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Mr. Skinner: On the question of housing, my right hon. Friend knows that in Bolsover a considerable amount of money—millions of pounds—has gone into renovating some of the old Coal Board properties, which is welcome. However, there is a problem—which is, I suspect, the big conversation in Bolsover—namely, council houses. I was up there the other week discussing how there could be a level playing field for authorities such as Bolsover and others that do not want to hand over their council housing stock on principle.

Can I have a guarantee, a little bit better than what was said on 18 June this year, that no local authorities will be penalised if they hang on to their council stock? In other words, if money is to be given for handing over the stock, there should be an equivalent amount for keeping it.

The Deputy Prime Minister: When I visited my hon. Friend's constituency, the tenants made it absolutely clear that they lived in an area that they liked and they wanted to stay there, but they wanted the properties improved because they were all clearly in desperate need of a great deal of investment. We have developed a whole range of policies: some authorities have transferred housing functions to private finance initiatives or trusts—

Mr. Skinner: We do not want that.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am well aware of that.

In addition, the policy on arm's-length management organisations recognises that local authorities can, if they wish, borrow money and keep housing under their

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control. In the case to which my hon. Friend is referring, the housing stemmed from the coalfield communities and the coal industry and, as he knows, we are discussing with the council a number of options for meeting the capital requirements necessary to improve the properties. [Hon. Members: That means no then.] Discussion with the Tory Administration may have meant no. If hon. Members look at the record they will find that the Tories had no money to put into housing, but we have made resources available. I have been looking at the record of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), one of about six shadow Secretaries of State. I cannot keep up with it, but I think that he is the leader of the group of shadow Secretaries of State. Over five or six years when he was in office housing investment halved, but it has doubled in the same amount of time under this Administration, and I am happy to point out the fundamental differences between us.

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is part of the wider strategy to reform the planning system, making it fairer, faster and more predictable. It will bring clarity, certainty and a new sense of strategic direction to the planning system. It will also make the compulsory purchase system simpler, fairer and quicker. It will support investment and major infrastructure and regeneration. Most importantly, the Bill will put sustainable development at the heart of a system of regional and local plans.

In the debate on the Gracious Speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) expressed concern about community involvement in the planning process. Our proposals will open up the planning system by introducing local development frameworks, local development orders and statements of community involvement. That will strengthen the opportunity for local people to make their views known and to have a say in the future of the area in which they live. The new statement of development principles will govern the development of planning agreements such as those to which my hon. Friend referred in her speech.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): How does the Deputy Prime Minister reconcile those remarks with what he is planning to do with regional planning frameworks, which will effectively bypass, or get rid of, county councils?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We have made it clear that regional planning frameworks should not be in the hands of the counties. We now have regional planning and spatial development. The county council will still be entitled to have a discussion about that, but in the main planning will be done at a regional level. That is what we have always said, and we will continue to do so. The regional spatial frameworks and the local frameworks will fit together to achieve sustainable community development.

Mr. Edward Davey : Does not the Deputy Prime Minister feel a little uncomfortable taking power away from elected bodies and giving it to unelected regional planning boards?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I cannot make up my mind where the Liberal Democrats stand on regional

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elected assemblies, but in the north, where we will be giving people the opportunity to choose such assemblies, if they say yes the democratic accountability will exist. That choice may come later to other areas, but at the moment indirectly elected bodies or assemblies will be consulted on regional spatial development. I have not noticed Liberals or Tories being unwilling to clamber on board the idea for an assembly, and quite right too. I support them in that; it is just their national parties that find themselves in a quandary about whether they can support it, but what is new?

There is one other change in the Bill that I should cover—it seeks to make the planning system more acceptable and transparent for all. It will increase the predictability of planning decisions and speed up the handling of major infrastructure projects, and not before time. I am sure that the House will also be pleased to note that the Bill removes Crown immunity from planning control, and it will now apply to planning as to everything else.

On planning obligations, the Bill contains provisions to deal with abuses of the planning system by business—[Interruption.] Is that the normal Liberal-Tory line—to check things with each other?

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): We are having a conversation. [Laughter.]

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a new dimension—the Liberals and the Tories working together on conversation.

The Bill also contains provision for the new business planning zones. At present, major planning applications are accompanied by complex and slow negotiations regarding the provision of infrastructure and other community facilities by the developer. Known as section 106 agreements, it is generally recognised that they could be made to work better—I think that that view is shared across the House. That is why we proposed new changes to section 106 in the consultation document we published on 6 November. The House will have a chance to debate our proposals, which are additional to those contained in the original draft Bill. They will be debated on Report, which I believe is to take place next week.

We will reform the section 106 process by making provision for a new optional planning charge, which will give developers a choice between the current negotiated approach or paying a pre-determined fixed amount.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend reassure me on one point? Currently, if part of a section 106 agreement is that social housing be provided on a site, the social housing can be integrated with the other housing. However, if the developer pays a fee, the social housing will be built separate and distinct from the other housing. That causes me concern.

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a valid point. However, the matter can be part of the process of negotiation, or decided separately. Both parties are involved in the decision.

The legislation and our wider programme to create sustainable communities represent a comprehensive and powerful agenda for change, backed by significant

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resources. Our proposals will enhance economic stability, promote prosperity and jobs, further reform and improve our public services, and create a fairer, more secure and more just society. I commend the proposed Bills to the House.

3.2 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): First, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcoming words in reference to my team. Occasionally I think I have more disciples than The Almighty, but let me make it clear that none of us is a miracle worker.

Secondly, my family home is near Saffron Walden; therefore when I make references to the communities plan or to airport expansion, it should be clear that I shall be affected by those policies. I just wanted to put that on the record so that there should be no misunderstanding.

Most of my remarks will, perhaps eccentrically, be addressed to what is in the Queen's Speech, but I shall start with what is not in the speech. Something very important is missing: any mention of the draft Bill on regional assemblies. Both the right hon. Gentleman and I represent constituencies that will be affected by that policy. The Prime Minister can hardly contain his enthusiasm for the idea, and it will be interesting to learn how many people participating in "the big conversation" came and spontaneously said to him, "Prime Minister, I just want you to know what a bloomin' good idea these regional assemblies are." I have to say that people making such a demand have not been crowding out my constituency surgeries.

A decision has been made to hold referendums in the three northern regions, based on expressions of interest that were so meagre as to be practically subliminal; and now we have preliminary proposals on the reorganisation of two-tier government in those areas—with no price tag attached, of course. We know that that reorganisation will be unwanted, unnecessary, disruptive and expensive.

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