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House of Commons

Wednesday 12 January 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Housing (South-East)

1. Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): What representations he has received about the scale of proposed house building in the south-east; and if he will make a statement. [207359]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): We have received the regional assembly's proposals for the east of England for the period up to 2021, which are now out to public consultation and will be considered in a public examination by an independent panel in September. Proposals for house building in the south-east up to 2026 are expected later this year.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply. He will be aware that, in November 2004, the East of England regional assembly, which encompasses some south-eastern counties, voted for a house building target of 478,000 dwellings by 2021. In December, the same body withdrew its endorsement for its own target on account of the lack of Government infrastructure funding to accompany the house building. Now that even the Deputy Prime Minister's own quango has turned on him, will he—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Any judgment about how many houses are needed in the north-east will be considered not only by the proposals—[Hon. Members: "The south-east."] It is the same for the south-east and for the east of England. To be clear, the proposals considered included some parts of the south-east as well as the east of England but, whatever the figures, they will be decided in public consultation. I will then appoint an independent review and it will make judgments about whether there is sufficient transport investment—which I believe there will be—to meet the housing requirements. Let the review make its recommendations, and then I will make a proper judgment about them.
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It is rather curious that the hon. Gentleman calls in aid the regional assemblies just when the Conservatives are recommending in the James review to get rid of them as well as the regional government offices that they set up. Some 3,000 people would be made unemployed and the land of the regional development agencies would be sold off. The good, old James proposals go back to the old formula: more on the dole, fewer public services and the typical boom-and-bust policy of the Tories.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): We have 8,000 homes in our local plan for the next 10 years. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the Rushenden link road were built on the Isle of Sheppey it would allow 1,000 extra houses to be built that could be given over to key workers and older people? Some 15,500 older people need housing on the Isle of Sheppey, so will he consider that proposal in the near future?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has made a considerable contribution to this discussion. As he knows, the proposal is under active consideration by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. We hope shortly to make a further statement on matters relating to key housing and social housing.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The national land use database reveals that 5,700 hectares of brownfield land have been identified by local authorities as being suitable for housing in the south-east. When that would provide nearly 140,000 new homes, why has less than a third of that land been taken up for housing? Instead of the Deputy Prime Minister's usual bluster, will he confirm that he wants to blitz Britain's countryside because he is absolutely determined to fulfil his pledge that the Labour party invented the green belt and he means to build on it?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That was cutting. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a couple of facts. When we came in, 56 per cent. of houses were built on brownfield sites. The figure has now gone up to 67 per cent. and even beyond the target that we set. That is a remarkable achievement. Secondly, the density of housing has now increased from 25 to 33 per hectare. Therefore, we can now build the 200,000 houses that we need for the south-east on the same amount of land that the Conservatives were building on in 1997.

Local Government

2. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What proportion of local government spending was (a) met by Government grant and (b) raised locally in the 2004–05 financial year. [207360]

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): In the 2004–05 financial year, budget estimates indicate that 74 per cent. of local government revenue expenditure is being met by Government grant, including redistributed business rates, and 26 per cent. by council tax.
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Paddy Tipping: Is not the balance of funding wrong? Should not more money be raised locally so that local councillors are more accountable? Is it not a fact that, ultimately, the council tax is unsustainable? When can we see the results of the Lyons review and action on it?

Mr. Raynsford: I have a lot of sympathy for the views expressed by my hon. Friend. As he will know, the balance of funding review reported in July last year and concluded that there are strong arguments for shifting the balance towards more local funding, but that depends on the feasibility and desirability of any measures that might be used to achieve it. That is precisely what the Lyons inquiry is looking at, and it expects to report by the end of this year.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The Minister says that the Lyons review is considering these issues. Will he confirm that it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000? What support is his Department giving Sir Michael Lyons to ensure that the inquiry's working papers and research are accessible to the public as soon as they are available?

Mr. Raynsford: The Lyons inquiry is independent, so the hon. Gentleman should pose his question directly to Sir Michael Lyons himself. However, I assure him that a great deal of detailed work has been done. As he will know, because there was a Liberal Democrat representative on the balance of funding review, all the working papers were made publicly available. He will also know only too well that the evidence makes it clear that his party's proposal for a local income tax is a mistake and that it would be impractical and not in the long-term interests of the country.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton) (Lab): When considering local government expenditure and finance, will my right hon. Friend examine the major problem that is developing in many areas because health and social care is funded by the Department of Health and local government? Will he take into consideration the need for local authorities properly to fund health and social care?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but he will be aware that under recent settlements there has been a sustained increase in local government funding, with a 33 per cent. increase in real terms since 1997. Specifically, the funding that is targeted on social care has increased above the average, so the Government are well aware of the need and are putting money into local government to ensure that the needs of communities are met without imposing unreasonable council tax increases.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Since 1997, council tax has risen by 70 per cent. and average bills are set to top £1,000—the highest ever. At the same time, council tax receipts to the Treasury have soared by 80 per cent. Does the Minister accept that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has been filling the Chancellor's coffers by stealth and that the sooner it is gone, the sooner we can restore fairness and accountability to local government?
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Mr. Raynsford: In terms of fairness and accountability, when the hon. Lady's party was in power grants to local government were cut year after year and local authorities were faced with the real problem of trying to meet local needs without adequate finance. Since this Government have been in power, the grant to local government has increased by 33 per cent. in real terms, which has enabled councils to budget prudently. If she were really worried about council tax, she would be talking to Conservative councils, because they had the unenviable record last year of setting larger increases than Labour councils—5.4 per cent. compared with 4.7 per cent. Labour is leading the way on keeping council tax down.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/ Co-op): How much of Liverpool's growing success does my right hon. Friend attribute to the Government's increased funding for its local services?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It has been possible for councils throughout the country to make real improvements, as the comprehensive performance assessment published by the Audit Commission at the end of last year demonstrated. There have been real improvements to performance, and public needs have been met more effectively because of much more generous funding from the Government, and we are proud of that.

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