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8 Nov 2007 : Column 297

A fourth criticism has to do with our obsession with ownership. The research done by Professor Blanchflower indicates that the countries with the highest levels of home ownership also have the highest levels of unemployment. I suppose that that may have something to do with labour mobility, but the money that goes into home ownership programmes for key workers merely adds fuel to the flames of rising house prices. That money is quickly discounted by the local market and is effectively wasted. It also is used for buying shares in RSL properties, even though people are frankly not keen on that. If they opt for a share-buying scheme, they have to pay rent and meet the cost of a mortgage, as well as pay for repairs. The housing associations do not want to do it, and the customers do not want to do it either because two thirds of them are on benefit. What would be the benefit of such a scheme? Shares will be difficult to sell when people do buy them, so money is being poured into the scheme and it is being wasted.

The main commitment must be to build more council houses and more RSL houses—more social housing generally. The demand now is for housing to rent, not to buy, because people cannot afford to get on the ladder. A Shelter survey has indicated that people’s first priority is affordable housing, which could be rented or low-priced housing. Their second priority is safe communities. Ownership is only the third priority of people who want housing. So why are we foisting so much effort into ownership schemes when we should be building much more public housing for rent? People cannot afford to get on the ladder now, so there is no plan A unless we build more public rented housing. If the market collapses, as the International Monetary Fund has warned us that it might well do, there is no plan B because once repossessions begin and people face negative equity, where are they going to go if we are not building houses for the public rented sector?

My fifth criticism is of the 15 local housing companies, which are a top-down enforced arrangement. They are effectively a means of forcing local authorities to disgorge their land that could be used for building council houses so that at least half of it is lost through public sale and the other half is lost through transfer to a private sector company that the council cannot control. I am not happy with that. Let us end these failed programmes. Let us give the Minister the boost that she deserves and the money that she must have to go through with the housing drive that the country needs. There is only one slogan to end on, and that is, “Build, build, build”.

1.32 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I should like to associate myself and my colleagues with the sympathy expressed for the fighters against the fire. I am sure that our prayers and sympathies are with all those who feel that great loss today.

I want to use the fact that in this debate wide scope is given to us to comment on things that are on our minds. I am suffering great fears as far as my Province is concerned at the present time. I hope that the Minister will take what I am going to say to his colleagues. We had a police officer shot in the city of Londonderry this morning. He was taking his child to a local school. He
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was a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He was shot with a shotgun and he has suffered serious injuries. It is not for me to say who is responsible for this, but I am told on good authority that the IRA dissidents are definitely under the shadow of this particular crime. If that is so, we could be going back to things that we thought we had finally conquered.

I trust that this House will understand how the people in Northern Ireland feel. I am sure that we will be able to get the victory, but it will come only when there is rigorous law enforcement and those who do these deeds know that they cannot get away with them. I make an appeal to the authorities about this matter. As the House is aware, this is not a devolved matter. It is not a matter for me or the Assembly.

The other matter that I want to tell the House about is a very sad matter indeed. A young boy called Dean Clarke was sold a drug pill for 50p on the open market. It was sold to him in an area that is dominated by Protestant paramilitaries. The young boy took the pill; he has since died. That is something that I must underscore today. I make a call to the Government to take immediate action on open drug selling in parts of Belfast. The evangelical Presbyterian minister who has been in that place for many years went to the police and gave them evidence. He went himself and publicly bought these tablets from the sellers for 50p. For 50p, this young boy’s life was taken. That is intolerable, and I trust that the House and the Government will understand just how we feel. Nevertheless, we must press on toward the mark. I look forward to the day when I will not need to stand up in this House and bring such a message, but I feel that the urgency of it needs to be impressed on us all.

1.36 pm

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): In response to the Queen’s Speech, I want to address certain issues that affect my constituents. The speech has focused rightly on those matters, and that will be of enormous benefit to the people whom I represent.

Looking at my constituency and what has changed in the past 10 years, I can already see enormous improvements in job availability. Unemployment is now down to the national average. That is something I do not think anyone believed was possible in 1997 when the Government were elected. We have seen enormous improvements to local schools, both in the resources that they have and the buildings in which they operate. The same is true for local health facilities.

However, when people come to my surgery with two particular problems, my heart sinks. The first is housing. It is often young couples who come; I have met three or four in the past week alone. They are absolutely desperate either for a home of their own or to move home because they need somewhere larger. A young mother was telling me the other day that she lived in a two-bedroom house with four children and the house is simply not big enough to cope. Another young mother was living at home with her parents because there was not a home available. She wanted to remain in the area because the reality for family life is that grandparents will help with child care; if they do, mothers can go out to work and add to the family income and improve family life, and that is important
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to them. So people need a home in the area where they were brought up and have all their family and social ties.

All too often, I have to say to people, “I am very sorry, there is just an enormous waiting list.” Even people who have priority because of their overcrowding or homelessness often cannot get housing in the south of Sheffield, where housing problems are particularly acute. Demolition is rightly taking place on two or three of the local estates there which were system built in the 1970s and the housing stock and fabric has simply failed. That puts additional pressure on the availability of empty homes.

It would be enormously helpful if the Housing Corporation put pressure on housing associations to give their fair share of allocations to people on the council’s list, especially people with priority need and homeless families. All too often, housing associations do not follow through on the commitments that they give, which puts all the pressure back on the local arm’s length management organisation, Sheffield Homes, which is doing an incredibly good job. So the first issue that makes my heart sink is when people come and say, “Can you help me get a home?” and the answer often is, “No, not in the foreseeable future.”

So what can we do to help? The Queen’s Speech has got it absolutely right this time by focusing on the fact that we need 3 million additional homes to be built in this country. A good proportion of them need to be built for rent for people who cannot or do not want to buy a home. In my constituency, house prices are three times higher than they were in the late 1990s, and homes that were affordable then are not affordable now. Giving local authorities and ALMOs the chance to get into the house-building programme is incredibly welcome, but I caution Ministers that there are some practical difficulties in that process, which we need to remove.

It is proposed that authorities will receive about £40,000 per unit in grant from the Housing Corporation. Six ALMOs are being given the opportunity to bid for funds, but will £40,000 be enough to enable an authority to embark on a house-building programme and make the sums stack up, especially given the complications of the housing revenue account? There are some pilot schemes under way to try to disentangle the housing revenue account problems and develop something more practical to allow authorities to build homes. At present, there is the perverse situation that they could build new homes and lose grant in the process. We need to speed up the procedures and consider whether we need to reform the whole housing revenue account system. That will be a major challenge for the Government in the next spending round.

Are the methods by which ALMOs and local authorities are to be allowed to build homes, such as the development of housing companies and the involvement of various partners, so complicated that there will be a time lag before homes are actually built? My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out that the situation is not as simple as it was in the old days, when local authorities got the money and built council homes. Some of the mechanics for involving ALMOs and local authorities in the house-building
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process are difficult. The Government are right to consider a number of routes, but how quickly will they deliver the homes people need?

The Government’s intentions and motives are right: they are putting housing at the top of the agenda because 3 million homes need to be built, but have we got the mechanics right? Will the process enable housing for rent, which we need in constituencies such as mine, to be built as quickly as possible? That is a major and serious challenge facing the Government. I want to be part of the debate, pushing the Government onwards to achieve the extra housing we all desire.

The second issue that makes my heart sink is when my constituents say, “First Bus or Stagecoach has decided to take away the bus service I rely on.” It might be the service they rely on to get to work because their shift starts at 7 in the morning. It might be the service they rely on to go and see their husband or wife who is in a residential home and it will now take them an hour longer to get there. It might be the service they rely on to take their children to the grandparents who will drop them at school because the parents are going to work.

Family and social life and employment can be disrupted at the drop of a hat when bus companies take such decisions, so I am pleased by the Government’s commitment to allow passenger transport authorities to take powers to use quality contracts, and to create and deliver a framework for services in their area. They will also be able to determine fares and service standards and other things that are important to my community. The restrictions on bus operators’ powers to change routes and drop services at 42 days’ notice are important. The Government’s intentions are right, and those measures will be vital. Often the same people have housing and transport problems; the poorer people in the community need a home to rent and they rely on local bus services.

Again, however, the Government have not quite got the mechanics right. I want to take up the proposals, and perhaps when we consider the legislation for giving powers back to passenger transport authorities we can make some changes compared with the previous draft Bill. The fundamental problem with the Government’s proposals is the length of time it could take between a local PTA deciding that it might want to bring back quality contracts and review the operation of buses in its area and setting up those contracts. It could take up to two years.

Another problem is that the Government do not quite trust elected PTAs enough—whether they are county councils or the metropolitan PTAs. Once an authority has decided, after a considerable amount of consultation and review, that the proposed system of quality contracts is the appropriate way forward, the traffic commissioners will have the right to second-guess the PTA’s proposals. Why should an unelected traffic commissioner be able to veto a decision made by an elected PTA? If we believe in localism and the transfer of real responsibilities and powers to elected members locally, why should the traffic commissioners have that right? Even if the traffic commissioner agrees with the proposal, why is it necessary to have the right of appeal to a transport tribunal, which will merely prolong the process? Although voters, the PTA and the local community in general can determine that quality contracts are the right way to bring sense and order to
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the provision of local bus services, unelected bodies will still have the right to review and veto the proposals.

Will the Government reconsider those proposals? By all means, let the traffic commissioners be part of the consultation process, but they should not have the right of veto. Their review should be undertaken in parallel with the decision-making processes of the transport authority, which would cut down the time involved and enable decisions to be taken more quickly.

During this Session, I hope to comment on the Government’s proposals on planning, which in general I support. It is right to try to speed up the process and to adopt a sensible approach to major projects. The existing system is nonsense; many inquiries take years rather than months so we need a consistent approach, with national policy guidelines on the provision of energy or airports. Individual applications for airports or energy-producing units would then be considered in the context of overall policy, which is a much better structured way forward.

My only concern relates to the proposal to abolish the needs test for retail development. I shall need perpetual reassurance from Ministers that nothing the Government propose will in any way damage the improvements that have been made in the past few years in terms of more retail development in town and district centres and on the edges of such centres rather than on greenfield sites, with all the related problems of congestion and environmental pollution, as well as the fact that people with no access to a car cannot buy the cheaper food that is often available in supermarkets. I hope that Ministers will reassure me that the abolition of the needs test will not weaken the emphasis on building in town and district centres. That has been extremely important for the regeneration of cities such as Sheffield where there will be a £500 million shopping development in the centre of town over the next four or five years. The developers, Hammerson, point out that the project is being built as a result of the city council’s clear rules—in line with Government guidelines—on planning policy for out-of-town developments.

Mr. Drew: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we keep the brownfield site quota uppermost in our minds? The problem is not just the number of developments, but the suitability of sites. Many of the most suitable sites are on brownfield land. We need to get both the fiscal and planning regimes right.

Mr. Betts: I agree. My hon. Friend’s point applies to retail and housing developments. There may be a need to build on some greenfield sites, but it is important that we look at brownfield sites, as we are doing in Sheffield in the Don and Attercliffe area where we are building between 3,000 and 4,000 new homes on brownfield sites, which will regenerate the local community.

Another issue raised by my constituents is the pressure on local authority social services budgets, which I hope the Government will address. The issue was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, although there will be a Green Paper. We rightly encourage the health service to ensure that people do not go to hospital unless it is absolutely necessary and that they stay in hospital for only a short
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time, receiving care, treatment and help in the community. However, the result is that financial responsibilities are transferred from the health service to local authority budgets, which are already under strain. Fortunately, people are living longer but they require more care at home. People with learning disabilities rightly require increasing amounts of assistance from local authorities, with care at home, training, day centres and other provision.

There are real needs in our communities so I shall be interested in the provisions of the independent living Bill. The chief executive of an organisation supporting that measure is one of my constituents. When he came to see me we discussed how much better it would be if we could give people who need care at home the freedom of having a personal budget. The local authority would still assess their needs, but if they had a personal budget they could buy the services they needed. Where such schemes have been trialled, not only have people benefited from improved services that they actually want but there have been efficiency savings owing to the non-provision of services people do not want. I hope the Government will return to that matter in due course.

In general, I very much welcome the proposals in the Queen’s Speech.

1.49 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, but the contents of the Government’s programme do not match the expectations raised by the Prime Minister’s hype of the past few months. In fact, the Government seem to have run out of steam. Much has been rehashed and restated and there is little in the Government’s programme that will be welcomed in my constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford.

In particular, I fear that many of the problems facing the country are not being addressed by the Government. The problems of the national health service locally and especially in my borough of Bexley in south-east London are not addressed in the Queen’s Speech. We face real problems of NHS cuts and downgrades in our area and there are threats to the accident and emergency and maternity units at the local hospital of Queen Mary’s in Sidcup. It appears that the Government are not really concerned with that.

Clive Efford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evennett: Not at the moment; I have not even got started on my speech. The hon. Gentleman will have his turn later.

I am also surprised that there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about the looming pensions crisis, which is of grave concern to many of my constituents. In addition, they are concerned about the piecemeal constitutional reform that appears in the Queen’s Speech. It will not deal with the unfairness faced by England and English Members of Parliament. These issues will not go away and the problems will get worse unless the Government are prepared to deal with them, talk about them and realistically endeavour to solve them.

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I was somewhat disappointed by the remarks of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Her partisan and cliché-ridden speech did not add up. On one front, she said that she wanted to devolve more powers down to local authorities, but on the other she was taking away powers on planning and other issues. She is facing in two different directions. There is an excellent Conservative council in Bexley and it does tremendously good work, but it receives a poor financial settlement from central Government. The council is expected to do more for less. In addition, in the past year, the Government have given more powers to the Mayor of London to take planning decisions. That takes planning powers away from local authorities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on his robust, positive and effective speech. I note that the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) is sadly no longer in her place, but her speech highlighted aspiration as vital for our young people. Conservative Members are absolutely behind her in that; we want aspiration so that people can raise themselves up and rise to the top. Why then is our education system still failing so many of our young people? It is not helping them to fulfil their aspirations, but more on that later.

Today, we are concentrating on the environment as a major issue. Without doubt, it is one of the greatest challenges of our age. I strongly welcome the Climate Change Bill and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, we have welcomed it several times before. Naturally it is now pleasing to see that it is actually going to come about. However, there are still concerns. Is it logical for the Government to set carbon budgets years ahead before a new committee on climate change will have reported on what the overall targets should be? Are the Government again wanting to spin headlines without being interested in the substantial issues? I am delighted to see the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in his place because, last month, I asked him a question about the independence of the committee. He told me to be patient. I remain patient and will look with great interest as the Bill goes through at what he has to offer and at how he plans to monitor and take things forward.

The Government talk about wanting to control carbon emissions, but it is always disappointing that they have failed to meet the targets that they have set themselves. Conservative Members are united with the Government that there must be action to deal with the problem, but the Government could do more. In particular, the Climate Change Bill should contain rolling annual emissions targets. We need an independent body to set, as well as monitor, these targets and we have pressed hard for an annual report from the Government on how they will make progress on this important issue. Such measures would make a difference and we will support the Government on the Bill if they can tweak the provisions in the direction that we would like.

On a local matter, I know that in an intervention the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) has already raised the issue of the Thames Gateway bridge.

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