The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright):
I am the Minister for Ordnance Survey responsible for the shareholder relationship between the Department and the agency, dealing with strategic and day-to-day
issues arising in connection with its activities, particularly in terms of financial and Government matters. My ministerial colleague the noble Baroness Andrews leads for the Department on issues relating to the purchase of Ordnance Survey products and services.
Ordnance Survey is the envy of the world as a mapping institution; it is second to none, and it costs the taxpayer nothing. However, there is continuing confusion between its public duty and the private competition that it has to have as a trading fund. The pan-government agreement, which regulates how different Government Departments and agencies use Ordnance Survey, came to an end yesterday. We have no news of what is going to be put in its place, so will the Minister tell us? When will the regulatory framework be updated and amended to bring an end to all this confusion, which is getting in the way of Ordnance Surveys excellent work?
Mr. Wright: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Ordnance Survey is a true success story for Britain and, given the importance in the 21st century of data collection and dissemination, is something that we can lead the world on. In respect of his important point about the pan-government agreement, that was established, as he is aware, to ensure that the Government have access to mapping data in order to develop and implement policy at a reasonable price. We are looking into that, and I will update the House accordingly.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister is clearly the right man for such a range of responsibilities. He will be aware that Ordnance Survey is the second-largest Government trading fund and that it breaks even on its costs by selling its goods and services to the public and private sectors. There is an argument that such information should be made more freely available, free of charge. Has he read the book which was published alongside the Budget, Models of Public Sector Information via Trading Fundsquite a racy readand which rebuts the claim that a move to free data would damage the work of Ordnance Survey? It should be made freely available to citizens of this country, and that can be done in a way that produces funds rather than absorbs them.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the provision of data. He said that Ordnance Survey breaks even as a trading fund. In fact, it provides about £6.2 million in surplus that is then passed back to the public purse via dividends. That is to be encouraged. The business model, with changing market conditions and technology, is being considered and, as Minister with responsibility for Ordnance Survey, I will continue to do so.
Is the Minister aware that the Atlantis initiative, which is very important in supplying information to support flooding and water management, is also unfunded? For how long, in the present climate, does he believe that that initiative will be sustainable?
Mr. Wright: I thank the hon. Lady for her consideration of my welfare. I shall look into the point she raises and get back to her. I seem to be doing that on a regular basis with regard to the questions she asks me, but I shall endeavour to ensure that I look into the points she raises and get back to her.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that Ordnance Survey is not only one of the oldest but one of the most efficient Government services? Other Departments depend on it, quite apart from local authorities and other institutions in need of accurate information. Will he urgently come up with an agreement that does notas usuallend some agency the extraordinary honour of a totally unworkable private finance initiative? This trading fund works, and we ought not to disturb it.
Mr. Wright: I agree with my hon. Friend on that. As I said before, Ordnance Survey is a true success story, and its provision of data is an example of Britain leading the world. The business model is reviewed on the basis of changing market conditions and technology, and we will continue to do that. The bottom line, however, is to ensure that the success of Ordnance Survey continues.
The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): The housing strategy statistical appendix completed by local authorities shows that there are currently 672,924 empty properties across Englandthat is a 12 per cent. reduction since 1997. Of these, 271,252 are privately owned properties that have been empty for more than six months.
Mr. Anderson: I thank the Minister for her reply and I welcome the fact that the percentage has gone down, but surely 670,000 is a lot of houses to stand empty. What role should local authorities play, and what powers do they have, in ensuring that they can bring these houses back into use?
Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: progress is being made, and the figures also have to be seen in the context of rising house numbers, but we have to do more to reduce the number of long-term empty homes. That is why in the Housing Act 2004 we introduced empty dwelling management orders, which give local authorities power to take over the management of properties that have been empty for more than six months. The orders are often used as a last resort but, for example, Manchester city councils threat to use them led to 40 properties coming back into use.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am sure the Minister will agree that at a time when there is huge pressure on our countryside for new building, it is a national disgrace that there are 700,000 empty homes throughout our nation. She mentions empty dwelling management orders as if they are the be-all and end-all to solve the problem, but will she not admit that because they are so bureaucratic and difficult to bring in, the total of EDMOs so far has not been 700,000 but 11?
Caroline Flint: EDMOs are there to be used by local authoritieswe provided that power for them. I am always keen to discuss how we can improve matters: Councillor Mehboob Khan of Kirklees council has sent me some constructive ideas about the way forward. Having said that, it is a matter of making sure that local authorities have ownership of the issue at a local levelsome 200 of them have an empty properties officer, including in Gateshead, the authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson).
It is also important that, as part of their housing strategic assessment, local authorities identify the right type of housing that needs to be built for the communities that they serve. That is why we must ensure we have the right balance between one and two-bedroom flats and affordable family homes. We will do what we need to do, but local authorities also have to be seen to engage in this matter and deal with the commercial market to ensure that the number of empty homes can be reduced further.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Our planning system stresses the need to stimulate house building on brownfield land before greenfield land. Has my right hon. Friend considered giving empty homes special status in planning, to try to stimulate the bringing back of empty homes into use, before building on brownfield or greenfield land?
Caroline Flint: Of course we want to see where we can bring empty homes back into use where possible. In fact, this years Budget proposals allow for a reduction in VAT where homes are being renovated that have been empty for two years. That is part of the process of using the tools we have provided locally to get a more wide-ranging view of how planning should be developed with regard to housing and infrastructure. However, we have to build more homes too. Even if we filled every empty property, it still would not give us the type and number of houses we need to meet demand in the long term.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Speaking of empty property, the Minister knows that 122 acres of Whitehall currently lie empty at a cost to the taxpayer of some £200 million a yeara substantial sum. Since the Government have a target and a plan for everything, how many acres will still be empty at the end of the year, and what saving will the Government achieve by then in their plan to reduce the number?
We are working across Whitehall to identify suitable surplus public land. We have considered some 900 sites and identified around 170 plus that could be suitable for housing. That is part of our engagement with local authorities in identifying the sites in their areas. I am pleased to say that some 62 per cent. of local authorities have identified their
five-year land use plans. We will work with them to ensure that we put our land into the pot, but we must have local ownership for the housing, especially the affordable housing, that we need for the future of people in this country.
Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency the number of private empty homes has increased from 884 in 2001 to more than 1,500 in 2006-07? Is she also aware that the local authority has taken only four actions and is not using the powers that we have granted to tackle that problem? What can she do to ensure that local authorities are required to work in partnership with registered social landlords to enable those houses to be brought back into use for families in desperate need?
Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the position in Luton to my attention. As a Minister, I always think it is important to ask whether powers are available before devising new ones. If they are available but not used, my hon. Friend gives a good example of the Governments role in asking why. I am happy to examine the matter in more detail. Clearly, I want to ensure that the orders that we provided can be used. If there is a reason that they cannot be used, I want to hear about it. However, simply not using them is no excuse.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): Between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the average band D, two adult council tax in the Basildon district council area rose by 118 per cent. That includes the precepts for Essex county council, Essex police authority, Essex fire and rescue and any parish councils.
The corresponding figure for London was 98 per cent., and for England the figure was 100 per cent. The average council tax increase of 4 per cent. in 2008-09 is the lowest for 14 yearsand the second lowest everand 2008-09 will be the 11th successive year in which we have increased local government funding by more than the rate of inflation.
Mr. Baron: Given that the council tax in Basildon district has more than doubled in the past 10 years and that the Local Government Association believes that that is largely because the Government have offloaded responsibilities on to councils generally, without providing the necessary funding24-hour licensing laws is one examplewill the Secretary of State explain to my constituents why the Government expect them to pay the bill for those extra responsibilities when they are already labouring under higher fuel bills and food prices?
The hon. Gentleman knows that in the past 10 years services have improved dramatically in local authority areas throughout the country. More than two thirds of local authorities are good or
excellent. I trust that he also knows that the average council tax per dwelling in England is £204 less for those living in a Labour area than it is for people living in a Tory area, and £143 less if one lives in a Labour area rather than a Liberal Democrat area. Labour councils cost you less.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the average council tax is the more accurate statistic for constituencies such as mine because many properties in Barnsley, East and Mexborough are in band A and band B?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Two thirds of the people in this country live in bands A, B and C, with 15.9 per cent. of the population in band D. I am sure that he welcomes the neighbourhood policing teams that were announced this week, the childrens centres and the fact that recycling has increased from 7 to 32 per cent. That means that Labour councils not only cost you less, but deliver a better deal.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I know that the Secretary of State is a fair lady, so will she concede that her figures disguise the reality that council tax has more than doubled since the Government came to power, and that the remorseless increase in council tax is shown by all independent surveys to be one of the largest drivers in the increasing cost of living for families? The Government promised that the cost of the Mayor and the London assembly would be no more than 3p a week, but her figures disclose that the cost of London-wide services to Londoners has more than tripled under this Government, although I doubt whether Londoners regard themselves as three times safer or better transported.
Hazel Blears: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his view that I am a fair person, and I shall respond to him in that spirit. I do not know whether he is aware that the figures in London are even starker. Council tax for people who live in Labour boroughs in London is £198 less than in Tory boroughs, and I was astounded to see that people in Liberal Democrat areas pay £521 more in council tax than people in Labour areas. The record of Ken Livingstone in London, with safer neighbourhood teams and better
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): This is all good knockabout so far, but does the Secretary of State understand that since council tax was introduced in Wellingborough it has increased by 422 per cent. the largest increase in the whole country? Does she accept that that is causing problems for pensioners and those on fixed incomes?
I entirely understand that families and pensioners, and people on fixed incomes, have to manage their budgets and look carefully at value for money. That is why, rather than this being knockabout stuff, it was important to stress the fact that the people in local governmentparticularly in Labour local
authoritiesare trying to secure value for money. However, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that the average pensioner household is in fact some £29 a week better off as a result of this Governments proposals on tax, benefits, pension credit, the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences. Overall, pensioners are significantly better off, but of course I acknowledge that managing budgets is still pretty tough for some people.
8. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the likely effects of the empty business property rating rules that come into force in April; and if she will make a statement. 
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): We set out the likely effects in an impact assessment alongside the Rating (Empty Properties) Bill last year, with a further assessment alongside the regulations in February. They showed that we expect an increased rate of re-letting of commercial property and a reduction in the business rents as a result.
Dr. Iddon: There are many multi-storey Victorian mills in my constituency with unlettable upper floors, basements and outhouses. Some of those mills are listed buildings in a poor state that are home to scores of small businesses. What support can local authorities give from today to help the owners of those mills to stay in business, thus protecting thousands of jobs?
John Healey: If they are empty and listed, those buildings are exempt from business rates. The crucial question is whether they are capable of beneficial occupation; in other words, are they rentable? If my hon. Friend and his constituents feel that those properties are not rentable, he should apply to the Valuation Office Agency, which will undertake an assessment and, if appropriate, provide the relevant relief or exemption.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the Governments proposals are going to cause big problems for small businesses? One such business in Kettering contacted me and said:
We have purchased two new offices in Kettering. Unfortunately, with the economy slowing down they have remained empty since December. In future, I will not buy any new property until I have a secured tenant signed up. This means that there will be a lot less investment in Kettering.
John Healey: When the cost of empty property relief has stood at £1.3 billion, it is no longer easy to justify offering that tax relief for buildings that sit empty, when they are subsidised by other taxpayers. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about business rents and the prospects for business, I suggest that he consult the Federation of Small Businesses. The FSB recognised in its submission to Lyons that such reform could bring down rents for business, because it would increase the incentives to re-let, sell or redevelop property that would otherwise remain empty.