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Local Government and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

11.14 am

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): It is a privilege to open this section of the debate on the Gracious Speech. I wish to start by paying tribute to the four firefighters who lost their lives in Warwickshire last weekend: John Averis, Ian Reid, Ashley Stevens and Darren Yates-Badley. Their loss is a reminder of the commitment and courage that our dedicated emergency services show every day, be they firefighters, ambulance crews, police officers, community support officers or the volunteers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. This was the worst loss of life for the fire and rescue service in a single incident for 35 years. It has had a huge impact on a small community, and I know that it is felt very deeply by their colleagues everywhere. Our condolences go to all their friends and families.

I am proud to be Communities Secretary at a time when, as the Government’s programme has made clear, we are poised to make a significant shift in the way that the business of government is carried out. We want more power to be given to Parliament and to the people. Devolution will be brought to the countries, councils, communities and citizens. What a contrast that will be with the record in government of the Opposition, who should be judged by their deeds and not their words. In 18 years, they hoovered up powers to the centre, from schools, colleges, local councils and the NHS. They abolished London-wide government, and starved councils of cash.

Yes, as a councillor in the Tory years, I remember how the Conservative Government cut budgets every year. Let’s hope that we never go back to that. It beggars belief that the Leader of the Opposition is in Manchester today to launch a Conservative co-operative movement. Conservatism and co-operation have as much in common as chalk and cheese.

As ever, the Opposition’s rhetoric about localism is merely a fig leaf for their desire to cut public spending, shrink the state and let the free market take over. The Conservatives believe not in co-operation but in competition of the kind that lets a few swim while the many sink. That is what we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, in my city and in communities across the country. By their deeds shall we know them.

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Today, thanks to 10 years of investment and the commitment of local leaders, over three quarters of councils now have three or four stars from the Audit Commission.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, but will she set the record straight in respect of an answer that she gave during the Department for Communities and Local Government Question Time of 16 October? Speaking of services for the elderly, she said that Manchester city council was

She went on to say that the contrast with Conservative councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham was “absolutely obvious”. However, the facts are as follows: the Commission for Social Care Inspection ratings for adult social care gave Hammersmith and Fulham three stars and Manchester only two, while the Audit Commission’s comprehensive performance assessment gave Hammersmith and Fulham four stars and Manchester three. Moreover, Hammersmith and Fulham achieved £1,813 in spending per head on the elderly, while Manchester city council managed only £1,419. Will the right hon. Lady set the record straight because, if she wants people to have confidence in her role, she must be fair on all councils of all parties?

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is quite a long intervention.

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman forgets to mention that a lot of that good work was built up under Labour. Will he say why Hammersmith and Fulham, a four-star council, is about to increase the charges for meals on wheels by £200 a year? I do not think that a four-star council needs to take that sort of action.

Mr. Hands: That is happening because the Supporting People grant allocated by central Government is being cut by 10 per cent. or £1.4 million in the next five years.

Hazel Blears: Perhaps that just enables us to see what the priorities of Hammersmith and Fulham council are.

We must put the governing back into local government. Local councils should not merely administer services, they should shape the future, build a foundation for aspiration and ambition and not wait for Whitehall to tell them what to do next.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I do not want to be contentious, but the answer to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) referred was given to me. It was to me that she gave information about Manchester that clearly was not accurate. If she is telling the House that the information about Manchester that she gave that day was not right, will she now correct what she said?

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Hazel Blears: Certainly, I think that Manchester city council provides excellent service for people in the city. The information to which the hon. Gentleman refers was given in response to a query from another Manchester Member of Parliament. I wanted to make sure that he was fully aware of the excellent work done by Manchester city council.

We now have a number of excellent local leaders right across local government. John Merry, the leader of my own Salford city council, is a shining example. Salford council provides excellent services and makes sure that there is a foundation in our city for aspiration and achievement among even the poorest people.

Last month, I announced the new indicators for measuring local government’s performance. There are now just 198 such indicators, compared with the 1,200 that there were in the past. I also announced new flexibility for local councils to direct funding to meet their local priorities, with £5 billion of grants being mainstreamed. Local government must use its new freedom and demonstrate what confident councils, ambitious for the people whom they serve, really can achieve.

This Government also want to see an unprecedented transfer of power and influence direct to local people; elected representatives who are not afraid of the views of local people but enriched and strengthened by them. As the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” made clear, we cannot overcome the challenges that we face today or meet the rising aspirations of the British people if we do not make people themselves part of the solution. At the heart of my politics for the past 25 years has been the conviction that there are no better advocates for local communities, no better agents for local change, than local people themselves.

Last month I published jointly with the Local Government Association a community empowerment action plan underpinned by £35 million of funding. It outlines a series of practical proposals to pass power to the people—action, not rhetoric. Community kitties, local citizens juries, and the transfer of assets such as underused buildings to local voluntary groups are just some of the methods that pioneering local councils have explored. I challenge every council to take up these new opportunities. In the months to come, colleagues across government and I will be working closely together to embed the principles of community empowerment into a wide range of policies, from policing to health.

The Gracious Speech showed that we are a Government with the courage and the vision to take the difficult long-term decisions that are in the interests of this country. Look at house building. The fact is that for a generation we have not been building enough homes to keep up with the needs of our population. Today we are building 185,000 homes a year, the highest rate for nearly 20 years. But with the number of households projected to grow by over 220,000 each year from now to 2026, it is clear that we must go further.

Already many first-time buyers have to struggle to afford a deposit. Too many young families are living in cramped conditions or on council waiting lists. Without urgent action, their prospects of one day owning their own home will become increasingly remote.

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Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Government try to portray their aim to build 3 million homes before 2020 as simply a way to ensure that young people can get on the housing ladder. Will she confirm that, by the Government’s own admission, of the 3 million houses that they say will be built more than 1 million are for future immigration? Is that why, after his disastrous slogan of “British jobs for British workers”, the Prime Minister has not come up with a slogan of “British houses for British families”?

Hazel Blears: Many of the new homes that will be built will be for families; they will be for first-time buyers. However, they will also be for older people, who increasingly are living alone. The hon. Gentleman has to recognise that this is a demographic problem and not simply seek to scapegoat immigrants.

This is a Government on the side of aspiration for the many, not the few. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we will build 3 million new homes by 2020. I want to pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. She is taking the programme forward with passion and vigour. The Conservative party, by opposing our plans to build more homes, is betraying the aspirations of everyone who wants to own their own home but is struggling to get on the ladder.

The Government will bring forward a housing and regeneration Bill to create a new homes and communities agency. The agency will be vital to delivering our Government’s housing ambitions, working with local authorities and the private sector to promote regeneration and build new social and affordable housing.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I am delighted at the progress that is being made. When the new agency is created, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the regulations governing it deal with the problem that crops up from time to time in all Government Departments in constituencies such as mine where there are pockets of severe deprivation within a broader community that is very wealthy? Cheshire is a wealthy county, but there are pockets of severe deprivation that get left out in the matrix that is used for Government funding.

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He will know that we have been trying to ensure that we use the data about super-output areas so that we really drill down into those pockets of deprivation in our policies right across the board, but also in housing policy. It is a key issue. Sometimes these matters are felt even more keenly where there are pockets of deprivation within an area that is affluent overall.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The right hon. Lady will understand that the issue is not just the number of houses to be built—everybody accepts that we need more—but where they are placed. In my constituency, a public inquiry is going on that will end up on her desk and I obviously do not expect her to pre-empt that decision, but can she assure me and my constituents that when she makes a decision on that inquiry it will be based on
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the current Cambridgeshire structure plan and the decisions, plans and strategies of locally elected people rather than allowing them to be overruled, as was implied by the inspector at the opening of the inquiry, by her objectives for far more houses, bearing in mind that we already have a new town only 5 or 6 miles away from the proposed site? Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that she will judge the situation after allowing for the views of local people rather than simply allowing her figures to overrule any form of local accountability?

Hazel Blears: I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that the decisions will be made entirely properly, in accordance with all the local plans and the most up-to-date planning rules, and with integrity and probity. Of course, they will.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman says that everyone accepts the need to build more homes. I hope he is talking to members of his party, many of whom are on record opposing the building of new homes across the country. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that Government housing plans would leave

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) said:

The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said that the current level of house building was “excessive”. That was three years ago, so I hope that Opposition Members are joining us in saying that there is an absolute need to build more homes to meet aspirations, especially those of young families.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that in the north of England some communities have experienced fast economic growth and enormous demand for housing, and have housing affordability problems that are as severe as those in the home counties? When the Government consider awarding growth point status to new local authorities, will my right hon. Friend look at cities such as my constituency, City of York, in exactly the same terms as southern cities to ensure that we have the support for additional housing that we need in the north of England?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. His constituency is a very attractive place in which to live and is under similar pressure to places in the south. We will make sure that there are growth points in the north as well as in the south so that everybody across the country can benefit.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Hazel Blears: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker).

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Mr. Walker: I thank the right hon. Lady for being so generous.

Many houses are being built in and around my constituency of Broxbourne. At present, my constituents face packed trains, packed tubes, packed roads, packed hospitals and no water. It is easy to talk about building houses, but where will the infrastructure come from? Where is the Government’s vision for infrastructure?

Hazel Blears: As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not just about vision; it is about being prepared to put in the resources. We are putting £1.9 billion into infrastructure, with £300 million for the community infrastructure fund. We shall be introducing the planning charge. This Government have proper plans to make a difference, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support new house building otherwise he will have a job explaining to his constituents why he is letting down first-time buyers who need housing.

Mr. Walker rose—

Hazel Blears: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I shall give way to his colleague, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth).

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady as I should like her to correct the impression she may have just given the House with an inaccurate or partial quote from something that I may have said three years ago. I have repeatedly maintained that we need more affordable housing; the question of whether it is excessive relates entirely to the relationship with the provision of infrastructure. In my part of the country there is a lot of house building but no investment in infrastructure at all. That is what I mean by “excessive”.

Hazel Blears: Does the hon. Gentleman support the building of 3 million new homes by 2020?

Mr. Ainsworth: The key issue is where the homes are to be built and what homes are to be built. I should be interested in the right hon. Lady giving a precise definition of what she means by an “eco-home”.

Hazel Blears: When faced with a direct question the hon. Gentleman wants to move the issue on. I think we have our answer.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): When building these new homes, can we bear in mind the standards to which they are built? Will the new agency contribute to the Government’s ambition of carbon-neutral homes by 2016?

Hazel Blears: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Quality as well as quantity is fundamental, and that brings me to my next point. I am talking about not the one-size-fits-all monolithic estates of the past, but mixed communities, supported by excellent schools, transport and hospitals; about decent design, which helps defeat crime, provides space for young and old, with green spaces and safe places to come together as friends and neighbours; about green homes, where the needs of the environment are balanced with the needs of families; and not about the quick-fix solutions that blighted too much of the post-war building programme, but about well designed houses that people are proud to call home.

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