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House of Commons

Wednesday 6 July 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—

Teesport (Expansion)

1. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects on regeneration in the Tees valley of port expansion at Teesport. [9713]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): Mr. Speaker, as you know, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is unable to be present at Deputy Prime Minister questions today, as he will be representing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions. [Interruption.] I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be pleased to hear the welcome that he receives even before he arrives in the Chamber.

I can tell my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) that the northern way action plan launched in Gateshead on 20 June sets out clearly the wider economic benefits that would flow from the development of the facilities at Teesport—for the Tees valley, the north and the UK as a whole.

Vera Baird: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The project is indeed a big one, capable of generating around 7,000 jobs in a sub-region where unemployment is still twice the national average. Is he aware that similar applications for port expansion at Felixtowe, Harwich and London could have a major impact on the viability of Teesport's proposals? Will he confirm that our interests will be part of the context in which those applications are considered? Will he do his level best to help us to help ourselves to get a thriving deep-water container port at Teesport, and a huge economic boost for the Tees valley?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I hope that my hon. and learned Friend and the House will understand that I cannot pre-empt or comment on specific planning proposals. However, I am confident that Teesport has a strong future supporting international trade and regional regeneration. I note that the urban regeneration company Tees Valley Regeneration has a successful
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track record, having spearheaded the creation of more than 12,000 jobs and inward investment of over £500 million over the past eight years. I note too that she and other colleagues are expecting to meet my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport later this month. I am sure that they will continue to press the case for Teesport as effectively as they have done already.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): There remains an output gap of £29 billion between the north and the rest of the UK. The south-east economy is considered to be overheating, so does my hon. Friend agree that the development of a deep-sea container port at Teesport would be an important step towards closing the north-south divide?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The forthcoming review of ports policy by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will address the key questions relating to port capacity and future port development, and the wider issues. They include environmental factors, local regeneration, productivity and the role of ports in our overall transport strategy.

Public Conveniences

2. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What role his Department plays in encouraging local councils to provide a sufficient quantity and quality of public conveniences. [9714]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The provision and maintenance of toilets in public places is at the discretion of local authorities. There are many examples of good practice, such as the pioneering community toilet scheme in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, which the hon. Gentleman will know. In due course, I will be inviting the British Toilet Association to meet me to discuss methods of spreading such good practice.

Dr. Cable: I thank the Minister for that excellent reply. He has acknowledged that this is one of the few areas over which local councils have complete discretion. Many are using that discretion to close public conveniences. What further action would he recommend to safeguard the interests of elderly and disabled people, in particular, and to preserve public hygiene in major town centres such as mine? Those centres have large numbers of visitors, many of whom are large consumers of alcohol.

Mr. Woolas: I thought that we were to be treated to a Liberal Democrat policy of spend-a-penny on income tax, as the hon. Gentleman's normal solution to problems is to raise taxes. However, there is a serious point behind the question, and I thank him for raising it. As I said in my reply, I do not want to impose further burdens on local government, although I acknowledge the role that it plays. I have invited the BTA to meet me to discuss how we may move this important agenda forward.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Is the Minister aware that, perhaps because most architects are men, toilets provided for men and women tend to be about the same
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size, even though women's needs are greater? Research by Cornell university has shown that the average man spends 45 seconds in a convenience, and the average woman 80 seconds. Does he agree that it is a scandal that insufficient provision is made for women? [Interruption.] I see that some Labour Back Benchers behind the Minister are laughing. Does he accept that they should realise that it is not a joke for the thousands of women who have to queue every year for the loo?

Mr. Woolas: Well, I was not aware of the facts that the hon. Gentleman has brought to our attention. I am also conscious of the likely presence of sketch writers in the Gallery, but I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes seriously. The provision of public toilets by local authorities and others is an important local public service. Many local authorities take a good approach to that issue and it is a matter that the public take very seriously.

Affordable Housing

3. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. [9715]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The Housing Corporation is currently funding 4,000 new, affordable homes over two years in villages of fewer than 3,000 people. The Government are setting up a new, affordable rural housing commission to look further at that, as set out in our manifesto.

Mr. Harper: The Forest of Dean district local plan is currently on the Deputy Prime Minister's desk awaiting approval. Is the Minister aware that the district's housing strategy is based on flawed assumptions, as three quarters of the affordable housing plan is actually for people not currently living in the district?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will know that I am not able to comment on matters that are passing through the planning system and on which Ministers will have to make a decision. Clearly, every area needs to address the issues of affordability and the problems in the housing market at the moment. It is simply not consistent for Opposition Members to complain about affordability and then oppose the building of the new homes that this nation badly needs.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The Government have commendable plans to try to make home ownership affordable for first-time buyers by variance of the current home-buy scheme, but has my hon. Friend picked up—as I have—some concerns from housing associations that the models indicated in a recent consultation paper may not be affordable in every situation? I am especially worried about rural areas, such as Stafford, if that is the case. Can my hon. Friend assure me that she is aware of the problem and that it will be corrected in the final scheme?

Yvette Cooper: We have been consulting on proposals for social home-buy options, and we will certainly take very seriously all the points that are made throughout the consultation. Regional differences will occur and
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rural areas will face different issues to urban areas. That is why we have said that there will be additional safeguards, similar to those that exist for the right-to-buy scheme in rural areas, for the social home-buy scheme.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Minister accept that affordable housing in rural areas is a problem across the whole of the United Kingdom? Therefore, will she encourage the Secretary of State to deal with that problem directly in Northern Ireland?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot answer for issues that are a matter for the Northern Ireland Office, but we recognise that the pressures in the housing market affect the whole country. That is why we have set out our proposals in the sustainable communities plan, which covers England. We will also respond to the Barker review, because we take the problem very seriously.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend the Minister look carefully at the particular problems in rural honeypots, such as Hebden Bridge in my constituency? It has received wonderful accolades, such as the fourth funkiest town on the planet and the best high street for local shops in the UK—

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Cannabis allotments!

Chris McCafferty: It is certainly a centre for alternative lifestyles. All those aspects conspire to make Hebden Bridge a highly desirable place to live for people from all over the UK. Can my hon. Friend the Minister look carefully at the problems of affordable housing for local people in such places?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point and we are setting up the rural affordable housing commission to consider exactly such problems. She is also right that the increased economic prosperity and investment that we have seen has had consequences for the housing market. We should recognise that we have 1 million more homeowners since 1997, as a result of the changes that were made with regard to the Bank of England, economic stability and economic growth, but we also want to support a new generation of first-time buyers. That is why we are considering those measures now.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): As there are 380,000 people on waiting lists for affordable housing and the Council of Mortgage Lenders says that fewer first-time buyers are entering the market than at any time in the last 20 years, there is no doubt that there is a major affordable housing crisis, especially in rural areas. What further measures can the Minister list to give confidence that a Labour third term will be any different from the failures of the last eight years?

Yvette Cooper: Let us make clear the further steps that we want to take. We are putting extra investment into social housing, so there will be a 50 per cent. increase in social housing over the next few years, and we have set out proposals in the sustainable communities plan to
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build more homes. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that many of the current pressures on our housing market are because in the past 30 years there has been a substantial drop in housing supply relative to housing demand, and his party have constantly opposed building the new homes that the nation needs. The message that his party is giving to first-time buyers is, "We don't want to help you and we don't want you round here". That is not a message that the Labour party is prepared to give.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Of the 7,500 houses that North West Leicestershire district council—a good housing authority—owned in 1979, about 3,000 were disposed of under right to buy and the remaining 4,500 are the subject of a coerced block transfer. Can the Minister tell us why those 4,500 residual tenants, who were broadly happy with their landlord's responsiveness and housing policies, are being forced down the stock transfer route?

Yvette Cooper: Nobody is forcing tenants in any direction at all. What we have done is to make additional investment available through other routes. We have given councils more money to invest, which is why there is a 13 per cent. increase in investment in their housing stock by councils; but we are also providing alternative options, because that 13 per cent. is not enough to deal with the £19 billion backlog in repairs and maintenance that we were left with by the previous Government, which meant that people were not able to live in decent homes for the 21st century.

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