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7 Jan 2003 : Column 85—continued

Mr. Raynsford: Does the right hon. Gentleman care to recall the similar provisions relating to local authority housing revenue accounts that his Government—and possibly even he as a Minister—introduced? They were very similar in many respects to those in part 2, which relate to general local authority funding. If he wishes to do away with part 2, why did he introduce similar measures relating to housing?

Sir George Young: My speaking notes contained a section on part 2 that I skipped over because of time pressure. The Government have produced no evidence to show that the controls in clauses 25 and 28 to 30 are necessary other than for a few poorly performing local authorities, and nor am I convinced that the controls would have much impact on such authorities. They simply impose further central prescription on the setting and monitoring of budgets. For most local authorities, existing financial reporting arrangements are wholly adequate.

On clause 78, which deals with bands, I have a lot of sympathy with the points that have been made about the need for a new band at the lower end of the scale, where a number of properties are caught up in a band that is too broad. I have deep reservations, however, about the introduction of a new band at the top end. In the south-east, where house price inflation has taken off, people would suddenly find themselves in a new band and discover that their bills had increased without any change in their circumstances or the services that they receive. If the Government continue piling pressure on the council tax payer, they may find that the consensus on the council tax as an acceptable means of funding local government disappears. In that case, they would be in choppy waters indeed.

I welcome clauses 87 and 88, which deal with housing strategies, although the housing strategy for many local authorities in the south-east will have to be revised because of the impact of the new capital receipts regime. I pause over clause 89, which implies that tenants of indifferent local authorities are to be doubly penalised. First, they have to put up with a bad landlord, but secondly, their housing revenue account will get less subsidy from the Secretary of State because of their having a bad landlord and their rents will therefore be higher. I would like to attend the meeting at which the Minister explains that measure to the tenants of a Labour-controlled inner-city authority.

Clause 90 makes a major change to the housing revenue account, but leaves unaddressed the grievance of tenants in that regard. It is indeed the case that better-off tenants resent subsiding less well-off ones. The notes on the clause criticise the current arrangements because

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they are not well understood. The trouble is that they are only too well understood by the tenants who have looked at them. They want the subsidy that is provided to less well-off tenants through housing benefit to be removed from the HRA so that their rents can decrease. Clause 90 achieves the first objective but not the second. Housing benefit is taken out of the housing revenue account, but an identical sum is instead paid to the Secretary of State. I doubt whether tenants will derive any comfort from the fact that their rent is no longer going to their neighbour, but to the Government. I believe that we considered that solution, which in my time involved something called negative E7s, and rejected it as more difficult to explain to tenants than the current system. I wish the Minister good luck with that.

I should like to make two short final points. First, I hope that the Government will look again at the impact of pooling on the housing programmes of authorities in the south-east, where there is a desperate shortage of affordable housing currently funded by the local authority social housing grant and where that may be removed. Secondly, notwithstanding the fact that there may be only six Standing Committee sittings on the Bill, my interest on Second Reading does not extend to serving on that Committee.

7.16 pm

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). Unlike him, however, I do not find the Bill boring and or lacking a theme. Its theme is the devolution of powers to the local level. Its aim is to use those powers to drive up standards in the vital services that our local authorities deliver. I am extremely pleased that it is before the House and that my right hon. Friend the Minister is putting it before us.

It is anything but boring to talk about business improvement districts, which are desperately needed in areas such as my own. It is also anything but boring to look at the way in which elections impact on people and schools. Holding two lots of elections in 2004 would do a disservice to the schools in my community. [Interruption.] Yes, it would. Schools would be closed twice. Also, the public can get election fatigue. There is no danger of a very intelligent public confusing the two elections. They will simply be grateful that we are giving them the opportunity to vote once instead of twice. Even though we may not consider that politics can occasionally get boring, believe you me, it can. In the context of all the other pronouncements that I have heard about local government, which can, dare I say it, be extremely boring, the Bill is not. In fact, it verges on being exciting, although I hesitate to use that adjective in terms of local government.

I am concerned about one provision, however, as my earlier intervention illustrated: clause 11 and, in particular, the subsection dealing with capital receipts and debt-free authorities. I represent the new town of Stevenage. I turned 60 on Christmas day and Stevenage is just a little bit younger than me. [Hon. Members: XNo."] What gallant hon. Members we have in this House. However, I can assure hon. Members that, underneath the facade and the decorative application, I am wearing, just as Stevenage is wearing. However, Stevenage does not have the benefit of the decorative application, and of the Polyfilla that I put on before appearing in this Chamber.

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In fact, bits of Stevenage are really showing their almost 60-year-old age. One school has seven miles of flat roof. Has anybody got any idea what it costs to repair seven miles of leaking flat roof? Most of the public buildings in Stevenage have flat roofs, because in the late '50s and early '60s, which I remember well, we thought that it was a Xbrave new world" thing to do to build flat roofs. Now we do not, because we now know the problems that flat roofs cause, but we have them in Stevenage, and Harlow and Hemel Hempstead have them too. In fact, six debt-free new towns have huge infrastructure problems. Although I and others in Stevenage understand the redistributive drive behind the need to pool capital receipts, it will cost us dear and will make it impossible for us to deliver the regeneration that we need in these ageing new towns.

We in Stevenage need a completely revamped town centre. We have huge parking problems because when the town was built in the '60s, it was built for people who had one car or, in the main, no car at all. There is a real problem with parking on grass verges, which we have to address. Part of the #14.4 million that my right hon. Friend rightly said has not been spent on housing in Stevenage has been spent on trying to improve the infrastructure and other local services. The population of Stevenage happens to be particularly needy. We have the highest level of teenage pregnancy in Hertfordshire, and we have to devote a great deal of time and money to social services. Stevenage is one of the few authorities that still gives free milk to school children in the morning. We do this because many of our children come to school having had no breakfast. My husband is the chair of governors in what used to be the worst performing school in Stevenage—thankfully, it has now risen to the middle ranks—and one area that was pinpointed was the fact that the children are hungry. So we give them milk, but this costs money.

Stevenage also has a very high proportion of pensioners. Because it is a new town, most of the people moved there at about the same time, and like me, they are all ageing together. In fact, in Stevenage my age is quite average. Members who got married 20 to 30 years ago, and who suddenly find that every towel is threadbare and that they put their feet through every sheet and duvet that they pick up, will understand the problems experienced by a new town. It is a trousseau problem—everything wears out simultaneously, and that is what is happening in the new towns. We desperately need our capital receipts to provide regeneration, and to provide the services that a slightly hostile, Conservative-controlled county council is not being very helpful with. We need our youth services and the children's play schemes that we run during the school holidays to enable mothers—we have a lot of single mothers—to go out to work.

I therefore beg my right hon. Friend to look at the new towns in particular, and to consider some alleviation in the pooling of capital receipts. I know that he said that we will get back what we say we will spend on housing, but unfortunately some of our need relates not just to housing but to services. Unless we deliver those services, we will be failing the people of our towns. I should point out with the greatest sincerity that it is very difficult indeed for Stevenage borough council—it

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has been Labour controlled ever since Stevenage became a new town, and is currently the only Labour authority in Hertfordshire—to deliver what it wants to deliver for the people of the town without some alleviation.

I am proud of what Labour has done for Stevenage, and I am very proud indeed of what it has done since 1983. My right hon. Friend said that the new towns received a gift of free housing, but I know that we did not. When that housing was transferred in 1983, we incurred a debt of #66.6 million, which was repayable on a 40-year annuity. We repaid that debt up until 1996, when it was cancelled in return for a reduction in our housing subsidy. So we are still paying it, and I beg my right hon. Friend to look again at how the new towns have repaid that gift of housing stock. I should also like him to consider the state of that gift when we received it. A lot of it consists of poor and experimental housing, and some of it is prefab housing. There are two extremely needy wards in my constituency, and the reason why they are so needy is because of the state of the housing.

I welcome the Bill and the aims of my right hon. Friend, but I ask him to pay particular attention to the needs of the ageing new towns, which, like Stevenage's ageing MP, need a little tender loving care.


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