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House of Commons

Tuesday 31 October 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]




Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Tuesday 7 November.

Alliance & Leicester Group Treasury plc (Transfer) (Bill) [Lords] (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 7 November.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Housing Grant (Slough)

1. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): How much grant towards the cost of house purchase will be available individually for (a) nurses, (b) teachers and (c) police officers in Slough. [133301]

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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I am delighted that my hon. Friend is so keen to see the benefits of our new starter home initiative. Over the next three years, we will provide £250 million for this scheme to help key workers on modest incomes to buy their own homes in high-price, high-demand areas, and at the same time to help employers to address their recruitment needs. We are currently working up detailed proposals in the light of responses to the housing Green Paper. Full details of how the initiative will operate, including the groups of key workers who will be eligible and the areas likely to qualify, will be announced later this year.

Fiona Mactaggart: As my hon. Friend will surmise, I put both the list of key workers and my constituency into the question to demonstrate the powerful claim that we have for the funds. In my constituency, there are 50 teaching vacancies not covered by permanent staff, and more than 100 in nursing and midwifery. The situation in policing is slightly confused by the fact that we force police officers in the Thames valley into Slough. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the claims of constituencies such as mine to become sustainable communities and have key public service workers will have a high priority in the details of the scheme?

Mr. Raynsford: I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the scheme was devised precisely to address the kinds of needs that she has identified. As she will be aware, however, the scheme will operate as a challenge fund. We will therefore look at the bids that are submitted in response to the detailed brief to which I have already referred. We will seek to get support for those schemes that give the best value for money and help the largest number of people in need in high-cost areas.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Can the Minister not see how unfair and illogical it is to single out certain categories of key workers and not others--for example, to exclude ancillary workers in the NHS and civilian police employees? Does not he understand that using taxpayers' money in that way will only fuel house-price inflation, and that it is the Government's failure to provide sufficient affordable housing, especially in the south-east, that is putting such pressure on recruitment in key public services? Is not that exacerbated by the Government's barmy plans to build millions of the wrong homes in the wrong places? Is not the home loans policy just another example of government by gimmick?

Mr. Raynsford: That question illustrates the mistake that Opposition Members make when they write their questions in advance. Had the hon. Gentleman listened to my answer, he would have heard me say that the precise categories of people who will benefit will depend on the bids. We are not limiting arbitrarily the categories of beneficiaries: we will look at the proposals to judge which would be most effective in meeting real needs, irrespective of the category of public-sector worker or key worker that is involved.

Our scheme is designed to address a real problem that the previous Government did nothing to attack while they were in office. Indeed, they presided over a period of unprecedented house-price inflation, followed by the disastrous slump of the early 1990s that caused record

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repossessions and homelessness. We will take no lessons from Conservative Members when it comes to putting forward proper proposals to meet housing needs in this country.

Home Improvement Grants

2. Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): If he will make a statement on the action that his Department has taken to assist poorer home owners to maintain and improve their homes through grants to local authorities for home improvement agencies. [133302]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): The Government attach great importance to the work of home improvement agencies, the prime purpose of which is to help elderly and disabled people remain independent in their homes. On 24 July, we announced a significant increase in the grants available to local authorities to support agencies, increasing the total available from £6.7 million this year to £8.5 million in each of the next three years. Bids for this money are presently being invited.

Mr. Henderson: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He will know that the Grasslands, Brooklands and Village neighbourhoods of the Jaywick area of my constituency have serious housing problems. Tendring district council has just completed a neighbourhood assessment study of that area, where other problems include a lack of proper roads and street lighting, and very poor drainage. Will my hon. Friend give very serious consideration to the findings of that study, and to the transport plan submitted by Essex county council? That plan is supported by Tendring district council and would permit further funds to be invested in the roads in that area.

Mr. Mullin: We will certainly give serious consideration to the plans put forward by Tendring district council. My hon. Friend has been assiduous in representing the interests of his constituents in Jaywick, where, as he knows, major infrastructure improvements are required. The Government are willing to help, but we need Tendring district council and Essex county council to give a clear lead. There is still some way to go in that regard.

I understand that my hon. Friend is meeting representatives of the councils and the Government office for the east of England on Friday. I hope that he will impress on them the need to come up with a detailed plan for the regeneration of Jaywick, and to give a clear idea of the resources that they are prepared to contribute.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The Minister in the past has paid some attention to affairs in Northern Ireland and will be aware that, some years ago, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive went over to a means-tested system for housing grants. He will also know that, to put it mildly, that has not been an unmitigated success. Will he therefore keep in mind that

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any policy that he produces must also take account of the condition of houses, and that the amount of money per applicant should be strictly limited?

Mr. Mullin: I shall certainly keep those points in mind. I should tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that my interest was not in matters Irish, but in the British justice system.

Housing (South-east)

3. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What recent representations he has received from organisations concerning housing in the south-east. [133303]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We received almost 900 representations on draft regional planning guidance for the south-east. We have also received 397 responses to our housing Green Paper from people and organisations based in London and the south-east. Responses to both consultations covered a wide range of housing issues and other matters.

Dr. Lewis: It is hardly surprising that the Government should have received so many representations about their appalling policy of bulldozing and covering in concrete areas of green belt in the south-east to try and make up for the mess that they have made in developing sensible housing strategies for those areas under Labour control. Why does not the Minister simply adopt the common- sense Conservative policy of giving local discretion to local authorities on such matters?

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the previous Conservative Government approved unprecedented levels of development by private developers on greenfield sites all over the south-east. The legacy of that Government's failed policies have quite rightly generated public concern. That is why this Government have instituted a 60 per cent. target for brownfield development and introduced new planning policy guidance. PPG3 gives clear guidance on how we should aim for development in the cities first, concentrating on urban renaissance rather than on profligate building on greenfield sites, which was the record of the previous Conservative Government.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason for high house prices is the lack of suitable, appropriate and affordable housing? Does he agree that it is important to build housing that is close to where people work and not in areas where there is no work?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the importance of the provision of affordable housing for people in need--a point that eludes the attention of the Conservative party--and of ensuring that new housing development is properly related to opportunities for employment, shopping, transport and all the other things that make decent communities. That is why we have introduced our new policies on planning, which are designed to create communities and to encourage urban renaissance. I am impressed by the efforts made by many local authorities, including that of my hon. Friend, to ensure that the opportunities for

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sustainable urban development are used, rather than the profligate building on greenfield sites that was the record of the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Can the Minister confirm that the Government's new planning procedures in PPG3 are intended to result in fewer houses being built on greenbelt land, that if those procedures were applied in Hertfordshire it would obviate the need to build 10,000 houses west of Stevenage on greenbelt land, and that senior counsel has advised that the Government's refusal to apply their own procedures in this case is illogical, irrational and contrary to the law?

Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman, as has so often been the case in previous debates on this subject, is wrong. He will know that there is a distinction between greenbelt and greenfield land, although he clearly fails to note the proper distinction. He will be aware that the principle of sustainability requires an approach that reduces profligate use of greenfield land. That is one of the keystones of PPG3.

The right hon. Gentleman will also know that the local planning authority in his county considered these issues in great detail and came to its view--not the Government's view--that it was more sustainable to develop in one location near to transport links and existing employment than to have a huge range of new development spreading throughout the rural areas in his constituency. He may not agree, but that was the decision reached by the local authority in his area, and he is quite wrong to blame the Government for it.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gravesham borough council and North British housing association for the provision of 51 high-quality but affordable rental homes in the centre of Gravesend? Is that not the way to provide much-needed affordable housing in the south-east, without eating into green belt and greenfield sites, as the previous Government obviously did?

Mr. Raynsford: I congratulate my hon. Friend on catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, because I was able to see this very development with him in Gravesend only last Friday. It is exactly as my hon. Friend describes it--a new development in an urban, town-centre area in the Thames Gateway, which enables us to meet housing needs while at the same time reducing pressure on the countryside. That is exactly the kind of development that is the hallmark of this Government's policies.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Given what has been happening in the south-east over the past couple of days, the Minister's response is breathtakingly complacent. Will he acknowledge that when, after the floods two weeks ago, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Ministers wrote saying that action would be taken, it was reasonable for people in the south-east to think that part of that action would be to cut the number of houses that the Government want to build in the wrong places in the south-east?

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Will the Minister give the House an assurance on that? If he cannot do so, will he recognise that among the things washed away will be his reputation for competence?

Mr. Raynsford: The Opposition have once again got it wrong. The hon. Gentleman knows that after the floods that occurred two years ago, we took action--we prepared new guidance on planning in relation to flood plains, which was issued for consultation in the normal way this summer and on which there has been extensive consultation. The hon. Gentleman also knows that those proposals make it clear that we expect developments to avoid flood plains when properties could be at risk. That guidance, which is in the public domain, was issued by this Government. It is time that the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition stopped their silly sloganising on this subject and focused on the real question--how do we meet genuine housing needs in a sustainable manner and protect the countryside? That is what we are trying to do. Everyone knows that the Conservative Government had a disgraceful record--they allowed profligate development all over greenfield sites, including flood plains. I am sorry that he did not apologise for the previous Government's record.

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