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Those are the sorts of considerations that any sensible Government must take into account. Michael Lyons himself said that revaluation was not an urgent priority. The key to council tax fairness and to putting that tax on a sustainable footing was, indeed, council tax benefit, which is why we need to work on his proposals to increase the level of council tax benefit, to make sure that it is both affordable and fair to people in this country.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Last week, a written answer to one of my questions confirmed that more than £4 million of taxpayers money is being spent on buying details of peoples homes from estate agents. On 24 April, the Secretary of State was quick to criticise the tabling of questions to elicit information of this kind. Can she reconcile that written answer with her assertion that the revaluation is not already under way?
Ruth Kelly: I do not think I could have made my position any clearer to the House. We have no plans at all to revalue council tax in this Parliament. In fact, I think I am going to re-label the word scaremongering as spelmongering, because the hon. Lady is causing fear in houses up and down the country with ill-founded allegations about the Governments plans. Instead of criticising this Government, she should tell us what she plans to do with council tax.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Valuation Office Agency has to conduct valuations as part of the regular process and that it would be completely preposterous to abandon attempts to find new, more cost-effective ways of carrying out valuations? Will she therefore make it clear that any responsible party, including a responsible Opposition, should be welcoming these changes instead of trying to ridicule them?
Ruth Kelly: As always, my right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. As he knows, there have been no changes in the powers of the Valuation Office Agency since 1993, when they were introduced by the Conservatives. Of course, the agency has to keep its records up to date, as any responsible Government agency should; and of course, instead of frightening pensioners, the Conservative party should be supporting these measures.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): The Government support the conclusion of Sir Michael Lyons independent inquiry that council tax is not broken and should be retained. We have already implemented many of Sir Michaels proposals through the local government White Paper and will respond to more of his recommendations in the coming months.
Does the Secretary of State fully accept Sir Michael Lyons criticisms of the council tax benefit system, with £1.8 billion of benefit unclaimed in the last
financial year and a fall of 10 per cent. in take-up in the past decade? If she does accept those criticisms, when and how will the necessary reforms be introduced?
Ruth Kelly: I accept the hon. Gentlemans contention that we ought to do more about increasing the level of council tax benefit take-up. One of the key conclusions of Sir Michael Lyons report is that the key to fairness in the council tax system is not revaluation or the introduction of further bands but ensuring that there is maximum take-up. That is why my Department is working very closely with the Department for Work and Pensions on improving the process. For example, anyone who applies for a pension credit will now have their council tax benefit details taken and processed at the same time, thus doing away with the need for a claim form. We are examining further measures and considering the scope for making council tax benefit an automatic rebate.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Notwithstanding the hyperventilating headlines in such papers as the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, is it not the case that by the time the first council tax bills are produced for the next Labour Government in 2011, the council tax system will be in its third decade? Is not reform of banding long overdue, particularly as regards revaluation, which can be done on a revenue-neutral basis that will minimise the numbers of winners and losers, unlike the disaster that we saw in Wales?
Ruth Kelly: I appreciate my hon. Friends concern about how council tax is being implemented and about revaluation and rebanding. As I have made clear on several occasions, we have no intention of revaluing in this Parliament; nor do we have any intention of restructuring the banding system, which would naturally go hand in hand with revaluation, in this Parliament. However, Sir Michael Lyons says that even if we did go down that route, which we are committed not to do in this Parliament, that would not make the council tax system substantially fairer than it is at the moment. Clearly, there would be winners and losers, but the key to making the system fairer is to encourage greater take-up of council tax benefit.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that all parties have something to learn from the results of the recent local elections? Will she therefore ensure that, in the reforms to the current council tax, any disincentive to maintain the weekly refuse collection is removed? Growing evidence shows that a weekly collection is not only desirable but essential for health and safety.
Ruth Kelly: I appreciate the hon. Gentlemans concern for his constituents, but it is right that local people and communities make such decisions with their local council. It is also right to increase our rates of recycling. Local councils may decide that the weekly bin collection is one aspect of their policy and may want to introduce other measures to increase the rate of recycling. That is their prerogative, but whatever is done should be done in close consultation with local communities.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD):
If the Secretary of State has set her face so strongly against revaluation,
rebanding or abolishing the tax, what exactly will she do to lift the burden from the 2 million households already mentioned? Does she accept Sir Michaels figure of 40 per cent. in relation to existing council tax benefit lying unclaimed? He proposes an extension, but what precisely will she do? What is her time scale? Is it not time for some action, not more spin?
Ruth Kelly: I think I have made myself clear. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Lyons reportI am sure he has already done sohe might reflect on some of the evidence presented in it. I have been reflecting especially on chart 7.3, which clearly shows that council tax can be made much less regressive if there is full take-up of council tax benefit. We must ensure that those who are entitled to claim council tax benefit do that. That is why our programme, working closely with the DWP, is so important to increasing the fairness of the council tax.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): If the activities of the Valuation Office Agency are so benign and the likelihood of a revaluation is as remote as the Secretary of State suggested, why did the Government fight like cats in a sack to prevent those dangerous documents Dwelling House Coding: An Illustrated Guide and Digital Photography User Guide from being released into the public domain until the information was dragged out of them by use of the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman knows that we put extensive material into the public domain about the definition of bathrooms, digital photography and every other aspect of the valuation offices work. We have even published a document to satisfy Conservative Members endless curiosity. The valuation offices powers have not been changed since the Conservative party introduced them in 1993. We have no intention of introducing revaluation in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should stop scaremongering, examine the facts and make a judgment based on them.
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way. However, Sir Michael Lyons has concluded that a property taxin other words, a council taxshould be a strong feature of the current local tax regime. Indeed, every major industrialised country has a property tax. Of course, we must not only work with the system that we have got, but try to increase levels of council tax benefit.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady understand that any implementation of the Lyons recommendations now requires consensus across the political spectrum? Given the massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat council seats and the total disappearance of Labour councils from many parts of the country, and given that the Government lost their mandate last Thursday and the Secretary of State lost her parliamentary seat, does she accept the new reality?
Ruth Kelly: I can certainly agree with the first part of the hon. Gentlemans set of issuesthe Liberal Democrats did not fare well on Thursday. We should bear in mind, however, the fact that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:
I think the way to judge us
to look at Greater Manchester...Are we making progress in places like Bolton?
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): We are supporting a 50 per cent. increase in social housing over the current three-year period, as well as supporting increased market housing and shared ownership housing. That is the best way to deliver more affordable homes for the future.
Jim Cousins: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply, but does she accept that there are many attractive neighbourhoods in Englands towns and cities, such as Fenham in Newcastle, where house prices are rising far more rapidly than the incomes of local people and where more than 300 people apply for every single council-owned family house that comes up? Does she accept that rising house prices are not a sign that market failure has been overcome, but that new ones with great unfairnesses are being created?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right to say that the increase in house prices has put pressure on first-time buyers in particular and on others who would like to be able to afford their own home but instead feel that they need to join social housing waiting lists. That is why we need to build more social housing as part of the answer. We also believe that we need more shared ownership in order to help people buy a share of their own home even if they cannot afford the whole house price. It is also why we need to build more houses in the long term. We have to recognise that we have not built enough houses to meet rising demand for more than a generation. That is why it is so important to increase the level of house building and why it is so tragic that the Conservatives are still continuing to try to block the increased homes that we need.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Minister will be aware of the increasing concern expressed by regeneration agencies and the chief executive of the Housing Corporation at the growing practice of the purchase of property not even to let but simply to hold as an investment without its being occupied. Does she believe that that should be left to the marketplace, and what is her response to those concerns?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a difference between buy-to-let and buy-to-leave. There is concern if large numbers
of properties are being bought and then not rented out but held empty, particularly in areas where there is high demand for housing. He will know that we have given local authorities powers and responsibilities to do more to deal with empty homes that are left vacant for a long time. We think that authorities should use those powers.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): It is interesting to read in todays paper that the Prime Minister-in-waiting intends to build more houses both to let and to buy. Before I throw my hat in the air on behalf of the defend council housing campaign, may I ask the Minister whether she is aware that merely putting money into the private sector increases prices, and that what is needed is more land put on the market and to stop builders hogging land that could otherwise be used for building? Also, does she yet understand that building more council houses where they are required will assist in the process of ensuring that people have somewhere to live where they can afford either to pay the rent or buy? Will she stop the flim-flam that is going on in housing and recognise that the market without subsidy is
Yvette Cooper: I want to make it clear so that you can hear me, Mr. Speaker, that we believe more land should be available for housing, which means making sure that the priority is brownfield land. It also means ensuring that more social housing is built and that there is more shared ownership. We have taken steps to make it easier for councils to be able to build homes and for housing associations to increase the level of homes that they build. It requires increased housing across the board. The South East England regional assembly, led by the Conservatives, however, is still arguing for cuts in the level of house building. That is not in the interest of first-time buyers or those in need of social housing.
Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Minister will of course be aware that in September 2004 the Government announced the commissioning of a number of low-cost houses in my constituency through the design for manufacture scheme. Some two and a half years on, we are still waiting for a brick to be laid. Will she confirm that these houses will be built and that they will still cost £60,000, which was the price announced to my constituents by the Deputy Prime Minister just before the last general election?
The hon. Lady will know that a series of different sites were put forward as part of the design for manufacture programme, and they are progressing at different speeds. Investment is taking place and new homes are being built. We think it is right that those homes should be offered at a range of prices, including
some that are close to £60,000, some that may be at a lower price, some that may be social housing and some that may be at a higher price. It is important that the new developments should have mixed communities, and I am sorry if the hon. Ladys party opposes that principle.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recognise that many Labour Members are worried that with creeping increases in interest and mortgage rates and astonishing house priceseven in the northern counties, in places such as Boltonif, despite her assurances, there is a downturn in the economy, there will not be enough affordable houses to catch those people who will be forced out of owner-occupation?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend will know that the Bank of England takes the issue of stability extremely seriously, and it is important that it should do so. We are also clear that we need more investment in affordable housing, and that is why we have said that that is a priority for the spending review, and why we are supporting increased investment in affordable housing at the moment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): Although the costs of demolition in pathfinder areas vary, depending on the type and location of the property, the general trend is upwards. That is principally because, as in the rest of the country, house prices have risen significantly over the past few years in all the housing market renewal pathfinder areas.
Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister for her answer, but will she acknowledge that, as costs are increasing, and are likely to increase further, owing to the speculative purchasing of property, ambitions are being scaled down and that lateral thinking is urgently needed?
Angela E. Smith: I think that all the thoughts on this issue have involved lateral thinking. It is worth reminding the House of the benefits that £1.2 billion of investment has brought to these areas. Nine thousand houses have been developed, and 35,000 properties have been refurbished and refitted to create new homes. Obviously we have seen an increase in house prices, but that will happen when areas are renewed and become places where people want to live. That means that our investment can go towards renewing and repairing more homes, and towards providing more homes in areas where people want to live.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab):
It is not the demolitions that are the problem in the Meden valley; it is whether the builders can actually get on and build the new homes. Will the Minister pull together those running the pathfinder schemes to give a kick to the builders, who now have plenty of demolition land
available for new house building? If she does, I can assure her that she will have the support of the five Labour Warsop councillors, including Councillor Peter Crawforda Labour gain last Thursday.
Angela E. Smith: I am pleased to say that that was not the only Labour gain on Thursday; there was one in my constituency as well. I take on board my hon. Friends comments. Clearly, we want to see more homes being built and refurbished, and I will take away the comments that he has made. We are making significant progress, but if there is more that we can do to advance the scheme further, we should obviously look into that.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Is the Minister aware that, when the last Conservative Government successfully regenerated the Hulme estate in Manchester, they found that, in order to create a sustainable community, it was essential for at least 30 per cent. of the original residents to return to the estate from where they came? What work is the Minister doing in that respect?
Angela E. Smith: In all those areas, we cannot dictate to people where they should live. We have to create areas that people want to live in, and that means addressing not only issues involving housing but those relating to schools, infrastructure and crime. It is worth noting that there has been a dramatic reduction in crime in many of those areas, which encourages people either to stay or to move back in. The important thing is that there should be a stable and sustainable community, and our objectives are not just about housing but about the community as a whole.
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