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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 May 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Transas Group Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 21 May.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Social Housing

1. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement on his policy for (a) improving the quality of and (b) increasing the quantity of social housing. [112970]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): On 5 February I launched the sustainable community action plan. It marks a step change in our approach to housing in communities. We will invest £22 billion over the next three years, including £5 billion for affordable homes and £2.8 billion to bring local authority housing up to decent housing standards.

Mr. Swayne : My district council has been attempting to sell a mobile homes park in Ringwood to its residents, who in turn have made an enormous effort to raise the mortgage money. The deal has been jeopardised by the abolition of local authority social housing grant. What can I say to the residents of Stillwater mobile homes park to reassure them that they will not be left behind, and that they will get a fair deal?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the local authority housing condition grants were not being used in a proper manner. Some authorities were not using them to provide the social housing for which they were intended. I explained to the House why I had changed the arrangements in the community plan. Difficulties were caused for projects that were half finished, so we have applied different arrangements from those that are in the process of implementation. The project referred to by the hon. Gentleman does not fall into that class, and I assume that a certain amount of planning took place in the hope that the money would be available.

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On balance, I think that our judgment was correct. I think that what the hon. Gentleman should tell his constituents is that the argument was very much against the implementation of the right-to-buy policy in this instance.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Will my right hon. Friend explain exactly how social housing will be improved by the warm homes initiative?

The Deputy Prime Minister: In the community programmes we allow for money not just to build houses but to enable them to meet the new energy standards that we are applying. That is not happening in most parts of the country, and I shall ensure that greater priority is given to it.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): The Deputy Prime Minister has claimed in the past that abuses of the right-to-buy scheme reduce the availability of social housing for new tenants. On Monday, the Government introduced their plans for savage cuts in the discounts available to right-to-buy tenants. Are those cuts designed to stamp out abuses, or simply to deny the right to buy to thousands of poorer tenants?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that where there is abuse we should deal with it, because this is the taxpayer's money, but the reduction in interest rates under our policies—which is considerably greater than any reduction that occurred when his party were in government—has allowed more than 1 million people to buy their houses. The subsidy of nearly £40 billion simply allowing people to buy houses, rather than allowing the public stock to be improved or increased, worked against a good housing policy.

David Davis: May I drag the Deputy Prime Minister back to the question? Cutting discounts by more than half will not hit the abusers; it will hit the poorest tenants. Only on Monday the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), confessed that these savage cuts were designed to reduce the number of families exercising the right to buy by 9,000—and it will be 9,000 of the poorest families.

Most of those families cannot afford to move out of social housing, so few if any of the homes will be released to new tenants. According to the figures given by the Under-Secretary of State on Monday, only about 30 homes a year will be released for new tenants in London. Denying the right to buy to 9,000 families will deny the public purse £900 million—about enough for 5,000 new social homes.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that what he is doing is not only shattering the hopes and dreams of 9,000 poor council tenants who wanted to own their homes, but denying thousands of homeless people their chance of occupying social housing?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If the last Administration had been seriously interested in increasing the housing stock and the availability of social housing, they would not have reduced the moneys available to local authorities to provide social housing, year on year.

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Their sole housing policy was to provide the right to buy. We have restricted that by reducing the discounts in housing crisis areas. We think that that policy is right, and we intend to pursue it.

I repeat: I think that our policy of reducing interest rates is better than spending £40 billion on subsidising houses simply to implement the principle of the right to buy for 1 million people, and it increases the number of people owning their homes by the same amount. The right hon. Gentleman should have discussed that during his most recent bonding session with his leader.

Planning System

2. Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West): What resources he will give to local authorities to speed up the planning system. [112941]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has a comprehensive planning reform agenda. We are tackling the structure, processes and culture of the planning system. We accept that authorities need more resources to deliver service improvements, so we are making an additional £350 million available to them over the next three years for planning, of which £50 million is already being distributed this year.

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful for that reply, but does my hon. Friend accept that the UK's renewables industry has often faced very significant delays in obtaining decisions through the planning system, whether favourable or unfavourable? Given the considerable potential of renewables to deliver the significant environmental benefits that the Energy White Paper refers to, the extra jobs that could be created in the manufacturing and offshore industries, and the new income streams for rural areas that renewables could deliver, is it not now time that the planning system had a presumption in favour of renewables, rather than the neutral position that it currently takes?

Mr. McNulty: I commend my hon. Friend for his work on behalf of the all-party group on renewable and sustainable energy, and for his interest in this area. Planning policy guidance 22, which is 10 years out of date, does need updating. Among other things, the criteria must include greater clarity and less delay, but I am afraid that it would be totally wrong for the planning system to have a presumption in favour of any type of development.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): For the benefit of those of us who could not serve on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill Standing Committee, can the Minister tell us when the House will consider it on Report? He says that he wants to speed up the planning system, yet the Committee finished its proceedings four months ago. Is it not true that delays in the planning system are more down to central Government than to local authorities?

Mr. McNulty: I would very much like to tell the hon. Gentleman that he was sorely missed in Committee, but

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he was not. It is certainly still our intention to get that Bill approved and on the statute book as soon as we possibly can.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): In Redhill—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] That is the only example of turkeys appearing to be in favour of Christmas—a Christmas that I am trying to arrange for them. In Redhill, a major development by Linden Homes, involving more than 500 homes and including a significant amount of social housing, has been mired in the planning process for more than a decade and a half. It is running into planning problems with Network Rail, as access to the site is required from underneath a railway line. I am meeting representatives of Network Rail and Linden Homes next week, and I should be very grateful if the Minister could get an official from his Department to observe that meeting and report back to him on how Network Rail is going to assist in getting us through the planning process.

Mr. McNulty: Strangely, in recent weeks I have listened far more carefully to the hon. Gentleman than previously. However, I am afraid that I am unable to comment on specific planning applications, as they might end up on my desk or those of my colleagues.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton): Although I welcome the extra resources that local authorities will get during this period, is the Minister prepared to consider the financing of local authorities that have a lot of difficulty in, and spend a great deal of money on, removing illegal encampments of travellers? Will he please meet a delegation from my local authority, which has spent well in excess of £100,000 in legal fees just to ensure that the planning process runs smoothly?

Mr. McNulty: I accept that this is a serious issue, and I have had numerous meetings on it. I am more than happy to meet a delegation from Nuneaton to discuss it further.

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