Previous Section Index Home Page

9 Jan 2008 : Column 131WH—continued

I know that my hon. Friend is passionate about the subject; indeed, he has been assiduous in using all the parliamentary tools at his disposal to ensure that my predecessors and I did not allow the issue to fall off the agenda. His interest was sparked by a number of horror stories in his constituency, which he described today. I say at the outset that I am sympathetic to the concerns that he has raised not only in this debate but in our meetings just before Christmas, to which he referred. I recognise also that his concerns are shared by the wider trading standards and enforcement community. The matter is serious and distressing for the victims; and the
9 Jan 2008 : Column 132WH
addresses have—in some cases inadvertently—helped the abuse to be perpetuated. I echo his view that we must not allow criminals engaged in scams and other fraudulent activity to continue to do so undetected. They must not be allowed to hide and to profit from their dishonesty, of which my hon. Friend gave examples.

I am sympathetic to the concerns of enforcers, who may be frustrated in their wish to carry out their duty to target those who perpetuate scams. As Minister with responsibility for consumers affairs, I have seen at first hand trading standards officers tackling people who deliberately set out to defraud consumers. I therefore know the difficulties that those officers often face in carrying out their enforcement activities.

I hope the House will indulge me, and allow me to record my appreciation of the work of Ron Gainsford and his staff at the Trading Standards Institute. Trading standards staff generally do not receive the recognition that they deserve for their work, upon which we all, as consumers, depend. They do their job with great rigour, skill and professionalism, and I believe that that is not sufficiently recognised. We have an opportunity to record our collective appreciation for their work, and I hope the House will endorse that. I am therefore supportive of the principles behind my hon. Friend’s proposal.

My hon. Friend raised a series of issues, and possible routes to deal with the problem. He mentioned the Enterprise Act 2002 and the London Local Authorities Act 2000, and I shall return to the points that he made. It would be wrong of me not to stress that the majority of those using the services that we are considering today are responsible and honest businesses, many of them small and medium-sized enterprises, and I know that my hon. Friend would not want us to handle the issue with an iron fist or a heavy hand. As I said earlier, I had an opportunity to meet my hon. Friend just before the Christmas recess to discuss the problem. I promised to give careful consideration to the issues that he raised, as it was clear that further work was needed. However, I hope that he will understand that I have to consider all options before encouraging the Government to embark on a particular legislative route.

I welcome the fact that, since 15 December, some business accommodation address providers have been covered by the Money Laundering Regulations 2007. Those regulations are designed to ensure that the United Kingdom’s regime against money laundering is effective and proportionate, and that it consolidates best practice. The regulations strengthen the supervision of business services at registered, business, correspondence or administration addresses. For example, such businesses now have to know their customers and have procedures in place, using appropriate checks and keeping records to help us tackle money laundering and terrorist financing. They are also required to register with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Regulations will therefore have an impact on criminals who use this sector.

I realise that those provisions do not go far enough for my hon. Friend, because they do not apply to individuals who use such services. However, I hope that he and other hon. Members acknowledge that they go some way towards addressing the issue. In so doing, they send a clear message to the criminals that there is nowhere to hide if they get involved in money-laundering scams. I noted with interest my hon. Friend’s point that the regulations may assist in the gathering of information
9 Jan 2008 : Column 133WH
without imposing further burdens on business. We would be interested in exploring that further and will consider it as part of my Department’s work in assessing the appropriate tools to tackle the problem that he outlined.

My hon. Friend mentioned the unwitting part that business accommodation addresses can play in scams. The Government are committed to improving Britain’s consumer regime further—we want to protect and empower consumers as well as being fair to business. He will recognise that a delicate balance needs to be struck. We recognise that our consumer regime needs to be more effective in stopping the rogues. Those who set out to deliberately defraud consumers and, in so doing, target the most vulnerable in society must be tackled. We must keep under continuous review the tools at our disposal to do so.

That is one reason why the Government have committed £1.8 million over the past two years to pilots on a new regional approach to deal with dishonest and rogue trading practices. As a result, three specialist trading standards teams have been set up that can work across local authority boundaries, and they have begun to deliver benefits to consumers affected by scams in the pilot areas. We will continue to support the three Scambuster pilot projects to target conmen preying on the most vulnerable members of our society. We seek to extend the initiative to other parts of the country. Furthermore, we are funding a national network of analysts, led by the Office of Fair Trading, to ensure smarter and quicker identification of problems affecting consumers through the gathering of stronger intelligence.

My hon. Friend mentioned unfair commercial practices. To help strengthen our consumer regime, in April, we will implement the unfair commercial practices directive, which will help to simplify complicated UK law and hopefully make it easier for consumers and businesses to understand their rights and obligations. That will make it easier to tackle rogue practices and unscrupulous traders, some of whom have become adept at exploiting loopholes in the legislative framework. My hon. Friend made it clear that the use of accommodation addresses goes far beyond the scams tackled by Trading Standards. A number of other agencies and Departments across Government are responsible for investigating a far wider range of crime than that which affects consumers. He highlighted the possibility that accommodation addresses could be used by people who wish to conceal their identity or are involved in activities such identity theft, by organised criminal gangs, and by those who wish to evade paying taxes, to conceal benefit fraud, and to camouflage financial swindles and other activities.

Given the range of potential criminal activity that accommodation addresses can help to facilitate, other Departments and agencies have an interest in this issue and have a perspective on the available solutions. I have therefore asked officials from the Better Regulation Executive to facilitate a series of cross-Government meetings to improve our understanding of the extent of the problem and of the need for Government intervention; to identify the regulatory tools available and alternatives, if any, to regulation; and to begin to assess the costs and benefits of regulatory options, including statutory registration requirements. The first meeting will take place shortly, and I shall continue to track the progress of those discussions.

9 Jan 2008 : Column 134WH

Housing (South Bedfordshire)

4.45 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): The Milton Keynes and south midlands sustainable community plan requires that 43,000 dwellings be built in south Bedfordshire by 2031. Originally that was to be just around Dunstable and Houghton Regis and the north of Luton, but later, at the request of the previous Leighton-Linslade town council, it was decided that they would also be built around Leighton Buzzard and Linslade. This is a truly massive amount of extra housing—roughly double the number of houses in my constituency, which is far more than other areas have been asked to accommodate. I believe that the number is too high, for the reasons that I shall explain.

Originally, South Bedfordshire district council planned to build about 9,000 extra houses, which itself would have been quite a tall order. However, I backed those plans because I recognised the local housing need and that people should have a decent home that is affordable and suitable. A recent South Bedfordshire district council survey found that 573 affordable homes are needed in south Bedfordshire, and 934 in Luton. The waiting list at South Bedfordshire district council is for about 2,250 houses—very different from the 43,000 houses that the Government are demanding that we build.

I want briefly to address why demand for housing is so high. As I understand it, the Government give two principal reasons: the rather loose term, “household formation”—most people would recognise that as family breakdown—and net immigration. If neither are checked, will another 43,000 houses be demanded by the Government after 2031? A sensible Government would take steps to deal with both those issues. I understand that the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that about 40 per cent. of the new houses that the Government want built are needed to cope purely with the rise in net immigration, which is running at about 190,000 per year. A Conservative Government would limit that number—it is too high for a cohesive society, particularly when 2 million of our fellow citizens who want to work are on benefits. On the family issues, I can give the Minister some good news: locally, South Bedfordshire community family trust is doing its bit to promote family stability, to reduce family breakdown and thus reduce demand for extra housing in south Bedfordshire.

I turn to local jobs—or rather the lack of them. There is already massive out-commuting from south Bedfordshire. The figure is estimated to be about 55 per cent.—probably higher—across the district as a whole, and in Leighton Buzzard and Linslade, with their good train service, it is probably nearer 70 per cent. There are nothing like enough local jobs, let alone enough for the residents of 43,000 new homes. Where will they work? London, Milton Keynes, Watford, Hemel Hempstead, Luton, St. Albans and Stevenage will no doubt be some of the places. A truly sustainable community needs enough local jobs for those who want to work locally. A sustainable plan would strike a good balance between housing and jobs, which I am afraid that the current one does not.

Some people need a short commute to care for children or frail or elderly relatives, or to contribute fully to
9 Jan 2008 : Column 135WH
voluntary and community life in their neighbourhoods. Those opportunities will be denied to many people locally. The big local employers have gone, including Lipton, Lancer Boss and Gossard, in Leighton Buzzard, and Bedford Trucks, Waterlows, BTR, AC Delco and many others, in Dunstable—a town in which people used to have a good choice of major employers at both ends of the high street. We are far more of a dormitory district than we should be. Do the Government view south Bedfordshire just as a dormitory for London commuters, many of whom would rather live in the London where their work is?

Local transport needs are key to the housing growth agenda. Dunstable, Houghton Regis, Leighton Buzzard, Linslade and many of my villages all suffer appalling traffic congestion. Their residential areas suffer from rat-running, as do villages such as Totternhoe, Tebworth and Toddington. Much of the problem could be solved by the early building of the A5-M1 link, and I shall continue to campaign hard for its completion as soon as possible. Officials from the Department for Transport, the Government office for the east of England, the East of England regional assembly, the East of England Development Agency and English Partnerships, and lead councillors and officers from local councils, met locally on 7 December to try to progress the matter, and we shall meet again in July. I asked officials or Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government to come, and I understand why they were not able to, but it is important that they are involved in the process, too.

It is vital that the M1 widening scheme also includes the A5-M1 link, but it does not. Currently, the M1 will be widened without junction 11A being put in, costing the taxpayer an extra £12 million, which is nonsense. When we have appalling congestion, the Government should not even think about building extra houses without building that key road. It is catch-up infrastructure that should have been built many years ago, and the issue lies in the Government’s hands. They can instruct the Highways Agency to build the junction while it is widening the M1, and have the road built as they intend to build the new houses.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I fully support my hon. Friend on his points about the widening of the M1 and junction 11A. Does he agree that there is not only pressure on south Bedfordshire, but that Mid-Bedfordshire, and particularly the village of Aspley Guise, is suffering from Milton Keynes expansion and the number of houses that the Government want to build in the area?

Andrew Selous: I recognise entirely the points that my hon. Friend rightly makes about her area.

I also asked the Government whether they have examined the ability of the bypass to cope with the cars from an extra 43,000 houses locally. I want to end up with an area that is viable—a nice place that works for people who live and work there once the project is complete.

On the need for local jobs, the delay in building our bypass has caused massive problems for retail trade in Dunstable, and many shops are either empty or charity shops, as is true of Leighton Buzzard, too. Some residents
9 Jan 2008 : Column 136WH
west of Dunstable tell me that because the congestion in West street has become so bad, they find it easier to travel the 8 miles to Berkhamsted to shop, rather than cross Dunstable to reach the major supermarkets in the east of the town. Some residents of the Planets estate in east Leighton Buzzard tell me that they find it easier to reach Tesco in Bletchley, as they would get stuck in traffic trying to reach Tesco in Leighton Buzzard. Those are the congestion problems now. Urban extensions to former mediaeval market towns cannot continue without causing gridlock. My towns are not Milton Keynes, whose grid system allows the traffic to keep flowing as new houses are added. Do the Government not recognise the difference between the two?

Train capacity from Leighton Buzzard is not adequate for the projected housing numbers either. How will a possible 120 extra seats on some 12-coach trains cope with the extra demand from Leighton Buzzard and Linslade’s new residents who need to commute to work? How on earth will only 240 extra car park places be sufficient, given that the station is on the west of the town, most new housing will be in the east, and not everyone will be able to bicycle to the station? We need answers to those questions before the houses are built.

South Bedfordshire already has a deficit, lacking much vital infrastructure that the population deserves now, before a single extra house is built. Facilities for the young in all three towns that I represent are woefully inadequate compared with neighbouring larger towns. Young football players and older bowls club players in Houghton Regis have no changing facilities or toilets to use while they play their matches. Lottery funding, which could finance those facilities, runs at only one third that received by neighbouring poorer and wealthier constituencies.

Leighton Buzzard needs medical facilities, a community hospital with beds for post-operative care and other medical services. It is one of the largest towns in the country without a hospital, so why does Bedford have a hospital and a health village with short-stay beds, when Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire’s second biggest town, has neither?

Where is the commitment from the Government not just to build but to fund year-on-year a community hospital in Leighton Buzzard as part of the growth plans? Why does Bedford have bypasses around it in almost every direction, when the key bypass that is vital to all south Bedfordshire and beyond, including towns such as Aylesbury, is not projected to be finished before 2014?

We in Leighton Buzzard would also like cells in the local police station, the return of a magistrates court if we are to have such growth, and a lift at Leighton Buzzard station. Furthermore, what about water resources? Representatives from the Environment Agency asked me to accompany them on a visit recently, and they said that

How much more expensive will water be for my constituents because they have to pay for the cost of shipping in water from a long way away to accommodate the demand for the new houses?

9 Jan 2008 : Column 137WH

Flood defences have been postponed, but the areas on which there will be building are prone to flood. When will the defences be built? The Environment Agency says that it has

May we have a date please from the Minister?

On greenbelt issues, I note that the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said on 13 July 2007 in response to a question from Jonathan Dimbleby:

My constituents do not understand that statement when they see the south Bedfordshire greenbelt being rolled back in significant areas.

On local democracy, or rather the lack of it, why not trust the people? Put the infrastructure in up front and towns will vie for housing growth as they do in Germany. That way we will stop politicians—of all parties—from opposing development as six Labour Cabinet Ministers have opposed it in their areas. The Conservative approach will be bottom-up. We will scrap the regional assemblies and return power to council chambers from where it should never have been removed. Planning law should allow for quicker decisions and faster implementation of locally taken decisions, so that we can build more than just the 45 affordable homes that were built in south Bedfordshire last year. That is not enough, and in my area I want acceptable housing growth to come more quickly, and with the infrastructure. Why has planning law not been changed to allow faster implementation of appropriate housing with infrastructure?

Will the Government ensure that developers wait until the core strategy document is in place? On the one hand, the Government insist that South Bedfordshire district council produce a core strategy document that, with the best will in the world, will take it another nine months to complete; and on the other, they allow developers, under planning policy statement 3, to lodge plans. The Government should allow the council to go faster to complete the work. Local views are, after all, very well known. In March 2004, 17,000 local residents, mainly from Dunstable and Houghton Regis, signed a petition raising the concerns that I raise today. In November 2007, 10,500 people, almost 30 per cent. of Leighton Buzzard’s population, signed another petition expressing similar views to those which I express today.

Will the Government assist the district council to produce the core strategy document sooner and tell Arnold White Estates, Willis Dawson Holdings and other developers locally not to lodge their plans before the document is ready, and will they address the jobs, transport and infrastructure needs of which I have already spoken?

It appears to us in south Bedfordshire that the Government are trying to secure development on the cheap. Will they give the district council the cash to plan housing as they have given West Northamptonshire development corporation, which received £15,353,000 in 2005-06—all from the Government? Bedford Renaissance, Bedford’s local development vehicle, also has Government funding.

Next Section Index Home Page