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19 Nov 2002 : Column 603—continued

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Wonderful.

Norman Lamb: The Conservative spokesman says Xwonderful", but the effect is that an ever-decreasing number of houses are available to rent for people who desperately need them.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman mentions the Conservative right-to-buy policy. He is doubtless aware that all the proceeds from houses purchased from housing associations will be reapplied to build more houses, thus providing more stock for people who want to enter the affordable housing sector. What is important is not the number of houses, but their availability. It is those extra houses that will be afforded as a result of proceeds from the right to buy.

Norman Lamb: That sounds all well and good, but it simply will not be possible to deliver on that. To start with, where will the money come from? It will not be possible to get one for one, quite apart from the impact on the finances of housing associations, which are having to borrow on the money market on the assumption that they will keep those properties for rent.

At the same time as we are losing housing stock to the right to buy, waiting list applications continue to grow. Between 1998 and 2002, the numbers in North Norfolk have more than doubled, and homeless applications are up by nearly 50 per cent. in two years. Overall, there are fewer homes, more people needing homes, and a lower turnover of homes, so the situation continues to get worse.

The planning system is failing to provide sufficient new affordable homes. North Norfolk has a local plan. Only for developments of more than 25 properties is a developer required to provide a mix of affordable homes. That quota was introduced by the inspector, following a public inquiry; the local authority wanted to establish a figure of 12 properties in respect of such developments. We are stuck with that quota because it takes so long to review the local plan. On top of that, developers manipulate the system to delay the building of affordable homes for as long as possible. The planning system must be capable of responding more quickly to changing circumstances. It takes years to review the local plan. We are stuck with a system in a rural area where there are very few developments of 25 properties or more, so very few affordable homes are being built.

The exceptions policy was designed to allow affordable homes to be built outside the normal development envelope of a village. In all the years it has been available in north Norfolk, it has been used only

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twice. About 15 properties have been built as a result of that policy. It is a bureaucratic system that does not work.

On housing, there has been a real sense of inertia from the Government. So far, they have been unwilling and unable to meet the scale of the crisis that is developing in many communities across the country.

9.31 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) for her sensitive speech about the drug problem in her constituency. Such problems are echoed in many other constituencies.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) mentioned flood management, which is a problem in my constituency. There is a need for a new strategy and perhaps legislation to deal with the alleviation of flood risk. We need more investment and a change in the priorities and the powers given to the Environment Agency rather than leaving local authorities to deal with flood alleviation.

I am pleased that the issue of hunting with dogs is to be resolved. Monmouthshire has a longstanding tradition of hunting, and I am conscious that there is support for hunting within the farming community. Essentially, that support is for the role that hunting plays in helping to control foxes, which are a threat to livestock, and the role of the hunt in removing fallen stock. That support is based on the principle of utility, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has introduced into the debate. The representations that I have received from constituents in urban and rural areas have overwhelmingly supported the view that the hunting of foxes and other mammals with dogs for the purpose of sport is morally wrong. I have voted in accordance with that view and will do so again when the new measure is debated.

I acknowledge the need to control foxes, which are a threat to livestock. We also need to provide an alternative method of disposing of fallen stock when hunting has been abolished. I have supported amendments in previous legislation that will call for state support for a livestock disposal service. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider that when drawing up the forthcoming legislation.

I welcome the proposals to reform the court system. I recently visited Gwent court service in Cwmbran to hear of the proposals to rationalise the court structure. Although that will involve the closure of certain existing courts, a major new court facility in Abergavenny will be developed, combining the civil courts and the magistrates courts. It will be well equipped with new technology and the use of television evidence will be possible.

I welcome the proposed draft housing Bill to improve the process of buying and selling properties. The buying and selling of a home is one of the most stressful events undertaken by most people. Proposals that require the provision of seller's packs should ease the pressure. Other housing measures include the proposal to improve the housing environment in low-demand areas. The licensing of houses in multiple occupation is especially welcome because it aims to improve standards

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for people in some of the worst housing conditions. It will require the local authorities and fire services to visit properties to check on their condition. It follows the provisions in the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), which had to be withdrawn at the end of the previous Session. I hope that the Government will consider the home energy provisions that were in that Bill and include them in the new legislation.

I welcome the announcement on antisocial behaviour orders, which will now be available to housing associations. In my constituency I have dealt with a number of cases of antisocial behaviour on housing association estates. I have noticed the frustration of the police and the housing associations at the fact that only the local authority can instigate such orders. It is a welcome announcement that should increase the number of antisocial behaviour orders and address one of the most distressing and unpleasant aspects of life on certain estates.

I welcome the opportunity for people to vote in referendums on regional assemblies in England. Wales and Scotland have shown that there are advantages to democratic devolutions. In Wales, we have seen a renewed confidence about our nation, with better representation for the more deprived areas, as a result of the introduction of the National Assembly for Wales. We have also had a fairer voting system through the additional member system in the Welsh Assembly. We have had better representation of women and the appointment of a Cabinet that has more women than men. What other Parliament or Assembly in a democratic country has that?

Devolution in Wales has also meant Welsh solutions for Welsh problems. We have had a distinct approach—in education more than in other policy areas—with the reintroduction of student maintenance grants for higher education—a measure that I sincerely hope will be followed in England. We have also seen the abolition of SATs in primary schools and the emphasis on true comprehensive schools rather than specialist schools. The Queen's Speech also included the National Health Service (Wales) Bill, which will retain the community health councils that will be replaced in England.

We also have planning policies that will retain the structure—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have just arrived in the Chair and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not reading a speech into the record. This is a debating Chamber and it is not for the hon. Gentleman to read a speech.

Mr. Edwards: I accept the point that you make, Mr. Speaker. I was conscious that it was difficult to concentrate, given the amount of noise in the Chamber this evening.

I hope that one important measure will be introduced, as part of the Railways and Transport Safety Bill, to reduce overcrowding on buses. That will also require amendments to the Education Act 1944, which allows the three-for-two rule that contributes to considerable overcrowding on buses taking pupils to school. That is an especial problem in my constituency. Many hon. Members would be disturbed to realise that a 48-seater bus can take an additional 24 passengers sitting as well as another 20 passengers standing, which leads to considerable overcrowding.

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We have had an interesting Queen's Speech debate and I am pleased to have contributed to it. I hope that the Government are able to proceed with their policies for improving public services and to continue to improve their economic and social policies as a result.

9.37 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): There are a couple of measures in the Queen's Speech that we can welcome. We obviously welcome the legislation to set up a rail accident investigatory branch. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that we welcome that legislation, because as long ago as 1999 my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), as shadow transport Minister, called for precisely that measure. While we will study the detail of the Bill, I assure the Secretary of State that the official Opposition will not seek to cause him needless difficulty on it.

My constituency, in common with those of hon. Members on both sides of the House, will undoubtedly benefit from the Government's decision—in response to cross-party lobbying from several hon. Members—to allow local authorities in England to have the same discretion that local authorities in Wales already enjoy to decide for themselves whether to retain the 50 per cent. discount on council tax. However, I would press the Secretary of State to reply to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) about whether the Government will guarantee not to reduce the grant provided to local authorities availing themselves of that new right, so that they end up better off. He also asked whether the Government's undertaking to allow local authorities to spend the full receipts received from imposing the 50 per cent. or higher rate on second homes also applies to any revenue coming in from the application of that tax to empty homes. If the Secretary of State is not able to respond to those points—even though they were originally made some hours ago by my hon. Friend—I hope that he will ask the Deputy Prime Minister to write to my hon. Friend and me, and other interested Members, on that point.

The Deputy Prime Minister was unable to respond to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) about whether the Government were as concerned as they should be about the lack of social housing. He said that the reduction in the amount of new social housing built since the Government took office in 1997 has meant that there are 35,000 fewer social houses than there would have been had they maintained the status quo that they inherited. The Deputy Prime Minister could say only that that was a very good point. However, he had no answer, and he did not say what he would do to resolve the problem.

In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that regional government would end up being what shire county residents have always feared, and that voters in cities would have the right to override the wishes of voters in shire counties. The Government have the nerve to call that a democratic exercise.

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The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, made it clear that his party wants more regional government. He said that Liberal Democrats for many years had been strong advocates of regional government.

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