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Roger Casale (Wimbledon): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent debate that took place on Tuesday night at the inaugural sitting of the Standing Committee on the Future of Europe Convention. In his
Mr. Cook: We are, of course, considering the very thoughtful and far-reaching report of the European Scrutiny Committee, and we will return to the matter in the autumn when we issue the Government's response. I am not sure that I am immediately attracted to the idea of establishing another Committee in this area as a way of resolving the issue. As I have told the House before, I think that it is important that Europe should form a part of the work of all the departmental Select Committees, to ensure that they have mainstreamed the European dimension. However, I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the extraordinary Committee that we have set up to hear reports from our delegates to the future of Europe convention. The Committee is an innovation, and it hears from the Back Benchers who report to it and not from Ministers. I believe moreover that it is a useful innovation that is right for the current circumstances.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Can we have an early debate on the Government's ideas about changing the way in which money is distributed to local authorities? It appears that they are currently considering three proposals that will result in substantial reductions in the amount going to councils such as the Wokingham unitary authority. We find that very difficult to reconcile with their statements about there being more money for schools and social care. Can we have a proper debate about what the Government are proposing, so my right hon. and hon. Friends and I can have the opportunity to represent our councils and constituencies, which may suffer a lot as a result of the proposals? We are quite happy to stay on for another couple of days to finish the job.
Mr. Cook: I am not entirely sure that the right hon. Gentleman understood what I said in announcing the business for the week after the recess, as I announced that that issue would be a matter for debate on the very first day when we return to the House. In the meantime, I remind him that the Government have published options. We have expressed no preference as regards those options, which are out for consultation; and as a result of the representation that I received last Thursday, the House will have a full opportunity to debate them as soon as we return. I would have thought that that would be welcome to the House.
Mr. Cook: I cannot hope to match the literary flair with which my hon. Friend asks his question. [Hon. Members: "He's wrong!"] I can only hope that we manage to get some summer and autumn between spring and winter, although the matter appears in doubt at the present time.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): The Leader of the House will be aware that in previous debates on the future of the Post Office, we have been assured that the universal service obligation is sacrosanct. He will also be aware that Consignia is currently trialling a scheme that may lead to small businesses being charged extra for the delivery of their mail before 9 am. Does he not agree that that appears to be a breach of the universal service obligation and the universal tariff, and will he ensure that the House has a debate on this important and disturbing development as soon as possible?
Mr. Cook: The universal service obligation certainly stands as a cornerstone of our relationships with Consignia and the Royal Mail, and indeed there is no suggestion that there will be a withdrawal of a universal service obligation to make a delivery to every premise six days a week. The pilot studies that have been proposed will affect only those premises that receive fewer than 15 letters a day, if I recall rightly. Those premises will get a delivery every day, although getting it before 9 o'clock may, in the pilots, be as a result of an additional charge. But these are pilots; there has been no universal decision yet for the country as a whole, and I am pleased that the Royal Mail appears to be reflecting on those pilots in the light of discussions.
[That this House calls on the Government to strengthen its precautionary approach to the siting of mobile phone masts by introducing a moratorium on sites on or near to schools and by re-drafting PPG8 to make it clear that planning authorities can reject applications on the grounds of local public health concerns.]
The motion has been signed by 90 Members on both sides of the House. I signed it this week in the light of events that have taken place in Boldmere and in Wishaw in my constituency, which are causing great concern. Will the Leader of the House consider whether PPG8 should now be redrafted to ensure a better balance between the necessary commercial priorities of mobile phone companies and the rights of those affected by their decisions?
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Government's plans for a step change in our policies for building successful, thriving communities. The Chancellor has been generous. He has given a good settlement for local authorities, regional development agencies, regeneration, housing and planning. Today, I want to talk about two elementshousing and planningof our settlement to provide decent, affordable homes for people wherever they live, and I want the House to join together to make a step change in our approach.
Anyone looking at the record over the past decades will recognise that all Governments have failed to meet the housing needs of our people. There has been a continuing decline in the provision of all houses, social and private. We in the House should recognise that we have failed to meet the needs of this generation, let alone those of our children. The situation will get worse unless we take radical action now.
In the past 30 years, we have seen unprecedented economic growth, rising incomes, smaller households, and people living longer. We have seen an increasing demand for housing, but overall, we are building 150,000 fewer homes today than we were 30 years ago. It is no wonder that house prices are rocketing, and no wonder that many people cannot afford to live where they were born, in both urban and rural areas.
There are different problems in different places. We are failing to adjust to geographic changes in economic activity, failing to tackle abandonment and dereliction, and failing to provide homes for teachers, nurses and other key workers. We are placing our public services under pressure because they cannot get enough skilled staff. So today, I am announcing a step change in housing policy. I propose to do that by promoting sustainable communities, making the best use of our land, increasing development on brownfield sites and protecting and enhancing our green belt and valuable countryside.
The shortage of housing in London and the south-east is causing record housing costs, which are impacting directly on living standards. They are making it more expensive for companies and public services to recruit and retain staff, and more difficult for young people to get a foot on the housing ladder. They are also affecting our public services and forcing more families into bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Two years ago, in regional planning guidance 9, I put in place a "plan, monitor and manage" approach to planning for additional housing in the south-east. I said then that local authorities should provide for new homes at the rate of 23,000 a year in London and 39,000 a year in the wider south-east. Today we have to be open and honest, and recognise that those targets are simply not being met. We estimate that, over the last two years, the shortfall was approximately 10,000 homes, which has contributed to our problems. We can no longer allow this to continue. I am therefore announcing today a number of measures that will meet the real pressures and challenges that we face.
First, I will insist that all local authorities deliver the housing numbers set out in regional planning guidance. Tackling housing shortage is a national responsibility and we must all play our partcentrally and in local government alike. I am therefore putting local authorities on notice that, where they fail to meet their targets, I will take action to intervene.
Secondly, I will accelerate the existing proposals for significant growth in the four growth areas identified in regional planning guidance for the south-east. Two years ago, I asked for reports to be prepared on the potential growth in the Thames gateway, Ashford, the Milton Keynes area and the London-Stansted-Cambridge area. Those studies are complete or nearing completion, and they show how economic development will increase the number of homes we need.
Over the coming months, taking account of those studies, I will work with regional and local partners in each of the four areas to establish where, at what scale and how quickly that growth can be achieved. Overall, we estimate that at least 200,000 new homes can be created in those growth areas. In the Thames gateway in particular, I will be putting a renewed emphasis on delivery and, in discussion with the Thames Gateway Partnership, I will establish new means of delivering rapid regeneration.
Thirdly, we need to make better use of land by improving design, increasing densities and using brownfield sites to the full. In 1998, I committed the Government to a target that 60 per cent. of new homes should be on brownfield land. I am happy to report that the target has been achieved eight years earlier than predicted, but we need to keep up the pressure.
To help with that, I will establish a register of surplus brownfield land held by the Government and public bodies. I am instructing English Partnerships to use its new role on brown fields to search out and to deliver even more land for housing. I can also announce that we will be proceeding with a further three millennium communities in east Ketley, Milton Keynes and Hastings. That will add to the four we have already agreed in east Manchester, Allerton Bywater, Greenwich and King's Lynn, bringing the number of communities to seven and the homes that will be delivered to more than 6,000.
To produce more sustainable development, however, we must use land more efficiently to reduce the overall land take. To do that, I am announcing that I intend to intervene in planning applications for housing that involve a density of less than 30 dwellings per hectare. I am also setting a new target to protect valuable countryside. Since 1997, I have increased the green belt by 30,000 hectares. Today, I can announce for the first time a public service agreement target committing us to protecting the valuable countryside around our towns and our cities, and in the green belt.
We will not tolerate urban sprawl and we will not concrete over the south-east, as some have speculated in the press, or any other region, but housing pressures in London and the south-east are acute and they require ambitious solutions. My strategy of providing for sustainable, high-quality, well planned communities in the growth areas will benefit everyone. It will mean that we reduce the pressures elsewhere in the south-east and it will protect valuable countryside for the benefit and enjoyment of all.
There is a need not just for more homes, but for more homes that people can afford. We have said, "Schools and hospitals first." That means special attention for helping nurses, teachers and other public service workers to get affordable homes. Since 1997, the Government have almost doubled the funding for affordable housing, to £1.2 billion a year, and this is now supporting the creation of 20,000 new affordable homes every year.
Subject to further detailed consideration of how best to use the new money available, we will now be able to increase the funding to provide additional homes for key workers and new social housing for the homeless and families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In addition to that new funding, we will be looking for ways to extend our existing programmes for affordable housing through a greater partnership with employers and public and private landlords.
The problems in the north and the midlands are different, but just as pressing. Some of our towns and cities are experiencing a renaissance in their economic and cultural fortunes, but many also have communities where properties are almost worthless, leaving people trapped in negative equity and facing the problems associated with social exclusion. We are building the wrong kind of houses in the wrong places and failing to tackle fully the urban decay associated with that.
Earlier this year we announced the creation of nine Pathfinder projects in the north to tackle the most acute problems of low demand and abandonment in the north and the midlands. Those projects will help to tackle the blight afflicting properties in the Pathfinder areas. Following European Union approval, we will go ahead with our new housing gap-funding scheme, which will allow support for housing programmes where the market price is less than the cost of development.
We will also reinforce our efforts to improve the overall condition of housing, and to ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. In 1997, we released £5 billion of capital receipts to target the backlog of repairs to council homes. Over the last five years we have trebled council funding for housing to £2.4 billion a year, and in 2000 we set ourselves the challenging target of making all social housing decent by 2010. Those actions have allowed us to make good progress on housing conditions.
Overall, 1.7 million improvements have been made to council homes, and we are well on track to meet our interim target of bringing a third of the worst social housing550,000 homesup to a decent standard by 2004. We will work towards that target by devoting even more resources to refurbishment, by allowing all local authority arm's-length housing companies to apply for additional funding, and by reviewing all policies that contribute to our 2010 decent homes target to ensure that they are as effective as possible and provide value for money.
Not just social housing needs attention. People in the private sector suffer some of our worst housing conditions. All too often, housing benefit funds the provision of unfit housing, to the detriment of the tenant and the benefit of the landlord. That is unacceptable. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will legislate to tackle the minority of unscrupulous landlords and boost our drive against poor conditions. Over the last five years we have given local authorities funds to help improve
We are investing large sums in improving all housing, so we must have an inspection regime that drives up standards across the board and ensures reform. I can now announce that I will establish a single housing inspectorate, building on the excellent work of the Audit Commission and the Housing Corporation. I can also announce that we will establish strong regional bodies, going with the grain of our proposals for regional governance. Those bodies will bring housing investment together in a single regional pot, and will link that investment with planning, infrastructure and economic growth strategies. I will announce further details later in the year when I have discussed them with key stakeholders, and I will establish the new arrangements as soon as possible.
To achieve a step change, we need to increase resources for the planning system and bring about much-needed reform. We are therefore providing an extra £350 million for the planning system over the next three years. That money must be targeted where it will improve performance the mostand I give notice that if poor performance does not improve, I will intervene.
The extra money will be linked to reform. Today I am publishing three documents: our response to the recent planning Green Paper consultation and supporting papers on compulsory purchase and on our regional and local plans. Copies are available in the Library.
The documents contain extensive reforms. Let me summarise some of the key points. First, we will give counties a new statutory role in underpinning the new regional planning system, but we will abolish the county structure plans themselves. Secondly, we will introduce business planning zones to deliver growth, jobs and productivity without sacrificing quality of development. Thirdly, I will speed up the planning of major infrastructure projects by setting out the Government's objectives in clear policy statements, and changing inquiry processes to make them more efficient. I have accepted the Select Committee's argument that the parliamentary procedures for major infrastructure projects are not the best way forward. Finally, I will not change the right for objectors to make their case to the inspector at inquiries into plans but I will take action to speed up the inquiry process.
The proposals that I have announced today focus on creating sustainable communities that will meet the needs of all, regardless of where they live or the size of their pocket, but they are just the start. I will return to the House by the end of the year with a comprehensive long-term programme of action. That will meet the different needs of both the north and the south. Whether it is key workers in need of affordable accommodation or families trapped by negative equity, we must work together to find solutions to those problems.
Our long-term programme will link policies on housing, planning, transport, education, health and regenerationessential for the sustainability of our communities. It will demand a new standard in how we build houses and communities, seeking improvements in density, design, environmental standards and, yes,
This is a strategy for the long term. We know the problems. We have the commitment. We have the resources to make that start. We must recognise in the country and on both sides of this House that we have not done enough over the years. We need more homes where people want to live, near where they work, in the north and in the south, at a price that people can afford and in a way that protects our countryside.