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Local Authority Housing

10. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): What role tenants will play in deciding the future of local authority housing. [133310]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Tenants should be fully involved in making decisions on the future of their homes. The introduction of best value and tenant participation compacts will ensure that they are fully involved in reviewing and developing options for future investment in housing.

Dr. Iddon: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. On this issue, there is obviously clear blue water between the Government's policies and those of the Conservatives, who would flog off all local authority stock with little

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consultation with tenants. When my hon. Friend consults local authority tenants on the options in the recent housing Green Paper, will there be a level playing field?

Mr. Raynsford: The answer is yes. We have made it clear that local authorities and local authority tenants have a range of options to consider, including the new proposal for arm's-length companies and the possibility of investment through the private finance initiative, as well as the possibility of stock transfer. I know that my hon. Friend and his local authority have been exploring variations on those models with a community regeneration company in Bolton. I congratulate him and his authority on those discussions, and particularly on the fact that the Bolton Association of Tenants and Residents Associations--BATRA--has been fully involved. That, by contrast with the policies pursued by the Conservative party, is a model of the way in which the Labour party believes tenants should be involved.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Does the Minister recall the Secretary of State, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, saying that "in the wake" of a Labour Government--I am sure that that phrase is appropriate--he wanted to see the return of council house building, and promised 100,000 council houses every year? Will he now admit that the Government have done a U-turn and adopted the Conservative policy of taking council housing stock out of local authority control?

Mr. Raynsford: No, I will not. The Government have set a highly ambitious programme to deal with the entire backlog of substandard council housing within 10 years, which gives everyone living in council housing the prospect of having a decent home within that time. That is a major change from the previous position. We have said that it is up to tenants and local authorities to explore a range of options for the future of the housing stock. Some will pursue the option of stock transfer, and some will want to keep the property in council ownership and improve it, using the new arrangements that the Government have put in place. That is entirely in line with the principles of the housing Green Paper, which was entitled "Quality and choice: A decent home for all". It is precisely quality and choice that we are pursuing for public sector housing.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): I welcome my hon. Friend's statement that council house tenants will have a role in determining their destiny. Will he also take into consideration the fact that resources are needed to replace metal frame windows and improve bathrooms and kitchens? He noted the point that was made earlier, but will he give further consideration to providing resources to make sure that we can improve our council houses and bring them up to 21st-century standards?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I can assure him that through the spending review, we have secured continued substantial increases in resources to enable local authorities to improve their housing stock, and to allow an increased supply of new, affordable housing to be built. I can also tell my hon. Friend that from next April we are introducing the major repairs allowance, which will for the first time give local authorities a proper basis for the maintenance of their

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housing stock, to stop the deterioration that was such a lamentable characteristic of council housing under the previous Government.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): The Minister knows that many tenants have already voted to transfer to housing associations, such as Banbury Homes in my constituency. Those housing associations have agreed and settled business plans with the Housing Corporation. Will the Minister give an undertaking that those business plans will be honoured?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is referring, I think, to the proposals for rent restructuring in the Green Paper. They are designed to ensure a more coherent framework in future for the rents that apply both to registered social landlords and to local authorities. We have had productive and detailed discussions with registered social landlords and other interested parties about the impact of the rent restructuring proposals, and I am pleased to say that they have been carried forward in a constructive spirit of seeking to achieve the Government's objective, to which everyone subscribes, and at the same time safeguarding the viability of RSLs.

I have several times given assurances that it is not our intention to threaten the viability of organisations that have entered into plans for the future based on long-term financial arrangements. It is certainly our intention to see that their future is secured.

Traffic Congestion (South-East London)

11. Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham): What steps he is taking to improve public transport and relieve traffic congestion in south-east London. [133311]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Our 10-year plan for transport provides substantial resources for transport improvement in London. The Mayor of London has a crucial role to play in deciding priorities for south-east London.

Mr. Efford: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. If we are to address some of the problems experienced by my constituents--notably the increasing traffic on the roads from Kent and East Sussex that come through my constituency--planning and powers beyond London and beyond the Mayor's sphere of operation will be required. It is for the Department to deal with that. Furthermore, in my hon. Friend's future discussions with London Transport, which he will continue to have in spite of the introduction of the Mayor, will he impress upon London Transport the need to improve links with the new North Greenwich underground station, so that people can access it for their travel to work?

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend is right to say that transport issues in south-east London must be considered in a wider context. Indeed, they are being considered in the context of the Thames gateway strategy. Links to North Greenwich station have proved an enormous success in this millennium year, and we are looking carefully at ways

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in which they can be sustained. I am confident that effective transport links to that station will remain after this year has ended.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Does the Minister agree that notwithstanding the recent problems caused by severe weather, public transport in south-east London was already in complete chaos as a result of recent work by Railtrack? Does he agree that if that work was necessary, it was incumbent on Railtrack and the train operating companies to provide the travelling public with reliable information? Was not the lack of information a disgrace? Does the Minister agree with my constituent, Mr. Steve Wharton, who suggested in The Guardian today that we now have a "notional" rail inquiries service?

Mr. Hill: Those were exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in saying that the travelling public--or the would-be travelling public--deserve a better information service. That service did not work during yesterday's difficulties, and it ought to have done. Frankly, many aspects of the system ought to have been able to withstand yesterday's circumstances, and the Government are paying urgent attention to that matter.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): May I tell my hon. Friend of the great relief in my constituency and throughout south-east London when Connex South Central lost its franchise? However, there was then some dismay because GoVia, the company that is to receive that franchise, has, in its operation of Thameslink in my constituency, a record of punctuality even worse than that of Connex South Central. Will the Minister give my constituents guarantees that rail services in south-east London will be improved?

Mr. Hill: I understand my hon. Friend's concerns and very much appreciate the way in which she has put them. Decisions on refranchising are for the franchising director, but I am sure that he took into account the totality of GoVia's offer, which includes an £800 million investment in new rolling stock, an undertaking to fit all trains with the train protection warning system, more than 100 extra drivers, station refurbishments, more other staff and more car parking.

Housing Policy (Newcastle)

12. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): What assessment he has made of the extent to which the clearance and new house-building policies of Newcastle city council are consistent with regional planning guidance. [133312]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The panel report of the public examination of regional planning guidance for the north-east was published in October. I am currently considering what changes are necessary, and will consult on that in due course. Once the regional planning guidance is finalised, local authorities should ensure that their plans and policies accord with it.

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Mr. Cousins: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. Like me, he will understand that there are great possibilities for regeneration in Newcastle. However, mass demolition of neighbourhoods against the wishes of the people who live there should never be part of our policies. The wishes of the people of the inner city, their hopes for the future and their aspirations for themselves and their children are the essential building blocks for reviving neighbourhoods--not property deals.

Mr. Prescott: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes about inner cities--a point that he has made strongly to the House before. However, he will accept that, where there are an awful lot of empty properties that cost local authorities considerable resources, that provides us with an opportunity to have less density in city areas and provide more open spaces, as identified in Lord Rogers' plan. Inevitably, and rightly, that should not be done without the widest consultation and support of people affected by the plans.

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