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The Minister of Communities and Local Government (Mr. David Miliband): We have no plans for a referendum on the future of the South West regional assembly. The regional assembly is a voluntary body that is established by local authorities, businesses and community representatives in the region.
Is the Minister aware of what a useless and time-wasting body the South West regional assembly is, with its totally artificial boundaries stretching for more than 150 miles from Penzance up to the north Gloucestershire boundary? Will he comment on reports from his Department about abolishing the historical and traditional shire counties of the south-west in pursuit of its mad regionalisation strategy? If he is contemplating such an act of political vandalism, will
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he put it to an early referendum in the south-west, which will have exactly the same result as that in the north-east last year when the proposal was rejected by 78 per cent?
Mr. Miliband: If the right hon. Gentleman has a problem with the boundaries, he should speak to those who set them up in 1994it was the Conservatives who set up Government offices. What the regional assemblies do is for the first time give local people, local councillors and local business people the chance to have a say[Interruption.]
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) called the regional assembly a useless organisation; I call it self-appointed and self-important. Is the Minister aware that, irrespective of what happens to the South West regional assembly, the fact that the police, fire and ambulance services are, in effect, being regionalised and that planning is now being done not by local authorities but by those self-appointed people in Exeter means that we are facing the regionalisation of the south-west and the abolition of the 1,000-year-old county of Wiltshire? Will he stand at the Dispatch Box and express his strong support for the county council structure in England, which has stood the test of time?
Mr. Miliband: I was in Cornwall only the day before yesterday talking to the county council about how it uses its planning powers and works with the district councils, which also have planning powers. The ogre that the Conservatives are conjuring up is risible. The Labour Government are strongly committed to ensuring that the regional voice is that of local people, and that is what we are doing.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Minister clarify what new powers his Department proposes to give the assembly? Specifically, is it the intention to give the assembly powers over transport planning and control over the transport budget for the whole of the south-west?
Mr. Miliband: The hon. Gentleman may be referring to the merger of the housing and planning functions, which has been set out clearly. Otherwise, the situation is as it has always been: the three main functions of the regional assemblies relate to planning, housing and the regional development agency and its scrutiny.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)
(Con): The truth is that the Government are afraid to ask the people of the south-west whether they feel differently from people in other areas, who think that their regional assembly is a waste of their money. Can the Minister not see that the
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arrogant imposition of the regional agenda is a sure sign that the Government can get their way only by stealth or by force?
Mr. Miliband: On the first point, an independent report by Arup has complimented the positive impact of the regional assembly. Secondly, the 31 Conservative councillors on the regional assembly are free to try to abolish the regional assembly, which is a voluntary body set up by the local council, and they are at perfect liberty to withdraw from that body tomorrow or the day after.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick): Our policy "Sustainable Communities: Homes for All" sets out the Government's plans to deliver more affordable housing over the next five years. Measures include delivery of 75,000 social rented homes by 2008 and assisting more than 80,000 first-time buyers and key workers to achieve home ownership by 2010. Those targets include both new build and acquisition; there are no separate targets for the construction of new shared ownership or affordable rented homes.
Mr. Love: I congratulate the Government on their action on shared ownership. My concern is about affordable rented accommodation, especially in the capital. That is partly to do with construction cost inflation and the need for larger homes, but mainly it relates to the needs of the large number of people who are homeless or living in overcrowded accommodation. What action is my hon. Friend taking to deliver more resources for social rented homes in the capital?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government's success so far demonstrates that we will be successful with the capital as well. On homelessness targets, for example, we have ended the scandal of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We have taken two thirds of rough sleepers off the streets and between now and 2010 we will deal with the 2 million homes that were below the decency threshold, which were left to us in 1997. We have spent £5 billion over the past three years on socially affordable homes. We intend to spend £3.9 billion over the next three years. The share of London and the south-east in that capital project is considerable.
Philip Davies (Shipley)
(Con): Is the Minister aware that many people in Shipley are fed up to the back teeth with the Government setting more and more targets in planning matters? Will he therefore agree to give more powers back to local authorities so that they can set their own targets and not have Government-inspired targets forced upon them?
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Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman says that he and his constituents are fed up with the setting of targets. The Government's programme in dealing with the 2 million homes that were below the decency threshold is clearly on track. I have quoted statistics relating to our dealing with the scandals of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and homelessness, and we are clearly on track. We issued new planning policy guidance earlier this year, which will help local authorities. We have consulted on one of the Kate Barker recommendations. The new planning policy statement will be responded to before the end of the year. That will help not only Shipley but the whole of the United Kingdom.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Surely the Minister is well aware of the housing crisis that exists in London with the lack of rented accommodation through councils and housing associations. What is he prepared to do to enforce further building by local authorities and housing associations? Is he prepared to call in all major planning applications in London that do not meet the Mayor's target of 50 per cent. of all new housing being for people who are in desperate housing need rather than for those who can afford to buy luxury accommodation?
Jim Fitzpatrick: As my hon. Friend is aware, we are reviewing the powers and responsibilities of the Mayor. We shall be issuing a consultation document shortly, which will deal with housing matters as well as planning and other issues. We have been working closely both with the Mayor and London local authorities. I have mentioned the fact that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has allocated money for housing, and considerable elements of it are going towards London; it will get its fair share. The arrangements between ourselves, the Mayor and London local authorities can only demonstrate that this approach will be successful for the capital.
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): A million and a half families are waiting for council housing, often living in appalling conditions while they wait. When will the Government give councils the financial freedom that they need to invest in building their own affordable rented housing?
Jim Fitzpatrick: We have doubled the investment in socially affordable homes since 1997, as I have mentioned. We are working as hard as we can. In the first instance, we have prioritised the 2 million homes below the decency threshold. We have introduced a step change in housing new build. We are working with the Housing Corporation to ensure that those in need of homes get them as soon as possible.
We will be helping 100,000 people to get their homes by 2010, including those on the housing waiting list and those who come within the key workers strategy. We are clearly demonstrating that we are working hard to deal with the housing backlog. However, to deal with decades of no new build will take us time. We are on target for 1.1 million homes by 2016 in London and the south-east.
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