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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 February 2006

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 Development

1. Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): What assessment he has made of the infrastructure necessary to support planned housing development in Essex. [46932]

2. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What plans he has for additional infrastructure to support new housing in Aylesbury vale; and if he will make a statement. [46934]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): Parts of Essex and Aylesbury vale are included in the growth areas in the sustainable communities plan. Already the growth areas are benefiting from £1.2 billion of infrastructure investment from my Department plus £3.5 billion of transport investment. It is clear that both areas will need further infrastructure investment to support new homes.

Mr. Whittingdale: Is the Minister aware that Essex roads, schools, hospitals and sewers are already under huge pressure? It has been estimated that the extra 123,000 houses that her Department wants to see built in Essex will require an additional £13 billion of infrastructure investment, but mid-Essex is currently scheduled to get almost nothing. Will she either drop her plans or provide the money to support them?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman knows that over the past five or six years the east of England, including Essex, has seen an increase of more than 20 per cent. in public sector investment, which I am sure that he welcomes. I agree that more infrastructure investment is needed to support new housing. That is why we are consulting on a planning gain supplement, which I hope that the people of Essex and he will support, because it could make a big difference to both infrastructure and the new housing that we need.
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John Bercow: Given that the 1,060 new homes that the Government expect Aylesbury vale to accommodate every year between now and 2026 must be accompanied by vital infrastructure if the quality of life of my constituents is to improve and not to deteriorate, will the Minister today either pledge that the £713 million cost of extra education, health, transport and leisure services will be met centrally or alternatively agree to meet a delegation consisting of local authority leaders, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and me to discuss the matter?

Yvette Cooper: I am always happy to meet hon. Members and delegations to discuss public sector investment, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, this party and this Government have strongly supported not only in his area but across the country, often against sustained opposition from his party. As I have said, additional funding for infrastructure is required, which is why the planning gain supplement consultation is so important. I urge him and his party to support the planning gain supplement, which is an opportunity to get additional investment into infrastructure not only in his area, but across the country.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I support the Government's policy on the regeneration of the Thames Gateway and the need for infrastructure investment. However, I must signal my considerable disappointment that the Government's programme to regenerate the Thames Gateway has not reached fruition, particularly in my area, Thurrock. Will the Minister therefore carpet the chairman of Thurrock urban development corporation and ask him to account for what has been going on for the past two years? Will she also ask her colleagues—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Andrew Mackinlay: The Minister gets my drift.

Yvette Cooper: I certainly get my hon. Friend's drift. I know that my hon. Friend appreciates the importance of proper consultation on plans, and the Thurrock urban development corporation is consulting on a series of different proposals for the area, which include making Purfleet a priority. I agree that we must go further in ensuring that we get not only regeneration and jobs, but new homes, which are badly needed.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): One piece of transport infrastructure that my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) require is the reopening of the Oxford to Bletchley railway line and the spur down to Aylesbury. Can the Minister confirm that the plans for housing growth strengthen the business case for those railways? If Conservative Members want the benefit of the infrastructure, they should support the housing growth.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that new housing should be accompanied by new infrastructure, including infrastructure investment for public transport. We are investing in Milton Keynes station and supporting transport and rail investment across the
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country. She is right that the issue is about meeting housing need. We face considerable pressures on housing into the future, so we cannot put our heads in the sand.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Can the Minister tell the House what proportion of her proposed new tax on development will be given back to the people of Essex and Buckinghamshire to fund infrastructure and what proportion will be kept back by the Chancellor to plug the black hole in his finances?

Yvette Cooper: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his first Question Time as shadow Housing Minister. It is good to see him at the Dispatch Box but unfortunate that he has chosen such a question, which suggests that his party will not support the planning gain supplement. That is deeply unfortunate, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to contradict me. We have said, as part of the consultation, that the majority of the planning gain supplement resources should go back to those local areas in which the additional development is taking place, but that we also need to look at the mechanism for extending investment on infrastructure that will cross local authority boundaries and will represent the strategic investment across the region. It is important to raise these additional funds because those new homes for the future are badly needed; otherwise, in 20 years' time only 30 per cent. of 30-year-olds will be able to afford their own home. That situation is unsustainable.

Inner-city Regeneration Projects

3. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of inner-city regeneration projects; and what plans he has to extend them to other areas. [46935]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): The Government have an extensive programme of assessment and evaluation of our key regeneration initiatives, which are promoting prosperity and delivering an urban renaissance in our major cities and their inner areas. We intend to apply the lessons of our successful regional cities to the next level of cities and towns.

Tony Lloyd: My constituents were used to the neglect of the inner cities under Tory Governments. Since that time there has been investment, and central Government, local government and the private sector have been working together in a way that has put the quality into our inner-city areas and put the hope back into our communities. My right hon. Friend must take no lessons from Conservative Members, who would take us back to those days of abandonment. Will he continue with these far-sighted and sensible policies?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The evidence is very clear that in all our major cities there has been a renaissance in building, development and regeneration. The paper that we published just before the last election, "A Tale of Eight Cities", shows just how much employment has grown, housing has developed, and industrial development has been to the benefit of the cities. I might
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say that the previous Administration's policy of having huge superstores outside towns was at the expense of cities. Changing that has led to a 30 per cent. increase in retail development in our cities. Before the election, the policy was for eight cities; we have now developed and extended it to more than 50 cities. It is a successful policy and we will continue with it.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): While strongly supporting the focusing of spending on inner-city areas, will the Deputy Prime Minister none the less look at spending decisions by some councils, such as Plymouth city council, which seems to be over-focusing on inner-city areas to the exclusion and detriment of the suburbs? As a result, places such as Plympton and Plymstock cannot even get play areas upgraded and refurbished. We all support extra spending in inner-city and deprived areas, but will the Deputy Prime Minister look into this—

Mr. Speaker: Order. One supplementary is fine.

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he supports us. I am afraid that that was not evident when his previous Administrations were dealing with inner-city programmes and regeneration. He welcomes the regeneration that is going on in Plymouth as being much to its advantage and complains that the suburbs are being forgotten. I am not sure that that is the case, but I will undertake to look at it since he invites me to do so. The development of the inner city of Plymouth is very much welcomed by its people and very much to the advantage of people who have been ignored for many years.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): The regeneration and funding that has gone into the construction industry since 1997 has completely revitalised an industry that was dead on its knees at that time. I am desperately impressed by the number of jobs that we have, but immensely concerned that we are not involving enough young people in those employment projects, particularly those connected with public sector investment. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that when these contracts are let, young apprentices are recruited as part of the procurement process?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Indeed. It is very much the Government's aim to improve apprenticeships in all areas, particularly the building and construction industry. We are working with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions on these matters. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have insufficient skills in this country, and in the construction industry we are short of every kind of skill. Admittedly, that is because we have created a great increase in economic activity, but a lot more still needs to be done and we are certainly doing what we can.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): In the light of claims of an over-emphasis on the destruction of Victorian houses as part of inner-city regeneration, will the Deputy Prime Minister comment on that and give hon. Members an assurance that there has been and will continue to be consultation to ensure that refurbishment
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and regeneration schemes have the correct balance between demolition and refurbishment so that local people are not disadvantaged and communities are not destroyed?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is right and that is exactly what we do in consultation. However, I advise him not to believe everything in The   Daily Telegraph or even everything that Front-Bench spokesmen put out about the destruction of houses. More houses are being developed, refurbished and built than are being demolished. More than 500,000 houses are involved in pathfinders. Frankly, we believe that we are right: some houses have to be knocked down but we are building and refurbishing more than we are demolishing.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): How important are social mobility and public transport to inner-city regeneration? How can they help inner-city regeneration on Tyneside when the passenger transport authority has to fund a £5 million deficit to finance the Government's free bus fare system from April?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand my hon. Friend's point. However, he knows that our commitment of £350 million for free pensioner passes means that all transport authorities receive considerably more. I understand that the matter is critical in the north-east, where the transfer from rail to bus may create anomalies, but nobody knows for sure and discussions continue. However, pensioners in this country have a free pass service, which they did not have previously.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Lord Rogers's urban taskforce identified one policy change in particular as essential to the revival of our towns and cities. When will the Deputy Prime Minister implement the recommendation to harmonise VAT across new-build housing and repair?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That was one of the recommendations of the first urban taskforce that was appointed under Lord Rogers. Approximately 99 out of 100 recommendations were implemented. That is a good record. I note that Lord Rogers has prepared a second report, which repeats the point that the hon. Lady raised. It is a taxation matter and she can be assured that we discuss such issues constantly with the Treasury. Such a policy—and, indeed, the planning gain—requires extra revenue. There are some uncertainties and unfairnesses in the application of tax. The hon. Lady has properly identified one and we are continuing the discussions.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only cities experience inner-city problems of drugs, poor housing and deprivation? Will he therefore commit to providing sustained investment in Burnley, especially in poor housing, beyond the next spending round?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. I visited Burnley a year or so ago, after the terrible riots there. Clearly, poor housing was an important problem.
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We have developed the pathfinder programme and I assure her that it will be successful and continue into the next round of public expenditure commitments.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Last July, a tornado ripped through some of the most deprived wards in Birmingham, exposing the dire need for regeneration. In November, the Deputy Prime Minister told the council that he would respond in due course. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister made the same statement only last week. Surely a whirlwind is needed in the Department if it takes so long to respond to a natural disaster, which has left families roofless, homeless and devastated.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Lady may know that difficulties of interpretation sometimes arise in discussions about compensation through the Bellwin scheme and that they are often not settled. We will continue with the negotiations. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has visited two or three times.

In Cornwall, where floods occurred, and in Carlisle, which I visited last week—[Interruption.] Well, the Department is involved in the regeneration and renaissance of all cities, whether Birmingham, Carlisle or Manchester. We shall give proper attention to the policies that are necessary to solve the problems. The discussions are ongoing.

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