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8 Nov 2007 : Column 278

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about the need for sustainable communities. Does he share my disappointment that the Secretary of State, in making her partisan attack on the Conservatives’ localist credentials, signally failed to mention the Sustainable Communities Bill when talking about the Government’s programme, even though it passed through Parliament with strong cross-party support? Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Government to place on record their determination to implement the Bill with real energy, as though it had been invented in Government?

Mr. Pickles: I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he did to bring that most important piece of legislation to the statute book. Having had conversations with the Secretary of State and the Minister for Housing, I know that they share our enthusiasm for it, but perhaps, in these partisan times, the odd nice thing gets left out. That is life, I suppose.

On a personal note, may I say how much I regret the fact that the marine Bill is still only at the draft stage? We were promised a marine Bill in 2005, and it has been one of the main objectives since 2001. We have been waiting patiently, but our patience is now exhausted. I have always thought that the marine Bill and the Climate Change Bill were really just two sides of the same coin. Of course we welcome the Climate Change Bill. Such is our enthusiasm that we have welcomed it every time the Government have announced it. I am aware that my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), will have many points to make on this subject when he winds up the debate, so I shall not cover them now, but we do support the Bill’s objectives.

However, I must take issue with the fact that the Prime Minister has sought to sneak another stealth tax into the Climate Change Bill. This is a stealth tax masquerading as a green one. I was somewhat surprised to see its inclusion in the Bill. According to the press, first it was in, then it was out. A press conference was arranged, the Minister was ready, then No. 10 cancelled it on the quiet, just like the election. Then DEFRA said that it had been going to happen all the time. In out, in out. This is not the politics of a firm, well-run Government; this is the politics of the hokey-cokey. Bin taxes are just going to shake things about. They will damage the local environment and public health by leading to a surge in fly-tipping and backyard burning. Neighbours will be creeping out in the dead of night to drop the remains of their chicken tikka masala in next door’s bin. The countryside will be blighted by fly-tipping, and back garden rubbish burning will pollute the atmosphere.

Let me quote from the outgoing Mayor of London. Mayor Livingstone calls the plans “flawed” and says that bin taxes would be a “disaster in London”. Labour-run Northumberland county council slams them as “unworkable and impractical”. The set-up and running costs of such a complex tax, involving the installing of microchips in every bin, will mean that the overall burden of taxation for ordinary families will rise. Families now face the double whammy of record council tax bills and a new bin tax. Let me be clear: bin taxes will be costly, they will damage the environment, and we will continue to oppose them.

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What we saw yesterday was little more than reannounced policies, reheated soundbites and tired old ideas. If this Queen’s Speech were fast food, it would be a dodgy kebab, warmed up once too often, overlooked by the public and well past its sell-by date. This is not the change that people want. Only the Conservative party has the ideas and the energy to meet the aspirations of the British public. We were promised a vision for the future. We were promised change. This is not vision. This is not renewal. This is just the next chapter in the long goodbye of a tired and increasingly pointless Government.

12.15 pm

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): It is some time since I have addressed the House from the Back Benches—about 18 and a half years, I think—but I am delighted to be speaking today and to welcome the Gracious Speech. I was very pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to say. I was extremely disappointed, however, in the contribution of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), whom I knew well in local government. I remember him when he was a local government leader. He did not talk about the north at all today, and I do not think that he would dare go anywhere near it now. They kicked him out of Bradford, and now we know why. I am really disappointed that he gave us not an ounce of an idea of what he would seek to do in housing, local government or anything else. We know nothing about Tory policies—because, I suspect, there simply are no Tory policies.

Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak with some trepidation, because I am not going to speak only on today’s topic. I shall ask for your indulgence, and use this debate on the Queen’s Speech to talk about some of the issues that keep me going, get me up in the morning and convince me that this Government can do even more to change the opportunities of the people in communities such as mine, who for years were led to believe that they had nothing to contribute, and told that the Government did not expect them to play any part in the world. The devastation of communities such as mine during the Tory years is still deep in people’s psyche; it is there for all to see. The difference that has been made over the past 10 years is remarkable, but there is still more to do.

The real strength of the Queen’s Speech was the commitment to aspiration. Many people in the north-east have simply never believed that they were able to take part in the advantages of our modern society. If there is one thing that we need to do in the north-east, it is to turn around the aspirations of the younger generation, and of their parents, so that that generation can really become the drivers of change and opportunity. Much of what was in the Queen’s Speech, and in the public service agreements in the Budget statement last month, showed how the Government have learned from their time in office that there needs to be a much clearer focus and much more effective cross-cutting interdepartmental work.

I spent the last year of my time in government trying to ensure that we joined up different polices and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, shaped places more effectively, so that people living in them could achieve their very best and turn their lives
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around. I want us to do that by tackling the huge challenges, such as child poverty, which still exist in the north-east. I am pleased to be involved with people in the region in turning child poverty round within the next generation. As a result of the legacy in the region, it has the highest number of children who do not get the opportunities that they should have.

I disagree with the main plank of what the Tories have said. They try to maintain that society is broken. Society is not broken. Far too many people within our society and communities are not getting the opportunities that they need, and do not have real access to what would turn those opportunities around. However, many people have opportunities today and are achieving—they have jobs, and so on—because of what has been going on in this Government, and they want to be part of ensuring that things are even better for the next generation.

I admit that in my last year in government I became obsessed with early intervention. The Government have done remarkable things for early years opportunities. We have built up an infrastructure of children’s centres around the country, and there is a recognition that early years education and opportunity make a difference to children’s lives. Sometimes, however, we were not sufficiently systematic to ensure that those got through to the children who needed them most. We opened the doors, and hoped that they would all come through. What happens is that those who recognise the opportunity storm through the doors and take it up, but some of those who are not too sure how to go about it, or who are worried about what life would be like in there, or whether they would be embarrassed because they did not have the same vocabulary, or whatever, as other people there, simply do not turn up.

One of the programmes that we introduced is the family nurse partnership, and I was delighted when a couple of weeks ago the Government announced that they were giving a further £30 million to that. The programme is rolling out in 10 pilot areas around the country. The Leader of the Opposition does not know what he thinks about it yet. He called it a new programme of foetal ASBOs—antisocial behaviour orders—but others on his Front Bench welcomed it because they saw what it could do.

I was delighted to meet Professor David Olds in my constituency the week before last when he came to see how the programme is being rolled out in Durham. It is making a huge difference. Nurses are meeting young women whom they say nobody else has picked up. Those young women have an early pregnancy, and may have mental health problems. They have certainly missed a lot of school, and their literacy and numeracy may not be what we would expect. Now, however, they have learned about what happens to a baby’s brain as it develops in the foetus and are now enthusiastically deciding for themselves that it would be a good thing if they do not smoke or drink any more, because they know that that will enable their baby to grow better in the womb and to be born heavier and probably later.

The programme’s results are beginning to show real differences in local communities. We know, because the programme has been so well researched and evidenced internationally, that it produces enormous benefits for both parents and children. The amazing thing—this
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really interested the professor from Colorado—is that we are managing to get fathers involved, in a way that they have not managed to achieve as well in America.

In America, for every $1 spent in the programme, the state, or the foundations, will have saved $5 by the time the child is 15. I am not saying that we will get such superb results in this country, but the programme will make a huge difference. The young women and the parents are beginning to get some self-respect—some knowledge and understanding of themselves and their responsibilities in terms of rearing their children. That is making a difference as those children are growing up. We know that we have to get to the most disadvantaged as early as we can and work with them in a positive way so that they can draw on their own resources and strengths and build on those.

Our society is not broken. We have to engage with people in ways that allow and enable them to be the best that they can. I sometimes look at the Opposition and wonder where things went wrong—but I know that such programmes can be productive. I urge the Government to see how we can use our resources most effectively in all their programmes. We cannot do that just by pouring money in; we must build relationships, using the money effectively and ensuring that we make a difference in the lives of the people who were abandoned, rejected and absolutely neglected by the previous Administration. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friends to ensure that that is precisely the legacy that this Government give to the country—by building a new generation that can take the opportunities to develop their skills, and to develop the skills and opportunities in their communities, so that our country is at the forefront of how the world develops in the future.

12.27 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): We share the Secretary of State’s grief and concern at the loss of the firefighters’ lives. I, and my party, want to be associated with the condolences that she extended. It is a stark reminder that however much we talk about such things in the House, it is often the people out there—the local service providers—who take the hits when trouble strikes.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box to defend her Government’s record and to explain their intentions. The Department that she runs has a central role to play in key issues that this country faces. Planning and housing are clearly among those. The fact has not been mentioned yet, but more than 1.6 million families are on the council house waiting list. House prices have been rising and are now unreachable by many first-time buyers, especially in the south, but also in constituencies such as mine, in Greater Manchester. Repossessions are predicted to rise from 8,000 in 2004 to 30,000 this year and 45,000 next year. As we have heard from the intermittent references to the subject of the debate, there is an overheated housing market in the overcrowded south-east, and there are environmental problems that go with that.

Less often mentioned has been the fact that more than half the carbon dioxide emitted in this country
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comes from buildings. The regulation and environmental control of buildings is also within the Secretary of State’s remit. If we take the new projections of population growth seriously, it appears that many of the existing pressures will become more severe in the coming year.

The Department has a central role in ensuring that local services are provided throughout the country in a timely and effective way. Last week’s comprehensive spending review and pre-Budget statement made it clear that things will be very difficult for local government over the coming year, given a sharp reduction in the development of finances. The Minister for Local Government himself has said that there will be a tight settlement. We know that there will be ferocious pressures on the delivery of social care throughout the country, we know that the costs of the single-status agreement—which were raised earlier—are not funded properly, and we have heard rumours that another round of unitary authorities is being contemplated in Lancashire and Cumbria. It is a turbulent world in which the Secretary of State reigns and provides finance. The provision of finance, too, should have featured in the Queen's Speech, but it contained no proposals for reform of the local taxation system.

This is not just a question of housing, planning and local services; we must also consider equality and social cohesion. The Secretary of State referred briefly to the report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. I hope to hear later today that she has accepted its recommendations, and that she will place the results of her consideration in the Library.

We were tantalised by the reference to action on citizenship in the Queen's Speech. The Secretary of State did not mention it explicitly, but her commission has produced recommendations which I consider to be of great sense, sensitivity and understanding. I hope that any action on citizenship that is taken will pay especial regard to what the commission has said, and as a first step will restore funds to local authorities to provide English lessons without the penalties that have been hinted at elsewhere.

It is interesting to note that despite a great deal of talk beforehand, the single equalities Bill did not find its way into the Queen's Speech in draft or any other form—but we do have measures relating to housing, planning, local services, equality and social cohesion. How have the Government, and the Department in particular, responded to those crucial issues? Many of them require cross-departmental action—people getting out of the silos, joined-up government, and so forth—and that applies to no issue more than it does to climate change, “the greatest threat to mankind”.

What contribution does the Secretary of State intend to make during this Session to solving the problem of climate change? We are bound to say, “None, really.” The Climate Change Bill is welcome, but it covers only carbon dioxide emissions, it does not set annual targets—it establishes instead a five-year target which is out of synchronisation with the general election sequence to which we are accustomed—and, at 60 per cent., its target is too low. It should also be noted that it does not include aviation or shipping. Nevertheless, any climate change Bill is better than no climate change Bill, just as any single equalities Bill would have been better than no single equalities Bill.

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I was fascinated by the Secretary of State’s assurance that the Merton rule would be retained, and that, in her words, the Department wished to strengthen it and make it more flexible. I do not believe that it is possible to do both those things at the same time. Local authorities all over the country have already adopted the Merton rule or variants of it, and others wish to do so. Whatever the Secretary of State says in this place, her civil servants are still advising councils to hold back and to slow down, which cannot be right. I urge the Secretary of State to back up what is in the Climate Change Bill by letting local authorities and local democracy get on with the job that they are ready and willing to do in support of the Government’s strategy.

I cannot let pass the opportunity of mentioning what was said to the Secretary of State earlier about monitoring the effectiveness of environmental regulation of buildings. She said that a review was being carried out. I remind her that there was cross-party support for the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, which I was happy to promote, but that I am still waiting for her and her Ministers to implement the provision allowing additional monitoring. She does not need new legislation in the Queen's Speech; she just needs to get on with it.

We must also ask where the marine Bill is—but that is not the right hon. Lady’s problem. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is sitting next to her, knows very well that only two or three weeks ago, when he spoke at a meeting here, he gave a clear hint that the Bill would be ready and waiting for us in the Queen's Speech—but it is not.

I return to the question of housing and planning. Ministers seem to think that with housing, there is a choice to be made between quality and quantity, but the Liberal Democrats reject that idea. We must have high-quality sustainable housing, and we must have more housing as well. The need is substantial, but what we are offered is too little affordable housing, too little social housing and too little sustainable housing. We need to see, in the housing Bill, measures that genuinely empower local communities to make their own decisions, and to provide public land for affordable housing through the use of community land trusts.

Please will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that all new homes will be zero-energy buildings with zero carbon emissions by 2011, rather than by 2016, which is the Government’s aspiration? Will she also present proposals to start the upgrading of existing buildings, especially the 70 per cent. of existing homes that will still be in use in 2050 and which, unless action is taken now, will still be emitting a ridiculously high level of carbon?

Tom Brake: Does my hon. Friend agree that although the eco-towns proposal is clearly of environmental interest, the real challenge relates to proposals for eco-suburbs—ensuring that homes in existing suburbs are fitted with equipment that can deal with the environmental impact of emissions?

Andrew Stunell: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I know that his borough of Sutton is beginning to explore the possibilities. We need to recognise that the huge majority of the housing that is supposed to be zero-carbon by 2050 has already been built, so we must take action with regard to that sector.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Will my hon. Friend join me in expressing gratitude to the Centre for Alternative Technology, which has devised a blueprint for a zero-carbon Britain? Are not such organisations experts in the field, and should not all parties pay attention to their recommendations? They make a practical reality out of what the Government may previously have considered to be theories.

Andrew Stunell: The fact is that the country is bubbling with ideas. The work has been done, and there are people ready to step forward and implement it. What they need is a clear signal from the Government that they should get on with the job. The Merton rule could be taken as a very precise example of how not to deal with the issue: by hanging a sword of Damocles over it, the Government have inhibited the step forward that local government and local communities are ready to take. My hon. Friend has made a powerful point about the availability of the ideas and advice that are needed.

The Government must produce plans to make not only housing but entire communities economically, socially and—crucially—environmentally sustainable. The Department has seriously underachieved in terms of its proposals for the housing Bill, but has it done any better with the planning reform Bill? The indications suggest that its main effect will be to help Labour’s friends in the nuclear and supermarket industries, rather than to give local people a genuine say in planning.

Nobody can deny that the current planning system has major structural flaws. There are some serious difficulties at what might be termed the micro-level, the middle level and the macro-level. One of the more grotesque and absurd features of the micro-level is that planning applications are generally considered without the input of locally elected representatives, because the code of conduct prevents that. There are also other flaws that need to be put right, such as that there is no third-party right of appeal, and that some developments—such as mobile telecommunications masts—are substantially excluded from the planning process. It would be good to be able to report that the Bill looks set to fix those problems, but so far it certainly does not.

There are absurd consequences at the middle level. Towns such as Yeovil and Chesterfield—both of which are represented by my hon. Friends—want more homes, but they cannot build them because the national and regional planning guidelines for their areas prevent that. Whatever else is included in the Bill, I hope that there will be a provision that allows local communities that want to build to be able to do so. If we want more homes, the starting point must be to put them where local communities want them to be.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the flipside of that is that communities should be able to refuse more housing where that is less appropriate? My community, for instance, is accepting up to 8,500 new houses but draws the line at 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 or more, which would push development into the green belt, and developers are currently eyeing up the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty.

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