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Housing Repairs

7. Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): If he will make a statement on resources for local authorities to improve their housing stock. [143970]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The Government inherited a £19 billion backlog of renovation and improvement work that was needed on council housing stock. We have made a commitment to tackle that and to bring all social housing in England up to a decent standard by 2010. Allocations for housing capital expenditure by local authorities have been increased from £750 million in 1997-98 to £1.9 billion in the current year. Next year, there will be a further large increase to £2.4 billion, more than double the annual average that the previous Government made available over their last five years.

Mrs. Cryer: I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful comments. Does he believe that they will help my young constituents in Ilkley, where there is a total lack of affordable housing to buy or to rent, mainly due to the previous Government's right-to-buy legislation? When many of my young constituents in Ilkley want to set up home, they have to move away from the areas in which they were brought up, and away from family and friends.

Mr. Raynsford: We fully understand the problems that people experience because of the shortage of affordable housing and the poor condition of the housing stock, to which I referred earlier. That is why we have increased capital allocations. I am pleased to say that the increase for my hon. Friend's authority means just over double the current allocation, in line with the national trend, from £12.7 million in 1996-97 to £26.3 million in 2001-02.

For the provision of more affordable housing, we have doubled the allocation to the Housing Corporation for new investment through registered social landlords. We expect that to lead to a significant improvement in the output of affordable social housing in the next three years.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport): Will the Minister give more help to housing associations, which, in partnership with local authorities, occasionally provide housing for

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single people? For example, in my constituency Quest housing has done a remarkable job. Will that work be extended?

Mr. Raynsford: As my hon. Friend will have heard me say in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), we have doubled the Housing Corporation's allocation for funding of registered social landlords. Total provision will rise from some £690 million in the current year to more than £1.2 billion at the end of the three-year spending review. The money will be available for new investment by housing associations, and local authorities will be able to use their enhanced housing investment programme allocations in the form of local authority housing grants to support similar initiatives.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to ensure that there is enough investment in social housing for them to honour their commitment to bring all council housing up to a decent standard within 10 years?

My right hon. Friend said earlier that council tenants would decide the future of their housing. If tenants vote against stock transfer, will the amount that would have been available for that process be available for investment in housing that remains in council ownership?

Mr. Raynsford: As my hon. Friend says, we believe that it is for tenants to determine the best option. We have provided four options for the future of council housing, all of which include increased resources.

It is right for tenants to decide in the light of local circumstances. We expect about 200,000 properties to transfer from local authorities to registered social landlords, but that will be determined by tenants. We expect substantial investment through the new major repairs allowance, thereby enabling local authorities to improve the condition of their stock. We expect a take-up of the new arrangements for arm's-length companies, under which local authorities will qualify for additional capital allocations; and we expect increased allocations through the fourth option, the private finance initiative.

By means of a range of different provision, we will ensure a substantial increase enabling us to meet our target of bringing all social housing up to a decent standard by 2010.


8. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): When he last met representatives of Railtrack to discuss investment in the rail network. [143971]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Ministers meet Railtrack from time to time to discuss matters of mutual interest. Most recent meetings have been in the forum of the rail recovery action group.

Mr. Robathan: The news today is full of the crisis in investment in the railways. [Laughter.] As I have said, the news today is full of the crisis in investment in the railways. Can the Minister explain how the Government's intervention in the make-up of the board of Railtrack--

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which has resulted in a 10 per cent. drop in the share price--will help to lever-in private investment, which is necessary for the Government's 10-year plan?

Mr. Hill: It is a bit of a liberty for a representative of the Conservative party to talk of a crisis in the railway industry. It was, after all, the Conservatives who undersold Railtrack for £1.9 billion in a botched privatisation that left the rail network starved of investment.

When the Tories left office, Railtrack was £700 million behind with its rail investment, which the Rail Regulator described as wholly unacceptable, notwithstanding the clear difficulties experienced in the rail industry--difficulties experienced by Railtrack this year.

So far, Railtrack has invested £1.2 billion in the industry. At the end of this year, it will have invested £2.5 billion. Such levels of investment are unprecedented: they did not occur under British Rail, or under the previous Government.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem of chronic under- investment in the rail industry goes back at least two decades, and pre-dates the botched privatisation by a long time? Will he reiterate, for the benefit of those who may not have heard or understood him earlier, that investment is currently at historically high levels? Will he confirm for those of us who worked for the railways that people who call for the renationalisation of the industry must convince us that the Treasury will make a better fist of running it in the future than it ever did in the past?

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is true that we are now experiencing unparalleled levels of investment in rail infrastructure. As for my hon. Friend's remarks about the oft-mentioned probability of renationalisation, the Government have no such plans. The rail industry has experienced sufficient instability in the aftermath of its fragmentation into 100 pieces by the previous Conservative Government. The cost of renationalisation would amount to at least £5 billion, all of which would go into the pockets of shareholders. We believe that, for such sums, there are better investment purposes in the rail infrastructure.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Notwithstanding the Minister's view on Railtrack's position, does he accept at least that the City has, in effect, put Railtrack on the critical list, its credit rating might be downgraded and there is even talk of Railtrack pulling out of the second stage of the channel tunnel rail link? In those circumstances, what will the Government do? In particular, if part of the solution is to speed up already planned public investment in Railtrack, will the Minister at least agree to match that investment with increased public control over how the money is spent?

Mr. Hill: As for Railtrack's financial position, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that yesterday Railtrack announced that it accepted the Rail Regulator's review of its access charges. It is looking for a successful conclusion of discussions with the Strategic Rail Authority and the Government on the timing of certain payments due under the review. The option of an interim review of on-going maintenance costs and other matters with the Office of the Rail Regulator remains open.

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The Government have told Railtrack that, in the next few months, we shall hold discussions with it in good faith, but that we cannot anticipate the outcome of those discussions.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): May I tell my hon. Friend about a particular transport difficulty in my constituency of Bury, North? It is possible to travel from the centre of Bury, South into Manchester, via the excellent Metrolink; and it is possible to travel from the centre of Bury, North to the very important town of Ramsbottom, via the East Lancashire railway; but it is not possible to travel from Ramsbottom into Manchester. Does he share my passion to renew for the citizens of Ramsbottom the rail link directly into Manchester that was cut by Dr. Beeching almost 40 years ago?

One of the options currently under discussion to re-establish the link is to gain access to track into Manchester for which Railtrack is responsible. Will my hon. Friend assure us that, in future discussions with Railtrack, integration with light railway systems and preservation of railway systems--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister knows what the hon. Gentleman wants from the question.

Mr. Hill: Mr. Speaker, as you very well know, as an old railway man myself I am extremely keen to see the restoration of any rail links where possible. I dare say that if I represented Bury, I would share my hon. Friend's passion for the restoration of the Ramsbottom link. A number of options are available for the restoration of such links. I recommend that he deals with his local authorities in investigating the possibility of a rail passenger partnership.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): The Government must have had confidence in Railtrack's investment programme or, on 16 November, they would not have produced a DETR press release stating that

on the rail recovery programme. The release clearly stated:

that was two months ago--

and that

The end of the year has come and gone, but most passengers do not notice any great improvement. Indeed, looking at the Deputy Prime Minister's expression in today's Daily Mail, I do not think that he believes that things have improved. We now have a new date--Easter--for improvements. Do the Government consider that date to be the judge and jury of their stewardship of the rail industry?

Mr. Hill: As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister explained in answer to a previous question, the announcement before Christmas was made on the basis of

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promises made by the late chief executive of Railtrack. We are now aware, of course, that there is a promise from Railtrack that 85 per cent. of the system will be returned to normal by the end of this month, with the prospect of the entire system operating normally by Easter. We take that promise very seriously and we expect the rail industry to deliver on it.

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