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19 Mar 2008 : Column 242WH—continued

I want to give the Minister enough time to answer those questions, so I shall just make the following points. He will agree that it is not acceptable that the proportion of time spent by patrol officers on patrol fell from 18 to 17.1 per cent between 2003-04 and 2006-07, based on the Government’s own figures up to 2007. Unless those figures are reversed, they cast doubt on the effectiveness of the neighbourhood policing programme in the next year and beyond. There are also some rather depressing figures about police station
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closures in the past 10 years. Freedom of information requests reveal that, to date, 550 have shut their doors.

We also need clarity on the single non-emergency number. In his final review in February, Sir Ronnie Flanagan highlighted the importance of the 101 non-emergency number in acting as a catalyst for improved partnership working between the police and other agencies. Will the Minister tell us about funding for the 101 number, because there are question marks over that?

Finally, proper implementation of the neighbourhood policing programme requires proper and stable funding. That is the view of all who have looked at the matter. Will the Minister accept recommendation No. 30 of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s report, which states:

Is that something that we will see in April 2008? If not, why not?

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the debate. If he does not mind me embarrassing him, may I also say that, as normal, he introduced his subject in an intelligent and thoughtful way? That gives enormous power to his arguments. I know that he works assiduously for his constituents, not only in respect of neighbourhood policing, but on a whole range of different matters, and I congratulate him on that.

Before I respond to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), I shall deal with some of the other points raised. This was a very intelligent debate and discussion, and hon. Members raised matters of importance. They were concerned with how to improve the delivery of neighbourhood policing in every area. The debate was not about the principle of it, because we all know that what people want is a visible uniformed presence on the street, but about how we can make that as effective as possible and how we ensure that local people can influence those officers in a proportionate way.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was right to say that issues other than neighbourhood policing are important. It is for local police forces to achieve a balance in relation to that, which is something that we should not lose sight of. I was pleased that he and others highlighted the role of PCSOs. Given some of the publicity about them, it is important to say again that the Government and the vast majority of hon. Members think that they do an outstanding job in our communities. The introduction of PCSOs has been a major reform and has led to considerable improvements. We should consistently acknowledge that. When I and many other hon. Members travel around the country or are in our constituencies, we pay tribute to the role of PCSOs. I am grateful for his support on that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the role of specials, and it is right and proper that we recognise their role in delivering neighbourhood policing. It is not just the number of specials that is important, but
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the number who are active in communities, which is a point that is often lost. A change was made in the past few years and the police work hard to ensure that specials are properly integrated into neighbourhood policing teams, and that they are active and working hard in those teams, rather than simply being numbers in a book. There has been considerable improvement in that and integration has been an important factor.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) talked about neighbourhood management, which is a particularly important point—in fact, it is crucial. Neighbourhood policing cannot be delivered without being part of neighbourhood management. He made that point when he talked about the reduction in crime in his area, brought about by a neighbourhood management approach. The role of PCSOs was also important and, again, he highlighted the difference that they have made.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) talked about a subway in his area where a tremendous difference has been made by the local authority—or Network Rail or whoever was responsible—painting out some graffiti. That is not a policing function. In many respects, it is the function of the local authority or whoever is responsible. Painting out graffiti containing homophobic hatred or other types of graffiti means that when people walk down the subway, they will feel the benefit of the actions of those who take a pride in the community. Sometimes the simple measures that people think should be done—and they cannot understand why they are not done—make a real difference. In all our constituencies, fixing a broken streetlight or sign makes a huge difference. That is not part of a policing response, but part of neighbourhood management, in which the police play an important role. I think it would be a shock if I—a Labour Minister—turned up in the middle of Banbury, and we would perhaps have some fun if I did so, but, on a serious note, I will consider visiting.

Mr. Andrew Smith rose—

Mr. Coaker: Of course, I will go to Oxford at the same time.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend could come to Oxford, East on the way to Banbury. The hon. Gentleman made a point about the career structure for PCSOs and the opportunities for progression. Does my hon. Friend have that matter under review or have further proposals on it?

Mr. Coaker: The next thing I have written on my notes is not to forget to say that on the way to Banbury, or on the way back from Banbury, I will, of course, call in at Oxford. Just in case I have missed anyone out geographically, I should say that it is important for Ministers to go to different constituencies and parts of the country. I have been to Burton, Stafford, Copland in Cumbria and other places to see the work that is going on.

Hon. Members will know that the Association of Chief Police Officers has asked the National Policing Improvement Agency to review PCSOs and career development will be considered as part of that. On the transfer or movement of officers from Thames Valley and, indeed, other forces into the Metropolitan force,
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officers recruited after 1 April 1994 in south-east forces receive an additional allowance of £2,000 per annum and £1,000 per annum in Bedfordshire and Hampshire. We have been asked to revisit that allowance and to uprate it to deal with inflation. We recently heard the views of Sara Thornton, the chief constable of Thames Valley, who has made representations on that issue. It is a matter for the Police Negotiating Board, but I know that it is under consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) made an important point about neighbourhood management and the role of neighbourhood watch. There is a need for neighbourhood watch to extend its role and to develop the way in which it works in a modern police setting. There is certainly an important role for neighbourhood watch.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) talked about local priorities and the points he made were right. One of the tasks for neighbourhood policing is to ensure that local people feel that they can influence the priorities and have a real say. That should not mean that police operational independence is compromised, but if there is to be true neighbourhood policing in an area, surely it is only right and necessary for people to have some influence.

On CCTV and accessibility, when I have been to different parts of the country, including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed), I have visited control rooms where they change the direction of CCTV cameras all the time. However, I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s point. If it is appropriate, I will write to every hon. Member present with the answer to his question so that it is on the record. As I have said, it is not something that I have heard before, but I will take up the point.

I genuinely welcome the support of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) for neighbourhood policing. I also welcome the other points that he made. We are trying to get empirical evidence on neighbourhood policing. However, it is fair to say that every police force that we have spoken to says that neighbourhood policing has led to a reduction in crime—and importantly a reduction in the fear of crime—as happened in Hammersmith and Fulham, to which he referred.

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The hon. Gentleman will also know that all the Flanagan review’s recommendations are being considered by the Government, including those that he highlighted. Part of that is about reducing bureaucracy. We know that forms are being reduced in size across the country and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford gave examples of that. As I say, we will push that matter forward. One of the ways in which we will do that is through mobile data sets, although I cannot give him a commitment on that this morning.

Mr. Kidney: Really.

Mr. Coaker: I am sure my hon. Friend is not surprised. I cannot give the commitment because it would drive a coach and horses through the bidding system. We have heard his plea for Staffordshire in relation to the funding for that and we will consider it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned maintaining police numbers and referred to the point made by the Flanagan review. Obviously, we intend to maintain police numbers. We have invested record amounts in the police service and there has been a huge increase in police numbers. PCSOs have been introduced and there has been a massive increase in the number of police staff who have taken on roles previously undertaken by warranted officers.

Obviously, the Government must consider the Flanagan report, but we have not come to a conclusion on it. However, the point that Sir Ronnie makes is whether the mix of staff numbers is right. That links to the point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. Clearly, one of the reasons we reduced the funding for PCSOs from last April was because the Association of Chief Police Officers asked us to. Similarly, surely the mix of police staffing, staff numbers, PCSOs and uniformed officers is a matter for local police chiefs. Sooner or later, Parliament will have to make up its mind across the board about whether it wants to issue national diktats to local police forces or have local decision making, even if that sometimes means taking an easy political hit. With respect to the police, we must decide whether we want effective policing determined locally or yah-boo politics dictating what is an appropriate public policy. That is something on which we need to reflect. The Flanagan review has made its recommendation, which the Government will consider in due course.

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Housing (Warrington)

11 am

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I am glad to have secured a debate on housing need in Warrington and to see my hon. Friend the Minister in his place—he takes a serious interest in such matters.

I am not here as a nimby. Warrington is not a town of nimbys. For many years, it was part of the Warrington-Runcorn new town area, and the town expanded rapidly. We have a thriving economy, and under this Government, people in my constituency have seen a change: vast numbers of people were unemployed, but now more people are in employment than Beveridge defined as full employment. As a result, my constituency contains a surprising mix of people, including families who have lived in the town for generations, people who have come from Manchester and Liverpool, and people who, like me, have come from further afield and who are proud to live in the town even though they were not born there. Nevertheless, we have a serious housing problem, and my constituents are concerned about the kind of housing that is being built and that is planned for the future.

Our problem can be summed up very simply. Warrington has exceeded its house building targets for years, yet we do not have the kind of housing that we need. At the last count, 11,320 people were on the housing waiting list; yet between 2002-03 and 2006-07, only 142 units of social housing were built. We have the additional problem that house prices in the town are much higher than in the surrounding areas. The average cost of a semi-detached house in Warrington is more than £175,000 and the average cost of a terraced house is more than £130,000, but many people in the area are on low wages, despite the Government’s efforts to get people back to work. The town as a whole does not score high in the indexes of deprivation, but seven wards, many of which are in my constituency, are in the bottom 25 per cent. of the most deprived areas in the country. As a result, the average house price in Warrington is nine times the average wage and, to get a typical mortgage, it is estimated that someone needs to earn about £50,000, which is twice the average wage.

We have a joint problem. People who need social housing cannot obtain it, and young couples who want to get a foot on the ladder cannot afford to buy. The problem is not exclusive to Warrington. When the Government office for the north-west held a meeting to brief MPs on housing growth point status bids—it was rather late in the day, if I may say—the problem was raised by many hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Minister will have seen at his surgeries families who live in such overcrowded conditions that people sleep in living rooms and boys and girls share bedrooms, sometimes when one is in their teenage years, and young couples who are desperate to buy but simply cannot find anything that they can afford. At the briefing meeting, I hope that it was conveyed to him that many of us who unfortunately have Liberal Democrat or Tory-controlled councils—or, as in my area, an alliance of both, which we call the “ConDems”—have no faith in the willingness of those councils to supply affordable housing even when they have put in growth point status bids. I have no doubt of
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the Government’s commitment, but I have grave doubts about the ability and willingness of Warrington borough council to deliver.

Warrington’s bid gives all the appearance of having been cobbled together. Originally, it was a stand-alone bid from Warrington, but at the suggestion of the Government office for the north-west, it was linked with the bids from Halton and St. Helens. I am concerned about that because those areas have different housing problems, and they are in a different situation from Warrington. For instance, the bid says that the council can deal with the traffic problems, but anyone who lives in Warrington knows that the town is frequently gridlocked. It also says that there is no flooding problem, which is interesting, because I received a letter from the strategic director of environment and regeneration that says,

It goes on to say that I should lobby the Government for more money to deal with flooding, stating:

The bid has not been thought through. When my hon. Friend the Minister looks at it, he will not need a crystal ball, but simply to read the book. The last big planning permission granted by the council was for a site on Loushers lane. Some 178 houses will be built, only 17 of which will be affordable. Frankly, that is scandalous given that the council holds the whip hand in granting planning permission, because it has exceeded its housing targets. In its bid, the council says that it will require about 419 units of affordable housing a year to meet the need, despite

That is exactly right, but only because we have been building the wrong sort of housing for people’s needs. I fear that the bid will continue that.

My hon. Friend the Minister should not be fooled by some of what is said in the bid; the key is in the front, where the council talks about building on

The bid document returns to that, but it does not sound much like affordable housing to me. Planners and some Warrington councillors have long held the ambition of developing the waterfront in the same way as they have been developed in Manchester and Liverpool. However, if people want to buy waterfront flats in a big city, they would normally go to a big city; yet the council has allowed such flats to be built there and in other areas in the town. Anyone can pick them out not only because they stand out like a sore thumb from the rest of the town, but because they are festooned with “To let” signs. They have been bought and put into the buy-to-let market at prices that most of my constituents cannot afford. When I asked the chief executive whether there would be affordable housing along the river, she looked sheepish and said, “Well, some.”

The real intentions could be deduced at a meeting that was held when my right hon. Friend the Minister for the North West visited Warrington last year. The
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meeting was set up by the Government office for the north-west, which is why I do not have much faith in its ability to assess the bid. It invited big developers and even the principal of the local college, but not the town’s MPs. If it had done so, we might have had something to say on aspects of the bids. For instance, the bid states:

Perhaps the difference between a flat and an apartment is how much someone pays for it, but that is not what my constituents or the people who are looking for housing want; they want houses in which they can bring up their families decently.

The bid talks about “building a new image” for Warrington. Frankly, I would rather the council builds some affordable housing. I hope that, when looking at such bids, my hon. Friend the Minister will not allow a situation in which families who have lived in an area for generations are priced out because of the kind of buildings that are being developed.

Even when there is affordable housing, the council cannot be relied upon to keep it in the affordable sector. Many allegations about properties built as affordable homes being sold to the wrong people have been made. For example, a lady who was previously a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) was renting a house for £550 a month. The house was built as affordable housing and was sold for £79,000 to someone who already had a property. When my hon. Friend raised the matter with the council, it told her that there was

When the case was passed to me, I pointed out that the council had admitted that there were flaws in the section 106 agreement and asked what it was doing to strengthen it. I got a reply from the strategic director of community services, who shows neither any strategy nor any regard for the community. I was told that the council could not strengthen the agreement because

Well, knock me down with a feather. In this case, one of the signatories holds most of the cards and is not using them.

I was also told that, although affordable housing should not be sold to someone who owned a property or had sold one in the past three years,

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