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Communities and Local Government

Volume 498: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Contingency Arrangements (Fire Service)

1. What role his Department plays in making contingency arrangements in the event of industrial action by the fire service. (295520)

The making of contingency arrangements for emergencies, including industrial action, is the statutory duty of individual fire and rescue authorities.

As a member of a fire service family, I know that nobody joins the fire service to earn a lot of money; they do it because they believe that it is a very important public service. In an answer to a previous question, the then Minister indicated that his Department did not keep copies of existing contingency plans, which must vary widely from one authority to another. Will the Minister therefore take a view on whether firefighters should be obliged to cross the picket lines of another fire and rescue authority?

I do not follow the connection between the main part of the hon. Lady’s question and the second part. Fire plans are the responsibility of the fire and rescue authorities. The Audit Commission reviews those plans, as it reviews other things covered by the comprehensive performance assessment—of course, we are always in close contact with the Chief Fire Officers Association on those issues.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, in protecting the lives of our constituents, firefighters provide a service that is second to none in this country, and we congratulate them—the number of them who have died in recent years is a tribute to the sacrifice that is made. The Secretary of State will be aware also of the recent dispute in South Yorkshire, which arose as a result of management seeking to impose new work schedules and conditions on firefighters, so will he join me in urging management to seek a negotiated settlement rather than provoking industrial action?

I join my hon. Friend and, indeed, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who asked the first question, in paying tribute to firefighters and the role that they play. Under all such circumstances, including the one to which my hon. Friend has referred, negotiated ways forward are preferable, and mechanisms exist through which arbitration, mediation and conciliation should and could be explored.

I begin by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) to her new Front-Bench role. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the event of fire service strikes, there are no contingency vehicles, because the green goddesses have been sold off to places such as Albania and Peru, and that there are no contingency contracts outside London, because of the collapse of Project Fireguard? The Secretary of State seems unaware that his predecessor told me that no contingency plan was held at the centre, which surely cannot be an adequate state of affairs.

The hon. Lady is well aware that the responsibility for contingency plans lies with the fire and rescue authorities, and a moment ago I explained the relationship between central Government and that responsibility. It is perfectly true that the world has moved on since the era of the green goddesses, when the armed forces were expected to step in and provide nationally organised contingency cover. I always regret any local disputes that arise, but in those circumstances we have seen the use of locally made contingency arrangements, and, as far as I have been able to tell, they have operated satisfactorily.

Nothing seems to exist, therefore, at the centre. As the threat of fire service strikes continues, our country faces a winter of discontent, with rubbish piling up in the streets and Christmas post gathering dust in sorting offices. With no leadership and no authority, this Government have become a sitting target for their union paymasters, so will the Secretary of State now accept that in the event of further fire service strikes, contingency staff must be allowed to cross the picket lines?

The hon. Lady would obviously like there to be such a winter, because she would love to see anything that might damage this country. However, a decision was taken quite deliberately a number of years ago to make it clear that responsibility for contingency cover lay locally with the fire and rescue authorities, and that is the strategy that has been pursued. Based on that strategy, the Audit Commission reviews the quality of the arrangements that are in place, and we have a close relationship with the chief fire officers. I must say that, in so far as I can see, the strategy of local responsibility for contingency arrangements is the correct one.

Reference has been made to the dispute in South Yorkshire, where we have had one day’s strike and more are threatened. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that, however good the contingency arrangements, they cannot give the public the same protection as a fully functioning fire service. Will he therefore publicly encourage both sides to take a step backwards, the management to withdraw their highly controversial dismissal notices, the unions to withdraw their threat of strike action and both to go together to the joint secretaries, with the possible help of ACAS, to try to get a considered, negotiated settlement?

My hon. Friend makes a good point in a measured way. As I said earlier, there are various routes—he mentioned two, and there may even be others—that would lead to arbitration, mediation and conciliation, with the opportunity for both sides to find a way forward that avoids the need for industrial action.

Sheltered Accommodation

2. What assessment he has made of the effects on residents in 24-hour resident warden service sheltered accommodation. (295522)

We have set up a working group, led by my ministerial colleague Lord McKenzie, which is examining a wide range of issues in relation to wardens and sheltered housing. The group includes a range of organisations such as Help the Aged, Age Concern and the National Housing Federation, and it is working on a series of projects, including looking at different ways of providing support to older people, and highlighting the pros and cons of those different approaches. We will evaluate the overall benefits to residents of each one.

Sheltered accommodation wardens in Castle Point, as elsewhere, are unsung heroes. Does the Minister agree that they are worth their weight in gold, since their small cost saves millions of pounds in social and health care costs that would arise were they to be disbanded or inappropriately used? Will he look carefully at this and ensure that wardens are protected in our sheltered accommodation?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the job that wardens do; they provide a crucial, valuable and, in many cases, life-saving service. I also pay tribute to all those who care for older people, including those providing floating support in the community. I assure him that we will keep this issue under very close review—as he knows, because only last week he was raising the concerns of people in his constituency in debate. On a general point, exactly how these services are provided should be a decision for local authorities, not dictated by me or by other Ministers in Whitehall.

I never thought that I would stand here and say that I agree entirely with the points made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), but I do—although I have to say that in Ealing, North we have heroes and heroines. May I ask my hon. Friend to make every endeavour not to repeat the compulsory competitive tendering mistakes of the past and to recognise the importance of added value in terms of individuals’ quality of life and health? I urge him to take that into consideration during the review.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in everything that he has said about the valuable role that wardens play in his constituency and elsewhere in the country. I am happy to meet him to discuss this in more detail.

As the Minister has said, there was a useful debate on this matter last week in Westminster Hall. As well as paying tribute to the work of wardens, does he agree with Imogen Parry of ERoSH—the Essential Role of Sheltered Housing—who said:

“Many residents are pleased with changes that have been made to their support services, including a move away from resident warden services, particularly…when they have been fully involved in the process”?

Does he agree that it is consultation, first, last and always, that matters with elderly and vulnerable residents?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. This is not a party political matter. He makes some serious points about consultation. Residents and those affected by any changes in the services they receive should be properly consulted about those changes. There should be proper and meaningful consultation before changes are made, and people’s views should be taken properly into account.

Planning (Open-cast Mining)

3. If he will revise the planning guidelines concerning buffer zones between residential dwellings and open-cast mining sites in England. (295523)

I am grateful for that reply, but I was not going to ask about the specific planning consents that the Minister has referred to. None the less, that is relevant in the sense that if he lived in Scotland or Wales, no open-cast planning consent would have been given to his local authority because of the 500-metre buffer zone requirements, whereas in England only 250 metres is required. Does he think that that is fair?

I know that this is a controversial issue in Shropshire, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to turn it into a party political row, especially since my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) has been working just as hard as he has to represent constituents on this subject. Just because we do not have a blanket policy on buffer zones in England, it does not mean that the impact on nearby housing and other environmental matters are not taken into account during the planning process—in fact, they are the key issues that are considered.

On the narrow point about planning guidelines and applications, is the Minister aware of the widespread concern that there are proposals to put them only on the internet in future and not to print them to be published on lamp posts and hedgerows or in local papers? Will he assure me that the Government and his Department will seek to maintain printed publication of planning applications, so that all our constituents can see them in their local papers?

We have an open consultation on this issue at the moment, and we will consider my right hon. Friend’s point carefully. If he would like to meet me or my colleagues to discuss it in more detail, we would be delighted.

Regional Spatial Strategy

To date six regions have published their final revision to their regional spatial strategies: the east of England, Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-east, the north-west, the east midlands and the south-east. The west midlands is taking a phased approach to the full revision of its RSS. Phase 1, covering the black country, was finalised on 15 January last year. I expect to consult on any proposed changes in phase 2 in the new year. The south-west strategy was due to be published last summer, but in light of a legal judgment on a sustainability appraisal, we have agreed to do some further work and consultation. We aim to publish it in 2010.

Given that the south-west RSS consultation has had, as one civil servant put it, more responses than any other planning proposal in British history, most of them raising objections, is it not about time that the Secretary of State listened to what those people are saying, took up our proposals, scrapped the RSS and gave those powers back to locally elected councillors?

No, I do not agree, for the same reason that the Home Builders Federation said what a threat the Opposition’s policies were to housing and growth in this country. The Government’s view is that regional spatial strategies are a vital tool in ensuring that there is sufficient housing for our families and children in the years ahead and that there is scope for industrial development and growth. The Opposition, in the middle of our current economic difficulties, are causing enormous damage and uncertainty through the ludicrous letter circulated by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on their behalf.

Twenty per cent. of Gypsies and Travellers have no legal camping place, which is why my constituents in Thornley are seeing large numbers of Travellers camping in the centre of their village, causing much tension. Do the Government have any plans to provide funding for legal camping sites in future? What pressure can my hon. Friend place on local authorities to follow their own guidelines, and will he or one of his team meet me to discuss the matter further?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss two things: first, ensuring that his local authority and the police are using fully the extensive powers that now exist to move on illegal encampments without undue delay; and secondly, using the money that is available to enable new sites to be created, which gives the police even stronger powers to move people on quickly.

Will the Secretary of State help me to explain to my constituents why the people of Suffolk cannot have their own spatial strategy instead of having to have one that is driven by Stevenage and Luton, neither of which is anywhere near nor has any of the same problems as them?

The right hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in these matters, and he will understand that providing sufficient land to house the people of this country in future is a challenge that has national, regional and local dimensions. His party’s policy of removing entirely any sense of national or regional consideration, or considering the interests of families that will need homes in future and people who need jobs now, is absolutely wrong.

Warwick district council has just finished its consultation period on its options within the RSS, which are being clearly rejected by the community. I believe that the council needs to reconsider and return with alternative proposals. Will my right hon. Friend support my suggestion to the regional Government office that the council be given some extra time to work on that without jeopardising its additional grant?

I set out a timetable earlier suggesting that in the next phase of the west midlands RSS, proposed changes would be published for consultation in the new year with a revision later in the year. I hope that that gives scope for proper discussion of these important issues in the way that my hon. Friend wants, but if he has further concerns, I invite him to write to me about them and I will give him more details on the likely time scale.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the regional spatial strategy process has undermined people’s confidence in the planning system? Why does he think that so many people are so angry?

It is quite understandable that people look at these issues from a local point of view and at questions about what communities want to see in an area, but I say to the hon. Lady—I hope that she will explain this to her constituents—that we need to ensure that we have sufficient land for housing, growth, economic development and jobs for the future. That cannot be a purely local decision; it must have regional and national elements. I hope that she is not joining with the incredibly damaging position of Conservative Front Benchers in saying, “Jobs don’t matter. Housing doesn’t matter. Growth doesn’t matter.” All they want is local populism. There are difficult choices to be made, and we need political parties in this country that, unlike the party opposite, will face up to those difficult choices.

Does the Secretary of State not realise that it is the lack of transparency and accountability in the process that frustrates people so much? I shall quote to him the comments of the planning inspector in relation to the south-west draft RSS:

“The emerging RSS has reached an advanced stage...and so its policies may be given significant weight.”

Why is a draft document that has not been signed off been given such importance when planning appeals are being considered?

The reality is that we have moved from the previous guidance to the regional spatial strategies and are now going through an extensive and, I believe, open process of consultation, as those strategies are developed. As the new leaders boards come into place, that will provide a further degree of oversight and scrutiny to the process. Inevitably, people will not always like what is in the strategies, but I reject the hon. Lady’s contention that there is something secretive about the process. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said earlier, there have been masses of public representations, a great deal of debate and a great deal of openness.

Given the curtailed debate last week on clause 67 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, will the Secretary of State ensure that planning guidance to the new regional development agencies on the regional spatial strategies will give weight to environmental as well as economic concerns?

Indeed. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the draft consultation paper and guidance on implementing the new strategies include an important quote about sustainable economic growth. It says that sustainable economic growth means

“economic growth that can be sustained and is within environmental limits, but also enhances the environment and social welfare, and avoids greater extremes in future economic cycles.”

Will the Secretary of State accept that his strictures might have a little more weight if his own Government were not failing by delivering less housing than at any time since the war? Before he misrepresents other people’s policies, will he consider withdrawing the guidance on the use of the draft strategy, which has been described by planning experts as

“driving a coach and horses through strategic environmental protection.”?

I tell the hon. Gentleman that it was not me but the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey who described his party’s policies as “scary as hell”—I hope that that does not breach any parliamentary code—because of the uncertainty being created. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has made available significant additional new money to kick-start private sector housing schemes and to get new social housing under way—all measures that his party has opposed in saying that our Department’s budget should be cut and that there should be no fiscal stimulus. He cannot criticise our record, and he has to admit that he would do far, far less.

Regional Spatial Strategy

5. When he expects the final version of the regional spatial strategy for the south-west to be published. (295525)

We have decided to carry out additional sustainability appraisal work to appraise alternatives to the areas of search for strategic development introduced or amended by our proposed changes to the RSS. It is expected that this additional work will be completed early in the new year. We will then decide what action we need to take to complete the strategy in the light of the appraisal’s findings.

Will the Secretary of State concede that his Government’s plans to destroy the south-east Dorset green belt have now been successfully thwarted? Will he concede also that the south-west regional spatial strategy, like this Government, is a dead duck?

The hon. Gentleman knows from the strength of my previous answers why I think that that would be absolutely disastrous. If the policy put forward by his spokesman were put into practice—the policy of abandoning the strategies and failing to make available the land needed to house families in this country or to create the possibility of jobs or economic development—it would be an absolute disaster. I will do everything that I can to prevent that from coming about.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that when we talk about the regional spatial strategy, we are talking not just about house building, but about other key issues, such as transport? I have just had an Adjournment debate on the redoubling of the Kemble to Swindon line. If we do not have regional co-ordination, transport will be one of the great losers. Is that not a strong argument for regional government and regional accountability?

My hon. Friend is right. I have probably made my attack on the Opposition too narrow. The reality is that they would not just sweep away land for housing and jobs; they would sweep away all regional transport planning. They would also sweep away the regional development agencies, which have been so crucial in pushing economic development, particularly over the past year.

Planning Policy Guidance

6. What recent changes have been made by his Department to planning policy guidance affecting rural areas. (295526)

May I bring to my hon. Friend’s attention the fact that Kent science park has recently been allowed to extend on to green land? That was done with his Department’s knowledge and before the transport analysis had been done in respect of exit 5 of the M2. Will his Department do some joined-up thinking, so that transport is taken into consideration before more is done on green land?

I know that my hon. Friend is working hard to represent local people and raise their concerns on the issue. The local authority needs to consider the proposal in line with its development plan and other material considerations in the usual way.

I wonder whether the Minister will answer the question that the Secretary of State ducked twice, which is this: why is the south-west spatial strategy, which has been roundly condemned up and down the peninsula and which has now gone back to the drawing board, still being used in guidance as a basis for planning in the rural areas of the south-west?

I would not want to tear the Minister away from Dudley at a weekend, but will he come the short distance up the M42 to North-West Leicestershire to meet me, Mr. Steve Leary and the Minorca open-cast protest group to look at the impact of the application on the eastern fringe of the large village of Measham? He might then give a different answer from the one that he gave to question 3 a moment or two ago.

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and listen to what he has to say in more detail.

On 11 July 2007, the Prime Minister told the House:

“I assure the House that we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1450.]

The day before, his official spokesman told the Lobby:

“We are not proposing any changes to our very robust protection of the green belt.”

Why then are regional spatial strategies, which are signed off by Ministers, currently deleting the green belt across the whole country?

That is nonsense. We have not changed our policy on the green belt and we have no plans to do so. Green belt has actually increased by 34,000 hectares since 1997, while 80 per cent. of development takes place on brownfield land. The hon. Gentleman should be telling his constituents and the rest of the country why the Conservative party has adopted a policy that is anti-growth, anti-housing and anti-doing anything to get us through this recession.

Council House Building

7. What rules apply to local authorities in the first and second rounds of the council house building programme. (295527)

All local housing authorities in England are eligible to bid for the programme. Last month, I announced grants for 49 successful councils that, in this financial year, will start the biggest council house building programme in this country for nearly two decades.

Is the Minister aware that, despite the long waiting lists for housing in Liverpool, the city council, which holds no housing stock itself, has made no application under the rules? It has, however, recently managed to appoint a new assistant executive director of housing at a salary of £102,000 a year, plus a 10 per cent. bonus. Does my right hon. Friend think that that is in the spirit that the Government are trying to foster in relation to accommodating people in need of housing? Does he also agree that it is typical of Lib Dem authorities?

Like my hon. Friend, I was disappointed that Liverpool did not bid. I was disappointed that it chose not to see the chance to build new council homes for people in the city as a priority, and that, like other flagship Liberal councils in Hull and Newcastle, it did not bid. I am, however, able to ensure that other parts of the housing investment programme mean that, whatever stance the council takes, there will be investment in Liverpool. Last month, I visited a very good Kickstart scheme in Gilead street, where more than 50 new homes will be built as a result of the investment that we are ready to put in to help private developers to kick-start sites that have stalled in the recession.

Affordable Housing

We expect local authorities to assess the demand for housing as part of their strategic role. As part of trying to encourage the building of the homes that we need, and of getting the country through the recession, I was able to put together an extra £1.5 billion over this year and next to build the affordable homes that we need in this country. I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that the Yorkshire region is already benefiting from more than £63 million.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the investment that the Government are putting into Yorkshire and the Humber. I am sure that he is aware, however, of the disappointing statistics for 2009 from the National House-Building Council, which show that the number of new houses completed in the region is down by more than 50 per cent. What plans does he have to kick-start affordable housing and to create jobs in the local construction industry, especially in semi-rural areas such as the Calder valley?

The £63 million that I have been able to release since June for affordable homes in Yorkshire and the Humber will lead to 6,000 extra affordable homes, and I hope that there will be more to come. The housing need there, as in other regions across the country, requires the Government to play their part alongside the private sector, if we are to see the affordable homes that we need being built.

Because of excessive Government housing targets, there are plans for some beautiful countryside in Micklethwaite in my constituency to be concreted over so that houses can be built on it. If the Government are so obsessed with affordable housing, why do they not ensure that more houses are built in those parts of Yorkshire that have cheaper houses, rather than in beautiful countryside in my constituency?

I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman can stand up in this House and suggest that there are no young couples, no families and no elderly people in his constituency who need homes. That is why we are ready to invest in this programme, not only in his constituency but right across the country, and it is why the Government must play a leading part in it.

Housing Pledge (Apprenticeships)

9. What duties in relation to apprenticeships will be placed on house builders and developers as part of the housing pledge. (295529)

Last month, I announced that all future rounds of funding for house building in this country—under the new housing pledge and the affordable housing programme—will require those taking the Government grant to have in place apprenticeship schemes. This means that, over this year and next, we will be able to create an additional 3,000 apprenticeship places across the country.

I recently visited the further education college in my constituency. It is getting a new campus, and it will train the new generation of construction workers. While I was there looking at the new building, however, I was lobbied by some of the mature students. They asked whether there would be any jobs for them, and whether there would be any homes for them. In west Cheshire, 13,000 people are waiting for housing. What more can be done to encourage local authorities to bring forward their surplus sites?

If my hon. Friend wants to take a message directly to her own local authority, it should be this. It should bid for the funds we are making available for building; it should drive a harder bargain with its private developers; it should encourage housing associations in the area to build more homes; and it should be ready to give the go-ahead to sensible developments that will lead to the sort of homes that people need in my hon. Friend’s area and to house building that can bring jobs for the people she was talking to at her local college.

Business Rates

As regular revaluations of the business rate system are required by statute, no impact assessment for 2010 is necessary. However, an impact assessment of the proposed 2010-11 transitional relief scheme, which caps revaluation increases at 5 per cent. for small properties and 12.5 per cent. for larger ones, was published on 8 July.

With next year’s revaluation set to hit smaller businesses disproportionately, not least because of the severe recession and debt problems, does the Minister, who I wish well in her new responsibilities, agree that it would be sensible, pragmatic and right to make small business rate relief automatic to every eligible firm?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about small businesses. I am glad to say, particularly when I know that his constituency has many empty shops as retailers have been badly affected by the recession, that retailers will be largely unaffected. They should see a reduction in business rates of 1 per cent., while in industry and manufacturing we will see a fall of 3 per cent. in business rates.

The Minister says she is concerned about the impact on small companies, but a report from Westminster city council today includes a survey showing that one in three businesses facing large rates rises believe that they will go bust as a result of them—with a devastating effect on jobs and communities. Nationally, there are 700,000 companies, most of them small ones, facing rates rises; what assessment has the Minister made of how many of them will go bust as a result? If Westminster city council can do it, why cannot she?

I can assure the hon. Lady that we are very concerned and actively watching the situation with small businesses, and that much of what is coming from the press and the Opposition at the moment is exaggerated. For example, the hon. Lady says that businesses in Westminster are facing rate rises of 10 per cent., but our calculations show that, with inflation and relief, none will face more than 3 per cent.

Local Spending Reports

11. If he will publish the local spending reports which have been made under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. (295531)

The first local spending report was published on 29 April this year, following the first phase of our consultation on this topic. The report is available on the DCLG website.

I thank the Minister for that response, but it has been estimated that unelected quangos now spend £64 billion a year—equivalent to more than £2,500 for every single household. Why are the Government so reluctant to fulfil their pledge and allow local spending reports to publish figures on quango expenditure in local areas?

The Government are not reluctant to allow quango expenditure to be included in local spending reports. In fact, what we want to do is develop local spending reports to include this amount, but we have to look at the cost-effectiveness of doing so, and we are not in a position to include quangos at the moment.

Local Government (East Anglia)

12. When he next expects to meet representatives of local authorities from East Anglia to discuss local government reorganisation. (295532)

There will be an opportunity for delegations, including local authorities, to make oral representations to Ministers once the independent boundary committee’s process is concluded, following the outcome of the ongoing Appeal Court case.

Is the Minister aware that these proposals have been met with overwhelming opposition throughout Norfolk and Suffolk? She mentioned the case in the Appeal Court. Why is the boundary committee spending tens of thousands of pounds on appealing against the earlier judgment? Surely the time has come for her to tell the boundary committee to put a stop to these discredited proposals.

Obviously, we are awaiting the outcome of the Appeal Court hearing. The hon. Gentleman asked why the process was taking so long; I assure him that we will act as quickly as possible to bring it to a conclusion following the outcome of the hearing. Until then, it would not be appropriate for me to comment.

Does the Minister accept that the Government’s proposals will place a financial burden on all households in Norfolk for something which—as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) pointed out—local people simply do not want and do not need?

As I have said, while the boundary committee process is ongoing, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on particular patterns of the proposals. I should add, however, that there is clear evidence that unitary local government can bring substantial efficiency gains, which can then be used to improve services or reduce council tax. I know that that is not a policy followed by the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Wirral Borough Council (Asset Review)

13. What recent discussions he has had with Wirral borough council on its proposals to transfer assets to community ownership. (295533)

Through the advancing assets demonstration programme, which my Department funds, support has been given to Wirral borough council and its community partners since mid-2008 for implementation of the strategic asset review. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his sterling campaigning work, not least in regard to saving library services.

Initially, Wirral council provided little information for community groups on its strategic asset review and transfer, and even fewer resources. That has caused concern to constituents of mine who want their local halls to be preserved and to prosper. What advice can the Govt provide in terms of benchmarks, management structures, finances and experience elsewhere?

This is an important development, which is why, between 2007 and 2011, we shall have invested £5 million in it. A number of organisations are supporting Wirral, including Community Matters and the Development Trust Association. All those organisations can provide access to practical advice and guidance, as well as links to other organisations throughout the country and case studies.

I understand that Wirral has made it clear that it is prepared to consider undertaking capital works to upgrade buildings and providing revenue support thereafter, but if my hon. Friend continues to be concerned, I shall be happy to meet him to discuss the matter.

Green Belt

14. What steps the Government are taking to protect green belt land from development; and if he will make a statement. (295534)

The Government’s policy is expressed in “Planning Policy Guidance 2: Green belts”, which was issued in 1995. It has served the country well, and the Government have reaffirmed that there are no plans to change green belt policy.

There is a presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. Such development should not be approved except when any harm to the green belt would be clearly outweighed by other considerations, and when there are very special circumstances to justify development. Green belt boundaries can be changed only in exceptional circumstances, through the development plan process, which must involve robust public consultation and independent scrutiny.

I am sure that, like me, the Minister welcomes the display of people power which overwhelmingly rejected a ludicrous proposal to build 18,000 homes on greenfield land south of Northampton without any real thought being given to infrastructure or, indeed, to job growth. Will he now tell us when he will scrap the quango which the Government set up five years ago, and restore planning powers to local councils?

It is a great shame that the Opposition take every possible opportunity to argue against proposals for housing, growth, strengthening the economy and taking Britain out of recession. They ought to be using this Question Time to explain why the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that she would revoke the regional spatial strategies, why she urged Conservative town halls—even before the passing of primary legislation—

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but what we need is a description of the Government’s policy, not that of the Opposition.

Free Swimming Scheme

15. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on rates of local authority participation in the Government’s free swimming scheme. [Official Report, 9 November 2009, Vol. 499, c. 5MC.] (295535)

There are regular discussions across Departments on the free swimming scheme. Of the 553 eligible local authorities, 260 are offering free swimming under the free swimming scheme, and 4.5 million people have used the programme across England.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Speaking as somebody who used to work as a lifeguard, I would love for her to name and shame the councils who are not fully participating in this scheme and give them a great big kick up the bahookie so that they get their act together and provide the scheme to both pensioners and the under-16s.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that this scheme particularly benefits older people, as do the steps we have taken on free bus passes and winter fuel payments. She is right to say that where there are, for example, Liberal Democrat councils such as that in north-east Lincolnshire which are not taking advantage of this, we should make sure that the public know that they are not providing what is a very welcome service to older people in their area.

Topical Questions

I want to ensure that local authorities have the ability to respond to local needs without unnecessary bureaucracy, so today we are publishing our proposals to allow councils and their communities to make certain byelaws without seeking Government approval, and to have them enforced through fixed penalty notices. I will also consult on proposals to repeal or streamline more than half the consent regimes—regimes whereby councils have to seek my Department’s permission before acting.

Cheshire East council has recognised a problem raised recently by one of my constituents, which is that 30 per cent. of street lighting in the Crewe and Nantwich area does not meet British safety standards regarding spacing. What can the Secretary of State do to help this relatively new council improve that statistic in respect of what is a very important community safety issue?

It is particularly important that we continue to have in power a Government who want to invest in public services, because the sorts of cuts proposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party would not have helped his local authority. I will be happy to enter into correspondence with him about this particular case. This problem has been tackled in some parts of the country with Government support through private finance initiative consents for renewables street lighting. I am not familiar with the details of the case the hon. Gentleman raises, but I am more than happy to take it forward with him.

T4. My colleagues on the Treasury Bench may well be aware of the total lack of interest in elected mayors shown in Manchester during a recent consultation, and of the comments of the former Tory leader of Trafford council that there is simply no appetite for elected mayors, especially in Manchester. In the light of that, if the Government are not mad enough to enforce these expensive referendums on local communities, who would be? (295548)

That is a very interesting question. I made my view clear in the summer, which is that we think the current legal framework, allowing the option to go for mayors where communities wish it but not imposing it, is about right. I was struck by the fact that the Opposition, while being committed to decentralisation, said that their first act in power would be to legislate in this place to force people to have referendums on mayors whether they liked it or not. That is a very odd sort of decentralisation.

T2. Given that the local government review in Devon has been a complete waste of time and money from the very start and is a colossal distraction to senior officers in all the district councils throughout Devon, and that the uncertainty continues, will the Secretary of State please now confirm that, just six months away from a general election, this LGR is dead and buried? (295546)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination gave an excellent answer to a similar question a little earlier. We are awaiting the result of the boundary committee appeal hearing. Once that is received, Ministers will be able to proceed, as we would have done previously, to take an appropriate decision.

T6. Given the purchase yesterday of HBOS Employee Equity Solutions by Computershare, will the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber—the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—who has done excellent work saving jobs in the Calder valley, give me an assurance that all employees affected will be transferred under TUPE arrangements? (295550)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on behalf of her constituents in terms of the financial services industry, not only in our region but particularly in her constituency. I understand from yesterday’s announcement that the 190 people employed in Halifax who would be covered by the proposed takeover will be transferred under TUPE arrangements to the new employer. I hope that that gives her some reassurance.

T3. Colchester’s population is greater than that of many unitary authorities. Colchester borough council is the only one in Essex not run by the Tories, and consequently it is neglected and politically discriminated against by the county council. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how Colchester’s authority can move towards having unitary council status? (295547)

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman, unlike the Conservative party, recognises that many benefits can come with unitary status. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss the issues that he has raised.

T8. Have the Government made an assessment of whether the policies of some Conservative local authorities pose a real threat to economic recovery? (295552)

It is not for me to make such an assessment, but I must say that anybody who proposed doing away with regional development agencies, regional spatial strategies and all the things that enable us to have economic growth would be an enormous threat to the future of this country.

T7. The 2010 business revaluation is based on market values from April 2008. Given that market values have fallen considerably and that that has affected local businesses, will the Minister put additional resources into the Valuation Office Agency so that appeals can be fast-tracked? (295551)

T5. I am not quite sure why the Secretary of State is seeking to extend fixed penalty notices, given that most of them go unpaid in the first place. Can he tell the House which of the following is the higher priority for his Department: meeting his arbitrary building targets, or the presumption against building on floodplains? (295549)

That use of the word “arbitrary” was wrong; the housing ambitions that the Government have set out stem from a hard-headed analysis of how many homes need to be built over the next 15 years or so to ensure that the population of this country is adequately housed. The Conservative party is wrong to describe the targets as arbitrary. By denying the need to provide homes for the families of this country, it is the Conservatives who are such a big threat.

Slough borough council is one of the authorities that over the past five years has built more than 1,160 affordable homes, yet it has not bid, although it would like to do so, for the funds available for house building. That is because it is small, because it is not a building authority and because it is already using the land that is appropriate. Can the Minister find ways to help small authorities such as Slough borough council to bid to build more homes, which the residents in my constituency need?

All local housing authorities, including Slough’s, are eligible to bid for the new programme that is in place for council house building. I have to say that Slough’s authority has done a magnificent job, particularly in the past couple of years, in finding the scope within the town to build homes that people in the area badly need. Where the national Government can support the authority, we will do so, and I am always ready to talk to my hon. Friend or her local council leader about how we can do so.

T9. Council tenants in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park pay about a third of their rent to the Government in the form of a subsidy, but the only thing they get for that is the prospect of Decent Homes funding. Some £120 million was promised to their council to pay for upgrading, improvement and renovation of their homes, but that money is no longer on the table. Will the Minister meet me, as well as a number of my constituents who are council tenants, to discuss whether that money can be put back on the table, so that those much-needed renovations can get under way? (295553)

I never refuse a meeting with a Member of this House, and I shall not refuse the hon. Gentleman. I have made it clear to the House that the Government are totally committed to completing the Decent Homes programme, but the judicial review that his authority is pursuing at the moment is getting in the way of our being able to have the sort of discussions that he wants to encourage us to have.

Given the depressed state of the housing market and the problems being experienced in the construction industry, will the Minister give me an assessment of the potential impact of any delays in the implementation of the regional spatial strategy?

The short answer is that the impact could be very serious, because the new homes are badly needed in my hon. Friend’s region. Moreover, the investment in them helps to create the jobs that keep in people in work, and the apprenticeship schemes that will give people the skills needed in the future.

T10. How many small shops in my constituency will lose their eligibility for small business rate relief next year, after revaluation? The revaluation took as its reference point April 2008, when retail rents were very high, compared with industrial and office rents. (295554)

Obviously, I do not know the details of individual constituencies, but I want to reinforce one point that needs to be made. The business rate revaluation does not raise extra money: rather, it introduces a fair distribution of rates each time a revaluation takes place. That brings winners and losers, so we always put in place transitional arrangements to soften the blow or ameliorate the rate of benefit. Business rates are often described in this House as some sort of penal attack on particular businesses, whereas the revaluation is a fair adjustment, moderated over time. We shall continue with the process and, in government, the Opposition would have to do something very similar.

There is widespread agreement that the housing revenue account system is not fit for purpose, so I give the review that is under way a warm welcome. The Treasury has proposed taking an extra £7 billion dowry from councils, but does my right hon. Friend agree that that would prevent them from implementing the Decent Homes standard, and that it could be seen as a tax on council house tenants?

What I have launched is not a review of the housing revenue account system but a plan to dismantle the system that has been in place for more than 20 years. That system has held councils back from being able to build and maintain homes at a decent standard. It is not just that there will be enough money in the system to ensure that all councils can maintain all their homes to a decent standard, because in fact there will be more money for those purposes over the next 10 to 20 years. I am now doing the detailed work with those local authorities that want the reform, which will replace the old system with a structure that will give authorities control over their own rents and housing. That will enable them to provide better services for tenants in the future.

The panel appointed by the Secretary of State to examine the west midlands regional spatial strategy has now reported. In my constituency of Solihull, we had an agreed new homes target of 7,600, but now we find that that target is 10,500. That will almost certainly mean that we will have to lose great swathes of our green belt. Will the right hon. Gentleman describe how it is desirable, or even possible, to override the plans and wishes of Solihull’s—

As I have tried to make clear a number of times this afternoon, the examination process means that local plans that take only the local perspective into account have to be tested against regional and national housing need. The examination process takes place in public, and when revisions are made it is because the evidence in favour of the need to provide land for housing wins out. It is difficult to conceive of a different system. The only possible alternative would involve the abandonment of any national or regional targets, but that would undoubtedly lead to a massive collapse in house building and a massive under-provision—

Was my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister as angry as I was to learn that, notwithstanding 23,000 people looking for affordable homes in Liverpool, the Liberal Democrats rejected a project for 60 new homes by a housing co-operative on the grounds that there was no such need in the city?

I have said how disappointed I was that Liverpool city council is not taking advantage of the central Government support that we are prepared to give to deal with some of the very serious housing problems in that city. I will continue to do what I can to assist, but it would help if the council started to play its full part and do some of the heavy lifting that it should be doing already.

Does the Secretary of State accept that if his Government go ahead and scrap the £15 excess payments of local housing allowance, all that will result is rent inflation and no savings to the public purse? Will he agree to work with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to rethink the proposal?

Recent statements by the Local Government Association have echoed the view of the Fire Brigades Union that the fire control project is now out of control and should be abandoned. Does the Secretary of State accept this? If not, why is he the only one out of sync with the people who work in the service and the people who run the service?

It is worth restating that we need a system of fire control that can operate over more than one fire and rescue service and that is able to provide efficient communications, particularly on major incidents where appliances and staff may be drawn from a variety of different fire and rescue services. The fire control project is designed to enable us to achieve that. We continue to work with the LGA on the implementation of the project, and I understand that we, and people at local level, will need to work with the FBU on the details of implementation, but the need for this type of control system, which goes beyond individual fire and rescue services, is, I believe, unanswerable.