent. or more, how many businesses need to lose out in the 2010 revaluation before Ministers decide that their formula does more harm than good? If Ministers are not going to assess that impact, why not?

The hon. Lady made the same point in a recent debate. She still does not seem to understand that the system is based on legislation that was introduced by the previous Administration, and is based on a formula whereby business rates increase by the RPI. There is overall no greater collection of the business rates. It occurs to me that the hon. Lady has never said in any of her contributions what she would do. She knows how the system works, yet she comes up with nothing but empty accusations, and no plans whatever for the future.

Pennbury Eco-town

I expect to make announcements in relation to Pennbury and other sites with the potential to be an eco-town before the summer recess.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that there is next to no local support for the Pennbury town idea, excepting that of the Co-operative Society—a situation that, I suggest, involves some conflict of interest with the Labour Government. He will know also that there is nothing ecological about building on a greenfield site and no demand for housing on that scale, so will he learn the lesson of past new towns—of building huge new towns without any existing infrastructure and of how unpopular they have been—and understand what a disaster the new town would be for the people of Leicestershire?

As I come to make decisions on the matter, I will have the benefit of quite an extensive consultation, of additional assessments that have been undertaken, and of the opportunity that has been given to everyone, including residents in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and Members, to make their views known. I say to him very clearly that the links that any developer or company may have with any of those eco-town proposals and with any political party are simply not a material consideration in the decision that I take, and will not be.

May I urge the Minister, when he makes an announcement on Pennbury, to reject it firmly? The scheme will have a devastating effect on my constituency and on the city of Leicester in general—on transport infrastructure, in particular, and on regeneration investment in the city. The scheme is based on ludicrously unrealistic projections of traffic and jobs and is, frankly, the wrong scheme in the wrong place.

And the Minister will hear it again when, I hope, he permits me, the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) and the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) to see him with an all-party delegation, as we have requested, to provide him with some of the facts of life about the popularity and utility of the scheme. It will be in my constituency and it will impose a town of 40,000 residents in the middle of rural Leicestershire. It is an idiotic scheme, and—Mr. Speaker, I shall be very brief—the sooner this Minister, who is the fourth such Minister to have to deal with the issue, realises that and promises not to make an announcement—

Order. I think we have had enough, and can I just make the point that what one is seeking at Question Time is questions from hon. and right hon. Members?

I may be slow sometimes but I get the message. I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that there has been complete consultation and the decision-taking process is now under way. Just as when planning applications are called in, however, it would not be appropriate for me or any ministerial colleague to meet him or other Members. I reassure him, none the less, that I have an enormous amount of material and a wide range of representations, including from him, to take into account.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s eventual decision on Pennbury, does he recognise that there is an acute shortage of affordable housing in the shire districts and boroughs of Leicestershire? Will he therefore suggest to me how we can encourage the reluctant landlords, which Tory district and borough councils often are, to take advantage of the new announcements that were made last week, rather than to spend their time coercing their tenants into a stock transfer or drumming their fingers waiting for the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to ride over the horizon—

My hon. Friend will realise and, I hope, welcome the series of announcements that I have made so far, building on the excellent work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett). The further announcements that I plan to make are intended largely to remove the bias in the system against councils being able to build the homes that are needed in their area. So, there are some questions for my hon. Friend to ask of his council, and for every Member to ask of their local council. Why are local councils not building or commissioning the building that is necessary? Why are they not bidding for the funds that the Government are making available? Why are they not making the land available on which those homes could be built? Why are they not giving the planning permission for those homes to be built? And, indeed, why are they not going to make the lettings policies fairer in future?

The Prime Minister launched the eco-town programme in a blaze of publicity in May 2007 and then upped it to 10 eco-towns, but here we are two years later and the Government are still consulting on the matter and still consulting about planning guidance. The small print of last week’s draft legislative programme, however, revealed on page 122 that the towns have now been pushed back to 2020. So, will the Minister—the fourth to have been across the Dispatch Box from me—now just admit that the programme is a shambles, that developers are running scared, that judicial reviews have delayed it, that it will require massive public subsidy when the coffers are bare and that the Government’s own environmental advisory panel said that, at best, only one eco-town was environmentally friendly? Is it not time that this Housing Minister, the ninth since the Government came to power, admitted that the unpopular eco-town programme is a complete shambles and scrapped it?

On the contrary. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be a little patient; I have said to the House that I expect to make an announcement before the recess, and I have not yet finished four weeks in the job. Eco-towns give us the opportunity to meet two needs: first, the need for new homes, including those that people can afford to rent; and secondly, the need to build our homes in future in a way that helps us tackle the threat of climate change. Given that more than a quarter of the total carbon emissions in this country come from homes, that is something that we simply must do.

Regional Spatial Strategies

6. What recent representations he has received on the timetable for further reviews of regional spatial strategies. (284342)

The Department has had a number of recent representations from Members on the timetable for further reviews of regional spatial strategies. Margaret Beckett—[Interruption.] Sorry.

Order. I think that the Minister meant the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) answered questions in the House on the point on 2 June 2009. In addition, the regional spatial strategy for the south-west has been subject to extensive consultation; there were 35,000 responses on its proposed changes.

I thank the Minister for that response. The vast majority of those 35,000 responses opposed the building of 68,500 houses in Cornwall. Is it not time to scrap the targets and provide the funds to local authorities, which can build the affordable housing in the places where it is most needed?

The hon. Gentleman misses the point about regional spatial strategies, which are absolutely essential in ensuring that the Government meet their target of 240,000 extra homes by 2016. He should support that, given that 161,000 people in his region alone are on the waiting list for homes.

When my hon. Friend is considering the strategies, will he emphasise the importance of dealing with climate change, and take it into consideration more than nimbyism?

That is precisely why the regional spatial strategies—and, shortly, the regional strategies—are being developed. They are to ensure that there is an integrated, holistic approach that takes stock of the challenge of climate change.

Does the Minister not see the irony? In July 2007, the Prime Minister told the House:

“we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.”— [Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1449.]

In May this year, the east of England regional plan was struck down by the High Court because, to use the judge’s words, it would

“erode the Green Belt without alternatives being considered”

and because there was a lack of a proper strategic environmental assessment. The south-west regional plan has just been indefinitely withdrawn by the Government after the High Court gave an identical ruling, and judicial reviews have now been launched on the same grounds against the south-east regional plan.

The Minister is new to his post. Would it not be a good idea to take this opportunity to scrap the derailed and discredited regional spatial strategy system, the Prime Minister’s discredited promise, or both?

Seldom have I heard such a lot of rubbish in such a short space of time. The regional spatial strategies are crucial in ensuring that we get the housing outcomes that we want. With respect to the east of England judgment, small procedural elements needed to be readdressed, and the issue has been remitted to the Secretary of State. We will put it right and we will learn the lessons from the east of England and apply them to the south-west. We will move forward.

Since 1997, the green belt has decreased by 0.8 per cent. However, if we take the New Forest national park into account, there has been a 2 per cent. increase since that year.

Council Rental Income

7. What steps he is taking to allow local authorities to retain rental income from new council homes; and if he will make a statement. (284343)

On Tuesday last week, I made a statement to the House confirming that from that day councils would be able to keep in full all the rental income and capital receipts that come from any new homes that they build.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the changes that he has made would allow Leeds city council to regenerate one of the most deprived housing estates in the north of England—the Beckhill estate in my constituency? Will he agree at some later stage to visit that estate to see it for himself?

I will certainly see whether I can fix a date—although my diary secretary will not be pleased that I am saying this—to visit the estate and accompany my hon. Friend in doing so. I hope that he will give every encouragement to the Tory and Liberal-led Leeds council to bid for the funds to build the new homes that people in Leeds need. I have been encouraged by the fact that it is one of the 20 local authorities that have signalled their intent to bid in the first round for the money that we will make available from the end of July.

Does the Minister not accept that these changes—which, by the way, I warmly welcome, as I believe in meaningful local government with a full range of responsibilities—have come too late to prevent what was then Macclesfield borough council from being forced to transfer its housing stock to a housing trust? Will he ensure that in future housing remains within the democratic domain so that it is democratically accountable and local people can decide where houses are built, instead of leaving it to an unelected, somewhat bureaucratic organisation?

I thought for a moment that we were going to re-run some of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman and I have had about local government reorganisation in Cheshire. The point that he makes is, in different terms, consistent with what I explained to the House earlier—that part of the purpose of the changes that I have announced is to remove the bias in the system that prevents councils, and has done for more than two decades, from building in order to meet the needs in their area. From this point on, councils will be better able, on a fairer basis, to build in the same way that housing associations have been able to do in recent years.

Independent Local Government

8. If he will bring forward proposals to establish constitutionally independent local government; and if he will make a statement. (284344)

As my hon. Friend knows, the statutory independence of local government is set out in various Local Government Acts, and we are committed to the principle of local self-government. I want to ensure that we have the right balance of power and responsibility between central and local government, and I will shortly launch a consultation that will explore those issues. I want, in particular, to explore how democratically elected local authorities can influence all public spending on public services in their area.

In finding the right balance to set local authorities free from what is, in effect, the most heavily centralised state in the democratic nations of the world, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity perhaps to join Conservative Front Benchers and stop chaining local government, to set it free, and to allow it both the powers and the finance to look after as much of its own affairs as is possible?

I think that my hon. Friend will accept that we have done a great deal to give powers to local authorities: they have had the three-year funding settlement, the amount of ring-fencing has been reduced, and the number of targets has been reduced. As I said earlier, I now want to embark on the next stage by ensuring that local authorities have the powers that mean that when somebody elects a local councillor they are electing someone who can genuinely influence public services in their area. However, it is also important that there are some minimum entitlements to the quality of service. We need to ensure that we balance the rightful, powerful place of local authorities with people’s rights to decent services, wherever they live.

If the right hon. Gentleman is straightforward in this—and I am sure that he is—will he look carefully at the democratic deficit that would occur if there were a reorganisation of local government in Suffolk, which would mean either that the county of Suffolk took away the powers from locally elected people and covered an area stretching from Mildenhall across to my constituency instead of having real local authorities, or a change to an invented local authority with which nobody has any connection at all?

I obviously hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. He knows that I am awaiting the report of the inquiry into that matter, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment, but I assure him that Ministers will give proper consideration to the results of those considerations.

Migration Impacts Fund

9. How many applications his Department received for funding under the migration impacts fund; and if he will make a statement. (284345)

I am pleased to say that we received some 330 proposals for funding. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly announce the successful projects.

I am delighted that money is being made available—largely, I might say, provided by classes of migrants themselves. Can the Minister indicate not just the advantages accruing to migrants themselves but the general societal advantages of the migration impacts fund?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that the fund is derived from increases in immigration fees and is intended to alleviate pressures on local services from transitional changes. There are a number of examples of projects we would like to fund that would benefit the whole community. One is tackling rogue landlords, which would have a direct impact on both migrants and other people in the neighbourhood and the community. That is the principle on which we are approaching the funding.

Council Tax

10. When he next expects a revaluation of domestic properties for council tax purposes to take place; and if he will make a statement. (284346)

Conventionally, one thanks a Minister for their answer, but may I say that it was very disappointing, especially for my constituents? They are increasingly puzzled and angry at a local tax system based on a 15-year-old valuation of their homes, which has no contact with current realities, equity or their ability to pay. Does the Minister and the Secretary of State not accept the urgent need for a new, fairer system based on the ability to pay, which would allow local councils to deliver good services at a fair cost?

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the local income tax, which Michael Lyons looked at but did not recommend for a whole host of reasons, including the risk of substantial increases for the working population, the cost burden on employers and the particular impact on small businesses. Yet again, that is an example of a Lib Dem policy that, while professing to do one thing, has quite the opposite effect.

In advance of any major revaluation, will my right hon. Friend consider encouraging local authorities that want to offer council tax discounts for householders and businesses that have introduced energy-efficiency measures and microgeneration? In one fell swoop, that would deal more quickly with the problems of climate change than anything else that could be done.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is consulting on powers for local authorities, particularly with regard to low-carbon strategies. A number of local authorities are also innovatively considering, during these difficult economic times, how they can link energy-efficiency measures with stimulating the local economy and employing local people. That is exactly the sort of interventionist approach that we think is correct.

Listing Applications (Planning)

11. How many planning applications involving demolition or partial demolition of a building for which an application for listing has been made have been submitted in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (284347)

These statistics are not collected. It would be difficult to do so, since planning applications are made to local planning authorities and listing applications are made to English Heritage. Planning permission is not in any case generally required to demolish an unlisted building outside a conservation area.

I thank the Minister for his answer. English Heritage reckons that five properties pending listing have been demolished in the past year. The problem of pre-demolition while listing is being considered is recognised by the Government, who sought to bring in measures for interim protection in their Heritage Protection Bill. That Bill is still on hold. Can they say when they will bring in measures, either as a stand-alone Bill to introduce interim protection, or through the Heritage Protection Bill, which is not controversial and has the majority support of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives?

Given the hon. Gentleman’s background in architecture, he has made himself something of an expert on the matter. I agree that it is important to protect such buildings. He is right that a requirement for interim protection for heritage assets, which are the subject of an application for designation, was included in the Heritage Protection Bill last year, and we will introduce such a requirement when there is a suitable legislative opportunity.

Social Housing

During the recession, we take the view that the Government have a responsibility to maintain the building of homes that people can afford and create some of the jobs that will help the country through it. That is why we announced last week an extra £1.5 billion to support building such homes, more scope for local authorities to manage their allocation policies in future and a bigger role for local government. That means more homes, fairer lets and meeting local needs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and greatly welcome the Government’s continued commitment to investing in social housing. I am sure he realises that Plymouth is no exception to the pressing demand for more social housing. Does he also envisage a role for community land trusts in filling the gap in affordable and social housing?

There may indeed be a role for community land trusts in some areas. For example, in Plymouth, the Devonport new deal for communities is considering developing that sort of arrangement. We believe that community land trusts have an important part to play, and that is the reason for legislating last year in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, and for the availability of funding under the national affordable housing programme. We should respond to the consultation shortly.

Will the Minister acknowledge that there is an urgent requirement for more affordable housing in my constituency and many others in the south-east, but that the infrastructure simply does not exist to support it on the planned scale? Will he consider what can be done to increase the share of Government expenditure on infrastructure in the south-east, which currently receives an unfair deal from the Government?

The hon. Gentleman raises a broader question about funding for local councils, but he also gets to the heart of the matter. If he believes that his area needs more homes that people can afford to buy and rent, his council needs to play a part in the building programme that we are setting up—I hope he will urge it to do that and encourage it to bid. I also hope that he will make representations to his Front Benchers so that those budgets will not be cut in future.

House Repossessions

13. What steps he has taken to assist people under threat of repossession to remain in their homes during the economic downturn. (284351)

To help people who may be threatened with repossession, we have put in place advice and support at every stage of the process—from free debt advice when they first get into trouble, to free legal advice and representation should their case end up in court.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The claimant count in Halton for May was up 88 per cent. on this time last year; we have almost the worst unemployment rate in the north-west. Is it not therefore essential that when the Government give help to people to remain in their homes, or help with social housing, areas such as mine, which are suffering much more than others, get priority?

We are trying to do two things. First, we want to ensure that there is support for everyone, wherever they are, who may run into problems. Secondly, given the unemployment pressures in my hon. Friend’s constituency, he will welcome our changes to support for mortgage interest, which have doubled the capital limit and shortened the period for which people have to wait for that support. I am sure that he will also welcome the money that has gone through his local authority towards debt advice, as well as help in the courts. At no stage, including when the case comes to court, is a repossession a foregone conclusion.

Local Authority Leaseholders

14. What his most recent estimate is of the number of local authority leaseholders facing financial difficulties with major works bills. (284352)

Information on the individual financial circumstances of the estimated 230,000 local authority leaseholders in England is not available. However, it is estimated that at least 6 per cent. of local authority leaseholders in London have received major works bills for £10,000 or more.

May I emphasise again to my hon. Friend the predicament of many council leaseholders in Westminster, some of whom are about to receive bills for up to £58,000? Let me also stress to him that over the years, the local authority and the Government have been pressing home ownership on tenants, yet in some cases they are now being expected to pay bills the repayment of which will total more than their net earnings. Please may I meet Ministers again to discuss what can be done to assist those people and prevent them from risking losing their homes?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic job that she does in speaking up for her constituents on this issue, and on the work that I know she has done on it for a long time. I know how concerned she is about it, and I can tell her that the Department has been keeping it under review. I know, too, that she and other Members wrote to my predecessor to propose a number of measures. I would welcome the opportunity to meet her and other colleagues who have been campaigning on the issue.

Topical Questions

I would like to refer to the tragic fire that occurred in Camberwell on Friday afternoon. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in offering sympathy to all those affected and, in particular, condolences to those who have lost loved ones. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), the Minister responsible for fire and rescue, met London fire brigade’s incident commander yesterday afternoon to hear about the fire for himself. I would like to take this opportunity to place on the record our gratitude to the fire and rescue service and to other emergency services for the professionalism and bravery that they showed in responding to that distressing situation.

The House will be aware that the fire is being investigated by both the police and the fire and rescue service, but at this stage it would be wrong to draw premature conclusions. However, the public will want to know that they will be kept fully informed. I have asked Sir Ken Knight, the Government’s chief fire and rescue adviser, to report back to me urgently as conclusions emerge from the investigations and inquiries that are under way.

I am grateful for that answer. Let me turn to a more local issue for my constituency. In Crewe and Nantwich, as across the rest of the country, the quality of public pavements is a continuing problem. The issue came to the fore earlier this week when one of my elderly constituents tripped and fell, breaking her wrist and suffering serious facial injuries, which, sadly, is an increasingly all too frequent occurrence. Does the Secretary of State support my view, and that of the Crewe and Nantwich safer pavements action team, that a difference in level of 25 mm between paving stones is too great and that the threshold for deciding—

Order. I am sorry for the hon. Gentleman, but the question was far too long. I am sure that the reply will be a lot shorter.

This is not a subject that I have yet had the opportunity to look at in detail since I took up my post, but as I recall, the difference in level was originally established by the courts rather than by primary legislation. I have every sympathy for anybody who has suffered in that way, but the need for local authorities to invest in and maintain pavements is important, and it would be harder to do that if the kind of cuts proposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party—£1 billion from my Department alone—were made.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.] I am impressed at being called after invisibly standing up to catch your eye, although I was standing up to catch your eye earlier. My urgent question is this. The Government have announced extra investment in public housing. Will they ensure that they invest in those local authorities that are ready to dig, such as Slough, where tenants will get houses more quickly than in areas where the local authority will spend a lot of time complaining about infrastructure but not doing anything?

Let me reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. The challenge and the opportunities are now there for local authorities to show leadership. We are providing the funding and changing the rules, and I certainly want to see the money going to those places with housing needs where the local authority is prepared to step up and meet that challenge.

T2. I have given notice of this question to the private office of the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination. A group of my constituents in Bromesberrow parish have written to me about certain charges that have hit their parish as a result of the independent auditor responding to a particular constituent. This has meant that their parish precept has gone up by 45 per cent. in the past year, which they find disproportionate and unreasonable. Has the Minister had a chance to look at the correspondence that was sent to her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), to see whether the Government could introduce any measures to fix the problem? (284361)

I believe that the correspondence was dated 26 June. I have not yet looked at it, but I will do. I know that concern has been expressed in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency about this issue. There are perhaps quite a small number of such cases. This is a difficult question, but we do not want to make it harder for people to object in the circumstances he has outlined. However, I will certainly look into the matter and into what the Audit Commission has said, and I will respond in writing to the points he has raised.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a shortage of social housing is more likely to be the fault of Tory authorities such as Hammersmith and Fulham—last month, it announced plans to demolish 3,500 newly modernised social homes—than of new immigrants to the country, who, according to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report today, occupy only 2 per cent. of council homes?

My hon. Friend is quite right to put the responsibility on local authorities. We shall see whether the local authorities that have in the past talked the talk, but not been prepared to take any action to produce social housing, will now respond to the investment and the challenge that the Government have laid down.

T3. Is the Secretary of State aware that his Department stands between the Government’s commitment on landfill diversion and the one new major facility that will be required every day for the next four years in order to meet landfill requirements? What is he going to do to speed up the planning process in this regard? (284362)

I can tell the House that, despite the fantastic induction that I have received over the past few weeks, I was not aware of that point. I will, however, be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the matter in more detail if she would like to do so.

I welcome the boost that the Government have given to councils building more council housing, but will the Government look urgently at the Co-operative party’s proposals for mutual home ownership, whereby home investments and pension funds could be used to ensure that those on modest incomes who cannot afford to buy a home can get on to the housing ladder?

I will certainly look at that. In general terms, I am ready to look at and back anybody and any organisation that is prepared and able to get homes under way, so that people who need them have the opportunity to buy or rent them at a level they can afford.

T4. It is now five months since the Government’s extended consultation on the local authority business growth incentive scheme closed, and we are four months into the financial year. Given that the money involved is meant to incentivise regeneration, and that we are in a recession, when are the Government going to release that money to local authorities? (284363)

As soon as possible. I am discussing the final details with Treasury Ministers, and we will make an announcement in the next few weeks.

Will one of the Ministers outline to the House how the future jobs fund will work? It is a project that has been put together by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Minister also make it clear to the House that bids from local authorities will be supported only if they include value added—as Stockton’s does—and if the jobs they make available will be permanent?

The future jobs fund is an enormously important initiative by the Government to ensure, in particular, that there are jobs for young people who have been out of work for a long time, and for others in areas of high deprivation. Bids to the future jobs fund are being assessed at the moment, and the criterion that they should involve jobs that will last is clearly part of the process. I should also point out that this initiative is part of the Government’s fiscal stimulus, and that our response to unemployment and the recession is possible only because of the wider measures that the Government are taking.

T5. Does the Minister accept that the blanket requirement to find 3 per cent. a year efficiency savings is particularly difficult for smaller local authorities such as Maldon district council? Will he confirm that there may be some flexibility in the imposition of that target that takes account of the size of the authority, as well as of its record in having already achieved savings? (284365)

That is an interesting question coming from someone who advocates a 10 per cent. cut in local government expenditure, which would have cut my Department’s budget by £1 billion this year. There is a responsibility right across local government, as in other areas of government, to achieve the maximum efficiency and the best possible value for money for our citizens. I believe that the targets we have set are achievable, but I have to say that the destruction that the hon. Gentleman would wreak on local government is something we do not want to see.

May I tell the Housing Minister how warmly welcomed his statement was last week on the housing subsidy account? May I also urge him to ensure that any changes he makes will enable excellent four-star councils such as Wigan to build on the 80 council houses it will be placing in the Scholes area of Wigan, so that there are more of them in future?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Wigan just 10 days ago. Both he and I are clear that Wigan is a first-rate authority and we are pleased that it wants to take maximum advantage of the new freedoms and the new funding we are ready to make available to help councils build. I hope that my hon. Friend will work with his council to make the most of the opportunities we are now creating.

T6. May I take the Secretary of State back to the proposal to foist a new town on the people of Leicestershire at Pennbury? Will he answer a philosophical question? What is eco-friendly or environmentally friendly about building 40,000 new homes in pristine and attractive Leicestershire countryside without any infrastructure to support them? (284367)

I have every confidence in how my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is handling this issue, and I am not going to comment on the particular proposal. In listening to this debate, however, I regret the lack of imagination so often shown by those who cannot grasp the importance of understanding how we use planning, housing and urban development to ensure that we provide good-quality communities at the highest environmental standards for the future. Too many of the critiques seem to be opposed to the entire idea, rather than to particular individual proposals.

All Members must regret the fact that workers throughout the country are suffering job cuts, pay cuts and short-time working, but does the Secretary of State agree that that should not be used as a reason or excuse to cut the terms and conditions of local government workers?

I want to pay tribute to local government workers for the job they do, as I was also able to do at the Local Government Association conference last week. Local government workers are in discussions with their employers, the local authorities, at the moment. Those discussions have to take place in the light of the three-year financial settlement and the expectations of council tax payers for reasonable settlements. I certainly regard the job that local government workers do as essential, and I believe that the rising public appreciation of local services that we have seen in recent surveys is down to their efforts and their commitment.

T7. Why are the proposals in the Department’s consultation paper on building regulations published last week so timid in respect of controlling the energy performance of existing buildings, when that is so clearly vital for any sensible climate change strategy? (284369)

It is indeed important in tackling climate change, but I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman cannot see that these proposals are a step in the right direction. I shall take his comments as an early representation and submission to the consultation.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s position, but will a Minister please comment on the fact that my constituents view with great suspicion the fact that Tesco has begun to buy up property in the centre of Kirkby ahead of the determination of a recent planning appeal? If this disastrous scheme were to go ahead, it would be seen by my constituents purely as legalised bribery.

I can understand why my hon. Friend, who represents her constituency so assiduously, wishes to raise this issue, but she will understand, given where things are in the planning process, that no Ministers can respond in public on this matter—but we do hear what she says.

While I welcome the Government’s conversion on the issue of the housing revenue account and their commitment to dismantling the system, it concerns me that there appears to be no mechanism to enable that to be done. Why have the Government not been willing to include a Bill in the draft legislative programme to get rid of the HRA system and extend that arrangement beyond just new houses, as the Minister suggested in his earlier answer would happen?

I hope that the hon. Lady can wait until the end of the month, when I will set out in a detailed consultation document the plans we have and the steps we will take. There will be a timetable for the reforms that we need to introduce in order to do what I set out to do—dismantle the system, but do as much as we can in advance of the legislation that will be required.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) ought to spend more time worrying about the development of her own town centre rather than, as she seems to be doing, preventing £400 million of investment from going into Kirkby?

You will understand, Mr. Speaker, why this is a matter on which I did not wish to comment in public.