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Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): Given the right hon. Gentleman's concern about affordable housing, does he still support the Conservative policy on right to buy for housing association tenants? In the rural part of my constituency, that will take out yet another swathe—the remaining swathe—of affordable housing for rent. The environment in the area is the most protected in England and Wales, so building more housing is not an option.

Mr. Curry: I shall come to the right to buy in a moment, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to pay attention to what is said about it.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Welsh have had the common sense to reject the approach that will be imposed on English local authorities, which involves all the complications that he has just listed?

Mr. Curry: Given my new responsibilities, I am much more sensitive to the sense and intelligence of the devolved Administrations than in the past. I am delighted that the Welsh have set such a sensible example, as the Scots so often do.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is dealing with a serious point. The Housing, Planning and Local Government Sub-Committee encouraged us to include in the Bill enabling powers to deal with changes made in respect of section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. He can be assured that we will be able to answer in the proposals on guidance and regulations some of the questions that he is posing. None the less, it was right not to miss the legislative slot in making the changes, on which everyone agrees.

Mr. Curry: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Provided that we have a proper opportunity to discuss the very serious implications that are involved, I shall be content to proceed in that way.

We also welcome the fire services Bill. I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the result of the ballot. I am pleased about that result and the fact that some of the militants may have been thwarted on

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this occasion. Everybody wants firefighters to get back to work, including them. We also agree that it is important to refocus the service on prevention. We notice that some powers are being devolved, although they are often controversial locally, while the national framework of strategic controls stays with him.

The Opposition are concerned about what is happening offstage with regard to the fire services Bill. If it is intended to save lives, it is difficult to know why a target of achieving a 20 per cent. reduction in accidental fire deaths in homes by March 2004 has now been pushed forward to 2010. New Zealand managed to halve the number of such deaths within four years. The target of cutting the incidence of deliberately started fires by 30 per cent. by 2009 has now been cut to 10 per cent. by 2010. While a Bill is being introduced to deliver more effectively on prevention, the targets on prevention appear to be becoming much more lax, and I find it difficult to square those two issues.

I agree with a great deal of what the Deputy Prime Minister said about housing. Some extremely important issues are involved. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned the transfer programme, which is one of those issues, where it is still in place, following the setback in Birmingham and some large authorities' withdrawal from it. Will the transfer of 200,000 houses a year that the Government anticipated in their Green Paper on housing still be realised? How will they establish a divide between the classical transfer and arm's-length companies? What are the implications for each of those approaches, according to how the split happens? Does the arrangement mean that the Government will meet the decent homes target? A great deal depends on the continuing transfer movement, as the private sector money will not be delivered without it.

I agree that we must address the problems of housing failure not only in the north, but in the midlands and other areas; indeed, there are serious social problems in parts of the south. That means that housing must be stitched into a much wider regeneration programme. All the indications suggest that the best form of regeneration is a job.

Unless the Office for National Statistics has managed to misplace large numbers of people, we appear to face a continuing drain out of the cities into the suburbs and beyond. The statistics indicate that the only big northern city that is resistant to that is Leeds—the others are experiencing, to a lesser or greater extent, a continuing move outside. Until we can anchor the jobs in those inner cities, we face a continuing social problem of enormous proportions.

The Deputy Prime Minister has put a great deal of emphasis on his communities plan. The needs are undeniable, as is the imperative of sustainability. However, sustainability is not a quasi-religious notion that descends mystically on a community: it is, especially where attempts are being made to build new communities, a very practical physical quality that depends not only on good design and good behaviour, but crucially, on the delivery, as the settlement grows, of basic services such as hospitals, schools, waste disposal, water, transport, policing and the maintenance of a safe

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environment, so that they become knitted into the fabric of that community. Some dangers are involved, however.

Mr. Bellingham: Will my right hon. Friend reflect again on affordable housing? In my constituency, there are several schemes that are subject to section 106 agreements, and parish councils tell me that they would like to have more say in their allocation to ensure that they are genuinely for local people.

Mr. Curry: When large volumes of new housing and population are introduced into areas, the danger is that the people who lived there in the first place might feel disempowered because they see an expansion that will necessarily mean the total transformation of their environment. As far as they are concerned, what might seem to be an opportunity for somebody else appears to be the loss of the very qualities that made them want to live there.

There is also the danger that the whole programme will add to the overheating as people continue to spill out of London into the south-east, which continues to feel the pressures of immigration, as well as of people moving out of the cities: those twin factors are at work throughout the region. Of course, that brings a new demand for housing, along with sociological issues such as the multiplication of households that has already been experienced. The Cambridge-Stansted corridor is already earmarked as one of the four major areas for housing development. If the Secretary of State for Transport goes on to identify Stansted as the airport that is to take one or more new runways, that will create a serious potential for overheating in the area, reproducing in the future the problems that it has faced in the past.

As far as the Bill is concerned, I am not sure whose pet obsession sellers' packs are.

The Deputy Prime Minister: They are supported by the Consumers Association.

Mr. Curry: I note that and will make no comment upon it. I have listened to the Consumers Association's comments on a number of issues, none of which I intend to mention now.

Sellers' packs are like the mother-in-law—they keep turning up and one hopes that they will not stay for too long before they go away again. My advice to the Government is, quite simply, "Forget it."

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that sellers' packs would be a great boon to first-time buyers?

Mr. Curry: I disagree—it is as simple as that.

Bob Spink: While my right hon. Friend is on the subject of consumers, is he aware that it has been estimated that this Government policy would cost consumers some £322 million a year, as well as creating additional regulations and the possibility of their being able to break yet another law?

Mr. Curry: Not only have sellers' packs been inadequately tested and shown no great outcome when

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they are tested, but they will be bureaucratic because an army of staff must deliver the surveys and provide training. Moreover, the £700 or £800 may not be enough even when added to the perverse effects of stamp duty in leafy suburbs. In inner city areas and areas under stress, there could be a genuine burden. Some hon. Gentlemen have argued that areas of low-cost housing should be exempt. Indeed, I recall the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) saying months ago that perhaps sellers' packs should not have to apply to the bottom tier of housing. However, that would severely affect some housing by stigmatising it as almost unsaleable.

Mr. Pike: I argued that, but the concept of the housing pathfinder renewal project has been introduced since then. I am waiting to see exactly what that will deliver. Everything is relative, but it would be pointless not to touch the market as it exists now. I hope that it will change.

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman substantiates my point. Although pathfinder schemes are welcome, they are not universal and large areas are not covered by them.

Mr. Betts: The right hon. Gentleman simply dismisses sellers' packs, but is he content with the current position whereby the majority of people buy their home with nothing more than a building society survey? They do not get a proper survey of their property. Sellers' packs would introduce that, and I hope that he welcomes that important aspect.


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