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Planning Gain

3. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What proposals he has to change the rules relating to planning gain. [166254]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): May I first offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her new portfolio?

As part of our agenda to deliver sustainable communities we are reforming the planning system, through the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, to make it fairer, faster and more predictable. The new approach will give developers the choice of either negotiating a traditional section 106 agreement or—if they want greater speed and certainty—to pay a fixed charge, thus avoiding lengthy negotiations. That will give the local authority greater resources to spend on new community facilities, infrastructure improvements and affordable homes.

Keith Vaz : I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware that last year Tesco made profits of £69,000 a minute. May I draw his attention to planning issues involving Tesco in the Hamilton area of my constituency, where it has put up a megastore but given only a paltry sum as part of the planning gain? Tesco also appears to be blocking the establishment of an independent chemist in the area and cannot even collect its own trolleys. Will my right hon. Friend look at that case to ensure that the rules governing planning gain are fair to local communities and local authorities?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I assure my hon. Friend that I have no power to collect trolleys. The issue that he mentions was not called in and is therefore a matter for the local authority and Tesco. However, I congratulate Tesco on providing more in-town retail shopping. In 1979, there were 150 out-of-town shopping areas, but that increased under the Conservatives to 1,100. We have changed the trend, and last year, for the first time, in-town shopping increased, with the consequent reduction in poverty and improvement in jobs.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Given that many people think that section 106 agreements challenge the integrity of the planning system, because they involve the granting of planning permission in exchange for money, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure the House that any alternative to that system in
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the planning Bill will earmark any money collected for specific projects, which should begin as soon as practically possible?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point, and it is one that we have made in debates in this House and in the other place. It will be written into the Bill. Planning gain can be in money or in kind, such as in affordable housing or other facilities that might benefit the community. We have provided advice on the issue, but the hon. Gentleman makes a sound point and we intend to follow it up.

Green Belt

4. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on green belt policy. [166255]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper): None: it is a fully devolved matter.

Mr. Dalyell : Does my hon. Friend recognise the problem of some exceedingly prosperous and well managed firms somehow getting permission to put up offices and big buildings in green belt areas and then not quite keeping to the undertakings on the environment that they gave to get the permission?

Yvette Cooper: Companies certainly need to recognise their responsibilities towards the environment, the green belt and the planning system. It is possible for local planning authorities in England to put conditions on planning permissions, and if those conditions are violated, it is up to them to take enforcement action.

Emergency Services (London)

5. Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the state of readiness of the fire service and other emergency services to deal with catastrophic events in London. [166256]

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, a multi-agency team was set up to carry out an urgent and comprehensive review of London preparedness. Its report has formed the basis of the work of the London Resilience forum, which I chair with the Mayor of London as my deputy. The role of the forum is to ensure that London is as well prepared as possible to respond to a major attack or incident. The state of readiness of the emergency services is continually evaluated and tested through a series of exercises.

Roger Casale : All hon. Members will surely feel an abiding sense of horror at the sheer destructive force of the recent terrorist atrocities in Madrid. What lessons have been learned in this country from that attack, and what further steps have been taken to prepare London for a similar scale attack?
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Mr. Raynsford: I share my hon. Friend's horror at the appalling incidents in Madrid. Since the atrocity there, the Metropolitan police, Transport for London and other London front-line agencies have been in regular contact with their counterparts in Madrid to learn lessons and find out what more London could do both to prevent an attack and to respond to any consequences. We have also launched an awareness campaign, which had been planned before the Madrid attack and which has been very visible indeed on the London underground and in other transport locations in London, highlighting the need for awareness and preparedness. That is all part of the work that we are doing to ensure that we are as well prepared as we possibly can be.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): In the recent Madrid bombings, the Red Cross played a very prominent role, particularly in the humanitarian aspect of helping people after that atrocity. What discussions has the Minister had with the Red Cross in this country to take advantage of its network of people across the country who can come into the community if there is a parallel incident in London?

Mr. Raynsford: I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that the Red Cross and other voluntary agencies are regularly contacted by the London Resilience forum. Indeed, the voluntary sector is regularly represented as part of the planning in that forum to ensure the co-ordination of all those who would have a role to play in the event of any such incident.

Public Planning Inquiries

6. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): How many public planning inquiries he has ordered in the last 12 months. [166257]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): Altogether, arrangements were made for 2,163 public inquiries, mostly at the request of the parties, into appeals and other matters submitted under the Town and Country Planning Acts.

Tony Baldry : Of the Bicester accommodation centre, the then Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said at the Dispatch Box that the Government would abide by the outcome of any public inquiry, and went on to say that that would be both fair and democratic. The public inquiry took place; the inspector ruled on planning grounds that the development should not go ahead. The Deputy Prime Minister metaphorically put up two fingers to that and said that, because it was Government policy, the development would go ahead regardless. What on earth is the point of holding a public inquiry if the Government intend to take absolutely no notice of its outcome? What is either fair or democratic about that—or is it just as worthless as all the rest of the Government's big conversation?

Keith Hill: I must inform the hon. Gentleman that there was nothing extraordinary about the procedure adopted in the Bicester case. On average, the
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First Secretary of State disagrees with inspectors' recommendations in about 10 per cent. of cases. Last year, the figure was 31 out of 330 applications and appeals. In the Bicester case, the reasons for the First Secretary of State's decision are set out in his decision letter of 18 August 2003. There is nothing further to add to the reasons given in that decision. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I ask the House to come to order.

New Deal for Communities

7. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): What progress there has been on the New Deal for Communities programme; and if he will make a statement. [166258]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): In the new deal for communities, we are investing more than £2 billion in 39 of our most deprived communities. After just four years, we have already seen significant achievements: employment in the NDC areas is down by 7 per cent., which is faster than the national average; pass rates for pupils who achieve five or more GCSEs are up by 5 per cent., which is higher than the national average; and crime is down by 14 per cent. That is a fantastic achievement, which the National Audit Office has called "pleasing", and it has made a real difference to people's lives. I am sure that the House will want to congratulate the 50,000 ordinary people who have been involved in achieving that success.

Jim Dobbin : Is my right hon. Friend aware of "Heart of Heywood", which is the new deal for communities programme in my constituency? It has just purchased five state-of-the-art buses to transport unemployed people to areas that are difficult to reach. Other plans in the pipeline include a new primary school and a community campus, which will deliver services from the police, housing authorities, the local library and other agencies, and a new health connections centre supported by the primary care trust, social services and Sure Start. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that all NDC projects throughout the country are well supported because they are helping to regenerate the poorer communities in our society?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. My Ministers and I have visited the majority of NDCs, and we continue to do so. Indeed, I shall visit Shoreditch NDC on 28 May. My hon. Friend will be aware that I visited his constituency a couple of weeks ago, when I announced the £53 million investment in a pathfinder scheme for Rochdale and Oldham. I am certainly aware of the achievements of those in his NDC, and they are to be congratulated on them. They join the rank of successful NDCs, which we are proud of, and it shows that people have the money and they can make a difference—but if people vote for the Tories, they will slash those programmes in the future.
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The Prime Minister was asked—

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