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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 504: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2010

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Business Rate Revaluation

1. Which types of business he expects to experience the highest increase in rateable values as a result of the April 2010 business rate revaluation. (312948)

Business rates revaluation is carried out by the Valuation Office Agency, which is independent of Ministers. It will not raise a single extra penny for Government. Oil and gas producing properties, power generators and major sports clubs that have improved their trading position or invested significantly in their grounds are expected to see the largest increases in average rateable values. When the occupier of a property is a charity—for example, in the case of lifeboat stations—and might also see large increases, that occupier is protected by a mandatory 80 per cent. relief from business rates on any property that is occupied for charitable purposes. Local authorities may increase that relief to 100 per cent.

Local business know best how to create local growth, yet pubs and independent petrol stations in my constituency feel that RV rules are rigid, out of date and wrong. Does the Secretary of State not agree with the Labour Local Government Association group that business rates should be localised?

The hon. Lady raises questions about how valuations are carried out. I would be very interested to learn from her or from the Opposition whether they agree with me that having a valuation office that takes decisions on rateable values independent of Ministers or local councillors is the better way to do it. I would certainly resist any proposals that the rateable values of businesses in her constituency or mine be set at the whim of local councillors.

Independent petrol station retailers in my constituency are also facing huge increases in their business rates from 1 April. Although I agree with the need for an independent valuer, there appears to be no right of appeal against these revaluations until they are put in place from 1 April. Will my right hon. Friend look at that again and provide some form of redress for these retailers?

There is a right of appeal. What is more, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the £2 billion transitional scheme that has been put in place. It is always the case, every five years, that the independent revaluation of business rates produces winners and losers. That is why we have a transitional relief scheme that means that the impact on rates bills can be no more than 11 per cent. next year and just 3.5 per cent. for small businesses. There is protection alongside the ability to appeal that my hon. Friend seeks.

The Secretary of State faces a very clear choice over the 2010 revaluation: he can either ditch it and allow all business properties to enjoy a small inflation-based decrease in property rates or push ahead with it, which will mean that four out of 10 business properties will see a rates rise. Many of those properties will belong to companies that struggled to survive the recession. What is more important and what is fairer—sticking with the revaluation or supporting these companies?

I am surprised if that is the position of those on the Opposition Front Bench—the hon. Lady is proposing to impose a rates increase on the 60 per cent. of businesses in this country that are set to have a rates reduction. I think that that policy should be much more widely known. Those businesses that expect to see their rates bills fall and to be helped in a recession will be amazed to find that the Opposition are proposing a rates increase.

Will the Secretary of State consider the position of the composting industry? Higher environmental standards have meant more indoor composting and therefore more buildings. Is there not a case for switching the valuation to one that is similar to the system for landfill sites, whereby valuation is based on tonnage rather than property?

I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but I repeat to the House the point that I made earlier. There is a real choice for the House as a whole: either the Valuation Office Agency acts independently of Ministers—there is considerable case law over 100 years for how rateable values are to be established—or we move to a system whereby, with respect, the relatively micro-level choices that my hon. Friend sets out become decisions for Ministers. I think we would be worse off if the system of determining rateable values were handed to political ministerial control. With all the ups and downs of it and all the problems that arise with every revaluation, we are better off with an independent system than we would be if we brought the system under ministerial control.

Garden Development

2. What representations he has received from local authorities on the outcome of his Department's review of garden and infill development; and if he will make a statement. (312949)

8. What recent discussions he has had with local authority representatives on steps to reduce the level of infill development of gardens. (312955)

The Government have received no representations to date from local authorities on the outcomes of the review that I announced on 19 January.

Does the Minister accept that many local councils feel that planning policy statement 3 is just not working when it comes to garden grabbing? Is he aware that councils such as Lichfield find that the city is changing shape simply by virtue of the fact that lovely open areas and big gardens are being redeveloped? What changes can he make to PPS3 to stop this unhelpful practice?

I do not accept that and, more importantly, the independent research from Kingston university that I published on Tuesday last week did not accept it. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the report, because it confirms that the problem is not widespread or national, and that local authorities already have the power to take steps to prevent development on garden land, if they choose. They are also able to reinforce their position if the matter goes to appeal.

For some months now, I have been working with Susan Fox from Longton in my constituency who has been campaigning against inappropriate developments in gardens and infill plots in her village. I have always told her that it is up to the Tory council in South Ribble to determine what happens, and she was planning to ask me to present a petition to Parliament. May I ask my right hon. Friend to restate the fact that the Tories on South Ribble council could, if they got their act together, put in place a planning policy to deal with the issue? There is no reason to blame the Government.

Indeed, and my hon. Friend may want to send the council copies of my statement to the House last Tuesday and of the Kingston university report. He may also want to draw attention to the fact that I have made it clearer in PPS3 that there is no presumption that previously developed land such as garden land will be appropriate for development. It therefore rests with local authorities to put in place a proper local plan that can cover concerns about garden land. It is for them to make the decisions, and to protect people against unwelcome development.

Infill is a problem, but so too is the situation in which a builder buys three or four houses with large gardens and replaces them with 30 to 40 flats, as has happened in Bassett in the Southampton part of my constituency. Local development plans have no influence, especially when it comes to appeals, so what can the Government do to protect areas against having their character ruined?

The hon. Lady is wrong on two counts. The independent research by the university confirms that, in four out of five cases, the planning inspectorate backs the local authority on appeal. It also says that local authorities are in a stronger position if they have in place their own local plan covering garden land. If the developer has gone ahead in the way that she describes, that is because the council has not put in place what it could and should have put in place.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a degree of bullying going on in areas such as the Bradford district? A person buys a detached house with a very large and sometimes beautiful garden but the neighbours object at the planning stage and so permission is refused. The owner of the house then allows it to go to wrack and ruin—I know two houses that are in a deplorable state—in the hope that the neighbours will then beg the local authority to give planning permission for the development to get rid of the eyesore that they have had wished on them.

The problem that my hon. Friend describes is slightly different from the one we studied in the research report. Local authorities have some fall-back powers to deal with extreme cases of the sort that she has described. If she would like me to, I shall write to her with details of those powers.

The Minister is simply in denial about how his policies give a green light for garden grabbing. Does he agree with the assertion that

“national planning policy guidance has made it difficult to resist development proposals on garden land, even where there is a detrimental impact on local character, and that this imbalance needs to be rectified”?

They are not my words, but those of the Secretary of State’s own council.

I know that the hon. Lady and some of her hon. Friends have pressed this case very hard over the past couple of years, but the research and the facts do not bear out her assertion or her concerns. This is a problem in some areas, but they are clearly in the minority. It is also clear, as the report confirms, that councils have the powers to deal with such matters where they present a problem for neighbours and are unwelcome in the local area.

Why cannot Ministers just admit that the blight of garden grabbing is the fault of this Labour Government? The Government, not councils, made gardens count as brown field for planning purposes. Is it not time for change—time councils had proper powers to protect neighbourhoods from inappropriate developments?

The hon. Lady is wrong again. The definition she takes issue with was set in 1985 and has not been changed since. It was reconfirmed in one of the Conservative Government’s Green Papers and in planning guidance in 1988, and again in 1992. That is not the problem.

The problem, I am afraid to say, is councils that have the powers but will not accept the responsibility of taking the decisions to protect local people and defending those decisions on appeal. If they had proper local plans in place, their hand would be strengthened in doing so. The hon. Lady would do better to address her concerns to her own councils, which are falling far short of what local residents expect of them.

There are a lot of crocodile tears from the Opposition about garden grabbing. May I give my right hon. Friend the facts on Chorley? In Lancaster lane, Whittle and Shaw Hill, garden grabbing has taken place. The first thing the Conservative council did when it was elected was lift the moratorium that gave protection in relation to all house building in the Chorley area. Does he not agree that it was duplicitous and wrong of the council to blame the Government, for it was the council itself that lifted the moratorium on house building?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that illustrates precisely the general point that I am making: it is in the hands of local councils to decide local priorities, make local decisions and, in his case, demonstrate the difference in approach between a Labour and a Conservative local council in Chorley.

New Build (Migrants)

3. If he will estimate the proportion of houses to be built in the next five years which will be occupied by migrants. (312950)

We have no policy on the allocation of market housing, nor would that be appropriate. Foreign nationals who are eligible to apply for an allocation of social housing will have their housing needs considered against those of all other eligible applicants in accordance with the local housing authority’s allocation scheme.

I am not sure whether the Minister answered the question I asked, but may I push it further? The House of Commons Library tells me that 30 per cent. of new houses will be occupied by migrants coming into this country. Does he agree that if the next Conservative Government limited immigration to this country each year, there would be less need for houses and less need for overdevelopment?

It is important that I make it clear, as it would be unfortunate to introduce race to the debate, which perhaps ought not to be introduced, that the overwhelming majority of household growth in this country over the next five years will be indigenously fuelled by increased fertility, increased life expectancy and more people than ever living alone.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing for coming to York at the weekend, and also the Government for providing funding for new council housing in York. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that their money for housing projects—whether for private developers or for housing associations or councils—provides apprenticeships in the local area in the building trades?

It is crucial that every development has some apprenticeships attached to it. As Thames Gateway Minister, that is something I have encouraged. I am incredibly proud of the fact that we have invested £2 billion in housing growth, which will lead to many apprenticeships. There is £1.5 billion extra funding to councils and housing associations, which will build some 15,500 new affordable homes, with all the apprenticeships that will go alongside them.

Interfaith Projects

4. What funds his Department has allocated to interfaith projects in the last five years; and if he will make a statement. (312951)

Between 2004-05 and 2007-08, my Department granted more than £5 million to interfaith projects through the faith communities capacity building fund. In 2008, under the stewardship of my hon. Friend when he was Under-Secretary of State, we published “Face to Face and Side by Side”. Developed with faith communities, the document set out for the first time a national strategic framework for promoting interfaith activity, supported by some £7.5 million.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s reply. Does he agree that although the fund for preventing violent extremism has over three years been about £70 million, the overall faith pot has been about £15 million? Some of the best anti-radicalisation projects are also interfaith projects. Does he agree that this might be a good time to move some of that PVE funding and use it for more interfaith projects, which does not stigmatise any community?

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. A few months ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that another £7.5 million would be put out there to ensure a multi-faith approach to implementing the Prevent strategy. Projects that are PVE-focused do not have to go down the community cohesion route. It is pretty obvious that they ought to go down the Prevent route.

Freedom of religion is one of the pillars of our liberal democracy and society. Does the Minister share my concern about those people—a small minority in the Islamic faith—who condemn as apostates those who leave the Islamic faith, and threaten violence and physical retribution for their doing so?

That is the kind of question that does not require a response. Everybody in the House would agree with that 100 per cent. Hatred of any sort ought not to be tolerated, and anything that moves to the physical would be illegal as well.

Affordable Housing (London)

The Mayor of London and the London boroughs are required to assess demand for affordable housing in London. The Mayor’s own figures show that about 18,200 new affordable homes are needed each year. I regret to say that his current plan proposes to build 5,000 fewer than that each year.

As my right hon. Friend implies, demand for affordable homes to rent and buy hugely outstrips the level of provision in the Mayor’s housing plan. Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that Boris Johnson has lifted the salary below which priority is given to people pitching for shared ownership schemes to roughly the equivalent of that of a Member of Parliament?

I do. When almost two thirds of London households have a total income of less than £30,000 a year, and when we are ready, as we are, to help those people who otherwise could not get into the housing market for themselves, it seems strange to want to lift to that limit and spread the Government help more thinly. I see that as clearly the wrong priority for London and the wrong priority for Londoners.

Has the Minister had time to see the powerful report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which calls for an assessment to be made by the Government of the impact of immigration on affordable housing and other housing, given the great pressure on demand? Has the right hon. Gentleman made such an assessment?

I recognise and pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman does on these issues, which I know he follows closely. The short answer to his question is no, I have not studied that report. I would be interested to know whether the Lords Committee studied the changes that I made recently to the policy under which councils allocate council and housing association homes, because that makes it clear that migrants are not entitled to be on waiting lists in general, and it has given local authorities more leeway to allocate homes according to local pressures.

Can my right hon. Friend explain to me why, when the wealthy and powerful suggest things like raising rents to market levels for council and housing association tenants, or taking away their secure tenancies, it is not seen as class war? Does it not amount to a loathing of council and housing association tenants on the part of the Tory party?

Such discussions and plans demonstrate a lack of commitment to affordable housing to meet the needs of people who, in many cases, otherwise would not be able to afford to bring up their family and live in the private rented sector and never would be able to afford or maybe do not aspire to move into the housing market for themselves. The truth is that public housing in this country plays a critical role in the lives of many millions of people, including 8 million current tenants, and any plans to raise rents or reduce the security that they have in their own home will be met with justified alarm.

Housing Stock

7. What his estimate is of the number of (a) new homes which will be built and (b) empty homes which will be brought into use in 2010. (312954)

The Department does not publish forecasts for house building. We are committed to reducing the number of long-term empty homes. We have strengthened the powers of local authorities to deal with empty homes when owners have failed to act.

Would Ministers be sympathetic to the request from local councils—such as mine in Southwark, where 43 per cent. of homes are social housing and one third are council properties—to be able to restructure their debts, often on properties that no longer exist? In Southwark’s case, the repayment figure comes to £43 million. If we are going to build more homes and refurbish homes, we need help so that we do not spend all our money paying off debts on homes that no longer exist.

That is exactly why we have published proposals to restructure council house finance debt, and I look forward to the Liberal Democrats’ support for those proposals.

Will my hon. Friend recognise that if we are to see housing numbers increase significantly, as we all wish, from the current difficult position, what is required above all is certainty and confidence in the future? That could be very seriously damaged by the ill thought out, uncosted and dangerous Opposition proposals for changes to the housing planning scheme.

My right hon. Friend, who is an expert on these issues and probably knows more about them—[Hon. Members: “Than you do.”] He certainly knows more about them than I do, and I am not at all—[Interruption.] He knows a damn sight more than Opposition Members, who want to drag race and immigration into discussions about housing. Opposition Front Benchers would gain some credit if they were prepared to distance themselves from the attempts by their Back Benchers to drag immigration into discussions about housing numbers.

I can tell my right hon. Friend that we are building many more homes now than we would have been if we had taken the Opposition’s advice and slashed spending this year and last, in the midst of a recession, because that would have strangled this recovery at birth.

Does the Minister for Housing stand by his comments to the Fabian Society, when he said that it was time to give up on the dream of home ownership? Does that have anything to do with the fact that home ownership is falling under Labour, and that house building is at its lowest level since the second world war—with, incidentally, social affordable homes now being built in smaller numbers than under any previous Government? Does not this Government’s appalling house building record mean that they have no choice but to abandon any lingering claim to be the party of aspiration?

I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my right hon. Friend’s speech, because the hon. Gentleman has obviously not bothered to read it. In actual fact, there are almost 2 million more home owners now than there were in 1997, when the Government came to office. The Government have also overseen an increase in the supply of housing to almost 207,500 in 2007-08, which was the highest annual level of net housing supply in the past 30 years. As I said earlier, we are building many more homes now than we would have been if we had cut spending last year and this, in the midst of a recession, because that would have strangled the recovery at birth.

Sustainable Communities

9. What assessment his Department has made of the 199 proposals shortlisted and sent to it by the Local Government Association under the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. (312956)

The Government are currently assessing the 199 proposals shortlisted by the Local Government Association in its role as selector under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. Many of the proposals are complex and raise significant practical issues, but I am anxious to make progress on those proposals that offer practical benefits and new ways of meeting local needs.

Given that the latest statistics show that the recession is lifting, may I urge my right hon. Friend to prioritise those projects that propose local solutions to address the skills shortages in their locality? Local authorities know their own community best, and they are best able to deliver the solutions that are tailored to local need. That will help people to find jobs as the recession lifts.

That is a very practical suggestion from my hon. Friend, who, as Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, has taken a close interest in this Act. She is right; 199 proposals, each of which deserves proper consideration, represents a considerable work load for my Department. Her suggestion that we might look at the areas where we could move more quickly on issues of obvious priority and ability to deliver would be a sensible way for us to approach this big task.

Having listened to what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him to commit to a deadline for setting out his initial response to those proposals before the Easter recess, commit to a date for the next round of submissions, and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill?

The hon. Lady listened to what I said but failed to comprehend it. Let me be perfectly clear. The process involved asking the LGA to shortlist proposals, and in the end it shortlisted two thirds of all those put forward. Under the Act, each of those proposals deserves proper consideration by my Department. The hon. Lady needs to understand that the proper consideration of 199 separate policy proposals, many of which would require changes to primary legislation, is not the sort of thing that can be done by a Minister just running down a list and saying, “I fancy that one”, or “I don’t fancy that one.” I suggest to the hon. Lady that rather than having an artificial deadline, we need, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), to look at the proposals on which we can make progress and practical advances as quickly as possible. However, we will of course assess all the proposals that have been put forward, because that is what we are bound to do under the Act.

It sounds suspiciously as though the Secretary of State is trying to kick this issue into the long grass beyond the general election. What is so disappointing about this is that this legislation is a real opportunity to engage people on how public money is spent and public services are delivered in their area. If he misses this opportunity, he will be wasting a lot of public good will. Ultimately, the Total Place pilot shows that only 5 per cent. of total public spending at a local level is discretionary to local authorities. If the Secretary of State believes in the localist agenda, will he put our money where his mouth is?

I recognise the opportunities provided by the Act and the proposals that have been submitted, and that is why I want to make progress on those that we have prioritised. The hon. Lady has to be realistic. Policy is not made on a whim, or in five minutes by saying, “I fancy that proposal.” The LGA shortlisted far more proposals than anybody could reasonably have expected, and we now need to do the work that is required to assess them properly. Nobody would be more disappointed than those who put these proposals forward if they felt that they had been rejected simply in order to get a list out by the end of March. I think that we owe those people the respect of treating their proposals seriously and discussing them with the LGA, as we are required to do by law, but that may mean that it is not possible to do it by the end of March.

One of the specific groups of amendments that has been tabled has come from areas most adversely affected by a prodigious growth in student houses in multiple occupation. In my own city of Nottingham, only 2,000 of a total of 7,000 houses in multiple occupation are covered by the current licensing regime, and many of those seeking to avoid it are in the process of converting sheds and garages into living accommodation, with or without removing the up-and-over garage door. Will the Secretary of State give specific consideration to extending the current licensing regime to cover all HMOs and require planning permission for new ones?

Order. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but there is a developing tendency for the narrative to be longer than the question.

The short answer is that a number of the proposals received under the Sustainable Communities Act relate to policy discussions that the Government already have under way. On the particular issues to which my hon. Friend refers, I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will want to make a statement in the near future.

I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that the large number of schemes submitted under the Act demonstrates the degree of public appetite that there is for this. However, does he also accept that there remains disappointment that the original provision in the Act was watered down by the reduction in scope in relation to the spending reports? Will he therefore do what 116 of his own Back Benchers have already signalled in an early-day motion and support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) when it comes up for debate on 26 February?

We are looking at the issues raised by that Bill, and I believe that the Sustainable Communities Act is now part of the architecture of local government. Aside from party politics, I hope that the House will take me seriously when I say that some issues to do with the process have been brought to light by where we are at the moment, and we need to get them right in future to ensure that we have a cost-effective and efficient way of assessing realistic proposals. If we can do that, I see no reason why the Act will not form a permanent part of the local-national relationship in this country.

Home Information Packs

10. What methodology his Department plans to use to evaluate the effectiveness of the home information pack programme; and if he will make a statement. (312957)

13. What methodology his Department plans to use to evaluate the effectiveness of the home information pack programme; and if he will make a statement. (312960)

16. What methodology his Department plans to use to evaluate the effectiveness of the home information pack programme; and if he will make a statement. (312963)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said in response to a written question from the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), we intend to evaluate the effectiveness of HIPs by updating the HIP baseline research report, which was published in January 2007. A copy of that report is available on the DCLG website.

Whatever methodology the Department intends to use, is the Minister aware that Southend estate agents, without exception, believe that although HIPs may have been introduced with the best of intentions, in practice they have not worked out at all well and have damaged the housing market?

I do not accept that at all. Despite a difficult housing market, evidence shows that HIPs actually speed up sales. I am not sure whether there is a branch of Connells estate agency in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but its survey of more than 37,000 transactions showed that sales with HIPs go through an average of seven days quicker.

Why is the Minister in total denial? Nobody whatever thinks that HIPs work, and it would be sensible for the Government to knock them on the head before the election rather than have that albatross around their neck. For our part we are delighted that they are not doing so, but it is in his interests that he should.

As always, I am very grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s advice, but I can tell him that thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process and 13,000 people have invested thousands of pounds in training as energy assessors. The Opposition need to explain why they want to put all those jobs and businesses at risk. He needs to tell all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on the process why the Opposition want to put them out of work.

The interim results of the updated baseline research report are not due to be published until this summer at the earliest. Given that no empirical evidence is therefore available to the Government about the impact of HIPs on the current housing market, why do they not listen to bodies such as the Law Society, which has said clearly that HIPs

“add a significant layer of costs for consumers but produce no discernable benefit”?

As a result of HIPs, more than 2 million home owners now have an energy assessment and recommendations in their energy performance certificate that can help them cut their fuel bills by hundreds of pounds and reduce carbon emissions. That is just one of the many benefits of the HIP process that we have introduced. I thought that tackling climate change was one of the big priorities for the new, modern Conservative party. So much, I suppose, for voting blue to go green.

I have to tell my hon. Friend that as a member of the Law Society of England and Wales, I tend to agree with it. We have to have energy performance certificates under European Union law anyway, and we would have the jobs because of that. Does he really think that for most people, a cost of more than £500 to save an average of seven days, according to the Connells survey, is money well spent? A lot of my constituents do not.

Obviously, I am very grateful to my constituency neighbour for his intervention on this issue. He is a great man, he really is.

The recent Office of Fair Trading consumer research on the HIP process showed that a third of buyers were influenced by the HIP and that they had found the new property information questionnaire the most useful component of it. As I said earlier, Connells estate agents surveyed 37,000 transactions and showed that HIPs sped up the process, which is good news.

Parliamentary questions have compelled Ministers to publish opinion research on HIPs done at a cost of £60,000. The survey of 4,000 buyers, sellers and estate agents showed, among other things, that there was minimal public knowledge of and interest in HIPs, that people considered them a waste of time, that buyers were not consulting them and that costs were being duplicated. When will the Government admit that their £500 million experiment has been a disaster, listen to consumers and scrap this discredited scheme?

As I said a short while ago, what the research actually shows is that in a short period, nine out of 10 buyers used the HIP. One in three said that it helped them decide which home to buy, which is a big improvement on the figures shortly after the introduction of HIPs, and shows that the system is becoming more helpful and useful all the time. The question that the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Front Benchers must answer is why they want to sling out of work the thousands of people who have invested time and money in training to implement the process, and to cut the jobs of their constituents who depend on it.

Social Housing (Security of Tenure)

11. What recent assessment he has made of security of tenure for social housing tenants; and if he will make a statement. (312958)

Low-cost, long-term tenancies are the foundation for the lives of millions of social tenants, and we are committed to safeguarding that security.

Would my right hon. Friend like to offer reassurance to members of the Westfield tenants and residents association, who are somewhat alarmed to see comments made by the chief executive of the Tenants Services Authority, who said that in future, tenants in areas of high demand might lose that security? If so, will my right hon. Friend completely dissociate himself from the comments of the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, who said that one problem with social housing was that it was hard to get rid of these people?

The comments that my hon. Friend attributes to the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council are very revealing—they reveal a deeply held prejudice against people in public housing. As for the comments of the chief executive of the Tenants Services Authority, it would be worth while for my hon. Friend to reassure residents in his constituency that matters of policy concerning the security of people’s tenure are for the Government, not the TSA chief executive.

Will the Minister be supporting the excellent Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants Etc.) Bill, sponsored by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), on Second Reading?

Waste Treatment Plants

12. What guidance his Department provides to planning authorities on dealing with contested applications for development of waste treatment plants. (312959)

General guidance on handling all planning applications is set out in our 2004 statement on general principles for the planning system. This reminds local planning authorities that they should determine each application in line with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can his Department do anything further to ensure that planning authorities such as Derbyshire county council, which is now Tory-run, do not drag their feet when faced with difficult planning decisions, because that results in hundreds of people putting their lives on hold to campaign against, for example, an incinerator application?

I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency and I know what a fantastic local MP she is in representing her constituents. She will understand, I hope, that I cannot comment on the specific proposal that her constituents are concerned about, but I can tell her that we wrote to Derbyshire county council last October to ask it to get a move on with delivering its waste plan.

Does the Department’s guidance suggest that it is sensible to place a large energy-for-waste plant in an attractive rural area, clogging up local roads and causing all kinds of highway issues? If not, will the Minister encourage Devon county council to throw out the Viridor scheme for Lee Mill in my constituency?

The guidance shows that waste planning authorities should identify suitable locations for waste facilities in their local plans, and in doing so take into account our planning policies for waste.

Green Belt

All regional strategies, except that for the north-east, contain some targeted proposals for review of green belt boundaries in their respective regions. The purpose of the regional strategy is to consider where development should take place in the most sustainable way possible. Reviews of green belt are undertaken by local authorities, and the decision on whether to make changes is theirs. We remain absolutely committed to maintaining the area of green belt at its 2007 level, and to saying that changes to parts of the green belt should take place only in exceptional circumstances.

Following Guildford borough council’s judicial review of the south-east plan, what plans does the Minister have to remove the designation in that plan to build on the green belt in Guildford, in the light of the Prime Minister’s promise to protect the green belt? He has let the country down and he has let Guildford down.

I reject the latter point completely. The fact is that there are an extra 34,000 hectares of green belt land in this country because of this Government. I accept that the application of the sustainability appraisal process in relation to Guildford was flawed, and negotiations are going on between the Government and the litigants, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the matter any further.

Local Government Decision Making

15. What his policy is on the devolution of responsibility for decision making from central to local government. (312962)

Over the past decade, local authorities have gained significant powers, responsibilities and financial freedoms from central Government to enable devolution of decision making to local communities.

On 11 January the Government formalised and made available to local government new powers in relation to bus services which complement the concessionary bus pass scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be perverse for a future Government who profess to believe in devolution to repeal those powers, which have been warmly welcomed by local government?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As the Minister who took the relevant Bill through the House, I know that Conservative Front Benchers opposed it—it is an important Bill that gives powers to local authorities to gain greater control over bus services—despite the fact that Conservative councillors wrote to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and said that it was about time that she and her colleagues listened to what councillors were saying about the importance of bus services to local communities. The Opposition have also said that they would abolish quality contracts, which would be a kick in the teeth to councillors who want to ensure that they have good bus services for local people.

Is the Minister aware that her top-down planning policies mean that places such as Wokingham have to build on floodplain, leading to flooding of adjacent dwellings, because they are instructed to do so when they would not otherwise dream of it?

Considerable guidance is in place on building and floodplains. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that guidance applies at various levels. It is important that councils are able to take decisions according to the situation that they face locally.

Topical Questions

My Department continues to work to create prosperous, resilient and cohesive communities. Today’s growth estimate demonstrates that we have been right to support families in the economy through the downturn. We had a plan for the recession and we have a plan for the recovery. Stepping up help for people to stay in their homes, the transformation of front-line services through initiatives such as Total Place, the opening up of local services and public data, extending scrutiny powers and the slashing of red tape all play a vital role in driving growth.

What about light pollution? Does the Department realise that excessive lighting not only blocks out the night sky, but is fantastically wasteful of energy? Will the Minister review the planning policy statements with a view to cutting out excessive lighting pollution and nuisance?

I looked along the Front Bench hoping to see one of the ministerial team thrusting themselves forward, but in the absence of that I acknowledge the importance of the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I welcome the recent announcement of the light pollution-free park in Scotland, and I will write to him with an update on the current planning powers on this issue.

T2. The Government have introduced a helpful package of measures to protect homeowners against repossession, and the Minister recently announced some additional measures to be rolled out, including in Milton Keynes. Can he give a little more information about the proposals for my constituency, which I think are being undertaken in conjunction with the citizens advice bureau? (312974)

I can, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend is right. The range of measures that we have put in place essentially to help people to stay where they should be during a recession—in their own homes—has led to 333,000 families getting help or advice from the Government in the past year. The initiative in her area is a combination of extra press and radio advertising, and in some areas face-to-face advice events to ensure that people know what help is available and are encouraged to take it up. We know that if people bury their heads in the sand, their homes and futures are much more at risk.

T4. The Labour charter trustees in Crewe have recently voted to increase their part of the council tax bill by 122 per cent. Will the Government’s proposed council tax revaluation make many of my constituents’ council tax bills even higher? (312976)

The council tax revaluations are obviously required by statute and undertaken by an independent body. In addition, we have made available a £2 billion transitional relief scheme for revaluation to assist where there are higher increases.

T3. Hard-working families in Chorley and across the country are struggling to pay their council tax bills, and it would only be right to look for a zero increase in council tax. Can we ensure that no time bombs have been built into authorities by miscalculations and playing around with the budgets wrongly, and does the Secretary of State have a view on this? (312975)

It has been suggested that there should be a two-year council tax freeze funded by central Government, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that the cost of such a policy would be £1,970 million in the first two years. Those who promise it cannot say how they will pay for it or when it would start. Even on their own dodgy, unrealistic and out-of-date figures, there is a £470 million hole in the Opposition plans.

T5. Last night, at a meeting of Croydon council, in response to four questions from independent members of the public and independent councillor, Councillor Cakebread, the council was unable to say how much remuneration councillors received outside their council employment and how many hours they worked. Given that Croydon has the highest basic rate of pay for councillors, will the Government give guidance to councils advising that when there are cuts to services they should make similar cuts to councillors’ salaries? (312977)

The remuneration of councillors is fully devolved to local authorities. Many have independent review mechanisms, rather than allowing the decision to be taken entirely by members. The hon. Gentleman makes the valuable point that, at a time when it is important to use every taxpayer pound as effectively and efficiently as possible, those authorities with particularly high levels of councillor remuneration may need to consider their policies.

T10. Further to the Secretary of State’s visit to Blackpool, when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) had an opportunity to show him much of the regeneration taking place in the town, has he had an opportunity to consider what role his Department can play in the exciting plans for Blackpool council to take over the winter gardens and tower as part of that regeneration strategy? (312982)

I know of the support that my hon. Friend has given to this project, which I understand is being looked at jointly with the regional development agency and the Department for Transport. It is an exciting project, and such regeneration is important. It is another example of the Government and local councils understanding that, in times of economic difficulties, it is important to intervene in such areas—unlike the approach of the Conservative party.

T6. Can the Secretary of State tell the House when he intends to comply with section 6 of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004 and place before the House his statutory report, which is now 13 months overdue? (312978)

I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency last week and seeing for himself the Ridings school site, which the Tory council plans to demolish, against local wishes. Will he join me in sending a clear message to Calderdale council that such sites should not be demolished or sold off just to make a quick buck, but put to community use?

I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency last week. I was particularly interested in the project to transfer control of the former Ridings school to a community trust in some form. She knows from our discussions that I undertook exactly that exercise in my constituency back in the mid-1980s, taking over a former secondary school so that it could be run as a social enterprise by the local community. I am pleased to say that my Department’s asset transfer unit stands ready to provide support to local people, with business plans and guidance. I hope that her council is prepared to listen to the exciting ideas that local people have and that it can make them a reality.

T7. Local authorities up and down the country send out Criminal Records Bureau disclosure forms to anyone who wants to work in a school or old people’s home. How effective does the Minister think those forms are, given that they contain 66 questions of quite a detailed personal nature, including on personal bank details? No. 66 is “Do you have any unspent criminal convictions?” What confidence can we have that any unsuitable person— (312979)

Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. I think that I counted two and a half questions, but we will have a reply now from the Minister.

It is extremely important that proper checks are carried out. I know that there is ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of the checks that are carried out and the systems that are adopted. I am not completely sure about the hon. Lady’s point about unspent criminal convictions, but in general it is vital that proper checks are carried out, and we should all contribute to the debate about how we improve that. If she has any ideas on where specific changes should be made, I suggest that she contact the appropriate Department.

In Sedgefield there are many properties let out by private landlords, but a significant number are empty at any one time. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what progress we are making towards a national registration scheme for private landlords, to try to get rid of some of the rogue landlords in our communities?

The proposal for a national register of private landlords is only one of those that we are looking at to try to tighten up the activities of the worst landlords, who give the tenants to whom they rent their properties a bad standard of housing and service. The private rented sector is important to many people in this country, but it is our duty as a Government to ensure that the very worst landlords are stamped out.

Earlier, the Minister for Housing told the House that when local authorities decide to reject permission for infill and back garden land developments, they win in four out of five cases. However, does he not understand that councils tend to act defensively, granting permission because they feel compelled to do so by Government policy, as a consequence of which cases never get to appeal? Will he therefore give my constituents in Sutton and Cheam, Worcester Park, the assurance that his announcement last week really does afford them the protection that they want from predatory developments?

It does, and it is in the hands of the hon. Gentleman’s council to provide that protection for itself against appeal and, more importantly, for residents against unwelcome developments. If his council is falling back on Government guidance, it is failing to put in a place a local plan for policies that suit the area of Sutton. That is the council’s responsibility. The report that I published last week confirms on the basis of the research that where councils do that, they are in stronger position to protect local residents and deal with any appeals that might crop up.

Can I tell the Secretary of State that one of the hallmarks of this Government, whom I have been proud to support over 11 years, is also a downside: their obsession with reorganising that which they have reorganised? They insist on putting in layers of bureaucracy where they are not necessary. Can I urge him to stop putting the Thames Gateway development corporation under the Homes and Communities Agency? It is unnecessary and will cause bureaucratic inertia.

I fully understand and respect my hon. Friend’s concerns. The decision was taken after much consultation with all the stakeholders, and we have come to a consensus that we genuinely believe is in the best interests of the Thames Gateway, of the staff involved, and of regeneration in that area.

T9. Violent extremism needs to be tackled in all communities, including those who want to curtail freedom of religion, despite the protestations of the Minister for the West Midlands. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government’s current policy on preventing violent extremism is working? (312981)

Yes. We need to accept that the task of strengthening the ability to resist the ideas of al-Qaeda-type extremists that are targeted at young people is something that we will have to sustain and develop. Looking back over the first two years of the Prevent programme, we are seeing an increasingly rich range of local initiatives up and down the country, all of which have as their outcome the idea that it is less likely that a young person in this country will get drawn into support for that kind of violent extremism. I believe that our programme, which we are developing all the time, is on the right lines. We continue to learn from best practice across the country and to strengthen the programme month by month.

The Minister will be aware that campaigners in areas of high student occupation, particularly in houses in multiple occupation, are looking forward to the Government’s announcement on use classes orders. When can we expect that announcement?

When Ministers set out new requirements for local councils in the field of information technology that involve the roll-out of new software, what account do they take of the effect on small district councils that have to hire consultants and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds as a consequence? Are these wise decisions to make in the middle of a recession, given their effect on hard-pressed taxpayers?

The Government’s approach to making the vast amount of data currently held by local authorities more freely available on the web in real time is crucial to the efficiency and accountability of local services. I would say to the smaller district councils, which defend their role vigorously, that they need to face the fact that they are going to have to share services and work collaboratively with other small district councils, in order to show that the autonomy that they value does not come at an unacceptably high cost to local taxpayers. They will have to deal with such issues by working with others to achieve the cost-effectiveness that everyone wants.

Despite the Government’s very good track record on supporting rough sleepers, I am alarmed at the number of people in London who are on waiting lists to get into a hostel, and at the number in my own constituency who seem to be in a constant circle of finding supported housing and then going back to rough sleeping. Can the Minister please tell me what further work is being done to alleviate the situation? Perhaps we could have a meeting to discuss the matter.

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this matter. I have visited Stoke and met some of the organisations that provide services for homeless people, and I would be happy to go back to meet him and have a look at the problem in depth. I can tell him that, as a result of the record levels of investment that this Government have put in since 1997, however we calculate it, and by whatever measures we use, the numbers of rough sleepers have been cut dramatically—more than has ever been achieved in the past.

The Secretary of State has put forward an article 14 directive in relation to London Southend airport. It would be helpful to the local community if he could tell us roughly when he will make a decision on that matter, and whether there will be a need for a public inquiry. The sooner the better.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but he will understand why I cannot reply to his question this afternoon.

Order. I will come to points of order in a moment. I am sorry that a tiny number of colleagues missed out. My appetite for hearing colleagues’ questions and Ministers’ answers is insatiable, but I am afraid that we have to move on.