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8 Nov 2007 : Column 266

I visited Nottingham yesterday to see the innovative proposals for new eco-homes in the Meadows area of the city. I saw real enthusiasm, real vision and, crucially, genuine support from the local community for the new development. It is a tragedy that the Tories oppose such initiatives, because they are the prisoners of the nimbyism of Opposition Members.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): On the subject of green homes, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Merton rule will be preserved that allows local authorities to introduce tougher environmental standards?

Hazel Blears: Yes, indeed. In fact, we want to go further on that agenda and to make sure that we do not have rigid rules, but that we are flexible and can absolutely ensure that we get renewable energy into our homes as part of our move towards zero-carbon.

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): On the point about eco-homes and better standards in tackling climate change, the Environmental Audit Committee found in a report some time ago that the regulation of standards and building regulations are not maintained as well as they should be. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider giving local authorities more powers to carry out the monitoring rather than leaving that to the self-regulating people in the building industry who often fail to implement or observe the standards.

Hazel Blears: Enforcement has improved, but issues still remain. We intend to carry out a review of the building regulations to make sure that we have a proper system in place.

It has been 20 years since there was major reform to the regulation of social housing. Giving tenants a bigger say over the management of the places where they live is a core part of bringing social housing up to standard in the 21st century, after the Tories left us a repairs backlog of £19 billion. The Bill will create the new office for tenants and social landlords, giving tenants a stronger voice.

It is interesting that on 5 October this year, on BBC Radio 4’s “Any Questions” programme, we got a glimpse of the Opposition’s attitude to social housing, when the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) described a walk down a road in Chesham and Amersham. He claimed that one side of the road, the owner-occupied side, had neat gardens and painted doors and that the other side, the rented side, did not. Tories think that tenants do not look after their properties. I was shocked by that description. I thought it was an insult to 8 million tenants and to the millions of people in social housing who take pride in their neighbourhoods and homes.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will the new agency also regulate council housing? In Northampton, the housing service is going down the drain and we urgently need to make sure that we do not have new social housing that is of a high standard and regulated while the standard of council housing—it is a Lib Dem council—is constantly deteriorating.

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Initially, the regulation will not extend to council-run property, but we want to consider whether
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it will be able to do that later on. We want to make sure that we get the regulation right in the first place before extending the responsibilities.

Building the new homes that Britain urgently needs also has implications for our planning system. It was a Labour Government who introduced the landmark Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which set out the guiding principles for a framework that has endured for 60 years. Today, it is a Labour Government who are ready to renew that framework to meet the modern challenges of climate change, the economic pressures of globalisation and the need for a secure energy supply.

In particular, it is vital to improve the system for nationally significant infrastructure such as ports, reservoirs and power plants. It is still too complex, opaque and very slow. Typically, applications take almost two years with many cases taking much longer. For example, it took more than six years for a decision to be made on both the north Yorkshire grid upgrade and Thameslink 2000. Britain cannot wait that long. We will bring forward a planning Bill to streamline and improve the planning regime. The Bill will introduce a single consent regime for major infrastructure projects and establish an independent infrastructure planning commission. That will help to ensure that more timely and predictable decisions are taken on infrastructure projects that are key to economic growth, international competitiveness, tackling climate change, energy security and improving quality of life.

Let me be clear that this must not—and will not—come at the cost of transparency and public involvement. In fact, it will improve opportunities for public participation at every stage of the process. Both Parliament and the public will play a central role in debate about the national policy statements that will set out the country’s long-term needs for renewable energy, major transport schemes and so forth. In each and every case when developers wish to build national infrastructure, they will have to consult local people before submitting an application. Local inquiries will become more accessible so that everyone—not just those with the most resources and the best understanding of the system—has a fair chance to have their say.

Tom Brake: When the Secretary of State is examining the whole area of planning, will she look at the definition of brownfield to ensure that that does not include people’s back gardens?

Hazel Blears: There are already different targets for different kinds of brownfield land. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue before. Clearly, our Government’s record of building on brownfield land rather than greenfield sites is extremely good, and there has been a significant increase in building on brownfield sites.

Building strong communities is about much more than bricks and mortar. My Department will lead work on ensuring that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to come together and share a sense of civic pride and belonging. In an age of globalisation, this work has never been more important. For generations this country has benefited enormously from the contribution of migrants in all fields: the economy,
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culture and civic life. As the patterns of migration change, we continue to benefit. However, we need to have an honest debate about the different impact on different local communities. The migration impact forum, which is jointly chaired by my Department and the Home Office, is providing the evidence that we need to respond effectively. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion has already reported on what positive measures we can take now.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am trying to take the right hon. Lady at her word about having an honest debate. However, does she concede that local authorities predicted at least three years ago that there would be an enormous strain on the delivery of public services as a result of her Government’s cack-handed and mismanaged policy on accession states in terms of immigration? We have 20,000 new EU migrants in my constituency, which is putting an enormous strain on local public services and causing enormous problems with community cohesion. Where is the honesty in that and where is the debate? It is too little, too late.

Hazel Blears: It is important to have an honest debate and to come up with practical proposals to ensure that communities that are experiencing significant change can cope with the pressures. It is irresponsible simply to raise these issues without having a way forward on policy. That is why I call for an honest, transparent and proper debate.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): In order to have that honest debate, will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that all figures on migration given by the Government will be accurate?

Hazel Blears: The figures that we have from the Office for National Statistics, which operates entirely independently, are the best available figures. As I said last week, I want to ensure that the ONS works with local authorities to determine whether there are ways in which the figures can be enhanced. People have suggested using general practitioner registration figures, for example, as a means of enhancing the statistics. However, one of the problems is that many people coming to this country do not register with GPs, but attend accident and emergency centres. That is one illustration of the difficulties of getting the most accurate figures.

Several hon. Members rose

Hazel Blears: I need to press on because otherwise hon. Members will not have the chance to make their contributions.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con) rose—

Hazel Blears: I will give way in a moment.

I welcome the commission’s recommendations on information packs, on explaining rights and responsibilities to new arrivals, on school twinning schemes, and on local citizens days. Those are all ways in which we can bring people together to try to find a shared future. That is about dealing with the pressures, rather than simply highlighting the problems. I can tell hon. Members
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that before the Local Government Association produced its most recent report, I had already announced an extra £50 million to help communities to cope with the extra pressures arising from the need for integration. Again, what about the Conservative party? It seems that Conservative candidates can state publicly that Enoch was right, and will not even necessarily be summarily dismissed by their party leader.

Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for belatedly giving way. Let us go back to the interesting statement that she just made: she says that she wishes to “enhance” statistics. Will she define what she means by that?

Hazel Blears: Clearly, a range of people have expressed concern about the current best available figures. I am therefore pleased that the Office for National Statistics will work with the Local Government Association to see whether there are ways in which additional information can be gathered, but that is not without its difficulties. I referred to GP registrations; national insurance numbers do not necessarily give an accurate reflection, either. We have to make sure that we use the best available figures to make the right policy decisions.

Ms Keeble: May I bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention a good example of practical work in that respect? In my town, the hospital needed more nurses. Representations were made to the primary care trust because of the increasing number of children being born to eastern European couples, so the trust simply provided the extra funding for the extra nurses. It is looking at the issue and is working constructively with the hospital, instead of using the scaremongering tactics that the Opposition try to use.

Hazel Blears: Yes, that is exactly the right approach: identify the pressures and come up with practical proposals to deal with them. That is the kind of responsible policy that we ought to, and do, have in Government.

The final matter that I wanted to mention was the challenge of violent extremism in our communities. A tiny minority of people are involved in extremism. They do not speak for the vast majority of the UK’s Muslim communities, who share a deep repugnance for acts of terror. None the less, the challenge leaves no room for complacency. We have to continue to work together with those in our Muslim communities who are committed to standing up for peace, respect and tolerance. The Prime Minister has confirmed that over the next three years we will invest £70 million in making all our communities more resilient to violent extremism. Let me make it clear that although my Department is leading our work with local authorities and their partners, preventing violent extremism is a national effort across Government. I hope that the House and the country will stand united in dealing with the challenge that faces us.

The Government’s programme makes it clear that this is a Government with a vision of building stronger communities in towns, cities and rural areas alike, and a Government with the courage to take the long-term
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decisions that are vital for the country’s future, so that we meet the rising aspirations of the British people. I am proud to put our programme before the House.

11.42 am

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): May I join the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in paying tribute to our firefighters? I know that even now there may still be the bodies of some civilians in the place that was affected. It should be mentioned that the firefighters concerned were retained. In all our communities, we all owe an enormous debt to retained firefighters. They do an ordinary job of work during the day, and at the sound of a bleep they drop everything and go and put their life on the line. We are all very grateful for it, and recognise the importance of retained firefighters.

The right hon. Lady obviously takes a great interest in the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to Manchester. She wondered what a Conservative had to do with a co-operative society. I have to tell her that my great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Keighley co-operative society; he was also one of the founders of the Independent Labour party. [Interruption.] He soon became disillusioned and moved on.

The right hon. Lady did not want to be here today

Mr. Walker: We wish she was not here as well.

Mr. Pickles: I am sorry, but I must tell my hon. Friend that I always think that it is marvellous to be in the Chamber to hear the right hon. Lady speak. It reminds me why I am a Conservative.

The right hon. Lady strongly believed that she, I and other hon. Members should have a more pressing engagement. If the Prime Minister had listened to her, we would be pounding the streets, either last Thursday or today, securing the vote for the general election. I know that, because she is a blogger—and a very fine one with surprising views. For the sake of accuracy, I have obtained a copy of her conference blog, which is entitled, “Snap election? Bring it on!” She is not afraid of holding unconventional views. The Prime Minister’s speech at the conference was described by commentators as

It is worth giving the right hon. Lady’s assessment, as it expresses an interesting oddball view:

It is fair to say, however, that the Prime Minister mentioned my right hon. Friend a few times the following week. In case hon. Members are worried that the Secretary of State’s judgment was temporarily unhinged by her time as chairman of the Labour party—that would be understandable, given that she suffered the worst local government defeat in the history of that once-great party—may I tell them that her recovery has begun? She showed great prescience—and I commend her on it—in her assessment of the leaders of our respective parties. She wrote:

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Before the pixels had a chance to reform on her computer, it was pretty clear to everyone which leader had strength, vision and bottle.

Colin Challen rose—

Mr. Pickles: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will give way to him in a few moments, because I want to discuss something that the Secretary of State said.

The right hon. Lady castigated a number of Conservative Members for defending their constituencies, and said that we were a bunch of nimbys. I have a list with me, and I would like her to consider whether the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who opposes high-density building in his constituency, and the Minister for the Olympics, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), are nimbys. The Minister for the Olympics said that proposals for flats in her constituency were

The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), opposes—hon. Members have guessed it—housing development in his constituency. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), is against the building of 9,000 houses in his constituency. He could say to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps): “9K, no way.”

Colin Challen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: In a moment, when I have finished the list.

It is a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), in the Chamber. He has objected to 570 new homes in his constituency. It occurred to me while listening to the Secretary of State that there is a new definition of “nimby”—not in the Minister’s backyard.

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Government Members back more homes, and increased housing in their constituencies. Do members of the Conservative Front-Bench team support more homes in their constituencies, as opposed to calling for reductions in the overall amount of housing by literally thousands in their constituencies?

Mr. Pickles: I probably should have warned the right hon. Lady that I have eight pages of quotes from Labour Members objecting to home building, and it is nice to see a number of them in their places today.

Colin Challen: In Leeds, the Conservative-controlled council, with the aid of its Liberal Democrat bedfellows, has introduced a new form of nimbyism, which is about reducing the number of polling stations across the city. Does that encourage people’s participation in elections? Will the hon. Gentleman oppose the plans of the Conservative administration in Leeds to reduce the number of polling stations?

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