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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 November 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Climate Change

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What support her Department has considered to assist councils that wish to introduce measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. [168021]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): The local government White Paper, published by my Department, sets out the framework for local authorities to take action on climate change, and we are putting in place a number of initiatives to support it, including new performance indicators to help local authorities to measure progress on carbon reduction, and information and guidance for local authorities on climate change mitigation measures. We have also included climate change as a theme in the current round of the beacon council scheme.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that extensive answer. I am sure that she agrees that it is the poorest people who can least afford energy-saving devices such as energy-saving light bulbs. Will she ensure that local authorities have the resources and the necessary money to target those poor people to ensure that they have the chance to get loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, energy-saving light bulbs and things like that?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend has an excellent record on highlighting such issues in the House. I can give him a couple of examples of local authorities doing exactly the kind of the thing that he outlines. Kirklees has a warm zone plus scheme, whereby loft and cavity wall insulation is being installed for free, on a systematic house-by-house basis. People get a personal visit and it is hoped to put cavity wall insulation into 40,000 homes. Leicester has a hot lofts scheme, in partnership with British Gas and Mark Insulations. An area is selected using thermal imaging to see where the most energy is escaping, and the homes are then targeted. The provision is free, irrespective of income.

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Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Will the Secretary of State clear up the confusion created by her Ministers and officials about whether local authorities are free to implement the so-called Merton rule? When the question of whether they are free to do so is asked in the House, it is always met with the answer, “Yes.” But officials always meet it with the answer, “No.” Is it not time that she told the House clearly whether authorities are free to implement the rule and whether she welcomes more local authorities taking the rule on board and tackling climate change effectively at a local level?

Hazel Blears: I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman is confused, so I shall try to be as clear as possible. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has written to all our stakeholders on this matter. Yes, we can implement the Merton rule, but we want to go further. However, that has to be properly tested through the planning process. That is absolutely clear. We want to press on with our commitments to reduce carbon emissions and we have one of the most ambitious programmes: to get all new homes to be zero carbon by 2016. The Merton rule is a valuable contribution, but we want to go even further.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): The private rented sector is quite problematic with regard to climate change and energy efficiency. Will my right hon. Friend work with local authorities to make sure that they are given powers to work with and, in the final analysis, to compel private landlords to raise their properties to minimum acceptable standards for energy efficiency?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sometimes it is the poorest people who live in the most difficult conditions in the private rented sector. It is important that local authorities have powers to work with landlords in relation to licensing and accreditation, to make sure that the highest standards are available. He will also be aware of our intention to pursue energy performance certificates in the private rented sector, which will be of considerable assistance.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Local authorities are required to have made a 30 per cent. reduction in energy use in residential homes by 2011, but the latest figures show that many local authorities, including my authority of Westminster, are trailing well behind that. Will my right hon. Friend work with her colleagues in DEFRA to consider step-in powers, which are available to the Government, to ensure that local authorities that are not raising their game on residential home efficiency do so?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. She will know that in the new local government performance framework, for the first time, there are indicators in relation to climate change. In those areas where we really need to make a difference, we will be able to incorporate those indicators into the local area agreement. There will be measuring and monitoring, and the local authorities concerned will be pressed to have some pretty stretching targets. I hope that a number of local authorities will use climate change as one of their central areas in their local area agreement.

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Home Information Packs

2. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What plans she has to introduce further secondary legislation on home information packs. [168022]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing set out in a written ministerial statement on 22 November our intention to complete the phased roll-out of home information packs by extending coverage to the rest of the market from 14 December, in line with the criteria set out on 11 June. We have now laid amending regulations, ahead of the roll-out.

Mr. Holloway: Quite a few people in the housing industry have complained about the very short notice for extending HIPs to one and two-bedroom properties. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the Government have learned the lessons from earlier this year, when the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors felt the need to commence legal proceedings because of a lack of consultation?

Mr. Wright: The roll-out for one and two-bedroom properties has been entirely consistent with the roll-out for three and four-bedroom properties earlier this year; I give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance for his constituents. All the evidence shows that the roll-out this year has been entirely consistent, and has provided reassurance and stability to the housing market.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): First, may I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on holding their nerve on the issue when Opposition Members, their friends with vested interests, RICS and the like were losing theirs? When the Minister monitors the impact of home information packs, will he report back to the House specifically on packs in which home condition reports were included, so that we can see whether they have an even more beneficial effect, and whether they ensure an even higher completion rate of sales in cases where offers have been made, as many of us believe they will?

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are on the side of the consumer, and of home buyers and sellers. The Opposition are on the side of protected, narrow vested interests. Let me reassure my hon. Friend: all the evidence shows that, on average, HIPs are taking seven to 10 days to prepare. The majority of property drainage and water searches are being delivered. All the quality assurances are being provided. We will continue to monitor that, and I will report back to the House.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Will the Minister also monitor the likely effect on first-time buyers? Inevitably, vendors will pass on the cost, and in the latest phase that is likely to hit first-time buyers. Will he keep a close eye on that?

Mr. Wright: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that considered question. First-time buyers of one and two-bedroom homes will be the main beneficiaries, as they will now get important information about their new homes for free. Information, including searches for which they would previously have had to pay, will now
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be included in the HIP, paid for by the seller. That will reduce the costs of getting on the first step of the property ladder.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): Given the Minister for Housing’s embarrassing U-turn just last week on first-day marketing for HIPs, is it not time for her to come to the Dispatch Box and admit that without first-day marketing, the HIPs scheme is effectively dead and buried?

Mr. Wright: Oh dear, dear. Opposition for opposition’s sake is never attractive, and I know that the hon. Gentleman’s heart was really not in that attack. I feel sorry that he has to keep flogging that dead horse. He knows that all the evidence shows that the impact of partial roll-out has been minimal, and that there are strong, convincing arguments for rolling out as planned; that is what we are doing. Any further delay could cause greater difficulties and further uncertainties in the housing market.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the immense patience and commitment of those of my constituents, and hundreds of others across the country, who have trained to be HIP inspectors, and who now have the opportunity of a full, rewarding career ahead of them?

Mr. Wright: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend on that. The Association of Home Information Pack Providers has been first-class in lobbying on behalf of its members, in listening to concerns, and on the subject of the obvious things that we need to do to make sure that the housing market is stable. I will continue to work with AHIPP and other providers to ensure that that remains the case.

Thames Gateway

3. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Thames Gateway programme. [168023]

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): In the last 12 months, we have secured the go-ahead for Crossrail, including the route to Abbey Wood. Planning permission at Ebbsfleet, secured as a result of Government transport investment; the go-ahead for the multi-billion-pound investment in Europe’s biggest deep-water port at Shell Haven; and the opening of the channel tunnel rail link through the gateway—those major projects alone are helping to support extensive regeneration and growth across the Thames Gateway.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for her comments. There are growing concerns in my area about the effectiveness of the project, and a feeling that the Government’s performance has been lackadaisical to date. Report after report has criticised Ministers on the Thames Gateway project, including the recent report by the Public Accounts Committee. Is the Minister really the only person who thinks that it has so far been a great success and acceptable? Many people in my area think that more should be done to make a real opportunity of the Thames Gateway.

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Yvette Cooper: I disagree with the PAC report. We have seen considerable progress as a result of the major investment that is already being made in the Gateway. That includes over £2 million, for example, in Crayford, to improve the environment around the river, and part of the £32 million that has gone into Bexley over the past three years. Our intention is to keep supporting the regeneration in Bexley and beyond, across the Thames Gateway. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not think it is a waste of money.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is nice to see the Minister replying to this question. She must have been spoiled for choice, between Thames Gateway and HIPs.

The recent Public Accounts Committee report concluded:


Which of those conclusions does the Minister think accurately sums up the Government’s state of policy?

Yvette Cooper: The PAC report is hopelessly out of date. The National Audit Office report was helpful and we have responded to it, but the pace of progress in the Thames Gateway has been substantial. We have already invested more than £600 million from our Department in a series of substantial improvements across the Thames Gateway, which are supporting the creation of new jobs, new training and higher education places, and new homes. We will go further, and later this week we will set out a major multibillion pound programme of investment in the Thames Gateway over the next few years so that it can truly support a greater number of jobs and homes for the future.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The Thames Gateway is an exciting project. What steps are being taken to proof the project against climate change, in particular against rising sea levels that might flood the project, to make sure that we do not have a major development in the Thames Gateway that, in the next few decades, is overtaken by the changes to the climate that are already taking place?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. He may be aware that the Environment Agency has carried out an extensive programme of work that looks at how to secure the Thames Gateway from flooding well into the next century. That is an important part of the work that we have under way and that programme is out to consultation. My hon. Friend is right: we should recognise the future consequences of climate change and that the Thames Gateway is a great opportunity to do more to cut carbon emissions and prevent damage from climate change.

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Local Government Reorganisation

4. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What her timetable is for decision making on local government reorganisation in England. [168024]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): We are currently considering all the information and representations that have been submitted to us about the unitary council proposals that have been made. We intend to take our final decisions very soon.

Andrew Selous: May I impress on the Secretary of State the need for a quick decision to be made on what form of local government reorganisation we are due to have in south and mid-Bedfordshire? Key decisions are already being held up because of the uncertainty. The current state of affairs is not fair on the staff of the councils, many of whom are leaving as they are not sure whether they will have jobs, and the people of south and mid-Bedfordshire deserve better.

Hazel Blears: I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we mean to make our decisions as quickly as we can. The general rule is that when the intention is to introduce change, the best thing to do is to get on with it so that people do not face uncertainty. That is exactly what we have done with the whole process. I am pleased that proposals have been worked up, and a great deal of preparation has gone into them. The business cases have been extremely good in the cases before us. We mean to get on, make the decisions and implement them. We will then have some flagship unitary councils that can take their communities forward.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows my views about the merits of creating two unitary authorities in Cheshire. Will she ensure full transparency, and that the county council is required to share information that it has at its disposal with the district councils in preparing the bids on which she must make a decision?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in putting the case in which he strongly believes. He knows that I have to take into account all the information and all the representations that I receive on the issue. It is important that the information that is available, whether it is financial information or proposals for neighbourhood empowerment, is shared among the parties involved. Whatever the issues surrounding the reorganisation, it is in the interest of us all to get the best outcome that we can and to get on and implement it as swiftly as we can.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that my constituents want her to drop the whole local government reorganisation? Is she aware that reorganisation of any kind has never cost less and that people will pay considerably more for poorer services delivered remotely? If local government is to mean anything at all, it must be local, and it must be delivered by locally elected people. Will she change her mind—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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Hazel Blears: I know that the hon. Lady feels strongly about the issue and is putting the views of her constituents, but I ask her to reflect for a moment. Local government is important, which is why neighbourhood accountability is crucial. Local authorities must be able to make big, strategic decisions in the interests of their communities as a whole, which is essential in order to promote economic development and growth. I ask the hon. Lady to think about the long-term interest of the community as well as local issues.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State answer two questions that I raised in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week?

Mr. Speaker: Order. One question.

Mr. Simpson: You, Mr. Speaker, are ahead of me.

The Secretary of State is minded to get the Boundary Commission to consider a unitary authority for greater Norwich. The terms of reference have not been established, and the overwhelming opinion in the county of Norfolk is against the proposal, as it was the first time around. Will she include in the terms of reference the status quo, which is the majority opinion in Norfolk?

Hazel Blears: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, although I thought that he would ask one question with many different parts. We were right to refer the matter to the Boundary Commission, because there were concerns about the criteria for the applications. We wanted to make sure that the wider area would be considered, which is what the Boundary Commission will do. I understand that the terms of reference are being drawn up, and I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s point seriously and come back to him.

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