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I think we should concentrate first on the incentives that we can introduce and on cost-effective improvements such as cavity wall and loft insulation, but technological improvements are also needed. We need to find more cost-effective ways of improving solid-wall insulation, for instance, if we are to make a real difference in the future. We hope that the zero-carbon new homes programme will create technological spin-offs that can be applied to existing homes as well.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Do we not already have legislation that could be used to implement tougher and bolder minimum standards for energy efficiency? House builders are failing to meet the existing minimum standards on a grand scale. Why does the Minister not give the building inspectorate greater sanctioning powers and resources to enforce the new higher standards?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point about enforcement. There were weaknesses in the enforcement of the 2002 building regulation improvements. Since then, we have enhanced the enforcement of the latest improvements in the building regulation standards of 2006 by putting in place a broad programme of training and other steps such as compulsory pressure testing. We need to go further, however, and we will over the next 10 years progressively set higher building regulation standards for energy efficiency in order to cut carbon emissions from homes; we are clear that improved enforcement must be a part of that programme.

Local Government (Cheshire)

14. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What account she plans to take of public opinion in the restructuring of local government in Cheshire. [148317]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): We are now assessing bids for unitary status against the criteria specified in our invitation. We will have regard to all information available, including all forms of public opinion, when measuring against the criterion that any change must have a broad cross-section of support from stakeholders and partners.

Ann Winterton: Why has the Department not consulted local people on plans to restructure local government, except for those representing bodies such as unelected quangos? Is the right hon. Lady aware that a recent Cheshire-wide MORI poll that showed that in the borough of Congleton there was a derisory 16 per cent. support for a single, county unitary authority, only 27 per cent. support for a two unitaries solution, but 55 per cent. support for improved working of the two-tier system? Will she agree to meet me to discuss the only viable solution, which is supported by the majority of my constituents and myself?

Hazel Blears: I am well aware of the hon. Lady’s deserved reputation for assiduously ensuring that Ministers know of her constituents’ views. We have during this entire process been very clear about the criteria that would be assessed. Local authorities have rightly conducted extensive consultations with their
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communities in a variety of ways, such as via telephone polls and face-to-face surveys. One criterion is that there should be support from a range of stakeholders as well as from the public, because if we are to achieve the desired efficiencies and joined-up working through the bids we must ensure that there is broad support.

The hon. Lady asked for a meeting; we will reach decisions on these matters in the near future, and as I must be absolutely scrupulous about the information I receive, it would not be right to enter into lengthy discussions. If the hon. Lady wishes to send in some representations, I am sure that I will be able to receive them, but I must be extremely careful about the process that I adopt in reaching decisions on these issues.

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): As another Member who represents a constituency in the historic county of Cheshire, may I invite my right hon. Friend to agree that Cheshire’s current two-tier structure, where responsibility for planning, transport, housing and social care is split between the town hall and the county hall, is completely confusing to the Cheshire public?

Hazel Blears: I am very conscious of my hon. Friend’s tremendous record in ensuring that her constituents’ views are made clear to Ministers. She will know that the invitation for bids to restructure resulted in 26 bids, 16 of which are still being considered, and that there are two options for the Cheshire area. Restructuring must be about achieving increased efficiency and better joined-up working and getting results for the local community. I am well aware of the points my hon. Friend makes, but I am sure that she understands that I must consider all the representations from, and views of, the public before reaching final decisions.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): This is almost a Cheshire love-in. May I say in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) that a unitary system of local government would result in a democratic deficit? As our new Prime Minister has talked a tremendous amount about trusting the people and localism, should not the views of individuals carry as much weight in this consultation as those of the quangos and stakeholders who appear to be the main people and bodies being consulted by the Government? Does the Secretary of State agree that an improved two-tier system will maintain localism? Let me also say that I wish her well in her new post—bubbly though she is.

Hazel Blears: Again, I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s energy and vigour in representing his constituents. He will know, I hope, of my commitment to ensuring that local people have more of a say over their communities, and the challenge for me is to turn that into a reality, rather than simply warm words, and that is what I will endeavour to do. I am sure that he would accept that it is important that, as well as consulting the public, we are sure that all the partners that have to work with local government broadly support the proposals, because this is about getting better results from bringing people closer together at local level, whether that is the health service, the local police or local government. That is what can have the most impact on improving services for local people.

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Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I had an opportunity yesterday to welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. I assure her that in the last 24 hours nothing has diminished my enthusiasm for her new role, which I say in the spirit of an Essex love-in.

Will she confirm that in a letter to her Department the Chief Secretary to the Treasury described the unitary council bids, including the one from Cheshire, as a “waste of time”, warned that costs “may overrun” and said that the Treasury

the risk? I do not wish to rub the right hon. Lady’s nose in it, but given that the Treasury thinks that it will be expensive, her predecessor thought that it was a distraction, and that ballots throughout England have rejected the unitary proposals, will she do the sensible thing and reject that ridiculous reorganisation? Will she also accept the hand of friendship from this side of the House, as we promise to work closely with the Government to achieve better two-tier working and value for money for the electorate?

Hazel Blears: I, too, had the opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post yesterday. I am afraid that on this occasion I will have to resist his blandishments and his hand of friendship. He will know that the criteria by which these bids are to be judged clearly include affordability, as well as broad support from stakeholders across the community. We will therefore look very closely at the numbers. I would always expect the Treasury to be very concerned about affordability, as indeed are we, because if these proposals are to go ahead, they need to be practical, realistic and deliver real improvements for local people. I am not interested in simply moving the pieces around the board, but—like, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman—in genuine results, greater efficiency and higher quality services for local people. Those are the criteria by which the bids will be judged.

Planning White Paper

15. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What recent discussions her Department has had with environmental groups on the planning White Paper. [148318]

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): Ministers and officials from my Department have met environmental groups a number of times in the preparation of the White Paper and since publication. Other Departments have done the same. That is part of the priority that we are giving across Government to gathering views as part of the current consultation on our proposals.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend will be aware that environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have stated that the planning White Paper

Can my hon. Friend allay the fears of the public and confirm that those are unfounded remarks? Can he also confirm that the proposals will make climate change a priority, ensure security of energy supply in
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the future, and put an end to the delaying tactics that have stopped companies investing billions of pounds in this country?

John Healey: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. The proposals are designed to reinforce, not reduce, the public’s chance to have their say at every stage in the process. The proposals will ensure that the planning system in the future reinforces our efforts to tackle climate change and reduce emissions. It is the case that major projects, especially green and other energy projects, have often taken too long to get through the current planning system, and that is another reason why our reforms are so important.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): As this is a day for congratulations, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and hope that he enjoys this particularly difficult portfolio.

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware, because his head was probably in his brief this morning, that the Secretary of State refused to rule out the abolition of green belt protection. Will he be advising the Government’s new unelected planning quango to give the green light to green belt destruction? What assessment has he made of the effect of concreting over the green belt on climate change and flooding? Are not the Prime Minister’s warm words on listening to communities, which my hon. Friends have mentioned, just empty rhetoric and spin from a controlling, centralising Administration?

John Healey: I am grateful to the hon. Lady at least for her opening comments; I knew that they were too good to last.

Let me be clear: we remain completely committed to the principles of the green belt. The proposals in the White Paper on planning do not change our policy on the green belt.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): This morning I sponsored an event at which a number of green non-governmental organisations expressed their concern about the future of public involvement, especially in respect of major infrastructure proposals. Does my hon. Friend understand the concern that giving councils too much discretion in how they engage the public will result in many doing the minimum necessary? Do we not need a statement of minimum rights of public involvement? Do we not need to ensure that council statements of community involvement are tested for their fitness?

John Healey: The White Paper proposals are right in looking to local councils to put in place, for the majority of their work, consultation and involvement arrangements that are suitable to the circumstances. On the fears of Friends of the Earth and other green groups about public consultation in relation to the proposed process for major projects, I say again that big projects will entail public consultation and will involve the public at every stage—in the preparation of new national policy statements and project proposals by developers, and with reinforced rights of access to inquiries, which may take place as part of the planning process.

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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I attended the meeting of a coalition of 14 environmental groups that has just been mentioned. Those groups do not believe the Minister’s reassurances about the intent of the new planning legislation. What will Parliament’s role be in deciding the new planning framework? Will there be a free vote, as councillors are legally obliged to have when sitting on planning committees, or a whipped vote?

John Healey: I would recommend that the green groups that somehow have doubts about our intent and the detail read the White Paper more carefully. We have invited comments on all the key proposals, and the Department has published detailed consultations on four other specific areas. I welcome the discussion with those green groups. At the close of the consultation in mid-August, we will come to a view of how to proceed with the proposals and with legislation for the future.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the way in which the new guidance on planning and climate change associated with the White Paper will put local authorities at the heart of ensuring that new buildings are energy-efficient. Will my hon. Friend consider giving local authorities a similar role in relation to listing old buildings, particularly those from the 1950s and 1960s such as the civic centre in Plymouth, which, incomprehensibly, has been listed without any account being taken of its huge carbon footprint?

John Healey: I congratulate my hon. Friend on managing to use this question to raise that issue. Happily, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is sitting on the Front Bench. She will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments, and I am sure that she will respond in due course.


16. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How many local authorities in England are registering landlords in designated areas. [148319]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The Department for Communities and Local Government has received and approved applications from four local authorities to establish areas for selective licensing of private rented housing. The applications were from Salford, Middlesbrough, Manchester and Gateshead.

Mr. Prentice: I welcome my friend to his important new post, where I am sure he will do well. Pendle has more than its fair share of rogue landlords, but the local authority inexplicably seems to be dragging its feet on selective licensing. Can we learn anything from the authorities he has just cited about their experience of bringing in selective licensing?

Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to the Treasury Bench. He has been a strong and doughty champion of selective licensing in the face of a Lib Dem council in Pendle. I suggest that he continue in that strong role, fighting for a decent quality of life
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for residents by putting pressure on the local authority to ensure that there is selective licensing in due course.


17. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If the Minister with responsibility for the fire and rescue service will discuss with the Home Department the development of new techniques to preserve forensic evidence of criminal activity at scenes of fire. [148320]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): The fire and rescue service has a long history of working with the police at the scene of fires where criminal activity is suspected. Recent research commissioned by the Arson Control Forum, a Government-sponsored body, has focused on detection and investigation using forensic evidence. My Department
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and the Home Office are both represented on the forum and take a full part in its deliberations.

Mr. Hollobone: Will the Minister consider finding time in his diary for a visit to the arson control taskforce based at Kettering fire station, so that he can be fully briefed on the exciting new initiatives to combat arson between the Northamptonshire fire and rescue service and the Northamptonshire police?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman’s invitation, but I am already well aware of some of the very good work in Northamptonshire, where the fire and rescue service works closely with the police, and through a recent campaign to remove abandoned vehicles, actually reduced the number of car fires by 60 per cent. That is very effective work and those involved locally should be congratulated on it.

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Children, Schools and Families

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The new Department for Children, Schools and Families brings together for the first time ever in one place the responsibility for all policy across Government to promote the well-being of children and young people. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I start this statement with a proposition on which I believe every Member of the House and every parent and grandparent in our country can agree: every child matters, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that every child has the chance to develop their talents to the full.

After decades of underperformance, we have turned the tide. We have rising standards—more than 58 per cent. of 15-year-olds achieved five or more good GCSEs in 2006, compared to only 45 per cent. in 1997. There is new investment, with 35,000 more teachers, 172,000 new classroom assistants, more than 1,100 new schools and more than 1,300 Sure Start children’s centres. Teenage pregnancy rates are at a 20-year low. Re-offending rates among young people are down, and 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty.

Significant challenges remain, however, which require us to change and to renew. We know that parents want a greater focus on standards. We have far more to do to close the attainment gap between poorer children and their better-off peers. There are still too many young people not staying on in education and training after 16, and 2.8 million children still live in poverty, with many falling behind in learning before they even start school and more likely to end up in trouble as they grow up.

In this statement today, I can announce immediate steps that we can take to reinforce our focus on standards in the classroom and personalised learning; to back teachers and improve discipline in and out of school; and to strengthen school leadership. We take those steps as we begin today a national consultation on how we can put the needs of children at the centre of our policy making, and build a stronger, fairer Britain, breaking down the barriers to opportunity so that every child and young person has the chance to make the most of their talents—not just a privileged few.

First, on standards and personalised learning, a child who cannot read, cannot write or cannot master basic maths will never succeed in education. Our priority must be standards, not structures. So we will renew our focus on the things that really matter to parents and meet their rising aspirations, and that means getting the basics right.

Since 1997, we have raised standards in literacy and numeracy in primary schools. We are now implementing the recommendations of the Rose report into early reading to ensure that all schools and nurseries teach phonics properly. And the “every child a reader” pilot is now helping 5,000 six-year-olds with significant literacy problems to learn to read.

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