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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): The Government office for the north-east, on behalf of the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, recently submitted comments in response to a public consultation by the North East assembly on the draft regional spatial strategy for the north-east. That response is a public document and can be made available to the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Members.
Mr. Beith: Will the Minister include it in his advice to the unelected regional assembly that establishing a restriction of only 60 or 70 houses a year to be built in the Berwick and Alnwick areas would be a disaster for those who need social housing and first-time buyers in a part of the country where houses prices are still increasing quite rapidly? Does he recognise that preventing small builders and housing associations from building half a dozen houses in a village or 10 in a small country town will make no difference either way to the policy objectives of the strategy so far as the major urban areas are concerned?
The right hon. Gentleman has made his argument, which he is perfectly entitled to do, and I am sure that it will be listened to. We now await the submission of the regional spatial strategy, which will then be subject to further public consultation and an examination in public before it comes to the Deputy
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Prime Minister to consider. The right hon. Gentleman will understand, however, that the proprieties of the planning system prevent my engaging in further detailed discussion at this stage.
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take note of the widespread discontent in the county of Durham because this regional spatial strategy is imposing on it managed decline, which cannot be right?
Keith Hill: I hear my right hon. Friend. At the same time, however, I am sure that he will agree that there is enormous investment through the housing market renewal project, which is already well under way in Newcastle, and through the decent homes programme in his area. We await further announcements in connection with housing market renewal in the Tees valley, which I am confident will be welcomed locally.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): But the people of County Durham and the north-east might well ask the Government why on earth such a thing as a north-east assembly exists at all? Does he remember that there was a vote last autumn, and that 78 per cent of people who voted, on a substantial turnout, voted no to a north-east regional assembly? Does not that demonstrate that there is a moment in the lifetime of every Government when Ministers demonstrate that they are completely out of touch with the real wishes and aspirations of the British people? They do not want regional government.
Keith Hill: Of course we accept the judgment of the people of the north-east on the elected regional assembly. Nevertheless, I believe that a broad consensus remains in the north-east about the value of a north-east regional assembly, particularly in its housing and planning functions.
The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford):
The Government's policy is to establish a resilient network of fire and rescue service control centres throughout England. Draft location criteria for those new regional centres were included in the consultation on the Government's response to the Mott MacDonald report, issued on 11 December 2003, and subsequently amended in response to that consultation. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently in the process of procuring sites in eight regions.
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Ann Winterton: Will the Minister recognise that technology can never replace local knowledge at both command and control centres and fire stations? Will he stop pitting county fire brigades against their neighbours, leave local command and fire centres alone and give an undertaking to the House that there will be no further regionalisation through replacing county fire brigades with regional ones, a move which will be as fiercely resisted as regional government?
Mr. Raynsford: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is confusing two separate issues. There are no plans to regionalise fire and rescue authorities, and I have made that clear on many occasions. What we are doing is procuring a resilient network of regional control centres, which will employ the best technology to ensure a quick and effective response to whatever risk applies in an area. That is recognised as delivering a better service, improving public safety, saving lives and saving money, which can then be used to improve community fire safety. The hon. Lady may shake her head, but that is the truth, and when she has examined the facts in more detail she will realise that local knowledge has played only a limited role in fire response since the 1980s when computerised gazetteers were introduced. We now need to ensure that we are using the best possible technology to deliver the best service and save more lives.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that in Cheshire all three parties on the fire authority have signed up to the agreement that brings about the restructuring of the fire brigade. He knows that concerns have been expressed in my constituency about safety in relation to some of the major hazard sites. Will he assure my constituents that none of the changes that have been introduced will have any detrimental impact whatever on their safety?
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Safety is paramount. The thrust of the Government's policy on reform of the fire service is about saving lives, and we will achieve that by more focus on prevention, more community fire safety work, and rapid responses to incidents wherever they occurensuring the most effective possible response by the most appropriately placed appliance.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): We have now heard of deep-seated concern on both sides of the House about the Government's plan to cut the number of fire control rooms from 49 to just nine. Does the Minister accept that voters now have a clear choice between the Conservatives, who will abort the Government's plan to scrap our fire control rooms, and a Labour Government who will pursue their discredited and unwanted regionalism regardless?
I do wish the hon. Lady would do her research more thoroughly. First, there are currently 47 separate control centres, not 49. Secondly, the cost of responding to emergencies varies enormously, because many centres are very small and require a disproportionate number of staff in relation to calls.
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The hon. Lady would do well to consider the example of the Isle of Wight, where the average control room operator deals with one call every seven hours. That is not a cost-effective response. In London, where there is already a regional response, the average control operator deals with one call every 30 minutes. It is to achieve that greater efficiency, to use resources more effectively, and to use the consequent savings to save lives that we are proceeding with what all who have examined the issues closely recognise to be a real improvement in the standard of safety delivered through control centres. I am sorry that she cannot recognise that as well.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): Following work with national representatives of several building control bodies, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is considering a revision of the building control performance standards handbook and the introduction of seven key performance indicators.
David Taylor: The introduction of competition in building control has been an outrider for wider outsourcing of local council services. Does the Minister share my concern about mounting evidence that the profit motive is driving down standards? When will he introduce a rigorous regulatory regime for private firms that is at least comparable with the one that has applied to local authorities for years?
Phil Hope: I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and I will examine any evidence that quality is suffering, but we want the building regulations to be applied effectively through proper compliance and checking by both local authority building control officers and approved inspectors. There are 12 performance standards, providing a framework for the delivery of high-quality services by building control bodies in the public and private sectors.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the introduction of part P to the building regulations is driving many good electricians out of business? Obtaining part P certification costs them around £2,000, which is too much. I can tell him, as a memberindeed, a fellowof the Institute of Electrical Engineers, that part P is not necessary and that houses would not burn down if it were repealed tomorrow.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman seems to be unaware that as a result of part P lives will be saved and there will be fewer injuries throughout the country. He may shake his head, but that is the reality. Part P ensures that when fixed electrical installation takes place in a house it is done safely. An unqualified person can still do the work, but must ensure that it is checked to be certain that it has been done safely, so that lives are not lost in the future.
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