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Ms Harman: My hon. Friend will know that the topic for debate this afternoon is eco-towns. I know that that is not exactly the point that he made, but the question is how we increase the housing supply. I will raise with my hon. Friends the housing need that he has identified
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and the important issues raised in that early-day motion and write to him, to let him know how we plan to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate them.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Could we have a debate on sex changes? I am not against sex changes, but given the number of sex changes, which are increasing in the United Kingdom year on year, the cost to the NHS, which has scarce resources, and the fact that sex changes are a matter of choice, is it not time that we had a debate about the issue? Many of my constituents do not have access to Alzheimer’s drugs or cancer drugs, but neither of those diseases do they have through choice.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the situation. It is not a question of choice: if someone needs to have gender reassignment surgery, it is a question of necessity for them. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise the issue further and ask questions of the relevant Minister, he can do so in the Opposition day debate next week on the NHS.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): There are just over 3,800 council tenants in the borough of Kettering. Some 27 per cent. of their weekly rate is siphoned off by the Treasury, and that is happening throughout the country, with 160 local council areas worse off and only 50 better off. Even worse, the Treasury is keeping a surplus of some £200 million of the money and not redistributing it into other social housing projects. Can we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Minister for Housing about why tenants in Kettering and elsewhere are effectively having to pay a stealth tax for living in local authority housing?

Ms Harman: The Department for Communities and Local Government, together with the Treasury, is reviewing the operation of the housing revenue account, to ensure a simpler and more transparent system. However, I would hate the hon. Gentleman not to recognise the importance of the increases in housing benefit, which have helped his constituents among many others, and, above all, the fact that more people are able to be in a job and earn a living than previously—as well as the investment made in public housing across the board.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): May I, through the Leader of the House, congratulate the Government on their new national strategy for carers and its many positive aspects, including additional funding for breaks and respite? However, can we have a debate on benefits for carers, so that we can discuss why the biggest issue of all was not addressed by that strategy—namely why so many carers live in poverty?

Ms Harman: We made a commitment in the national carers strategy to keep the issue under review. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the strategy. It is important that there are good support services for families caring for older and disabled relatives. It is important, too, that there is flexibility at work for those who want to hold down a job but fulfil caring responsibilities. A survey that we undertook recently showed that only 9 per cent. of those caring for older or disabled relatives know that they have the right to request flexible working. I hope that the hon. Gentleman
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will support tax credits, which help those who for whatever reason have to drop their hours to top up their income. However, we will keep the benefits question under review. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), gave evidence on that to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions this week.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Given the Leader of the House’s criteria for topical debates, could we have a topical debate on how our freedoms have been eroded by the Government over the past 11 years, whether they be our freedom of action, freedom of speech or other basic freedoms? Given that the Government appear to lack the courage to defend their position in the by-election in Haltemprice and Howden, surely we should have a debate in the House about a subject that has caught the mood of the British public.

Ms Harman: This is not about the Government having the courage to defend their position; it is about the Government having the courage to defend the people of this country from terrorist attacks. I find it most implausible that the hon. Gentleman—or other hon. Members—should try to assume the mantle of defender of civil liberties, when he is opposed to the Human Rights Act 1998. Indeed, his party is pledged to repeal it, if—perish the thought—it ever gets into government.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con) rose—

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Don’t resign!

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I may go and help in Howden.

Can we have a debate on regional development agencies? Recently, the South West of England Regional Development Agency sent an e-mail to south-west MPs informing them that it will change the way it operates in relation to inward and external investment. With the demise of the regional assemblies, there has been no consultation about the proposal at all. Indeed, we have been told that it is a fait accompli and that it will happen. The history of the South West of England Regional Development Agency is not good. At best, it has been dilatory in many of the things that it should do; at worst, it has been incompetent in a lot of cases. Can we therefore just talk about that?

Ms Harman: We acknowledge that there is a gap in the accountability of regional development agencies to the House, and that is why the Prime Minister proposed, in “The Governance of Britain”, that there should be regional committees to involve Members of the House in scrutinising the work of the regional development agencies. In a week or so, the Modernisation Committee will finalise its report on regional committees, and proposals will be brought forward to the House. There will therefore be a proper system of accountability for the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Royal assent

Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

European Union (Amendment) Act 2008

St. Austell Market Act 2008

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topical debate


12.21 pm

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): I beg to move,

Eco-towns offer us a unique opportunity not only to address the housing shortage and to tackle climate change but to trigger substantial economic growth across entire areas. I know that hon. Members will be familiar with the significant housing shortages that the country is facing. The fact is that we are all living longer, thankfully, and, as a result of the growing ageing population, far more people are living alone. That in itself contributes to a major shortfall in housing. It also means that, as we grow older and want to live more independently, we need services that can be provided in our communities, closer to or in our own homes. The people who will provide those services also need access to homes, particularly affordable homes, either to buy or to rent.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is not that just part of the story? Is not the need for housing in our country increasingly being driven by immigration, which is carrying on at an unchecked rate because of the policies of the present Government?

Caroline Flint: Of course, some of those hard-working migrants also contribute to building more houses in this country. Migration is a factor, but it is not the only factor. The point is that we have not built enough homes for the past 15 years or more. That is a recognised fact. Given this country’s present population, we need to build more homes, including homes that are suitable for older people. Let us also recognise the hidden numbers of people who are not necessarily on housing waiting lists but who are living in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation. Many young men and women, for example, have to live at home with their parents for longer because they cannot afford to get a foot on the property ladder. Let us talk about this in a reasonable manner and recognise that there is a real need to supply more homes of various shapes and sizes.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I understand what the Minister is saying and I agree with her. However, regarding the Ford eco-town proposal, she will be aware that Arun district council, in its core strategy document, has already identified and allocated land for 9,500 houses, of which between 30 and 40 per cent. will be social housing. The council has done what was required of it, and it is therefore wrong to suggest that the Minister needs to intervene to impose housing numbers on the council and to say where those houses should be.

Caroline Flint: We have discussed housing needs with local authorities and we will continue to do so. Of all the new homes built in the hon. Gentleman’s area in the past year, only 4 per cent. were affordable. So, more houses are being built, but there is a challenge that cannot be ducked: are all the people whom hon. Members represent—those who can afford to buy and those who cannot—getting the chance to have a home that they can rely on, whether to rent or to buy?

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I will continue to work with local authorities, as will my colleagues in the Department, to ensure that we recognise the need for housing and that we engage in meaningful debate about where the houses should be. My point to all hon. Members—who are looking at proposals at the moment; this is no done deal—is that, if, at the end of this process, an eco-town is not built in their area, they will still have to face up to the challenge of meeting the need for housing in their community— [ Interruption. ] There are mutterings of “Of course” from those on the Opposition Benches, but the reality is that there are not enough houses being built in many parts of the country, including the areas of the proposed eco-towns, and there are certainly not enough for the people who cannot afford to get on to the property ladder or find homes to rent.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I entirely agree with the Minister about the challenge that people face in finding housing, and I recognise that the Government have invested in existing housing in order to raise standards, but will she explain why, under this Labour Government, so few houses have been built? Is she really confident that more top-down targets will deliver the change in housing provision that this country so badly needs?

Caroline Flint: I will look at the Hansard record of that intervention, because it seemed to be a bit of a pushmi-pullyu question. The hon. Gentleman started off by acknowledging the need for housing but then went on to deny it.

At national level, we provide comprehensive data on the housing needs of different communities across the country. For example, we can prove the gap in affordability, which varies around the country but which is increasingly becoming an issue not only for London and the south-east but for other regions, including my own. We can provide that overview, but we also negotiate with local authorities about how to meet the demand. We expect them to meet that demand, but to do so constructively. That is the way in which we work, and how we will continue to work.

There are now 1 million more home owners than there were in 1997, but we have also had to make tough choices as a result of the legacy that we inherited of poorly maintained, and poorly invested in social housing stock, in order to get it up to standard. We have now reached the point at which we can seek to see what more we can do, and it would serve hon. Members well if, instead of nit-picking, they helped us to get on with that by supporting our discussions with local authorities on building more homes, including affordable homes.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): What role will the infrastructure planning commission have in the development of eco-towns?

Caroline Flint: The eco-town programme will be subject to the full planning process at local level, and, as far as I am aware, there are no plans for the commission to have a role in relation to eco-towns.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I understand what the Minister is saying, but how does that fit in with the Hanley Grange proposal in Cambridgeshire, where the
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organisation responsible for delivering the very many housing proposals in Cambridgeshire—Cambridgeshire Horizons—is saying that this extra proposal will undermine the deliverability of the existing proposals, never mind the fact that the chosen site is so far out of town that no plausible public transport system can be used to reach it, which means that it will not be very eco?

Caroline Flint: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. As I make progress in my speech, I will address the process of engagement involved. He referred to Hanley Grange as a proposal, and that is what it is. We asked for expressions of interest, and about 57 bids came in. We drew up a shortlist of 15, after looking at a number of issues, including whether the bids had the potential—I stress the word “potential”—to move forward to the next phase. Every proposal has been thoroughly interrogated, including in terms of looking at existing developments in the areas concerned and how they might complement any new developments or, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, how they might hinder development in other areas.

This is work in progress, and there are no done deals on any of these sites. In this part of the process—prior to the shortlist that I will announce later in the year, and prior to the applications—it is healthy to ensure that we scrutinise the bids and get as much community engagement as possible in order to clarify the matters that local people, local authorities and parliamentary colleagues are concerned about.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister give way?

Caroline Flint: I will give way to my hon. Friend, who is the only Labour Member to intervene so far. After that, I shall definitely want to make some progress.

David Taylor: Many among the population have seen through the “vote blue, go green” slogan as a pretty fatuous one and they are also becoming suspicious of eco-labelling, which they see as an underhand way of building new towns in quick time to the detriment of the local environment and to the profit of property developers. Will the Minister thus defend the concept in the light of the widespread concern that exists in Leicestershire, the east midlands and, indeed, more widely?

Caroline Flint: Given the contribution of the built environment to our emissions, the challenge of tackling both housing supply and climate change must be faced. The eco-town programme allows us to see whether we can demonstrate within a whole town’s development, and in the light of the skills, technology and innovation available, that this country can be a world leader in building the houses that we will need increasingly in the future. For example, we also face the challenge of meeting zero carbon emissions targets; we are working with the industry on that front and I think that eco-towns may offer something else to that process.

The planning policy statement that we will produce in the next month will help to ensure that eco-towns are benchmarked against very high standards and it will also help local authorities that may be receiving submissions from developers who put “green” or “eco” in front of
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their applications to assess them. The process will allow us to develop the sort of tools that can be used better to define what eco and green really mean, what standards should apply to public transport and house building, what energy resources can be utilised and how waste can be better managed. That will be beneficial for the eco-town programme and it will add to the capacity of local authorities to make good decisions on other applications—not only now, but 10 or 20 years in the future.

This is such a fast-moving area that we, too, will need to update as advances in technology are made. The work of my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in looking at energy supply renewables is another factor that plays into the opportunities that both small and large-scale developments can offer. This is an exciting programme. It does not sit on its own; it complements the very important work that we must do across the built environment—commercial, as well as domestic.

As I said, in view of the challenges that we face, we have to find new ways of designing and building our homes. We have to cut carbon emissions from our housing and build homes that are resilient and adaptable to a changing climate. The need for more housing and more sustainable housing is why we have developed the concept of eco-towns; we believe that in some way—they are not the only solution—they will allow us to address both needs.

I also see eco-towns as making a substantial contribution to overall economic development. Jobs and homes are important to families. Where people live is important, but having a job to provide the means to buy a home and enjoy a successful family life is equally important. I commend the work done in the west midlands by the Minister for the West Midlands, who carried out a jobs and homes road show last year that incorporated all those factors.

Some eco-towns are proposed for areas where a lack of housing is effectively putting a handbrake on economic growth, preventing businesses in the community from expanding as far as they could. For example, I recently visited one of the locations and saw that the local market town was absolutely bursting at the seams. There was no more room for building housing or business units without jeopardising the character that makes that market town so special. The local authority says that an eco-town location in the vicinity will allow it to do a number of things. First, it will be able to expand economically and continue to have a thriving local economy. That development will also prevent urban sprawl around the market town, while at the same time provide the much-needed homes for the community. I am talking about the Manby site in Lincolnshire. I was very pleased to visit that area and I shall be visiting all the other locations in the next month or two.

Several hon. Members rose

Caroline Flint: I want to make a bit of progress before giving way again.

The Hanley Grange proposal in Cambridge—I acknowledge the concerns about that site—would build 8,000 homes on the borders of what is known as the Silicon Fen, the region’s flourishing high-tech sector, which currently faces extreme house affordability pressure.

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