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The hon. Gentleman asks about the dry run. We have made it clear for many months that we will have a dry run throughout the country so that we can test the component parts of home information packs. It is important that buyers and sellers are able to see improvements being made to the existing system and more efficiency. Conservative Members can hide as much as they like behind the questions that they ask,
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but we know that they have opposed the scheme from the beginning. We will set out proper research, as I said in an earlier reply to which the hon. Gentleman was clearly not listening. I caution him that he, like the Consumers Association and buyers and sellers throughout the country, should recognise the importance of home information packs. The scheme is all about buyers and sellers throughout the country because they are wasting loads of money due to the existing system, and I do not think that that is fair.

Retail Development

17. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What future reform she is proposing regarding planning gain in respect of retail development. [74894]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): At the pre-Budget report 2005, the Government published a consultation document setting out their proposals for a planning gain supplement, which was designed to capture a proportion of the increase in land value that arises when planning permission is granted. The proposed planning gain supplement, which would not be introduced before 2008, would apply to all types of development, including retail.

Keith Vaz: Although I welcome the proposals, big developers will be able to use the planning system until 2008 to maximise their profits without putting anything back into local communities. Tesco obtained planning permission for a huge superstore in the northern part of my constituency, but has put nothing back into the local community by way of planning gain and has forced several small retailers out of business. What steps does my hon. Friend propose to take to ensure that that situation is not repeated in other areas?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his courtesy in informing me of the subject. I have indeed looked into the proposed store in Hamilton. As well as introducing the planning gain supplement in 2008—the Government will be responding to the consultation on that in due course—we will shortly be issuing guidance on good practice to try to improve the way in which negotiations take place under the existing system and thus create more consistency across local authorities.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has set the framework for me. The Minister will be well aware that major retail developments often create difficulties for local communities because they lose their diversity of shopping and sometimes jobs as well, not to mention experiencing problems due to congestion. Will he undertake to talk to the Chancellor to ensure that when the planning gain supplement comes along, the money will not simply fill the Treasury’s pockets, but will be sent back directly to local authorities so that they can spend it on saving their communities from the congestion and economic and environmental damage with which such major developments leave them?

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and, indeed, I can give him such an assurance. There
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was a joint consultation between my Department and the Treasury—indeed, Revenue and Customs. We intend that the bulk of the money should be beneficial— [Interruption.] Let me just clarify the situation before the cynics in the Chamber get too suspicious. The bulk of the money will go to the local authority concerned. The intention in the consultation—we are yet to respond to it—is that there will be a top slice to allow infrastructure investment that does not fall specifically in the local authority area that is directly involved, but from which it will benefit. However, the bulk of the money will go to the council, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend explain to me and the House how the proposal will vary from the existing section 106 agreements?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful for the opportunity to do exactly that. Under existing practice involving section 106, more than 79 per cent. of all retail developments make no contribution through planning obligations. Again, with the proviso that the consultation response is yet to be published, the proposal in the consultation is that the planning gain supplement should be universal to all types of development, including those of one or more dwellings.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The Minister can propose whatever adjustments he likes to the process for delivering infrastructure through taxation and paying for it that way, but even he cannot invent the basic raw material that is needed for some parts of our infrastructure if it does not already exist. Why should the public have any confidence in the planning and decision-making processes of the Government if it they cannot find out the adequate water supply that is needed to sustain their development programme in the south-east of England? Is it not the case, to paraphrase the old Sunday school song, that the wise Minister builds his house not only upon the rock, but one with an adequate water table, given that the rains no longer come a-tumbling down as they did?

Mr. Woolas: We hear yet again a perpetuation of a myth. The last time that I looked into this matter it was people who used water, not bricks and mortar. Housing improvements and increases in housing numbers are driven not by population increases but by changes in demography—more single people, people living longer and changes in family life. That is why the accusation made by the hon. Gentleman and by others on the Opposition Benches is based on a false premise. Independent studies have shown that the amount of extra water required for the additional homes will account for an increase in demand of less than 1 per cent., and its supply is not related to the point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

Rushenden Link Road

19. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): When she will announce the decision on funding for the Rushenden link road. [74897]
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I am pleased to announce today that £12 million of Thames Gateway programme funding will be made available for the Rushenden link road in Kent. This will unlock new development sites by linking those to the new Swale crossing, which has had more than £100 million of Government investment to upgrade the local transport infrastructure.

The full scheme will provide over 2,000 new homes and more than 500 new jobs, and will be a milestone in the regeneration of the local area, as part of the Thames Gateway programme.

Derek Wyatt: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It is not every day that I get a question answered in the House that gives me a big smile on my face, but the £12 million for Rushenden and Queenborough citizens has been wanted since 1945. On top of the new hospital in 2001 and the new bridge that opens next month, costing £100 million, that £12 million will be the most welcome news for those two communities, so I thank the Minister very much.

Angela E. Smith: I am delighted to put a smile on my hon. Friend’s face. [Interruption.] There are some things that always get the House excited.

My hon. Friend has always been a tireless and persistent campaigner on this issue. Had he not consistently raised the matter and pushed for the project, he may not have received that news today. He has constantly highlighted the value of the project, and he should take some pride in his achievement.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The link road is far too far away from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Social Housing (Halifax)

20. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab): How much funding has been allocated to improving social housing in Halifax since 2000. [74898]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): Halifax homes have seen major refurbishment as part of the Government’s decent homes programme. Since 2000-01, Calderdale metropolitan borough council has invested £4.3 million on improving its council homes, the majority of which has come from Government. Since the stock transfer, it has had an annual average investment of more than £14 million.

Mrs. Riordan: I am grateful for that reply. I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to a recent editorial in the Halifax Evening Courier, which praised Pennine Housing 2000 for the way that it managed social housing in Halifax. Will she join me in congratulating Trans-Pennine on completing a £150 million five-year investment programme, which has helped to improve the lives of many tenants in my constituency?

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Ruth Kelly: I certainly will congratulate Trans-Pennine Housing, which has done a fantastic job. As I am sure that many hon. Members are aware, Trans-Pennine Housing has recently received top inspection marks for doing a superb job, so I would be grateful if my hon. Friend takes back to it my wholehearted congratulations.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): First, may I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new post. What a legacy! I am sure that the voters of Halifax will be as surprised as I was that in the open letter from the Prime Minister to the right hon. Lady upon her appointment there was no mention of social housing or homelessness. Does that mean that in addition to the loss of Dorneywood, the Department has also lost its social conscience?

Ruth Kelly: I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s thanks. I have a fantastic, wide-ranging brief. The Deputy Prime Minister and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) left a superb legacy, particularly the number of social homes that have been refurbished since 1997. I remind the hon. Lady that her Government left a £19 billion backlog of repairs, which the Government have started to put right. That is quite right—we need to build more houses.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): Like we did.

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman says that that is what the Tories did, but anyone who casts their mind back to the 1990s will remember the days when land values were low, when houses—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Lesbian and Gay Rights

21. Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): If she will make a statement on the effects of the Equality Act 2006 on lesbian and gay rights. [74899]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): We published a consultation paper in March setting out proposals for regulations that will prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual discrimination in the provision of goods and services. The consultation period ended yesterday, and the proposed regulations will be made using the power in part 3 of the Equality Act 2006.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she believe that the principles and membership of an organisation such as Opus Dei can be reconciled with the delivery of lesbian and gay rights in the Act?

Meg Munn: The whole of this Government have a proud record on gay and lesbian rights; the equalisation of the age of consent; the repeal of the abhorrent section 28, which was introduced by the Opposition when they were in power; the introduction of civil partnerships; and the introduction in 2003 of regulations that make sexual orientation discrimination unlawful in the workplace. That is what I am answering for—this Government and nothing else.

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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): What a delight it is to see my hon. Friend in her new job, as she holds those issues close to her heart. Does she accept that it is as important to oppose the prejudice of some people against Catholicism as it is to oppose prejudice against homosexual people? Will she make sure that when the regulations are finally laid before the House they do not include wide-ranging exemptions for faith-based organisations, as many Labour Members would find that difficult to stomach?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. He will know that the Equality Act introduced regulations to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, as the Government believe that that discrimination should be outlawed too. The two sets of regulations will be introduced together, as requested by many Government Members in our debate on the issue. As for exemptions, the consultation paper proposes that activities closely linked to religious observance or practices arising from the basic doctrine of a faith should be exempted from the regulations, but we do not propose to exempt activities provided by an organisation relating to religion or belief where the sole or the main purpose of the organisation offering the service is commercial.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Loughton.

Hon. Members: Not here.

Mr. Speaker: I believe that Mr. Loughton’s question was withdrawn.

Council Tax Bills

24. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): How many copies of council tax bills were sent to her Department and its predecessor in the last 12 months. [74904]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The Department for Communities and Local Government and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have received approximately 4,600 copies of council tax bills in the past 12 months as part of the campaign correspondence.

Bill Wiggin: What response has the Minister made to the 4,000 people who have written to him? Now that the croquet team has gone, what plans does he have to abandon its proposed rebanding exercise?

Mr. Woolas: A rebanding exercise was never proposed. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] A rebanding exercise was never proposed, despite the myths and speculation. As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about what has been done to reply to correspondence, obviously if an individual name and address is supplied, we reply directly, but some of the postcards in the campaign did not include an address, so we could not respond directly.

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Hertfordshire Fire Service

25. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): If she will make a statement on industrial relations in the Hertfordshire fire service. [74905]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): Industrial relations in the Hertfordshire fire and rescue service are primarily a subject for the attention of Hertfordshire county council, acting in its capacity as the designated fire and rescue authority for the county. It is not the direct responsibility of the Department, but during the current dispute I have been in contact with Hertfordshire’s chief fire officer, the county council and the Fire Brigades Union.

Mr. Dismore: Will my hon. Friend have a discussion with the chief fire officer for Hertfordshire to ask him to look again at his integrated risk management plan, which proposes the closure of two fire stations, Bovingdon and Radlett, and the loss of 39 firefighter posts? Many of the firefighters in Hertfordshire who voted for industrial action played an important role in dealing with the emergency at Buncefield last year, as well as the rail tragedies at Potters Bar and Hatfield and the frequent crashes on the M1. Hertfordshire makes great demands on the fire service. Will my hon. Friend talk to the chief fire officer to get him to review his IRMP, and will she meet a delegation from the FBU parliamentary group to discuss the matter further?

Angela E. Smith: That was rather a long question, but I shall do my best to answer the points that my hon. Friend made. I can assure him that I have been in regular contact with the chief fire officer and have spoken to the Fire Brigades Union as well. The chief fire officer’s assessment of the plan that he has made is a professional assessment, and I would not try to second-guess or change that assessment. It takes account of the risks today and tomorrow in Hertfordshire and the response that the fire and rescue services should make. In response to my hon. Friend’s comment about Buncefield, I can assure him that in major incidents gold command kicks in, and the Fire Brigades Union and others ensure that there is proper and adequate cover. We all want to ensure that the industrial action ends as soon as possible. A key role that I have played is ensuring that talks can take place. I have encouraged the FBU, the chief fire officer and Hertfordshire county council consistently to talk in order to find a way through the current difficulties.

Brownfield Land

26. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What plans she has to review the definition of brownfield land. [74906]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The brownfield definition has not changed for 20 years. We have not proposed any changes in the new draft planning guidance, but we are considering the responses to the consultation on draft planning policy statement 3 on planning for housing.

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