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Local Authority Leaseholders

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2009

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.