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Social Behaviour

Q7. [46923] Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What progress the Government have made in promoting social behaviour since July 2005.

The Prime Minister: By a number of different ways, noticeably Sure Start and programmes in primary and secondary schools, we try to encourage rejection of antisocial behaviour and the embrace of social behaviour.

Mr. Allen: Does the Prime Minister accept that many youngsters in deprived constituencies such as mine, often from broken families, arrive at school unable to recognise numbers or letters, or unable even to speak in complete sentences or relate to their fellow pupils? Will the Prime Minister consider putting the teaching of social behaviour at primary school at the same level as the successful campaigns on teaching numeracy and literacy, where the local education authority so wishes?

The Prime Minister: Some of what my hon. Friend rightly draws attention to is being done through primary schools now in the programme on which the Department for Education and Skills is working with them. He is absolutely right, however, to draw attention to the fact that for our young people it is not merely about passing exams, but about communication skills and being able to work with people, where, in addition to the other measures we are taking, the increase of sport in schools—and bringing sport back to schools—will have a major impact. My hon. Friend is right to say that we will have a programme in place, available for local authorities to use if they so wish.

Engagements

Q8. [46924] Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Last year, Labour-run Northamptonshire county council was given a 6.5 per cent. increase in formula funding, yet this year the now Conservative-run council received an increase of just 2.1 per cent. Can the Prime Minister tell me why last year the county council deserved more but this year deserved less?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has a slightly curious way of describing it; actually, real-terms increases are still occurring this year. I remind him that as opposed to the Conservative years, in which, constantly, funding for local authorities was cut, we are increasing the funding year on year on year. That is why, in an area such as Northamptonshire, for example, police numbers have risen, we have more police support staff and there has been a 17 per cent. fall in domestic burglary and a 6 per cent. fall in overall crime. And under this Government the money will keep on coming.
 
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Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I welcome the renewed efforts by the Prime Minister and the Irish Government to restore devolution in Northern Ireland, but does the Prime Minister agree that one of the best options for progress would be to remove suspension and recall the Assembly, thus allowing the wrecking parties to resolve their difficulties within six weeks and restore a local Executive so that social and economic issues can be tackled urgently?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend that we want to see the institutions back up and running as soon as possible, but as he knows—and to state the obvious—that can only really happen if a degree of confidence exists so that the parties can work together. The talks that will begin shortly, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will lead, will give us an opportunity to explore the differences, but as ever with this process, the Government can facilitate but we cannot force people to do what they do not wish to do. I hope that during those
 
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negotiations and talks we can discuss the circumstances in which we can get the institutions back up and running properly.

Q9. [46926] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Tuesday's health White Paper calls for a greater local delivery of health services, which the Opposition very much welcome. Does that spell a reprieve for Malmesbury hospital?

The Prime Minister: I cannot comment on the hospital that the hon. Gentleman mentions in particular, but I can say that the one thing that is for sure is that over the past few years—[Hon. Members: "What about the hospital?"] I think that it is as well to remind the hon. Gentleman's constituents of the massive increase in investment under the Labour Government, because one thing is for sure: every bit of that investment, including a 7 per cent. real-terms increase in health funding this year, would have been opposed by him and his party.
 
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Personal Statement

12.30 pm

Mr. Stephen Byers (North Tyneside) (Lab): In my personal statement on 17 October 2005, I apologised to the House for the factual inaccuracy in my answer to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) during the Transport Sub-Committee meeting held on 14 November 2001. I am grateful to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for its investigation into my evidence, and in particular for its finding that I did not lie to the Select Committee, as alleged. As I told the Committee, an accurate reply at the time would have caused me no problem, either politically or legally. Although the Committee recognised that in my personal statement of 17 October I had accepted that I gave a factually inaccurate answer, it concluded that I should have apologised unreservedly for having done so. I accept the Committee's conclusion, and I therefore offer my unreserved apologies to the House.


 
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Points of Order

12.32 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In Health questions yesterday, we referred to the growing problem of the lengthening waiting times for radiotherapy, made the point that the Government are continually refusing to measure those waiting times, and asked how the problem could be solved. The Secretary of State for Health indicated in her answer that the Government would introduce measuring facilities for such waiting times, but that clearly contradicts written parliamentary answers given to us very recently. Will you please look into this matter, Mr. Speaker, and ensure that Ministers give accurate answers in future—for the sake of cancer patients, in this case?

Mr. Speaker: The best way to deal with that is to table more parliamentary questions.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At Question Time today I mentioned two reports, and you told me from the Chair, Sir, when you put me down, that I would be answered. The Prime Minister did not answer anything about the report that I was quoting—he went on to another report—and on a matter of this nature, when a Government-appointed body now admits that it misled people about decommissioning, we need a straight answer from the Government.

Mr. Speaker: It is best for the right hon. Gentleman to pursue that matter with the Prime Minister, but to get the record straight, I put the right hon. Gentleman down because his supplementary question was too long. As a seasoned campaigner in the House, he will know that long supplementary questions will be stopped by the Speaker, for no other reason than that.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Two years ago, the Prime Minister tabled a motion in the House to welcome the fact that pensioners would be able to collect their pensions from the Post Office, using a Post Office card account. However, yesterday, an anonymous spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions announced that those accounts were always intended to be only an interim solution. Have you had any request, Mr. Speaker, from any Minister at the DWP to come to the House to explain why that fact was concealed from us two years ago, and to explain the pilot schemes that are starting this month, thus preventing some pensioners from using Post Office card accounts for their pensions?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman represents a constituency that is, at the very least, very rural, and post offices are an important part of that community. He should apply for an Adjournment debate and get the appropriate Minister down to the House.


 
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Protection of Private Gardens (Housing Development)

12.35 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I beg to move,

The Bill is designed to close a loophole in the planning system that is giving rise to great concern in my constituency and constituencies throughout the country. The problem is essentially that front and back gardens are classified in planning terms as the equivalent of brownfield sites. In other words, they are treated the same as an old   gasworks or a disused railway site. As housing development is encouraged on brownfield sites, it is next to impossible for local councils throughout the country to refuse planning applications for developments that they consider to be excessive, even if they want to. The situation has serious consequences for my constituents and those of other hon. Members.

Let me give hon. Members an illustration of the problem. Forest road in Tunbridge Wells is typical of many roads throughout the country. Developers are buying up houses with big plots on that road. They do not buy them just to redevelop the house, because their eyes are as much on the garden as the house itself. Some of the houses have stood for as long as 100 years. They are some of the most attractive urban houses in our constituencies, but after they have been bought for development, they are demolished and replaced by housing—often in the form of apartment blocks—that covers the whole footprint of the plot.

Let me describe the consequences of that. The neighbours of such developments live in fear that the property their other side will also be bought. They fear going from living in a leafy street of family houses to being surrounded on both sides by apartment blocks, which was not the type of life that they expected to live. With understandable panic, those people sell to developers. A domino effect occurs on these roads—one after another—as houses fall prey to developers. In a short time, the character of some of our most prized areas is being completely destroyed, although we never would have considered that possible.

There are three reasons why there is a problem, of which the first is the point about character. We should prize the parts of our towns and cities that are attractive to live in and have proved to be so for upwards of 100 years. They are part of the identity of our towns, and we should cherish and preserve them.

The second reason is environmental. In towns and cities, our gardens are precious green lungs. They are havens for precious wildlife, insect and bird life. They clean and cool the air and keep down pollution. They also contribute to the drainage of our communities when we have problems with flooding and poor drainage throughout the country. If it were suggested that one of our urban parks or open spaces should be concreted over, there would be uproar and people would march on Parliament to protect those sites. However, as gardens are hidden from view behind houses rather than in public view, they go unnoticed, so little by little we are losing precious green spaces throughout the country.
 
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The third reason why we should be alarmed by such developments is that although we all want more social and affordable housing, many of the developments are sufficiently small to fall below the threshold that triggers the requirement for such housing. Developers can thus create high-end housing, which is often dense, without making the contribution to affordable development that they would be obliged to make if they were to develop a genuine brownfield site.

What is to be done about it? I am not going to suggest that we should preserve every garden in the country in aspic—clearly that is not possible, and there is a difficult balance to be struck between housing need and protecting the character of our urban areas—but two principles should apply. The first is that the people who make the decisions should understand their communities. They should be familiar with the character of their areas and accountable to their local electorate. Better the town hall than the Minister in Whitehall when it comes to taking views on the character of a development. We should give back to local communities the power to decide those applications, and not have them taken remotely.

Secondly, we should not kid ourselves that those are brownfield sites. They are not; they are greenfield sites. They are not what the brownfield site legislation was designed to protect. We delude ourselves if we think that we are making progress in developing brownfield sites when we are ploughing up people's back gardens, with the consequences that I have described. And I am afraid that we are deluding ourselves, because in a statement released just yesterday by the Minister for Housing and Planning, the ODPM praises the

of home building on previously developed land—in other words, brownfield sites.

In the context of my remarks today that achievement is dubious. We do not know what proportion of that 72 per cent. is gardens rather than industrial sites. In a parliamentary answer to a question that I asked, the Minister admitted on 11 January:

If we are to have a debate about housing and about balancing development and preserving the character of our towns, we should at least do so on the basis of clarity, honesty and knowing whether we are getting rid of industrial sites or gardens. That is not happening at the moment.

This Bill seems to have struck a chord right across the country. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Labour Members and Liberal Democrat Members as well as Conservative Members have added their support to it, and that support has not just come from what one might think of as the leafy south-east. I have had messages of support from the valleys of south Wales, Rochdale, Rotherham and Doncaster, as well as from Teesside. The problem is shared across the country. To quote just one message of support, a correspondent from Rotherham said:


 
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My Bill is simple in its intent: it would remove front and back gardens from the Government's definition of brownfield sites of previous development. If we are to be honest about brownfield sites, we owe it to ourselves to recognise the intention of the designation. If the idea of brownfield sites is to mean anything, it should be about improving the condition of our towns and villages and contributing to environmental progress, not about changing and destroying the characters of areas for ever.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Greg Clark, Michael Fabricant, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, John Penrose, Mr. David Burrowes, Mr. James Arbuthnot, Mr. Jeremy Hunt, Mr. Gerald Howarth, Ms Dari Taylor, Mr. Douglas Carswell, Mrs. Nadine Dorries and Mr. John Maples.


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