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Ruth Kelly: Yes, we have. The reason we went through a search process was because the community cohesion element of the work that was with the Home Office came to the new Department for Communities and Local Government. It is right that it has done so, because now we are able to think about equalities in the round, taking account of the views of faith groups as we take account of the views of other equalities groups. That give us a huge opportunity, going forward, to think through how we make this country and this society a fairer and better place for people to live. We have a candidate of fantastic calibre in that job to take that work forward.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome all the good work that the Secretary of State and the Minister for Women and Equality are doing on the equality agenda. On inter-faith activity, does my right hon. Friend agree that getting young people together in those forums is particularly important? Bridging the divide at an early age is crucial to tackling it later. What does she see as the role of the new commission in trying to achieve her stated ambition to make sure that the work is continued?

Ruth Kelly: My right hon. Friend is right to say that involving young people in inter-faith work and in joint and shared activity is vital to our future. Evidence shows that young people are particularly prone to the messages from violent extremists. If we are to ensure that they have the defences that they need and that communities are resilient to the threat posed by violent extremists, we need to engage as many young people as possible. The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, to which my right hon. Friend referred, will have a particular role in making sure that people of all ages and across all faiths are able to have their voices heard. In the Muslim community especially, and also at local authority level, we face a challenge as a Government to make sure that the voices of young people and women are heard in the debate—voices that have for too long been neglected.

Local Democracy

18. Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): What steps her Department is taking to encourage people to stand for election as councillors. [129832]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): On 8 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the launch of an independent Commission on Local Councillors to consider the incentives and barriers to people serving as councillors and to make recommendations. The commission will consider a range of issues, including encouraging people who are able, qualified and representative to be candidates to serve as councillors. The commission is expected to report in the autumn.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I welcome the Government’s move to establish the commission. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the national census of local authority councillors published recently by the Local Government Association and others, and is therefore also aware of the scale of the task faced by the commission. The census shows that at present
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councillors are far from fully representative of the communities they serve, that their average age is in the late 50s, and that all parties are struggling to attract and retain council candidates of calibre. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a challenge for the Government, for local government and for all political parties if those of us who care about the future of local democracy are to see it flourish?

Mr. Woolas: I agree with my hon. Friend, who served with distinction as leader of his city—one of the most diverse cities in our country—for, I believe, 18 years. He is right to draw this matter to our attention. I will not list the figures from the census, but Members will gather that the pattern across the country is that councillors are not as representative of communities as we would all like them to be—although I have to say that some parties start from a better base than others.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest disincentives preventing people from becoming involved in local government is the feeling that their role makes no difference? Would not one of the best ways of making people feel they can make a difference as councillors be to give them back more control over local decision making and local spending, perhaps by supporting the Sustainable Communities Bill?

Mr. Woolas: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the ingenuity of his question, which is linked to Question 19. It is for exactly that reason that our proposals in our White Paper and in our Bill will rightly give councillors more powers—particularly in their role as ward councillors, which involves the implementation of measures such as the community call for action.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): The Minister will know that the number of councillors aged 45 or less has halved in the past 20 years, from 26 per cent. in 1985 to a paltry 13.5 per cent. last year. Obviously, the introduction of education for citizenship as part of the national curriculum will help, but what other initiatives can we pursue to encourage more young people to become councillors?

Mr. Woolas: I would not want to give my hon. Friend or, indeed, anyone else the impression that I was biased against people over 45—for obvious reasons—but his point is very important. Unless we can involve younger people in representing our communities, local government will not be as healthy as we would all like it to be. As well as the measures outlined in the announcement of the commission, the Government are taking a range of measures, particularly with the Department for Education and Skills, but also with other Departments, to pursue initiatives such as the Youth Parliament and other youth forums, all of which can help.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Should not the Minister acknowledge the role that his Government have played in discouraging councillors over the past 10 years? Is it not the case that too many councillors up and down the land have expressed their despair at the fact that, through their manic culture of
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targets, quotas and directives, the Government have completely distorted the relationship between national and local government?

In 2005-06, 5,091 circulars and directives were delivered to councils from the Government—50 per working week. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, with which we have dealt recently, offered the Minister more chances to be permissive to councils in terms of their leadership structure, limitations on targets and the forced abolition of patient forums, all of which he turned down. Is it not the case that those standing as councillors and wanting to be free of such wretched Government control still do so more in hope than in expectation?

Mr. Woolas: I do not accept the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. The comprehensive performance assessment has led to improvement in the quality of public services provided by local councils, but the new arrangements—part-heralded by the Bill on whose Committee the hon. Gentleman served—strip away many of those targets in the new regime and allow for the local decision making that we and the Local Government Association want.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): While high standards and probity are important in the lives of local authorities, does the Minister accept that some of the activities of the Standards Board work against councils? Are not the long delays, and the fact that the Standards Board does not tell councillors about an initial complaint, worth investigating?

Mr. Woolas: It is because of such representations that changes have been made to the operation and logistics of the Standards Board and to the code of conduct upon which we consulted recently and which the Committee debated. I think that my hon. Friend will find the outcome to his satisfaction.

Sustainable Communities Bill

19. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): What plans she has to discuss the Sustainable Communities Bill with local government. [129833]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The Sustainable Communities Bill is, of course, a private Member’s Bill. I understand that representatives of the Bill’s supporters recently met the Local Government Association to discuss it, as I will shortly.

Gregory Barker: The Minister will be aware that more than 400 Members from both sides of the House, including not only the whole Conservative party but half the parliamentary Labour party, are supporting the Bill. Can he explain why the Secretary of State is the only Member to have refused to have local meetings in her constituency, having turned down a whole range of possible dates? Is not that very worrying? Can he give the House an absolute assurance that the Government will do nothing to block or impede the Bill when it returns to the House?

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Mr. Woolas: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the supporters of the Bill, as have I. Indeed, last night we had a very interesting and successful rally about the themes of the Bill in Central Hall, Westminster, at which the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) spoke. I was able to point out to him and to others that the Government are supportive of the goals of the Bill, as I told the House when it was debated. However, whatever its virtues, those who claim that it will solve every problem in their constituencies are sadly mistaken.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): One of the great attractions of such legislation is that it would give local authorities in the UK the same powers and entitlements that they have in other parts of Europe—in France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy—including the right to set energy generating and water recycling standards so as to exceed national targets rather than follow them. Will the Minister look again at the proposals that are being made for policy planning guidelines to give UK local authorities the same across-the-board entitlements as their counterparts in Europe?

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend will know that we have our goal of zero carbon homes. We will indeed be considering the points that he raises. Many of the measures already contained in legislation before the House move towards substantial powers being held locally, particularly through the local area agreement process. I am pleased to tell the House that by the end of this week every local authority in England will have a local area agreement.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Given that the Prime Minister wrote to the Secretary of State on 9 May last year charging her with providing radical devolution to local communities, can the Minister explain why he has such a hang-up about the Sustainable Communities Bill, which would do precisely that? Can he now throw his weight, and get his Department to throw its weight, behind the Bill and set local authorities free to achieve what the Prime Minister wanted the Secretary of State to achieve?

Mr. Woolas: The measures that the Government have brought before the House on sustainable communities strategies, local development frameworks, local area agreements and the new statutory framework move the relationship substantially from the centre to local areas. As regards the Sustainable Communities Bill, my colleagues and I will make it better and make it workable. I would have thought that that would be welcomed by Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, who are supporting it. It would not be right or responsible for a Government to agree to pass a Bill in the knowledge that their legal advisers and parliamentary counsel had pointed out deficiencies in it. That is why I am adopting the approach of tabling amendments, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he is following the debate.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he said last night. Does he agree that the best way to scrutinise the Bill properly is to get it into Committee? There have been
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many negotiations behind the scenes and I greatly appreciate what my hon. Friend has done to make that happen. However, we need the Bill to come into Committee so that we can properly discuss how to move forward with that important measure.

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend is right. Of course, the measure is a private Member’s Bill and its promoter, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who cannot be here today, is entering into constructive discussions with the Department and me about the way in which we can ensure that its goals and objectives are met in a manner that improves existing legislation and the measure. However, the Bill is the property of the House.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Last night, we all enjoyed the Minister’s company before a rally of more than 1,000 people. However, the campaigners were disappointed to hear his view that the Sustainable Communities Bill is superfluous because its spirit and letter are covered by other Government measures. Where, in legislation, is the requirement to publish in full all the taxpayers’ money spent in a locality and the discretion for local authorities to spend it as they see fit?

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Lady does not accurately reflect my comments at the rally last night. I did not use the word “superfluous” and it is wrong to try to portray the Government’s attitude in that way. It is also wrong to tell constituents and the public in general that passing the Bill, virtuous though it is, will stop every pub, shop and post office closing and bring nirvana to our constituencies. It will not. It is, frankly, misleading to suggest that. I agreed with one thing—I emphasise “one”—that the right hon. Member for Witney said, which is that it is no good people saying one thing and doing another. I would have thought that the party of the free market wanted a level playing field, not the use of planning laws for centralised control—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

High Hedges

20. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op): What guidance her Department gives to councils that impose charges to deal with complaints under the high hedges provisions contained in part 8 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003; and if she will make a statement. [129834]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): Our advice on fees under the high hedges legislation is in the guidance document “High Hedges Complaints: Prevention and Cure.” It states that each local authority is responsible for deciding whether, and at what level, to charge for dealing with complaints about high hedges.

Dr. Naysmith: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She knows that I have tried to highlight the unfairness associated with the policy for some time. I cannot understand why there should be any difference between investigating a planning violation or a noisy
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neighbours problem and a high hedges complaint. Yet action on one is free but action on other costs more than £600 in some local authorities. Some of my elderly constituents cannot afford the £320 that it costs in the Bristol area. I have been assured by some of my hon. Friend’s predecessors that the matter is kept under constant review. Does she anticipate any results from that constant scrutiny?

Meg Munn: As my hon. Friend will remember, the subject of high hedges was tackled initially in a private Member’s Bill and then taken up by the Government. Essentially, we enabled the existence of a system to deal with private matters, which concern only the individuals directly involved. That is different from antisocial behaviour such as noise nuisance. We have made it clear that local councils are in a position to determine what they should charge. If they so chose, they could charge less for people who are on low incomes or over a certain age.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Has the Minister undertaken an estimate of the total amount of money raised through complaint charges since the Act came into force?

Meg Munn: No, we do not collect centrally the data on the operation of high hedges legislation, so that information is not available. To respond further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) about a review, we consider it too early to reach a conclusion on these matters. We are not receiving a great deal of complaints about how the 2003 Act is operating, so we do not believe that there are many problems with it. We will review it in due course, but not yet.

New Homes

21. Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): How many new homes she estimates are needed to meet current demand. [129835]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The analysis in the Barker review showed that we should aim to deliver about 200,000 new homes a year to prevent future problems with affordability. The level of house building has increased from around 130,000 to 180,000, but we need to go further.

Mr. Austin: My constituents want to know that they have a Government who are on their side, helping people who are working hard on limited incomes to get on in life. What more can the Government do to help people earning perhaps £10,000 or £12,000 a year who are keen to start a family, but want to wait until they have got on the housing ladder and can buy or rent a home of their own?

Yvette Cooper: We will be helping 160,000 families into shared ownership programmes by 2010, but, frankly, we also have to get serious about building more homes. My hon. Friend will know that there is continued opposition, including from the Opposition
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Benches, to building more houses. Early-day motion 519 of the last Session stated that the Government’s housing proposals would

It was signed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and, frankly, that shows an irresponsible attitude towards the first-time buyers of the future.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Minister follow up her comment about irresponsible decisions by estimating how many of those new homes will be built on natural floodplains?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will know that housing developments around natural floodplains have been in place over our history. Many developments in the city of York and elsewhere are in natural floodplains, but he will also know that we have tightened the planning guidance in that area. In particular, we set out new planning policy guidance before Christmas in order to prevent inappropriate development in flood areas and ensure that homes are sustainable for the future.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Do we not need to target more new housing specifically at young people, particularly those who are homeless, or about to be homeless? Will the Government develop a strategy to promote the building of foyer projects in each town throughout the country?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the good work that foyer projects do. We have set a target to end the use of bed and breakfast for young homeless people, as we think it inappropriate. Foyer schemes are one way of doing things, but there may be other ways of providing supported housing for young people in communities. My hon. Friend is right to say that it should be a priority. We have made great progress helping families out of homelessness and now we want to do more for young people.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Thirty-three years ago, I was vice-chair of housing in Luton when we had a housing waiting list of 4,000 families. We simply built and bought thousands of homes and housed all on that waiting list. Our housing waiting list is even bigger now and the majority of people on it cannot contemplate home ownership, as it is simply beyond them. I suggest that my hon. Friend should look again at what we used to do in the ’70s and perhaps replicate it now.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend will know that the housing market has changed substantially since the 1970s, and that we now have far more home owners than we did then. He will also know that it is right to increase market housing, along with more shared ownership and social housing. I think that councils need to play a stronger role in that process as part of the investment in new housing for the next few years.

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