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House of Commons

Tuesday 26 February 2008

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—

Devon and Somerset Fire Service

1. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): What discussions she has had with the Devon and Somerset fire service on its funding settlement; and if she will make a statement. [188682]

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): The Devon and Somerset fire service met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), on 5 December. It also submitted written representations, and we carefully considered those alongside all the other representations that we received before making our decisions on the local government finance settlement.

Mr. Swire: The Minister will be aware that the Devon and Somerset fire service estimates that it is £2 million worse off because of the change to the pensions for firemen, although that was meant to be cost-neutral. The Government Actuary’s Department came up with a figure of £1.2 million, although the way in which it was calculated means that we are talking about £174,000 less than even that amount. The Under-Secretary has indicated to the authority that he estimates that it was short-changed by £440,000. Will the Minister for Local Government provide all the estimates calculated for Devon and Somerset’s funding, so that we can decide whether we are short of £1 million, £174,000 or—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

John Healey: The changes to which the hon. Gentleman refers were designed to smooth out the cost peaks and troughs that fire authorities previously faced year to year in paying for pensions. The Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service has been quids in as a result of this arrangement, whereby the national Government step in to make good any shortfall over the past couple of years. Of course I am happy to examine the case that the Devon and Somerset authority has offered—we did so in the run-up to the finance settlement and we will do so again if it has fresh information—but I have studied the figures, and I think that the balance of advantage lies with that service.

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Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Would the Minister be prepared to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament from Devon and Somerset to examine next year’s settlement, because every year the authority has to consider cutting operational capacity, as it has done in this year’s budget round, and that cannot be in anyone’s interest?

John Healey: Of course I will meet a delegation of MPs—I am always prepared to do so. I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman, but nor should his own fire and rescue service. Far from being hard done by in the next financial year, and unlike 10 fire and rescue services whose settlements are on the floor for such authorities, Devon and Somerset’s settlements for the next three years of the period are significantly above the floor. The authority is thus hardly hard done by in the terms that he argues.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Clearly the three-year settlement is disappointing. The Minister will be aware of the disquiet felt by many fire authorities in the south-west about the financial implications of the FiReControl project. It is felt not least in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), where there is near universal opposition to the closure of the tri-service centre in Quedgeley as a result of a new FiReControl centre in Taunton. The regional FiReControl project is three-years late, and 14 times over budget and still heading north. Will the Minister for Local Government give the House a firm undertaking that the cost overruns on the project will not mean fewer firefighters and poorer pensions in the south-west and throughout the country?

John Healey: First, the hon. Gentleman misrepresents some significant opinion about the attitude to the FiReControl project in the west country. Secondly, the FiReControl project is designed to strengthen the service’s capacity to deal with all sorts of pressures and challenges that it may face in the future. Far from demonstrating the case against that initiative, the summer floods reinforced the case for making just such a move. We will do our best to ensure that the implementation of the FiReControl programme across the country proceeds according to its current time scale and budget. That is what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be doing, and I shall give him any support that he needs.

Affordable Housing

2. Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Whether her Department expects to meet its 2006 to 2008 affordable housing targets. [188683]

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): The Housing Corporation is on track to meet the affordable housing targets we set for its 2006 to 2008 affordable housing programme. Not only that, the corporation is today announcing initial allocations for the new affordable housing programme for 2008 to 2011, which will contribute towards our Housing Green Paper target of providing 70,000 new affordable homes per annum by 2010-11, of which 45,000 will be social rent homes.

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Tim Farron: Funding has been scrapped for the rural housing enablers at a time when the Government are nowhere near meeting their unambitious targets for new affordable housing in rural areas. I wrote to the Minister recently about the “Home on the Farm” scheme, which would have provided hundreds of new dwellings by transforming disused farm buildings in my constituency. Does she agree that that is an imaginative scheme which could help to prevent more of our rural communities from becoming lifeless ghettoes of empty second homes? If so, will she support the restoring of the funding to the rural housing enablers so that such schemes can become a reality?

Caroline Flint: There is plenty of opportunity for local authorities, should they wish to do so, to use planning policy statement 3, which provides for marketing affordable housing in rural areas. There are several ways in which that can be done, including using disused buildings. I am pleased to announce today a new national target for rural affordable housing, to deliver 10,300— [ Interruption. ] At least we have targets for house building. The target is to deliver 10,300 completed homes in communities of fewer than 3,000 in the next three years. That represents a rise of more than 50 per cent. on the 4,625 units allocated, and it is for completions, which is a lot better than for allocations.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Will the Minister review the targets for supported housing for young people? We need more such housing, especially through the development of more foyer projects. We made a commitment that we would have a foyer scheme in every town: when will we get that?

Caroline Flint: I welcome my hon. Friend’s question because in my previous role at the Department for Work and Pensions I was pleased to meet the Foyer Federation to hear how it was providing homes for 10,000 young people a year, and supporting them in finding work, through learning and skills packages. I am pleased to say that the number of homeless 16 and 17-year-olds in bed and breakfast accommodation is down a third. We need to do more and, with my colleagues in the DWP, I intend to explore further what more we can do for young people through housing.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): With the number of first-time buyers at its lowest since 1980 and home ownership falling, is not it time for the Government to remove the roadblocks to home ownership that they have put in place, such as rising stamp duty and home information packs?

Caroline Flint: The Tories say that they want to help first-time buyers, but across the country they oppose the extra homes that first-time buyers and young families desperately need. The fact is that we have helped almost 95,000 people get their first step on the housing ladder through shared ownership schemes. We have 1 million more people in home ownership since 1997, and we are building not only the homes but the sustainable communities to ensure that everyone has a chance to have a roof over their head.

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John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): The real roadblocks to a property-owning democracy are mass unemployment, hugely high interest rates and low standards of living. I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on having avoided all three of those factors left to us by the Conservative party. Does she accept that, even given that, it is necessary for people to get a step on the first rung of the ladder? Will she therefore insist on going ahead with her plans for affordable housing and not be diverted by the opposition or cynicism of the Conservatives?

Caroline Flint: I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. In order to create the environment for home ownership, we need good employment rates, and they are at a record level; we need low interest rates and inflation; and, importantly, we need to build the houses. There is no point Opposition Members talking about supporting more people in buying their own homes if they then join Tory councils locally to oppose every house building venture. We are committed to more affordable homes and to considering different schemes to make that happen, but we should not kid ourselves: we need to overcome the lack of house building over decades to ensure that we can provide, among other things, the first rung on the property ladder.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What discussions has the Minister had recently with the house building industry about the provision of affordable and social housing, and how it might be a good idea to have such provision as part of general housing development, so that ghettoes of affordable and social housing are not established? I would be very interested to know what initiatives the Government are taking.

Caroline Flint: I am pleased to say that one of my first telephone calls was to Stewart Baseley, who leads the Home Builders Federation. The hon. Gentleman is right: we do want to ensure a mix of tenures in developments. To achieve that, we have to have support at local level, which I have to repeat is not often forthcoming from his party.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, while we need more affordable housing, especially in my constituency, we should remember, too, that some tenants in Keighley—especially on the Woodhouse estate, which is managed by Bradford Community Housing Trust—live in appalling conditions? The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, our hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), will bear that out, and he is going to visit that estate. I wish that we could do something to encourage the trust to improve those houses, especially at a time when it is shoving the rents up—notices went out yesterday.

Caroline Flint: I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. I know that she recently had an Adjournment debate on that issue. I hope that she is aware of the measures that we are taking through the Housing and Regeneration Bill to provide the tenants of registered social landlords with the opportunity through Oftenant to ensure that they get the services that they require. We want to raise the standard of support for tenants, and that means empowering them to have a voice about how to drive up the standards of services.

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Growth Point Bids

3. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): What mechanisms exist for public consultation on growth point bids. [188685]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): New growth points are subject to the statutory regional and local planning process, and so any growth bids will be subject to robust testing and public consultation as part of the regional spatial strategy and local development framework mechanisms.

Mr. Jack: Reassuring as the Minister’s answer is, to date the growth point bid submitted for Blackpool and the Preston area has not been subject to any form of public input or consultation. Will the Minister assure me that mechanisms will be established, if that growth point bid is successful, to enable the public, at appropriate stages, to have their input before the area is irrevocably changed by the proposals in the bid?

Mr. Wright: I love conspiracy theories, too, but the idea that we are trying to promote growth point bids behind closed doors and in smoke-filled rooms is wrong—actually, because of the smoking ban, it would be illegal, too. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we will bring forward proposals shortly on the second phase of growth point bids. I reiterate my original answer: they will be subject to the full statutory planning mechanism.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend has been kind in listening to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and me argue for our own growth area. Does my hon. Friend agree, on the basis of what he saw in Northampton this morning, that any extra funding allocated to the west Northamptonshire growth area would be money well spent?

Mr. Wright: I have seen a lot of my hon. Friend today. I thank her for her hospitality during my visit to Northampton this morning. I have seen the ambition and vitality in that town, of which she is a true champion. May I point out that the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation will receive more than £30.1 million over the next three years? From what I have seen today, I am sure that it will be well spent. I pay tribute, too, to the fantastic residents of the Goldings estate, whom I met at Goldcrest community room. They need to be part of the growth point process, too.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Has the Minister noticed that not one of the growth point bids for Leicestershire includes the site of the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s bid for a new town of up to 40,000 people in my constituency? Does he think that that is a coincidence?

Mr. Wright: The hon. and learned Gentleman and I have clashed over that matter on a number of occasions and he has had an Adjournment debate on the subject. I know that he is a strong champion of his community on the matter. I reiterate that growth point bids, as well as eco-town suggestions, will be brought forward very shortly and will be subject to the statutory planning mechanism.

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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): The city of Plymouth has growth point status, which has been approved through the planning process and has the support of local people. Will the Minister tell us how in a joined-up Government we will achieve our growth targets if the Ministry of Defence closes our naval base, as was reported in The Sunday Times over the weekend?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about joined-up government. It is important that we concentrate on housing growth and on increasing the supply that this country so sorely needs, but it is also important that we have the infrastructure and economic base to ensure that we have sustainable communities throughout the country.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): If growth point bids are to succeed, the house builders will need land. I hope that the housing ministerial team will seek to emulate their distinguished predecessor, Harold Macmillan, who built 300,000 houses a year in the 1950s. He did so by building on big gardens and green land in towns and suburbs. Those who oppose any new house building and any release of gardens and land are doing future generations a great disservice. When will the Conservative party copy Harold Macmillan and support the Government Front-Bench—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister does not need to answer that one.

Home Information Packs

4. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): If she will publish the findings of the home information pack pilot surveys conducted since November 2005. [188687]

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): As the House has been told, Ipsos MORI is still in the process of finalising its conclusions. A copy of the research report will be placed in the Library of the House once the project has been finalised.

Lembit Öpik: Any professional organisation that conducts a pilot will assess its results before rolling out the policy in question. Has the HIP pilot been evaluated? Did that evaluation prove that HIPs have had a measurable benefit, or did the survey show that there has been no measurable improvement from the introduction of HIPs—and is that why the Government have rolled out the policy before evaluating and publishing the outcome of the survey?

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