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Agencies (Appointments)

8. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Whether Parliament and local authorities will have a role in the appointment of members of the restructured regional development agencies, the Homes and Communities Agency and the Infrastructure Planning Commission. [178392]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): Appointment of members to the boards of those bodies and proposed bodies would be made by Ministers, on merit, in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ code and guidance. There are no current plans for either Parliament or local authorities to play a direct role in those appointments processes.

Tony Baldry: The Infrastructure Planning Commission will be unaccountable. It will be judge and jury in its own cause, and it will even decide the process by which local people can make representations on contentious planning issues. How can that conceivably be fair?

Mr. Dhanda: I think the hon. Gentleman may have missed the boat. We had a good discussion about that during our deliberations on the Planning Bill. It is a shame that he is not a member of the Bill Committee. The purpose of the Infrastructure Planning Commission will be to streamline and speed up the planning process, and strong safeguards are built into it to ensure that consultation with local communities will be enhanced.

What I have said is not directly related to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I hope it is helpful to the House.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) about the bodies he listed, will the Minister say when the Secretary of State will reply to my letter dated 21 December setting out concerns in my constituency about the proposal to build a new town of up to 50,000 inhabitants on the Co-operative Society’s almost 5,000-acre farming estate in the Harborough district? May I tell the Minister that that massive development, which might well come before the bodies my hon. Friend referred to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is a wide supplementary question. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman should bring up the matter in an Adjournment debate; that might be the best thing to do.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When does the Minister next plan to meet representatives of the East of England Development Agency, my local regional development agency, and can he tell the House of one positive measure or initiative that it has carried out that would not otherwise have taken place?

Mr. Dhanda: That has a slightly tenuous relationship with the main question about public appointments. However, I am always happy to meet members of any RDA, and I know from work I have done on the
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Migration Impacts Forum that they have done some good work in the hon. Gentleman’s region. With regard to the initial question on public appointments, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for the body concerned, in terms of its representation and who is on it, and I think it has a good mix.

Energy-efficient Homes

9. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What assistance is available for people buying houses with energy ratings F or G to improve their homes. [178393]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): We announced the green homes service on 19 November last year. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing said in an earlier answer, the green homes service will offer every householder who gets an energy performance certificate of an F or G rating for their home discounted or free help with energy-efficient measures. That help will come from a range of grants from both Government and industry under the energy efficiency commitment.

Mr. Love: Ratings F and G are the poorest, and therefore the most in need of the free help the Minister has outlined, but I understand that one in five of all homes in the country are rated F or G. How many homes does my hon. Friend think this scheme will be able to help over the next few years?

Mr. Wright: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We anticipate that over the next three years 5 million more homes will benefit from discounted or free loft and cavity-wall insulation, and another 3 million homes from discounted or free low-energy light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances. The next phase of the energy efficiency commitment, running from 2008 to 2011, is expected to cut carbon emissions by 1.1 million tonnes and will save consumers about £10 billion in energy savings. That is good for home owners, and it is good for the environment.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Being very careful how I pronounce “F and G”, may I ask the Minister what energy efficiency schemes exist to replace single-glazed windows with double-glazed windows in constituencies such as his and my own, where that can make a huge difference both to the comfort and, more especially, the energy efficiency of each individual home?

Mr. Wright: A range of grants is available. The assistance available under the decent homes programme has meant that, since 2001, the number of non-decent homes in the social housing sector has been reduced. The replacement of single-glazed windows has been an important part of that effort. Warm Front, which has been a success in my constituency, is also a key tool in tackling fuel poverty. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady to provide further information.

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New-build Social Housing

10. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What plans she has to encourage registered social landlords to build sustainable homes. [178394]

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): We want to make homes more sustainable as well as more affordable. Homes built under the £8 billion affordable housing programme will now have to be built to code level 3 two years earlier than the rest of the market. We think it is important that where Government investment is involved, we lead the way in the work towards zero-carbon homes.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she consider that the EcoHomes certification arrangements, which are set out by the Housing Corporation as a precondition for the funding of new-build by housing associations, will match the anticipated progress of the sustainable buildings code, and will she look into ways that the Housing Corporation might further incentivise more sustainable housing developments by housing associations?

Yvette Cooper: That is certainly something that we are continuing to look at, because we have said that we want all new homes to be zero-carbon rated by 2016. That obviously requires substantial changes to the way we design and build homes, and we want public sector investment to lead the way. The Housing Corporation is now using the code for sustainable homes; it has switched to that from using the EcoHomes certification, and that means that there is an opportunity to look not simply at energy efficiency, but at wider aspects of sustainability.

11. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): What plans she has for new-build social housing; and if she will make a statement. [178395]

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): We expect to build 30,000 new social homes this year—the figure will rise to 45,000 by 2010—as part of an £8 billion programme of investment in more affordable housing over the next three years.

Mark Fisher: Although I welcome that, the Minister will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) saying that the number of people on the council house waiting list in our city has risen to 8,000 and is rising fast—by several thousand a year. Although I accept the interest in the market and in housing associations, and the better management of council assets that was mentioned in response to an earlier question, does my right hon. Friend understand that those measures are not meeting the need and that we are storing up problems for the future? Bad and unjust housing will lead to social problems and will undermine all the other Government policies in education and social justice unless we can find—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister gets the point.

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Yvette Cooper: Two significant issues need to be addressed; we need to increase both the amount and the quality of affordable housing in Stoke and in other areas across the country. That is why we introduced the multi-billion pound decent homes programme, which has already lifted 1.8 million children out of poor, cold and damp housing—that is hugely important—and why we are investing £679 million over the next three years in affordable housing for the west midlands, which is a 40 per cent. increase over three years in the amount of such investment. I believe that it will make a significant difference to meeting housing needs across the country.

Topical Questions

T1. [178373] Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): My Department is dedicated to devolving power to councils, communities and citizens, to building strong, cohesive communities, to delivering the Government’s targets on building new homes and to preventing violent extremism.

Peter Luff: Last week, the Secretary of State’s Department announced that it would impose more houses on the west midlands than local councils say they can cope with. It is also deciding the location of eco-towns entirely outside the planning process and, through the Planning Bill, it is removing the role of local communities almost completely from important decisions on major infrastructure projects. Does she understand that, as a result, people are feeling powerless and dangerously cynical about local democracy?

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I simply do not agree with his characterisation of the way in which either the housing process or the planning process works. It is important that local communities are involved in deciding what kinds of homes need to be built, and where homes need to be built, in their areas. That is why we have made changes to the planning policy statement for housing. Councils should be using those new powers to support development in their communities, but they also must recognise that we badly need more homes in this country to meet the needs of families in overcrowded accommodation, families on council waiting lists and future first-time buyers. It is irresponsible for Conservative Members to campaign against more affordable housing when it is desperately needed across the country.

T5. [178377] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Do Ministers agree that the local authority business growth initiative—LABGI—has been phenomenally successful in supporting local authorities such as Stafford borough council and Staffordshire county council in encouraging new business start-ups and in rewarding them for success? This is currently a three-year scheme, but what discussions are Ministers having with their colleagues in the Treasury to mainstream the scheme and to keep it as generous as it is to those who have successfully bid for assistance?

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The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): My hon. Friend is right about the importance of the scheme. He is also right to say that we should be doing more to recognise and reward local authorities that play a part in expanding the business base, and therefore the jobs and prosperity, of their areas. The short answer to his question is that detailed discussions have taken place for some time with the Treasury. They led to confirmation in the comprehensive spending review that money would be set aside in the second year of this CSR period to incorporate LABGI into the design of the business rate system. It is clear that the trial with the stand-alone scheme has demonstrated its importance. We must make it an integral part of the system for the future. We will then increase, and have provision to increase, the amount of money going through LABGI in the third year of this CSR period. I encourage hon. Members on both sides who support the principle of the scheme to work with us to design a scheme that can last for the long term.

T2. [178374] Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Earlier in Question Time my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) raised the issue of housing subsidy. Will the ministerial team give serious consideration to how they will explain to my constituents who are council tenants that, on average, every one of those council tenant households is paying £1,473 a year in negative subsidy back to the Government? How can it be fair for some of the poorest in our society to contribute in that way to other poor people in other parts of the country?

Yvette Cooper: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman missed what was a sensible discussion of the housing revenue account system and how it works. There is an element of redistribution in the account, and that is important because council housing has been funded in different ways historically and there are huge variations. There are also huge variations in need, so it is right that the system has an element of redistribution. However, there are problems with the system as it stands, and that is why we are conducting a serious long-term review and piloting different approaches. For example, we are piloting ways for councils to opt out of the housing revenue system so that they can better manage their assets in the long term.

T8. [178380] Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ensure that the implementation teams that are moving local authorities, such as those in County Durham, towards unitary status are required to produce a proper information strategy for local residents so that they are kept fully informed of the implications of change, the time scales and the significant milestones that the Government require local authorities to meet on the way?

Hazel Blears: I thank my hon. Friend for raising the important issue of the process that will need to be undertaken to implement the proposals. It is important that local people are kept fully informed about the proposals as they are developed and that there is complete openness and transparency in that process. My experience of any big change process is that it is
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important to get on with it. The sooner it is done the better, but it has to be done rigorously and properly. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will continue to monitor it, as will I.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State will have been saddened by the evidence presented at last week’s inquest into the death of baby Rhianna Hardie, who was scalded in a tragic accident caused by a faulty thermostat. The coroner noted that the Health and Safety Executive thought a similar fatality in 2002 sufficiently serious to bring it to the attention of the predecessor Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. However, the Department did not pass on that warning to local authorities. Has the Secretary of State been able to ascertain why the ODPM did not pass that information on to local authorities?

Hazel Blears: This matter is of the utmost concern. It was a terrible tragedy, although thankfully rare, and our sympathies are very much with Rhianna Hardie’s family. The hon. Gentleman is right that there was a similar case in 2002, and consideration was given then to whether a new British standard should be introduced for immersion heaters to ensure that it did not happen again. All new installations now have to have a secondary thermostat to prevent overheating. There is also a full review of building regulations to look at the issue, which started last summer and is an ongoing process. We will consider the comments made by the coroner in the latest case very carefully, because it is important to have clarity between my Department and the Health and Safety Executive on responsibilities and lines of communication. I will personally ensure that we consider the comments and, if there is action to be taken, that we ensure that the right authority takes it.

Mr. Pickles: That is very helpful. It might also be helpful if the Secretary of State would consider placing in the Library the correspondence between the HSE and the ODPM on the issue. In the course of the review, it might be helpful to look at the protocols for her Department on how information from the HSE is treated. I appreciate the point that she makes about the building regulations, but given that we are talking about 3.5 million boilers, can she tell me whether she intends to issue guidance to housing authorities on what checks should be made on those thermostats? Finally, what assessment has been made of the risk of a reoccurrence of such an accident?

Hazel Blears: I do not want to pre-empt the review of the building regulations that is being undertaken to consider that matter, which will be comprehensive and thorough. One reason why I want to get to the bottom of the relative roles of the HSE and my Department is that it has traditionally been the role of the HSE to communicate directly with housing providers rather than that of the ODPM or, now, of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Housing providers are under a duty of care to their tenants but, as I understand it, they are also under a duty to report to the HSE rather than the Department. I want to have a thorough look at that and am happy to confirm that I will put as much information about the issue as I
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possibly can into the House of Commons Library. As I said, the coroner said that such tragedies were, thankfully, extremely rare. Obviously, such things are an absolute tragedy for any family to which they happen and we must make every effort to ensure that such an occurrence does not recur.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): What success has the Minister had in persuading her ministerial colleagues to look at the introduction of feed-in tariff legislation such as that which is being applied elsewhere in Europe? In Germany, in particular, such legislation has been successful in putting citizens at the heart of driving their sustainable cities agenda and providing sustainable and affordable energy in their own homes.

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend has pursued this issue with assiduity—that is probably the best word. [Hon. Members: “Perspicacity.”] Or perhaps perspicacity is—I think I shall say that he has done so with a great deal of energy and commitment. He has raised an important issue that appears to be technical but is quite substantial. An interesting matter to pursue is not simply the feed-in tariff system but the way in which local people, local neighbourhoods and local communities can contribute to that important agenda. If he looks at the recent planning policy statement on climate change, he will see some welcome statements about the role of communities in terms of combined heat and power and on some of the other issues that he has pursued.

T3. [178375] Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): The Government will be aware of the sustained rainfall experienced by many parts of the country, including my own, which was devastated by floods last year. Although the situation is not that bad yet, more rain is predicted. People’s homes are being flooded, as are roads and fields. Given that fact, is it not rather insensitive for the regional assembly to submit its draft regional spatial strategy to the Government suggesting that thousands of extra houses should be built in my constituency? People need houses, but do they want them where they cannot get insurance, where they will flood or where they will cause other people’s property to flood? The regional spatial strategy document needs to be thrown straight back at the assembly and rejected outright.

John Healey: The regional spatial strategy will be studied, examined and dealt with in the usual way. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have recently tightened up the planning rules on flooding, something that Sir Michael Pitt looked at and reported on just before Christmas. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am conscious of the worries that were felt overnight and have continued this afternoon in Tewkesbury and some other areas, particularly in the west country. He and the House might like to know that as at 14.16 today, 63 flood warnings and no severe flood warnings were in place, while nine all-clears had been given.

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