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The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I am today laying before Parliament, with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the joint command paper (Cm 7281) Confidence in Standards: Regulating and Developing Qualifications and Assessment. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
On 26 September I announced that the Government would establish an independent regulator of qualifications and tests in England. The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator will be the guardian of standards across the tests and qualifications systems, building on the regulatory work of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority over the last 10 years. Confidence in Standards sets out the detail of these proposals and our plans to establish a development agency for curriculum, assessment and qualifications which will take forward the non-regulatory functions of the QCA. We are confident that these plans will give the public greater confidence in the standards of qualifications and assessments.
Our Departments have launched a consultation on these proposals. The consultation materials are available from the DCSF website at: www.dcsf.gov.uk/consultations/. This consultation will run until 10 March 2008.
We have long recognised the contribution made by faith groups to local communities, in terms of charitable activity, social action, community cohesion, support in emergencies, as well as their spiritual and religious role.
We want to take this opportunity to reflect on how Government should support this, where and in what circumstances interfaith works best and how we can work in partnerships with faith and non-faith based communities and organisations.
This consultation is part of the Governments response to the independent Commission on Integration and Cohesions report Our Shared Future which set out a number of practical recommendations on how to build cohesion and a shared sense of belonging. The report outlined the important role that inter faith activity plays in building integration and cohesion, as well as the need for more constructive conversations between those of faith and those of none.
Understand how to best build confidence in the benefits of partnership working and develop a greater understanding of the contribution that faith communities can make;
discover to what extent local authorities and other public bodies are already working with faith communities;
understand better the structures that aid interaction and social action and how can these be best developed;
learn about some of the barriers to inter faith activityespecially to the involvement of women and young peopleand how we might best work together to overcome these;
look at what actions are needed to widen and deepen inter faith dialogue and social action.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I have today published a summary of responses received in response to the Governments stakeholder consultation document Modernising Empty Property Relief, and have placed a copy in the Libraries of both Houses.
The Governments proposals for reforms to empty property relief were part of a package of measures introduced in the Budget to help incentivise the efficient use of land, to help increase the supply of commercial property and to reduce costs for businesses. The Government consider that the reforms provide a strong incentive for owners to re-use, re-let or redevelop their empty shops, offices and factory buildings, and so improve access to property and reduce rents for businesses. The Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007, which received Royal Assent on 19 July, gave effect to these reforms, and set a revised empty property rate of 100 per cent. of the basic occupied rate.
The consultation document sought views on whether the existing permanent exemption from empty property rates available to listed buildings and those with a statutory protection should continue, or whether it should be varied. I have concluded that, on the available evidence, there can be a greater degree of work involved in bringing empty listed properties back into beneficial use compared to other properties and that the evidence supports such properties continuing to benefit from an exemption from empty property rates.
I have also concluded that companies in administration should benefit from a permanent exemption from empty property rates. This will bring them into line with companies that are in liquidation and individuals subject to bankruptcy proceedings. We are committed to the promotion of a rescue culture which provides opportunities for insolvent companies that have viable underlying businesses to be rescued wherever possible. A permanent exemption will remove any potential for decisions about whether to enter administration to be distorted by differences in rates liability.
I have considered carefully the responses to the consultation document about the potential risk of owners of empty property taking measures to avoid payment of rates on their property. The Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 gave the Secretary of State, and the Welsh Ministers, the power to make regulations to tackle any such activity. The consultation document set out a number of options as to how such regulations might be constructed if the Secretary of State were minded to make them.
There was a substantial body of comment about the proposed measures. I have concluded, on the basis of those responses, that the likely incidence of avoidance activity following the introduction of the reforms to empty property relief is low. It would be an extreme step for a property owner to go to the lengths of deliberately vandalising a potentially valuable asset so
that it is beyond economic repair. This view was expressed by a number of respondents to the consultation document.
Having taken account of all the responses, I have concluded that the existing circumstances do not warrant the introduction of anti-avoidance regulations at this stage. However, I am clear that, if it appears that there is evidence of measures being taken by owners of empty property to avoid payment of empty property rates, the Government will not hesitate to use their powers. We will work with the Local Government Association, the Valuation Office Agency and the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation to monitor the impact of the reforms and assess whether regulations should be introduced in the future.
We are now working on drafting the relevant secondary legislation to give effect to our reforms on empty property relief. This includes introducing the new six-month exemption from empty property rates for vacant industrial and warehouse properties, as announced in the 2007 Budget. We intend to lay this secondary legislation before Parliament so that all aspects of our reforms to empty property relief can come into effect on 1 April 2008.
The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): I am today announcing publication of the new Planning Policy Statement (PPS): Planning and Climate Change and a consultation draft of the new PPS: Planning for Sustainable Economic Development. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Our economy must be prepared to meet the challenges of increasing global competition, and to seize the opportunities presented by rapid technological change. In the Planning White Paper, Planning for a Sustainable Future, we set out a vision of a planning system better able to support a dynamic economy. But this planning system must also respond to the urgent challenges presented by climate change.
Economic growth and higher environmental standards must go hand in hand. We want the planning system to do more to promote jobs and economic growth, but to do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable and that helps cut carbon emissions. Equally we want to ensure the programme to cut carbon emissions should also help support the jobs and homes we need for the future. Our reforms are designed to ensure that the planning system is flexible enough to support both, making a critical contribution to sustainable economic growth for the 21st century.
PPS Climate Change is being issued as a supplement to PPS1: Delivering Sustainable Development. This PPS is central to the entire series of planning policy statements. New requirements for local authorities will ensure that tackling climate change becomes a primary objective of the planning system, reflecting the emphasis in the White Paper. This will help to speed up the shift to renewable and low-carbon energy, supporting our ambitions on zero carbon development and helping shape places resilient to the impact of climate change.
First, this PPS confirms the central role of planning in helping to achieve zero carbon homes from 2016. We
also believe we need to develop a similar approach for non-domestic buildings, and today we are publishing analysis from the UK Green Building Council, commissioned by the department to support significant cuts in carbon emissions from new non-domestic buildings.
Secondly, this PPS will help speed up the shift to renewable and low carbon energy, by challenging councils to do more to support delivery of local renewable or local low-carbon energy including through setting percentages of energy for new development to be generated from local renewables or low carbon sources such as microgeneration or community schemes. It also expects councils to think about the potential for local low carbon energy generation and cutting carbon emissions when identifying the best sites for development.
Thirdly, local government has a critical role in ensuring that local communities and infrastructure are able to cope with the impact of climate changenot only the effects which are felt today, but also those that can be anticipated in the future. The PPS therefore reflects the central role of planning in shaping places that are resilient to climate change and habitats that sustain biodiversity.
We consulted on a draft of the climate change PPS at the beginning of the year and have considered very carefully the responses we received. The approach has received broad support. The final document being published today takes account of the detailed issues raised.
Moving towards a low-carbon economy is a huge challenge. It requires a revolution in the way that we design, heat and power our buildings, and a concerted effort from a huge number of organisationsfrom local authorities, to developers, to environmental groups and local communities themselves. It also requires collaborative and responsible working to ensure change takes place alongside delivering the additional homes as well as the new jobs and regeneration we need. The policy set out in the PPS provides a strong framework for that degree of co-operation.
We are also publishing a draft PPS on sustainable economic development. The Barker Review of Land Use Planning showed that planning authorities do not always give sufficient weight to the potential economic benefits of new developments. This draft PPS seeks to ensure that local planning authorities take these benefits into account alongside relevant environmental and social issues.
It would require local authorities to identify and maintain a supply of land which caters for existing employment and business needs while also delivering the infrastructure and housing we need. It would require local authorities to respond positively to new proposals to promote economic development. However, given increasing demands on the limited land available, it would also require planning authorities to make the most efficient use of land and buildings. It also emphasises the importance that we attach to excellence in design.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): On 12 June 2007, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made a statement to the House in which she outlined the independent investigation procedure that was taking place into the incident and the availability of reports produced by the investigation board, including recommendations relating to design and operation of fuel storage sites. She said that a report with recommendations on emergency planning, response and recovery was in preparation.
The Buncefield Major Incident Investigation Board published its report and recommendations on emergency preparedness for, response to and recovery from major incidents on 17 July. It has also published a report on safety and environmental standards for fuel storage sites, and one from its Explosion Mechanism Advisory Group that advocates a joint industry research project be initiated to explain the severity of the explosion that occurred at the site. Copies of these, and other earlier reports, are available from the official investigation website at: www.buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk.
The report published on 17 July made a number of recommendations in four areas: reassessing major incident scenarios; managing major incidents on-site; preparing for and responding to major incidents off-site; and planning for recovery from major incidents.
Although set in the context of the Buncefield incident, the recommendations, particularly those relating to emergency preparedness and response, can be applied beyond fuel storage and distribution sites. Many of these are complex and far-reaching. They need to be considered at a wider, national level and reflect the co-ordinated views of the different departments, and the Devolved Administrations, that have responsibility for them. The Government will be responding formally to these recommendations in due course.
The report recommends that all relevant organisations should be involved with recovery at an early stage. Such joint working has already delivered financial and practical support to aid recovery through the Bellwin scheme (which was extended beyond its usual duration), and ongoing support from the East of England Development Agency which has also provided financial assistance of £4.4 million to date.
Under this programme local partners aim to bring together a combination of funding mechanisms that could help finance some of the major improvements identified in the Maylands Business Park masterplan.
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