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Communities and Local Government

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Private Rented Housing

We consulted over the summer on our response to the independent review of the private rented sector conducted by Julie Rugg. We received more than 250 responses, and I intend to publish a summary of them shortly.

May I ask the Minister about the next steps? Might they include measures to address the concern that is felt in my area and others that contain a large amount of rented private sector student accommodation?

They may include such measures. My hon. Friend will be aware that we have also consulted on proposals to strengthen local authorities’ ability to deal with houses in multiple occupation, which sometimes give rise to the concern to which she refers. She will have to be a bit patient and wait for my summary, which will be available shortly to her and to all other Members throughout the House who take an interest in the issue.

There are 8 million people in the private rented sector. At present, if a landlord’s property is repossessed, the first that such people know about it is when they come home to find that the locks have been changed. A succession of Ministers have promised to legislate. When will the Minister act? When will he take on mortgage lenders and keep his promise to tenants?

In fact there are 3 million households in the private rented sector, not 8 million, but the hon. Lady has a point. The number is rising, and last year it was up to about one in seven.

The hon. Lady is rightly concerned about the position of those who may be renting from landlords who are struggling with their mortgages, and who may not be aware that those landlords are having problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) proposes to introduce a private Member’s Bill, to which I am more than prepared to give every assistance and a fair wind because it constitutes exactly the sort of legislation that I think the hon. Lady wishes to see. I hope that, in the best tradition of private Members’ Bills, it will receive support from Members in all parts of the House.

May I suggest two measures that could be considered? First, the Government could try to persuade local authorities to become more proactive in dealing with the worst landlords, particularly through the use of discretionary licensing arrangements. Secondly, they could try to persuade institutional investors to invest for the long term in high-quality developments, and also in long-term management arrangements The properties should be built, and then there should be high-quality management.

My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and is one of the House’s experts on these matters. He is right to suggest that local authorities have an important role which could be reinforced, allowing them to take action against the worst landlords who provide the worst housing, and we are considering doing exactly that. It is one of a number of actions that we need to take to bring the general standard of the private rented sector up to scratch.

As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), in May the Government pledged at the earliest opportunity to change the law and give tenants at least two months’ notice if their landlords’ properties were being repossessed. Here we are, six months later, and nothing has happened. Why have the Government not taken advantage of an amendment to the recent Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, and why did the Queen’s Speech contain no measure to deal with the problem? Do not the Department’s own estimates show that 1,200 people will be evicted at short notice in the next year simply because the Government have failed to act? We now understand that they will have to do so via a private Member’s Bill. Is that not the opposite to “Real help now”?

The hon. Gentleman recognises that primary legislation is required. Perhaps I can take it from his question that he and his party’s Front-Bench team will support the private Member’s Bill to be presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East—and if so, I warmly welcome that.

Thurrock Council

2. What recent discussions officials in his Department have had with representatives of Thurrock council on the posts of its chief executive and senior managers; and if he will make a statement. (304598)

Officials from the Government office for the east of England discussed the appointment of a permanent chief executive and other matters with the leader and senior managers of Thurrock council on 9 November. In addition, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), will in his role as Minister with responsibility for the Thames Gateway meet the leader of the council on 9 December—tomorrow.

Since 2004, there have been two permanent chief executives and three interim chief executives of Thurrock council, at enormous cost and loss to the taxpayer, and now there is an interim treasurer and an interim head of housing. There is a culture of paying off people to go away, without any real examination of that. Is it not time that there was publication and full disclosure of these top salaries in Thurrock council and other councils, and that a kick up the backside was delivered in order to get this dysfunctional council working properly?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Audit Commission is conducting its “boomerang bosses” inquiry. I can also assure him that the Government have been taking a close interest in developments in Thurrock because of the matters he raises. We have put in a level of support through the Government office for the east of England and local government organisations, which are supporting the council and the interim chief executive. We are working closely with them to ensure that a permanent chief executive is appointed, and the Government office and the Audit Commission will continue to monitor whether more formal intervention is required.

Housing Transactions

3. How many completed transactions there have been under the (a) mortgage rescue scheme, (b) homeowners mortgage support scheme and (c) rent to homebuy scheme. (304599)

By the end of September, there had been almost 100 completions under the special mortgage rescue scheme and 1,800 rent to homebuy completions. Homeowners mortgage support scheme figures will be published later this month.

Even without the unpublished figure, which is presumably pretty bad, is this not a sad little tale? It is all hype, spin and nonsense. It is about spending taxpayers’ money to set up schemes that have benefited hardly anybody. Would the Minister care to apologise?

I am stunned. What on earth does the right hon. Gentleman say to the 100 families who are still in their own homes because of this special back-stop scheme? What does he say to the 1,000 families whose applications are in the pipeline? What does he say, too, to the 330,000 families who have had help across the range of advice from Government over the past year, which has helped them when they have been struggling with their mortgage repayments and helped them to stay in their own homes without running the risk of repossession, and which is testimony to the fact that this Government have been ready to act, unlike what happened in the 1990s? That is why repossessions are running at half the rate of the last recession.

As the housing market recovers and house prices rise, there will be a temptation for some lenders who have hitherto exercised forbearance to move to repossess properties. Will the Minister ensure that the measures that have been put in place to protect home owners are kept in place until we are completely out of the woods, in order to avoid a second spike of repossessions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our experience tells us and our forecasts say that, as the economy moves out of recession during next year, the pressure on repossessions will increase. I can do better than she urges me: we will not only look to keep the current support in place, but we will extend and strengthen it. We are extending the campaign that allows people to get access to free advice. We are toughening up the rules in court, too. Through the Financial Services Authority, we are also looking at toughening up the regulations on lenders, so that any repossession is genuinely a last resort. In this way, we can get ahead of the pressures we anticipate for next year, and try to ensure that more families are able to stay in their own home, which is where they should be, despite the pressures of recession.

The Minister spoke of the need to extend and strengthen the schemes. Specifically, will the Department be looking at monitoring the impact that unsuccessful applications have on individuals? A constituent of mine took several months to make what was eventually an unsuccessful application. As a result, their personal financial circumstances were worse, not better. Does the Minister’s Department not need to understand that impact, so that it can be sure it gets the scheme right?

The hon. Lady did not mention which scheme she was talking about. I assume that it was the mortgage rescue scheme—

She might like to know that we have almost trebled the number of housing associations that are part of the scheme. We have a fast-track team in place that takes referrals directly from lenders and we are doing exactly as she urges—we are learning from the experience of the scheme so far and improving it so that it is better at providing the support that is needed. If the hon. Lady would let me have the details of her case, I shall certainly look into it.

The Minister is giving the House a lot of figures, so can we ask for one more? How many people to date have actually bought a home through the rent to homebuy scheme?

The hon. Gentleman might not have been listening when I gave my first answer. At the end of September, the figure was more than 1,800.

We are very grateful to the Minister for that answer. Perhaps he will be able to tell us in a moment exactly how much that cost per person, given that expenditure on the scheme was £115 million.

The mortgage rescue scheme was meant to help up to 6,000 households at a cost of about £47,000 each. Since it has helped only 92 households to date, that works out at about £3 million per person helped. Is that the value for money that we can expect from tomorrow’s pre-Budget report?

I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. He was on the shadow Treasury team for a while, and perhaps we have seen why he is now on this team. He confuses expenditure with budgets. Not only have nearly 100 families stayed in their own homes because of the mortgage rescue scheme back-stop, but some 1,000 applications are in the pipeline and more than 11,000 families have had help and advice directly from their local authority that is part and parcel of the scheme. That is only part of the help that we have put in across the piece to help home owners who are struggling with their mortgages to stay where they should be—in their homes.

Sustainable Communities Act 2007

The Government are committed to implementing effectively the Sustainable Communities Act. I shall update the House later this month on how we are progressing with local spending reports. The timing of decisions on whether local proposals should be implemented will depend inevitably on the number and complexity of the proposals shortlisted.

Given that the Local Government Association is due to submit its proposals by the end of the month, can the Secretary of State not simply commit to making a final decision by the Easter recess?

We need to look at the proposals once they have been shortlisted by the LGA. As the hon. Gentleman says, they are due—this is my understanding, although it is not in my control—before the end of the year. We then need to assess the complexity and practicality of the schemes that are proposed.

“Planning for Prosperous Economies”—planning policy statement 4—has a lot to say about sustainable communities and particularly about the viability and vitality of town centres. Will the Secretary of State say what the Government are doing to reaffirm a commitment to “town centre first” policies and adopt a presumption against out-of-town developments, which seem to be creeping back in, and whether there has been a definition of what is meant by “town centres”?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know that some years ago the Government introduced the planning guidance to which he refers with the intention of protecting town centres. Further development of that guidance is under discussion, as he will know, but I assure him that we remain as committed as we ever have been to the effective protection of town centres from unplanned and badly planned out-of-town shopping developments.

Yesterday, the Government published a Command Paper, “Smarter Government”, in which the Prime Minister himself claimed to “put the frontline first” by allowing flexibility in local spending, yet nowhere in all 68 pages is there a single mention of local spending reports. Is it the Department for Communities and Local Government or, once again, the Treasury that has no interest in supporting this flagship policy of the Sustainable Communities Act?

The hon. Lady perhaps has not grasped the fact that the proposals for making data publicly available set out in the White Paper published yesterday are far more extensive and ambitious than those discussed when local spending reports were proposed. I made these points in a debate in the House just a few weeks ago. At that time I promised that, as we developed the work being led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and his panel of experts on making local data widely available, we would not drop our commitment to developing local spending reports in the interim. That is why I shall bring forward our proposals setting out where we will go next on local spending reports, as I promised, before the end of the year.

There are of course only five sitting days left before the Christmas recess, but we look forward to receiving that information. There might have been no reference to local spending reports in the document, but there was a clear reference to arm’s length bodies costing the taxpayer a massive £18 billion a year. What about asking those 750 quangos to reveal in local spending reports how much they spend, or would the Minister prefer taxpayers to be kept in the dark about how much money is wasted on central bureaucracy?

We have debated this point before. The hon. Lady regards the doubling of spending by the quango known as the Higher Education Funding Council as a waste of money, but I do not. I believe that it is represented by a significant investment in universities and by opportunities for young people and older people. It is right that we want to bear down on costs and on salaries that are too high. In our previous debate on this issue, I undertook to bring forward another report on local spending reports, because I took the point that it would be useful for local spending reports to give access to available data from organisations such as the funding council and the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Lady is quite wrong to say that every penny that is spent by an organisation that funds our universities is wasted money, but she keeps saying that.

Regeneration (Liverpool)

Her Majesty’s Government recognise the importance of regeneration in north Liverpool. There has been significant investment in the area, including £34 million of housing market renewal funding, £40 million to support business and create jobs, £18.4 million of European regional development funding, and £8.6 million through the future jobs fund, creating 1,320 jobs. I am also pleased that the £5.5 billion Liverpool Waters plan is moving forward, as is the £150 million Project Jennifer redevelopment of Great Homer street. We will continue to support the regeneration of north Liverpool.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, although I barely recognise the picture that he paints. May I invite him to visit my constituency to see for himself the result of 10 years of malign neglect under Liberal Democrat council control? While he is there, will he advise us on how Everton and Liverpool football clubs could be used to lever in the kind of regeneration funding that is still desperately needed, notwithstanding the roll of honour that he has just related?

I assure my hon. Friend that the investments that I have described either are or have been taking place or are anticipated in the future. I shall welcome the opportunity, if it arises, to go to his constituency; I always welcome an opportunity to inspect the malign neglect of Liberal Democrat councils.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has just made clear, the regeneration of north Liverpool is intricately linked to the regeneration of Kirkby. Will my right hon. Friend welcome the efforts that are being made by Knowsley council, Tesco, the Government office for the north-west, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the Minister for the North West, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), to put together a modified application for the regeneration of Kirkby, which I hope will be presented to my right hon. Friend in due course?

I pay tribute to the efforts that my right hon. Friend has consistently made to support his constituency and regeneration. My decision on that planning application was taken on the basis of planning guidance, planning law and the conclusions of the inspector’s report. However, I am very pleased that, following discussions with me, the Regional Minister and others are engaging with the council and others to see what is the best way forward for the regeneration of Kirkby.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

Since the introduction of the licensing provisions for houses in multiple occupation, councils in England have received applications for about 30,000 HMOs, and have issued licences for about 20,000.

I thank the Minister for his response. Last year, I asked Denbighshire county council how many HMOs it had licensed in a three-year period. The answer was just 33. After pressure, it has agreed to apply for additional and selective licensing, and next year it will start on licensing 433, taking the council from the worst to the best in the country. What lessons has the Minister learned from the Welsh experience in increasing the number of HMOs that are licensed?

The whole House will have heard my hon. Friend and learned the lesson that local authorities that are prepared to tackle the worst landlords in their area, and to build up concentrations of HMOs that change its nature and character, are able to put in place additional licensing schemes. I am glad to hear about the successful campaign that he has run to persuade his council in that regard. That is precisely the way ahead, as we want councils to make maximum use of the provisions that are in place at present.

Landlord licensing is one solution, but the use classes order is far more significant in many areas with concentrations of HMOs. Will the Minister give me an update on the progress of the Government’s examination of that? Does he agree that restrictions on the number of HMOs in such areas will increase the balance of the community and be in the interests of all?

Indeed, and that is why our general policy is to promote mixed communities, as they tend to be better balanced and more stable. The hon. Gentleman asked for an update on our examination of whether changes to the use classes might help us pursue our objectives. At present, we are sifting the 900 or so responses that we have received to the consultation, and I hope to be able to update the House on this shortly.

Gas Storage Facilities (Planning)

7. What guidance his Department issues on the permitted distance between high-rise developments to gas storage facilities. (304603)

Government circular 04/00, “Planning Controls For Hazardous Substances”, provides that the Health and Safety Executive must be consulted on any proposed development near hazardous substances installations such as gasholders and that, in view of its acknowledged expertise, any advice from the HSE that planning permission should be refused should not be overridden without the most careful consideration.

Is my hon. Friend aware that planning permission was granted in Wandsworth for a 42-storey tower only 18 metres from a gasholder? That was against the HSE’s advice, which said that the risk from a fireball was “unacceptable” and 17 times higher than the level at which it would normally advise against. Is it not a matter of concern that planning committees have the power to disregard HSE advice even when it is expressed so strongly, and that it is so often left to public inquiries to assess the real risk to the public?

We are working closely with the HSE to ensure that local planning authorities are fully informed about the advice available to assess risk around major hazards, and to make that advice more accessible. I cannot comment on the specific planning application that my hon. Friend has raised, but an inquiry into the development of the Ram brewery site in Wandsworth is currently under way. The inspector will submit his report and the Secretary of State will determine the application as soon he reasonably can.

I well understand the concern of the residents represented by the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), but what does the Minister have to say about the fact that we in Britain have only 15 days’ strategic gas storage? That compares to 92 days in Germany and more than that in France. Elsewhere across the world we have large quantities of gas. What is Britain going to do to stimulate investment in gas storage, taking into account the concerns of residents such as those that have been raised?

That is probably a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is written to. However, the question that he ought to be asking his Front Benchers is why the Conservative party continues to refuse planning applications for wind turbines.

FiReControl Project

At the start of this debacle in March 2004 we were told that tried and tested methods would be used for IT, and that the project would be done and dusted by November 2007. There has been a little bit of slippage on the time scale, but is the Minister serious and does he stand by the words of his predecessors? Was the IT really tried and tested, because that clearly does not seem to be the case?

The case for FiReControl is absolutely compelling—[Hon. Members: “No, it is not!”] It is interesting, because I met representatives of the Chief Fire Officers Association only last week, which is as committed to FiReControl as ever. The idea that the Opposition are better placed to talk about national resilience in the context of the fire service than the CFOA is frankly laughable. FiReControl will improve national resilience and bring unprecedented levels of co-operation and interoperability—[Interruption.] That is a difficult word as well. For the first time, we shall have a national network with nine regional control centres, all of which will be able to operate at peak times in a way that we have never seen before.

Given the vast over-cost and the considerable delay, does the Minister believe that taxpayers are seeing value for money?

We would not have engaged in the project if we did not believe that it was value for money. All the major stakeholders believe that it is value for money. Sometimes I think that the Conservatives seem to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The set-up costs of the FiReControl project are already £400 million over budget, the project is years behind schedule and the Local Government Association and the Chief Fire Officers Association—previous supporters of the Government on the project—are bailing out. In his written statement of 15 July, the Minister promised to underwrite all pre-cutover upfront costs of the project. Is he still in a position to meet that undertaking?

We are fully committed to ensuring that FiReControl is achieved as set out. The idea that there is a £400 million overspend is so far off the mark that it is frightening. The reality is that when rescheduling took place in July this year the cost went up from £380 million to £420 million. Those costs will all be reaped back from EADS via royalties and a reduced fee for FiReControl operations.

Public Service Delivery

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of local authorities in delivery of local public services. (304605)

Local government has improved significantly during the past decade. It plays a key role in local areas, ensuring that citizens receive high-quality public services from all local providers. In yesterday’s White Paper we announced increases in flexibility and reductions in bureaucracy, which will help fulfil that role more effectively. Tomorrow, we will see the first comprehensive area assessment results, which will provide transparent information, enabling citizens to hold local service providers to account.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he agree that in localities such as the Barnsley metropolitan borough council area the regional development agency plays a very important part in ensuring that the effectiveness of local authority services is improved, by being able to focus on the wider issues of transport and employment to help in creating the jobs that Barnsley needs so much?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly the role that regional development agencies play. In many other ways, they support growth and the improvement of public services, which is why the CBI, the House Builders Federation and many others are so appalled at Conservative proposals to abolish regional development agencies and the essential role they play.

Is the Secretary of State not completely right to say that local authorities have improved enormously over the past few years, because most of them are now Tory-controlled?

The reason why local authority services have improved is that real spending and real investment by central Government in local authorities has improved by 37 per cent. over the past 10 years. That is a sharp contrast with the 7 per cent. real-terms reduction when the Conservatives were last in power. Local government has improved because for the first time there has been comprehensive and effective inspection and accountability of those services, and I am proud of the role that this Government have played with local councils of all parties in improving the quality of services to local people.

Council Housing

10. How many local authorities (a) submitted successful bids in round 1 and (b) have submitted bids in round 2 of the Government's council housing new build programme. (304606)

Forty-nine local authorities were successful in bidding for grant to build new council homes. All are set to start on site, with 217 schemes, before the end of March, which makes it the largest council house building programme for nearly two decades. The deadline for round 2 submissions was the end of October, and I hope to make announcements on successful bidders early in the new year.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent work in making resources available for council house building? However, he will be aware of speculation about the demand for those resources, so will he consider making a statement to support new bids for council housing where the demand for resources outstrips what has been allocated so far?

My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about those matters, is right. The level of interest and the number of bids that we have had for the second round of the council house building programme has certainly been greater than that which we received for the first. When I announced the £1.5 billion of extra funding in the housing pledge, I made it clear that the four elements of that pledge, and the budgets allocated against them back in the summer, included the capacity to flex some of that spend between those parts of the programme, and I am certainly ready to do so if there is a good case.

This Labour Government have let down the poor in so many ways, but I shall not mention spiralling youth unemployment, falling educational standards or, indeed, failing public health. Instead, I want to ask why this Labour Government have built fewer affordable houses than were built in any year of the previous Conservative Administration. Why is that? Why have this Government let down the poor on housing?

May I say that this Labour Minister in this Labour Government is pleased to have been able to offer the hon. Gentleman’s Tory council money to build council homes, which are needed in the East Riding of Yorkshire just as they are throughout the rest of the country.

When the Mayor of London published his draft housing strategy, he tore up the commitment to make 50 per cent. of all new homes affordable, saying that his target of producing units would help us to deliver more affordable housing. Given that this week it has been announced that he will miss that target, too, will my right hon. Friend have urgent discussions about how we can deliver the much-needed homes to tackle overcrowding and homelessness in London?

The jury is very much out on Mayor Johnson and the pledges he made more than 18 months ago. In housing, more than any other area, there is a big shortfall if we compare what he promised in the run-up to his election with what he has been able to deliver so far to meet the very serious housing needs that exist throughout the capital.

Home Information Packs

11. What assessment he has made of the effect of home information packs on the housing market since their introduction. (304607)

We are currently working up proposals to evaluate the effectiveness of the HIPs programme, and we expect the results to be available in 2010. However, early independent research undertaken by Europe Economics and published in November 2007 concluded that the introduction of HIPs would not have a negative impact on the housing market.

Let me add my voice to the research, because all my constituents tell me that they find the HIPs to be—[Hon. Members: “All?”] Those constituents who raised the matter with me tell me that they find HIPs to be untimely, expensive, bureaucratic and, really, a waste of time. They quite like the energy performance certificates, so will the Government realise the error of their ways, realise what a waste of time—time, effort and money—the process has been, and scrap it?

The hon. Gentleman does not need to ask ludicrous questions like that to confirm to the House that he is not exactly the sharpest tool in the box. [Interruption.] However, thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process. Some 13,000 people—[Interruption.]

Order. I realise that there is some enjoyable badinage, but I actually want to get down the Order Paper and reach some questioners lower down. I know that Members will want to take that into account—rudeness notwithstanding.

Thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process. Some 13,000 people have invested thousands in training as energy assessors, so the Opposition need to explain why they would put all those jobs and all those businesses at risk, and the hon. Gentleman needs to explain to all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on that process why he wants to put them out of work.

Does the Minister not realise that most house purchasers would far rather rely on searches and inquiries carried out on their behalf by a solicitor of their choice than by a home information pack provider, of whom they know nothing?

The Leader of the Opposition swans off to the Arctic to hang around with huskies, but the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition are showing today why nobody will take seriously anything they say about climate change. As a result of HIPs, 2 million home owners now have an energy assessment and energy recommendations that can help them to cut their fuel bills by up to £300 and reduce carbon emissions. Is it not extraordinary that even today, as the world gathers in Copenhagen, the Opposition are still committed to abolishing the HIP, which is one of the main ways of helping home owners to cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change?

Local Housing Development

13. What recent representations he has received from district councils on the effect of planning policy statement 25 on local housing development. (304609)

No recent representations of this nature have been received by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The tragic events of the past few weeks underline the importance of reducing flood risk to new development. Planning policy statement 25 provides a robust policy framework for local planning authorities to avoid, manage and reduce flood risk to new development, as endorsed by Sir Michael Pitt in his review of the lessons learned from the 2007 floods published last year.

Is the Minister aware that the Somerset levels are low-lying and very prone to flooding, both from the sea and from river water? Why, therefore, have the Government placed almost the whole of my constituency in flood zone 3, which will prevent almost all development, including housing development, while failing to provide funding or means for flood relief? Does the dull instrument on the Treasury Bench—

This is a very important issue. That is why we have produced a clear, strengthened planning policy statement, PPS25, to reduce flood risk to new development and to deliver safely, without exposing people to unnecessary flood risk, the level of house building we want to see. I am not aware of the particular circumstances in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I would be happy to meet him to discuss that in more detail.

House Building Targets

14. What account the Government took of the economic situation in setting their targets for house building. (304610)

There has long been a mismatch between the supply and building of new homes and the demand for those homes. That mismatch led the Government to consider and set the house building targets in the first place. Clearly, the situation has got worse as a result of the global economic downturn, with the demand and need for housing continuing to grow and, particularly in the private sector, the level of building falling through the floor. That is why we stepped in over the summer to put extra money—£1.5 billion—into building the homes we need right across the country.

But surely the economic crisis and the subsequent fall in net immigration that we saw as a consequence has caused a reduction in forecast demand for new housing need. Can the Minister therefore now reduce the target for new housing need so that we can increase the protection of our green belt, which is most important to our constituents?

I said a moment ago that there was a long-term mismatch between the houses we are building and the demand and need for them. Taken over the long term, that continues. Migration is cyclical. It is a relatively small part, but a part nevertheless, of the projections of the need for housing in future. A bigger factor is demographic change in our own country, with the number of households increasing, people growing older and living for longer, and the need for greater mobility within Britain. We are trying to ensure that we can build the homes to meet those factors in future.

My right hon. Friend is right—there is a mismatch. The mismatch in Chorley is between lots of house building but no social housing; the council collects section 106 money for social housing but never spends it. What is he going to do to ensure that social housing is provided in the Chorley constituency?

I am disappointed to hear my hon. Friend’s report about his local council and the attitude it is taking towards affordable housing. I have to say that this is not the first time I have been disappointed to hear his reports about Chorley borough council. There is a great deal more that it can and should do to ensure that the affordable homes needed in his constituency are provided. It can play a much greater role in that, and I hope he will not cease in his campaign to try to ensure that it does so.

Flood Risk (Planning)

15. If he will require local planning authorities to act on objections by the Environment Agency to planning applications on the grounds of the risk of flooding. (304611)

Again, the terrible events of the past few weeks underline the importance of these issues. Our planning policy requires local planning authorities to re-consult the Environment Agency where the agency objects to a planning application on flood risk grounds. This is backed by a direction requiring planning authorities to provide the Secretary of State with the opportunity to intervene where the agency sustains an objection to major development proposals.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. I recently read a briefing which said that about a quarter of local authorities were ignoring Environment Agency recommendations against developments in areas prone to flooding. Does that cause him some concern?

This issue will concern many members of the public, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise it. We have made the Environment Agency a statutory consultee on planning applications in areas at risk of flooding. The figures I have suggest that in about 97 per cent. of cases in which the agency objects on flood risk grounds, the final decision is in line with its advice. I know how seriously he takes these matters, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss in more detail the figures that he has.

Will the Minister go further and join in our calls to make water companies statutory consultees as well, to ensure that where there are major new developments, sewage can fit into waste water pipes to prevent future flooding?

I have not considered that issue, but I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and talk about it in more detail.

Business Rates (Public Houses)

16. If he will conduct an impact assessment on the effect on public houses and other businesses of the 2010 business rates revaluation. (304612)

Regular revaluations are a statutory part of the business rates system and as such do not require impact assessments. However, we have carefully considered the impact of the 2010 revaluation on businesses, including public houses, and are introducing a £2 billion transitional relief scheme for the minority facing increases. An impact assessment of that scheme has been conducted and was published on 17 November. From 1 April, we will also offer extra help to individual public houses in rural areas by increasing their rateable value relief threshold from £10,500 to £12,500.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she not agree that it is irresponsible not to conduct a full impact assessment on such policies, especially in the case in question? The distortions that accrue from using April 2008 property figures may bake property boom prices into business rates for pubs in urban areas and businesses next door to them.

The hon. Lady is quite correct to point out that the system contains problems, as it values properties backwards so that the 2008 values are reflected in the 2010 figures. That is exactly why the multiplier is set at a 17-year low of 15 per cent., and why we have implemented a transitional rate relief scheme this year and had an impact assessment.

Topical Questions

I want to ensure that councils are performing as efficiently as possible and making the best possible use of every pound of council tax. I am pleased to be able to confirm today that councils have forecast efficiency savings of more than £3 billion by March 2010, making good progress towards the target of £5.5 billion by March 2011. “Smarter Government”, published yesterday, sets out how Government will support councils in continuing to deliver improved services with improved value for money.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Many people in communities such as Southwark and Bermondsey live near major developments from which they get no necessary personal gain. Will he look sympathetically on the proposal to allow development gain money, traditionally called section 106 money, to be used to build or renovate housing for rent in the area affected?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. He will be aware that we are already committed to the development of a more flexible and strategic approach to development gain. We will introduce the community infrastructure levy to supplement and replace section 106, which will give local authorities greater flexibility in the use of development gain money.

T5. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to reduce carbon emissions in the existing housing stock, particularly in houses such as those in my constituency in which there is no possibility of cavity wall insulation? (304627)

My hon. Friend is quite right to say, particularly in this week as we build up to the Copenhagen international conference on climate change, that we need to do a great deal more with our homes in future. More than a quarter of our total emissions in this country come from our homes, which requires us to design, build and plan to a new standard in future—I have set out in some detail the plans from 2016 on—and to undertake a national refurb programme, the details of which I and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Energy and Climate Change are currently working on following the heat and energy saving strategy, which we published earlier in the year.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to protect agricultural land for future food use? If so, what steps will he take to prevent allotments being included in local authority development plans? (304624)

I think the hon. Lady would agree with me that local authorities need to be able to draw up appropriate development plans for their areas. I am not sure whether she is suggesting that we should specifically limit the way in which they approach these issues, but we are working with third-sector organisations in this area to promote the importance of allotments and to encourage local authorities to make allotment land available. I share with her the view that adequate provision of allotments is a very beneficial thing for local authorities to include in their local planning.

T6. The market in the historic market town of Chorley is under threat from a new Asda being built in the town centre. I welcome the Asda jobs, but I am concerned that this will have a dire effect on the market and the small independent retailers. What help and support can this Government give to ensure that markets will survive, along with the independent shops? (304628)

I know my hon. Friend has a historic market in his constituency—I think it dates back to the 15th century. It is not quite as old as Doncaster market, but it is still a very valuable one. Under the draft planning guidance—planning policy statement 4—it is possible for local authorities to look very closely at the effect that, for example, an out-of-town development would have on the market. Such effects could include social and economic effects, and perhaps consumer choice would be reduced. That, plus the ability to look much more closely, under the economic assessment duty that is being introduced, at what can be done to assist local markets better are new powers that are being given to local authorities. We also have a retail markets group, which I chair, which will be reporting to Ministers with more ideas as to what we can do.

T3. Following my earlier question, the Housing Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) by saying that 1,800 homes had been purchased through the rent-to-homebuy scheme. That seems at variance with the written answer the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) on 16 October, when he said that the number was zero. Has the Minister inadvertently misled the House and would he perhaps like to put the record straight? (304625)

I do not believe so. The right hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends on the Front Bench indicated their question on that matter earlier. If the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, he will see that in response to his original question, I said that up to the end of September, about 1,800 rent-to-homebuys had been completed—I did not use the word “purchased”. However, I have indicated to Conservative Front Benchers that I will check the record, particularly in relation to the second exchange between myself and the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). If I made a mistake the second time around, I shall clearly correct it, but if the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, I think he will find what I have explained now, and I am grateful to him for the opportunity to do so.

T8. The most recent homelessness statistic published by the Department for Communities and Local Government shows a continued fall in the number of acceptances as homeless by local authorities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Is he aware that in the case of approximately half the homelessness diversions in the private rented sector, we are substituting affordable social housing for astronomical rents in the private rented sector? Will he continue urgent discussions with the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to make it clear that that is not actually a sustainable and efficient use of money over the longer term? (304630)

Indeed I will; my hon. Friend has been very forceful in making that point to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so we will certainly do so.

T4. In answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), did the Minister say that the transitional rate relief will cover in full the increases proposed over the next five years, or does she finally accept that the increases will be unbearable for many businesses? (304626)

I certainly accept that it will not cover all of them, but in most cases it will cover a percentage of the increases. Also, under the business rates deferral scheme, businesses will be able to extend their payments over a period of three years.

T9. Further to the earlier answer given to me about the planning of town centre developments, the handling of much needed major commercial proposals for the heart of Coalville by Tory North-West Leicestershire district council has been an utter fiasco. Will the Minister press the Government office for the east midlands to respond to my urgent request for a call-in, because to describe the present position as a dog’s breakfast would be a grossly unfair slur on canine eating habits? (304631)

I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes. Obviously, call-in proposals are considered by Ministers on the basis of the case that is made, but he has made his views very clear this afternoon.

Does the Minister not understand that the transitional relief scheme will not mitigate the huge business rate hike for businesses in my high street, which face an increase of 120 per cent. in their liability? Is this not the wrong time to push through a revaluation based on 2008 inflated prices, when many of my businesses are struggling to cope in the recession?

May I suggest to hon. Members whose businesses are rightly concerned about business rate increases—there are increases, although the majority of businesses will see a decrease as a result of the 2010 revaluation—that they go on to the Business Link and the Valuation Office Agency websites and make the calculation, because there is a cap on the increases? For small businesses, the cap is 5 per cent. and on large businesses it is 12.5 per cent. If we take into account negative inflation, that drops to 3.5 per cent. and 11 per cent. I am very sorry that businesses are getting so concerned about this when measures are in place to help them with it.

What measures are the Department taking to protect council tax payers against botched asset sales such as those we saw under the previous Government, and which Plymouth city council has now embarked on with its sale of Plymouth CityBus? The figures appear not to stack up.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course the Government do not oppose asset sales per se, but they have to be carried out properly, in the public interest and with the values properly established to ensure that the council tax payer does not lose out. I hope that her council is not like Southampton council, whose leader said a few months ago that the council would privatise for ideological reasons. That is not the way to approach such an important issue.

In light of the economic downturn and the reduction in new homes being built, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of models such as the Milton Keynes tariff in delivering development for local communities?

We looked at this very carefully when we were considering proposals that were part of the Planning Act 2008 and the community infrastructure levy. Shortly, I will be able to set out final decisions and regulations to put that levy in place from 1 April. While the hon. Gentleman is right about the fall-off in building new homes for private sale, he is wrong about the reduction in building for affordable homes. Because of the action the Government have taken, that number is up.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 made tens of millions of pounds in additional, unhypothecated funding available to the Department for Communities and Local Government for electoral registration. Can the Minister guarantee that all the money given to the Department for electoral registration was spent on that, and can he liaise with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that proper funding is available for that purpose?

A certain amount of money is given to the Electoral Commission to look at electoral registration, and that is closely monitored. On discussions with the Ministry of Justice, I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s comments and get back to him.

May I take the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), back to home improvement packs? Will he put his undoubted, enormous intellectual talent, of which you will be aware, Mr. Speaker, to answering a simple question, without resorting to his trademark personal abuse? What proportion of home buyers and sellers, when surveyed, responded that they found the HIP useful?

The hon. Gentleman spent half an hour dreaming up that question, which confirms the point that I made about him earlier. The figures to which he refers actually show that already, in such a short period, nine out of 10 buyers are using the HIPs and one out of three said that it had helped them to decide whether to make an offer. [Interruption.] That is a massive improvement on the figures shortly after the HIPs introduction—[Interruption.]

Order. I feel sure that the outbreak of disorder on the one hand, and the presence of the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on the other, are entirely unrelated.

Those figures are a big improvement on the position shortly after the HIPs introduction and show that the system is becoming more helpful to home buyers all the time.