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8. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What progress the bed and breakfast unit has made in reducing the number of homeless households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. [36651]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): In September last year, 12,500 households were in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, of which some 6,500 were families with children. I regard that figure as unacceptably high. Based on the advice of the bed and breakfast unit, I hope to be able to make an announcement on the steps that we intend to take to reduce this number in the near future.

Dr. Cable: What estimate has the unit and the Secretary of State made of the additional demand for bed-and-breakfast accommodation as a result of new Government regulations in June that will substantially increase the number of homeless people to be rehoused by councils? Does he not recognise that this will cause severe problems for councils such as mine that are chronically short of social housing? To head off the pending crisis, will he therefore speak to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about reforming the system of housing benefit to enable social landlords to lease private accommodation for the homeless?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue about the relationship between housing benefit and the use of accommodation. It is one of a range of issues that we are considering in the context of making an announcement in the near future on how we intend to tackle the increasing number of households and families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The number is going up dramatically and that has to be brought to an end, but in a positive way in terms of the good accommodation that we should be able to offer to those who have to suffer bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We take this issue seriously and we will be making an announcement in the near future.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of social housing units for rent in London has plummeted

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since the mid-1990s? Does he agree that supply is the key? Will he do what he can to ensure that we get a settlement from the Treasury to tackle not only the crisis in bed-and-breakfast accommodation but the equally serious crisis that underpins it of chronic overcrowding? It is twice as high in London as it is in any other part of the country, leading to catastrophic consequences for families with children.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is a strong campaigner for decent housing for families with children. I would like to think that we will be able to respond positively to her representations and many of those made by my hon. Friends. It is a question of funding, and we are putting in additional resources. It is also a question of developers facing their obligations, particularly in London and the south-east. At present, we are able, through the planning process, to put obligations on affordable housing only where it is residential accommodation for which planning is proposed. It would make a lot of sense if we could put such an obligation on a commercial development that was proposed. We are consulting on whether such an obligation should be introduced.

Regional Governance

9. Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): What progress he has made on proposals for elected regional Government in England. [36652]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We are making good progress. A White Paper on regional governance will be presented to Parliament by the Deputy Prime Minister as soon as it is ready. It will set out the Government's plans for taking forward our manifesto commitment on elected regional government.

Mr. Wright: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I wished for a date to be given. There is lively debate in the regions on the pros and cons of regional government. Can my right hon. Friend tell us in broad terms what benefits he believes will flow to the regions that adopt the regional assembly approach? Furthermore, will the option for regional assemblies be open only to those areas that have unitary rather than two-tier government?

Mr. Raynsford: As my hon. Friend rightly points out, a debate is taking place, with different views emerging in various parts of the country. It is our view that people should have the opportunity, through a referendum, to determine the appropriate outcome in their region. A number of regions feel strongly that there would be benefits in having an elected regional assembly to give greater regional focus to economic development and related policies and to introduce a proper democratic framework to govern the activity of organisations that are accountable only to Ministers or are unelected quangos. Those regions perceive clear benefits in having an elected regional assembly.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), has already made

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clear, we will in our White Paper spell out the specific arrangements for the relationship of local government to elected regional assemblies where those are proposed.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the considerable need to review regional boundaries? The south-east Dorset conurbation, for example, has no road or rail communications worth talking about with the proposed regional seat of government. The Highways Agency now deals with this under a central southern region, shown on all its maps. Is the right hon. Gentleman now considering a central southern region?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has been around a long time and knows from experience that debates on boundaries are almost guaranteed to generate a long, protracted and not terribly productive outcome. For that reason, the Government have formed the view that it is right to work in the first instance on the basis of the government regions, as defined for the Government offices, which will provide sound building blocks. However, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the publication of the White Paper to see in detail how we propose to take forward the boundary arrangements for elected regional authorities.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): If voting in the referendum for regional government dictates the end of the county council tier, what implications will that have in any future reorganisation of local government? Would not a further referendum have to be held before a future Government could get rid of county councils?

Mr. Raynsford: As my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary made clear earlier, there is no agenda for the abolition of county councils, but we recognise the need to look at the relationship of local government to elected regional assemblies, where people determine through referendums that they want an elected regional assembly in their area. The precise way in which that will be handled will be spelt out in the White Paper.


10. Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): If he will make a statement on the progress towards establishing a company limited by guarantee to take over Railtrack plc's responsibilities relating to running the network. [36653]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): The team that has been engaged by the Strategic Rail Authority to develop a bid based on the concept of a company limited by guarantee is currently preparing its proposal. All potential bidders are aware that the administrator and the Government would like to keep the period of administration as short as possible.

Mr. Breed: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. What does the right hon. Gentleman expect the public expenditure required by the new company to be, and how much will be generated by private investment?

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Will that entail more moneys from the Treasury, over and above what has already been announced as part of the 10-year plan?

Mr. Byers: We shall have to await the business case that will be put by the bid team for the company limited by guarantee. Any bidder will have access to Government grant and track access charges and will be able to borrow on the financial markets on the basis of those two secured revenue streams. That is the current situation, but obviously the detail will depend on the proposal and the business case made by the company limited by guarantee or any other bidder.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): When my right hon. Friend next talks to Railtrack, will he ask whether something can be done about the Oulton Broad North level crossing? Because of an antiquated signalling system, the gates have to be lowered manually and are left down for five minutes to allow the passage of a two-carriage local train, thus blocking off one of the only two roads through the area. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need an integrated approach if the proposal made by Anglia Railways for more trains between Lowestoft and Norwich is not to cause chaos on the roads?

Mr. Byers: As it happens, I know the Oulton Broad North level crossing extremely well. I was on my way to campaign for my hon. Friend in the general election last year—successfully, of course—and, as all campaigners will understand, I was running behind schedule and then the level crossing gates came down, manually. It was even more frustrating because I wanted to be with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend has made an important point: we need to ensure that investment goes into the network. That includes the Oulton Broad North level crossing as well as the west coast main line.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): The Secretary of State has an entire Department of civil servants at his disposal—although the number is falling by the day. He

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has external consultants to advise him on the planning Green Paper, external consultants to advise him on his relations with the City and, of course, external consultants to advise the bidder for the company limited by guarantee. Is the SRA's cost for putting together a bid for a company limited by guarantee counted as public sector investment?

Mr. Byers: The SRA is meeting the costs of the bid team from within its resources and will be accounted accordingly.

Mrs. May: So it comes within the public sector.

The Secretary of State told the House that total investment in the railways would be £64.9 billion over the next 10 years, but analysis shows that a third of that is accounted for by inflation, a quarter of it is double counting and a third of the remainder is ongoing renewals and maintenance work: so the real figure for investment for improving the railways over the next 10 years is not £65 billion, as the Secretary of State told the House, but less than £20 billion. Will the right hon. Gentleman apologise to the House, or does he just regret giving the wrong impression?

As this is the last DTLR Question Time before the Easter reshuffle, I just want to say to the Secretary of State—goodbye.

Mr. Byers: There are important issues that need to be addressed. Whether it is the hon. Lady saying bye-bye to me, or me saying bye-bye to her, time will tell. Under the 10-year plan, £64.9 billion will be invested in the railways. Those are the figures and that is the money that will be invested. The hon. Lady should not rely on the comments made in some of the newspapers. Those are the figures and that is the amount that will be delivered. The important issue for the Government and for me is that, whereas the hon. Lady may reflect the priorities of the Westminster village, the Government and I will deliver on the priorities of the people of our country. Those priorities are improving our transport system, decent housing for our people, regeneration of our economy and ensuring that we deliver for all our people. That is what I intend to do, and that is what I shall continue to do.

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