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House of Commons

Tuesday 1 July 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—

Home Information Packs

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations she has received on the performance of qualified home inspectors and domestic energy assessors in the preparation of home information packs. [214835]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The Department has received a number of representations in the form of correspondence from hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, and assessors. We have also conducted a number of meetings and workshops at which such issues have been raised.

David Taylor: As a past victim of serious delays and problems when moving house, I have been a supporter of the home information pack concept since its inception. In the past year, however, my constituents have alerted me to the fact that the reduction in fees for energy performance certificates is diluting the calibre of the people who produce them. Will the Minister tell the House whether he is satisfied with the regulation of a HIP market in which low-cost, unqualified people who are wholly without training are usurping professional domestic energy assessors, thereby misleading home owners and bringing the scheme into disrepute?

Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. He will be aware that all domestic energy assessors and home inspectors have either gained a qualification in the subject or have proved to an accreditation scheme that they have the relevant skills
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and knowledge. On the important point about publicity for such qualifications, I am keen to encourage awarding bodies to consider something like a kitemark for high-performing training and assessment centres. I am discussing the standards for training providers with trading standards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the examples from his constituency.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Estate agents in Upminster with whom I have discussed the matter all report that there is no demand whatever for home information packs, and that prospective house buyers prefer to employ a surveyor. What assessment has the Minister made of the national demand for HIPs?

Mr. Wright: I disagree with the hon. Lady: when consumers actually see HIPs, there is demand for them. We need to encourage estate agents and others to show HIPs to home buyers and sellers. All the indications are that HIPs improve the home buying and selling process. Linked with energy performance certificates, they can provide suitable information to ensure that the biggest investment that someone is likely to make—buying a house—proceeds in as smooth a manner as possible.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): As my hon. Friend will know, I am a supporter of the HIP process. However, will he consider the experience of one of my constituents who bought a HIP from an estate agent for about £400 so that he could put his house on the market? He then switched to a second estate agent for very proper reasons. The second estate agent demanded that he pay another £100 to have the HIP validated, even though it was produced by accredited people. Does my hon. Friend agree that that sort of sharp practice gives estate agents a bad name? Will he investigate that matter, which I have written to him about, as it should not be happening in the marketplace?

Mr. Wright: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was muttering “sharp practice” when my hon. Friend was asking his question. They share similar thoughts on a range of matters regarding home buying and selling. My hon. Friend has been a passionate supporter of home information packs. He raises an important point, and we need to stamp out such practices as much as possible, particularly in the volatile and turbulent market that we have at the moment. I would be happy to meet him to discuss the specifics of the case that he raises, and to ensure that we deal with the matter appropriately.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): As the Minister’s colleagues have helpfully implied, HIPs are not popular and they are not demanded by house buyers. Along with all the other people whom he has agreed to meet, will he meet me to discuss Which? magazine’s interesting alternative proposals, which would simplify the process, make it much more relevant to the purchaser, and do away with the tons of irrelevant material that most people never require and that, for the reasons that he has heard, offer questionable quality control?

Mr. Wright: I think that I will be very busy. I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he shares my view that the home buying and selling process should be as transparent, and the information
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as relevant and up-front, as possible. HIPs have gone a long way towards providing that. We fully accept that we need to go further to ensure better, more transparent home buying and selling services. I am happy to work with him and other hon. Members to achieve that.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The Minister clearly has not read the comments of Sir Bryan Carsberg, who, as he will know, chaired the body that recently conducted a year-long independent review of HIPs. He concluded:

The industry does not want HIPs, and buyers and sellers do not want them. Will the Minister finally admit that HIPs are slowing an already stagnant housing market, and that it is time they were dumped?

Mr. Wright: We need to be sensible about this. About 750,000 HIPs have been produced in what we should all recognise is a very difficult market. HIPs and energy performance certificates are providing lower up-front costs for first-time buyers and falling costs for property searches—incidentally, I have just come from the fifth anniversary dinner of the Council of Property Search Organisations. Furthermore, if home owners carry out the changes proposed in the EPCs, there will be savings of around £100 million on energy bills.

We will engage openly and constructively with all involved in the housing market to try to tackle the current global problems. If the hon. Gentleman wants to sit on the sidelines and snipe with undisguised glee, he can do that, but I want to get on with the job.


2. Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): What plans she has to change the planning process for eco-towns. [214836]

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): None. Like any other proposed development, eco-towns will be subject to planning applications. Each application will need to be decided on its merits, and we would generally expect the local planning authority to make the decisions.

Mr. Paice: It is obvious that the right hon. Lady will not be able to deliver eco-towns within a plan-led system, which is what I thought the Government wanted. The proposals for many of the sites, including Hanley Grange on the edge of my constituency, are simply a rehash of proposals that have already been rejected by the regional plan. If she is to proceed with this, is it not clear that she will have to override all existing planning processes and ignore local opinion, especially as all the local authorities already oppose the proposals?

Caroline Flint: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. All the locations for prospective eco-towns are undergoing a thorough examination at the pre-application stage. I have suggested to local authority colleagues, community groups and others that they should engage with the process, because it is important to offer the hope of affordable homes and housing that can help us to meet our climate challenge. It is a shame that the Conservatives have decided not only to oppose the locations—which they are doing virulently and without a great deal of
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evidence—but to oppose the whole programme. I think that that makes clear the derisory nature of their so-called support for more housing.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend considers proposals for an eco-town in Leicestershire, will she consider in particular the possible impact of the proposed development at Ashton Green in my constituency and, more broadly, its possible impact on the regeneration of Leicester? The eco-town proposal has many attractive features, but it must not take place at the cost of the development of Leicester, which is proceeding successfully despite the current difficult conditions.

Caroline Flint: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can reassure her, and all Members, that the point of the process in which we are involved is to establish what the plans are, the impact that they will have on existing communities, and their possible impact on regeneration plans for other parts of the region.

I strongly believe that despite claims that the process is not open, we are engaging in a very healthy debate. The developers and their plans are being scrutinised within an inch of their lives, not only by local communities but by local representatives and our Department, to ensure that when I decide on a final shortlist, they will be able to hold up their heads and demonstrate the standards that we should expect not just of eco-towns, but of any eco-development in the future.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): May I remind the Minister that, last Wednesday, East Lindsey district council, in which no one political party has an overall majority, voted by a large majority to ask that Manby in my Lincolnshire constituency be removed from the list of proposed eco-towns? As she probably knows because she was good enough to visit us recently, Manby is more than an hour’s motor drive from the nearest mainline railway station and is in the middle of some of the best agricultural land in Europe, at a time when the world is facing food starvation. Can we therefore have an assurance that no devices in the planning system will be used to overcome the wishes of the overwhelming majority of local people not to have an eco-town in Manby?

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman is right; I have visited the site. It is a former RAF base, part of which is already occupied by the local authority, which uses former RAF buildings as offices. When I visited the site, it was made clear to me that the local authority was undertaking this in a positive spirit because it recognised that it faced a real housing supply problem and that it had to look for alternatives to building out from the local market town of Louth, which is not far away. It is its choice to remove this option from the list—which, I should make clear, was a local authority bid—but it will still have to recognise that it has a housing supply and affordability problem that it must address, and that the problem will not go away even though it has removed its bid for an eco-town.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): York has two large brownfield development sites which between them could provide 5,000 badly needed houses, but they cannot be considered as an eco-town because the sites fall within an existing urban area. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the lessons learned
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from the eco-town process about building communities to high environmental standards at scale can be applied in urban areas such as York?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend makes an important point. One purpose of the eco-town programme is, of course, to provide more housing, but another is to look at what innovation can be brought to bear on making sure we have zero carbon across a whole development and on taking advantage of the opportunities that a site the size of 5,000 households at minimum can give us. We must look at what we can learn from this programme. Already in the past six months we have learned an awful lot about waste, water neutrality and about both the technologies that are currently available and those that are in the pipeline and that could be applied to the eco-town programme. As my hon. Friend says, we must learn about how they could be applied to new builds in existing communities or be retrofitted in existing communities. The benefits of the programme are to do with eco-towns, but they also offer a lot of potential for the built environment elsewhere.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The Minister’s Department likes to talk the talk about community empowerment and engagement, but it does not walk the walk. Is that not apparent in its approach to eco-towns? What does the Minister think speaks more loudly to the British public: a declaration of passionate commitment to the empowerment agenda, or the imposition of eco-towns against the will of the local community and its elected representatives through site-specific planning policy guidance that can then be overturned on appeal? Do not actions speak louder than words?

Caroline Flint: Nice speech, but completely wrong. The fact is that we have just completed one round of consultation in which we have received many different responses, and we will be consulting on a draft planning statement on eco-towns and a sustainability appraisal, which will take place. I am visiting every location and elected representatives have been asked if they want to be part of that. I have been meeting people who are opposed, but I have also been meeting people whose voices often are not heard: individuals and families who are on housing lists, and those who are living in other people’s homes—sleeping on sofas and elsewhere—such as youngsters who have moved away from their families but cannot afford a home in their areas.

I challenge anyone to suggest that we are not being inclusive, and that we are not allowing voices to be heard; but there is more than one voice in this debate. At the end of the day neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Tory party have any policies that attempt to meet the housing challenges of supply and affordability in this country, and that is a disgrace.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): The right hon. Lady is mounting a stout defence of a policy that is falling apart in front of her eyes. Will she comment on her Department’s eco-towns panel, which recommended two weeks ago that eco-towns such as Curborough should be built not with one parking space per household but with none? How can she seriously believe that people will want to buy a house in the middle of nowhere if there is no space to park a car?

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Caroline Flint: As the hon. Lady knows, if one selects from reports, one can pick and choose what slant one wants to put on the matter. The challenge panel has been tasked with testing out the developers on whether the plans deserve the brand of “eco” or whether they were trying to get another plan in under the radar. I thought that everyone wanted it to do that. One task the panel had was to press developers on how to reduce reliance on cars— [ Interruption. ] No, it is interesting to hear from those on the Conservative Front Bench. They talk about sustainability and green politics but when they get down to the nitty-gritty of public transport and rail, they are not interested—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Community Regeneration

3. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): What recent steps her Department has taken to regenerate communities; and if she will make a statement. [214837]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): I today announced £500 million over the next three years for the new deal for communities partnerships, which, along with the working neighbourhoods fund, support areas in building better places to live and offering more opportunities for local people. We will shortly publish a new framework for regeneration that will demonstrate how we will build further on that success.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does she agree that the best community-led generation happens when the people who live in those communities make the decisions? How much of the funding that she has just announced will be made available for capacity building and to support people who live in those communities so that they have the skills and confidence to take the lead in making decisions?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend is not only right, but has a great deal of personal experience in building capacity in her community so that people can shape their futures. I was delighted to visit with her recently the Hillside youth centre in Paulsgrove. She has mobilised local young people to rebuild their youth centre. I can reassure her that, for all the funds in the new deal for communities and the working neighbourhoods fund, it will be vital that we are there to help local people to make decisions and determine the future for themselves.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will the Secretary of State come, too, to places such as Burntwood and Chase Terrace and see how important it is to regenerate such areas? Housing on brownfield sites could be built to the highest ecological standards. Will she also come with me to Curborough and see just why it is totally impractical to try to build an eco-town in the middle of nowhere where no roads are available?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman tempts me, as ever, to spend time visiting the sites that he has identified.

Michael Fabricant: We could go on our motorbikes together.

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