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18 Dec 2007 : Column 208WH—continued

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I wish all hon. Gentlemen who have participated in the debate a merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year. I hope that you do not have a good start to the new year, though, Mr. Martlew, because Carlisle United are playing Hartlepool United on new year’s day, and I do not want you to see too much good cheer in that respect on 1 January.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate, which has been conducted in a well mannered and well intentioned way. It has been incredibly useful, certainly for me, to tease out some of the arguments about housing and the necessary links with infrastructure. I shall several times stress in my speech that it is very important that housing and infrastructure should be integral; they need to be together, in parallel, to unlock the growth that is needed and to provide the sustainable communities that we require.

To return to first principles, we need more homes. That is becoming a political consensus now, across the spectrum. We have not been building enough homes
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since about the 1970s. Housing supply has not kept pace with demand. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) referred to that most articulately. Society is changing. We are living longer and in different ways, including on our own. That needs to be addressed through the housing stock in a way that perhaps was not recognised 30 or 40 years ago.

We are not coming from a complete standing start. Housing growth numbers have increased, for new build, by about 40 per cent. since 2001, to about 185,000 new builds a year, but we need to go further. The projections are that 223,000 households are forming every year, so we need to build more to accommodate them. The Government have set a target of 240,000 homes.

Paul Holmes: The Minister just quoted the growth figure of 40 per cent. for house building, but does he accept that that is from one of the lowest levels since world war two? Three hundred council houses were built last year. That is the lowest level since before world war one, so we are starting from a very low base in the past 10 years.

Mr. Wright: I would go further and take a longer-term perspective. As I said earlier, I think that we have not been building enough houses for the country’s needs since the 1970s. That is what we need to address, and I think that the Government have been quite ambitious in pushing forward. The hon. Member for Chesterfield and I are both on the Committee considering the Housing and Regeneration Bill, and are looking at the issue to ensure that we are addressing the needs in question.

I am very fortunate, as I expect are other hon. Members, in that I am a home owner. I was brought up to think that it was possible for me to own my home. I should hate it if in the next 10 to 15 years pressures on affordability were to lead to a situation in which housing was a source of inequality, home ownership was not the preserve of everyone, and good-quality housing was for an elite. We need to deal with that now, which is why the Government have put processes in place to do so.

Robert Neill: The Minister made a point about making good-quality home ownership available for all, and referred earlier to our not having built enough since the 1970s. How does he square that with the fact that, in 1979, about 107,000 homes were built by various social agencies—local authorities and social landlords—but that that figure fell to about 18,000 in 2003, and we have not got above about 24,000 since?

Mr. Wright: Hon. Gentlemen are making my points for me. We have not consistently been building enough houses for a generation. We need to deal with that, and the Government are putting in place the building blocks—literally—to do so to meet the housing needs of all society, rather than just a narrow elite, now and in the future.

It is not, however, only a matter of bricks and mortar. We took evidence in Housing and Regeneration Bill sittings last week, and I made the point, when I gave evidence, that although there is a target for 3 million homes to be built by 2020, it will not work if we simply plonk them in a field. We need the infrastructure to be in place. Modern development should consist of well
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designed homes in attractive environments, made sustainable by the right infrastructure, which, as hon. Members have mentioned, encompasses transport, utilities, green space, policing and flood defence.

Good design is also very relevant. I do not want quality to be compromised in any way because of the expansion of house-building targets. We need good- quality, well planned homes that meet the needs of the population and are in well designed areas where people want to live. My big fear is that in 20 years we shall have built homes that people do not want to live in, and will be putting more public money into them. They will not be sustainable and we shall have to think of regeneration areas for homes built between 2010 to 2015. That will not be good enough. The people of this country deserve better, and we have a lot to do. I want to stress in the strongest terms that the Government are committed to ensuring that housing growth is closely accompanied by the infrastructure necessary to provide sustainable development at local level.

Perhaps I may quote a passage from the 2007 pre-Budget report about increased spending on infrastructure:

It is essential that we should continue to do that.

I am getting to know the Milton Keynes and south midlands area very well, because I chair the MKSM inter-regional board. I am starting to love the area, and I am very impressed by the people. The inter-regional board is considering many issues associated with prioritising and co-ordinating the investment necessary to support housing growth in the sub-region. I was pleased to attend my first board meeting in Bedford earlier in the year, and I spoke at the second annual conference in Kettering, and greatly enjoyed it. However, I did not experience, on the ground in Kettering and elsewhere, the somewhat pessimistic tone adopted by the hon. Member for Kettering. I recently received a letter from Michael Hayes, the chief executive of the West Northamptonshire development corporation; I hope that he will not mind my quoting the letter, in which he says:

He continued:

I see the area as a real can-do area, full of positivity and ambition. There are challenges, but a real opportunity for growth and opportunity has been seen,
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which can really drive the UK economy. I want to do all I can to facilitate and enable it.

The hon. Member for Kettering mentioned a couple of points about transport, and perhaps I may respond to them, as I know that he has a particular interest in that subject. As to what he said about the A14, I understand that the Highways Agency is looking into measures that would allow the new housing to be got under way while the current A14 could remain functional. That would include the prospect of something called ramp metering—a technique by which the amount of traffic joining the A14 would be managed by the use of signals, accompanied by sensors, to regulate the system and prevent the build-up of traffic on the adjacent local road network. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman recently in response to a parliamentary question and explained that

I added:

I understand that the Highways Agency intends to submit a report to Ministers in the spring, outlining potential interim and long-term solutions, and I await it with interest.

There is an awful lot more that I could discuss, but time will not allow it. I shall briefly refer to East Midlands Trains. It is for the company, working with Network Rail, to determine the exact timetable. I know that local stakeholders have been putting their views on detailed timetabling issues to the train operator in recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a petition that he presented to the House yesterday, which I imagine will be a powerful driver in pushing the issue forward. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, visited Kettering recently and is taking a keen personal interest in transport issues, in the town and in north Northamptonshire. I want to mention that my right hon. Friend’s father passed away yesterday; I know that the whole House would want to convey its sympathy to her.

As I said, housing and infrastructure are absolutely crucial. I wish everyone a merry Christmas.

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Airport Policing

11 am

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): First, let me say that I appreciate that this is the last day before the Christmas recess, so I wish everybody all the best over the Christmas period and a happy and peaceful new year in 2008.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that airport security is a highly important topic. Airports are a crucial part of our economic infrastructure: in 2006, Heathrow alone was the base for nearly 500,000 aircraft movements and 6 million to 7 million passenger journeys. The CBI estimates the economic contribution of aviation to gross domestic product in the last year for which figures are available to be £11.4 billion, which represents 1.1 per cent. of the economy overall. Aviation contributed £3.6 billion to the Exchequer in 2004-05, and it directly or indirectly supports more than 700,000 jobs, which is more than the population of Glasgow.

The fact that airports are busy, open public places with huge economic importance makes them prime targets for terrorists. The events of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington, the failed Heathrow plot in August 2006, the 7 July 2005 attacks on London tubes and buses, the Madrid bombings, and the July attacks in London and at Glasgow airport all stand as a stark reminder that airports and railways are vulnerable targets. I do not wish to devalue the efforts of local police officers in airports—they have done a tremendous job to protect airports such as Glasgow, where they provided a perfect example of how they can act.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he aware that although local police are doing a first-class job, owing to the lack of a defined police force at airports, local communities are denuded of resources because police must go to airports such as Edinburgh, which he and I both use?

Mr. Hamilton: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. In Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders police have an additional problem because they require resources for the Scottish Parliament, which is in their area. That is a problem for the police.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I must declare an interest in that I am a special in the British Transport police. Does he accept that specialist police for airports are overdue, and that the British Transport police would best provide such a resource?

Mr. Hamilton: My hon. Friend has identified where my speech is going. I shall answer his point later.

I should like to talk about the structure of police forces in relation to airport security. When preparing for the debate, I planned to talk about the number of airports with a continuous police presence and the number of police authorities both north and south of the border whose staff patrol airports. I tabled written questions to the Home Office to gather information on
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what airports provide a police presence, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing answered:

I find that alarming. It does not mean that the Home Office is unaware whether airports have a continuous police presence, or that civil servants are unaware of the position in individual airports throughout the country, but it is worrying.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. Is he as concerned as I am about who is responsible for paying for the police? That varies from area to area. Birmingham International airport, which is my local airport, pays for its policing, whereas smaller airports such as Coventry, which is next door, has its policing paid for out of the local precept, meaning that local people must pay for it. Does he share my concern that that is bound to lead to variation in the quality of the policing in different areas?

Mr. Hamilton: I am not sure about the last part of the hon. Lady’s question, but I share her concern about how the police are funded from region to region and airport to airport, depending on the size of the airport. I shall address that point later. I do not believe that security would be affected however, because I would expect that to be at the same level at smaller and larger airports.

Throughout the UK, there are national organisations for drug enforcement, immigration, intelligence and customs. Those national organisations have a co-ordinated central structure—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). It therefore seems strange that the exact cover by uniformed police is not known. I cannot obtain the figures from the Home Office, but it is estimated that there are 140 airfields and airports throughout the UK. I believe that about 30 are substantial passenger airports—the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) mentioned one of them. There are nine designated airports: England has London Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester airports, and Scotland has Aberdeen, Glasgow, Prestwick and Edinburgh, which is now Scotland’s largest airport—

Mr. Devine indicated dissent.

Mr. Hamilton: Yes it is, and it continues to grow. Scotland has eight police authorities, three of which—Grampian, Stratchclyde and Lothian and Borders—cover the airports I mentioned. Judging by the written answer that I received, it seems that the Government have no idea what the police presence in each of the airports is. I hope that the Minister will explain how the Government co-ordinate the work of airports, local police authorities and the national agencies concerned with drug enforcement, immigration, intelligence and customs to co-ordinate airport policing.

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That leads to the question of the structure of police forces at airports throughout the UK. Given that policing and counter-terrorism must go hand in hand, why do local authorities still provide the police presence at airports? There are two parts to the argument. First, removing airports from the responsibility of local forces would free those forces for regular community work, as my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) said, although I do not wish to address that aspect now. Secondly and most importantly, a national—UK-wide—police force would be the best way to ensure the safety of all our airports.

The logical step would be to increase the scope of the British Transport police, which answers the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, who anticipated the direction of my speech well. The BTP has 2,774 police officers supported by 258 special constables, 210 police community support officers and 1,204 police staff. They cover 10,000 miles of track, more than 3,000 railway stations and depots, and the larger ports, at many of which there are railway headings.

Mr. Devine: I do not disagree with my hon. Friend’s argument, but does he share my concern about reports over the weekend that said that nearly 10,000 people, around 15 per cent. of whom were from the Muslim community, were stopped and searched by British Transport police, compared with only 89 by normal police forces?

Mr. Hamilton: I shall come to that issue. Again, my hon. Friend has anticipated a question I wished to ask later because it came on to the Scottish network over the weekend via a Scottish Minister. As for the number of Muslims who have been stopped and searched in train stations, if that was what you were referring to—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Would you speak through the Chair? I am not referring to anything, Mr. Hamilton.

Mr. Hamilton: Sorry, Mr. Martlew.

On the stops and searches to which my hon. Friend referred, I do not accept the premise that a disproportionate number of people from the Muslim community have been stopped. I understand that the figures might be interpreted that way, but the police are sensitive to and well aware of those figures over that period.

We should go further; we should also cover our docks. As I said at Prime Minister’s questions, we already have a national police force, but all points of entry to the UK should be covered. Because the transport police are a specialist force, they can be dedicated to the specialist needs of the railway community; implement systems and structures to increase their effectiveness at all levels; create flows of information to the community about their aims and achievements; ensure that their staff are well trained and supported to enable them to deliver the highest possible quality of service; provide value for money in what they do; and be one uniformed police force dealing with all national agencies covering all ports of entry throughout the area.

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