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8 Oct 2008 : Column 133WH—continued

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So what needs to be done? In the short term, the Local Government Association wants the Government to make a contingency fund of £250 million available to aid councils where migration estimates fail accurately to reflect the current population. The fund could be distributed via an agreed set of local and national administrative data, such as national insurance numbers and schools’ surveys. Going further, until a resolution is found to the wider statistical problem, Westminster would like the Government to introduce specific grants to council areas that face pressures caused by short-term migration. In the longer term, the Government need to invest a significant sum in research to ensure that statistics produced on migration are accurate and reflect the true number of both long and short-term migrants living in Westminster and the country as a whole. There need to be radical changes to the methodology used to estimate and measure migration movements, as migrants who intend to stay for fewer than 12 months are not yet considered in population counts. The ONS needs to be adequately funded so that skilled, experienced staff are not lost.

I note that one of the Government’s intentions is to introduce a transitional impacts of migration fund to build capacity in local service provision and support innovative projects from 2009-10. That response has come five years after A8 accession, and councils are still no wiser about how the fund will work and how it will be distributed around the country. The fund is unlikely to be the £250 million called for by the LGA and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and is, I fear, too little too late.

In an area where there is continuous movement of short-term migrants who are regularly replaced by other short-term residents, the impact on council services is continuous. Westminster is one such area and the borough receives no extra Government funding to meet extra costs. Although that problem was highlighted after the 2001 census, it has, as I have said, been exacerbated. I accept that the issue is not just Westminster-specific, but the problem is particularly extreme in my constituency and borough. In areas across the UK where migration is high, I expect worryingly similar problems have been encountered: difficulties in educating a mobile and diverse population, difficulty in coping with extra demand on housing stock and new problems with community protection.

I accept that migration will always be a contentious issue, despite the clear economic benefits of hard-working migrants coming to our country. Perceived threats to an existing settled community from new arrivals will serve only to increase those tensions. Unfortunately, unless the Government properly fund local authorities, such threats may come to fruition.

I sent my speech to the Minister, so he is well aware of some of these issues. I apologise for taking slightly more than my allotted 15 minutes, but I wanted to put some of the issues on the record. Having had sight of my speech, he will perhaps be able to reply not just in this debate but to Westminster city council at a later stage. With the 2011 census only three years away, I call on the Minister to take urgent action to ensure that the Government get their house in order and reform the collection of vital population data.

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4.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing the debate. Given the unprecedented events taking place in the banking and wider financial sectors, particularly today’s developments, I imagine that he is in a great deal of demand at the moment, but I pay tribute to the hard work that he undertakes not just on behalf of the square mile, but for his entire constituency. He has demonstrated that commitment today.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the calculation of the population census, population estimates and population projections is the responsibility of the ONS. Those statistics are used for a wide spectrum of purposes and by a range of users, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, where the statistics are used in part for the funding of local government through formula grant. As a Department with a key interest in the statistics, we are also involved in the cross-Government, ONS-led work to improve the statistics over future years. I would like to outline some of the improvements if time allows, but the hon. Gentleman raised specific points and I am keen to deal with those detailed concerns. If I do not have time to deal with them all, I will write to him.

We recognise that some local authorities are experiencing more challenges than others in dealing with recent levels of international migration. My Department is working with local authorities to manage the transitional impacts of migration on local areas and communities. As set out in the document entitled “Managing the Impacts of Migration: A Cross-Government Approach”, the Government have put in place a programme of financial and practical support for local service providers to help them to manage migration, to maximise the benefits and mitigate the transitional impacts experienced by local communities.

That includes a substantial cross-Government programme to improve population and migration statistics to ensure that the data on which local government funding is based are as good and as robust as possible. I shall return to that if time allows. We have also provided a £50 million investment in community cohesion over the next three years to help local authorities to respond to their particular challenges, including issues relating to migration. We have made available an exceptional circumstances grant for schools that either experience a rapid growth in pupil numbers during the period between the January pupil count and the start of the academic year in September, or that have a significant number of children who have English as a second language.

In February 2008, in the earned citizenship Green Paper, we announced our intention to set up a fund to manage the transitional impacts of migration, providing tens of millions of pounds to local public services dealing with high levels of migration. We are working with the Improvement and Development Agency on the migration excellence programme to share good practice among local authorities and promote peer mentoring.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that short-term migrants are not included in the population estimates. That is because the ONS estimates relate to the usually
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resident population of each area, so only long-term international migrants are included in the estimates. They use the United Nations recommended definition of a long-term international migrant—anyone who moves from their country of usual residence for at least a year. However, the ONS has recognised the interest that Westminster council and others have shown in the possibility of producing estimates of short-term migration. As a result, and as a product of its improvement work, this year the ONS has already published national-level estimates of short-term migration for mid-2004 to mid-2006 on an experimental basis. The ONS plans to publish a feasibility report on its plans for producing local estimates. That report is expected by the end of the year. If, after that, reliable estimates for that group of migrants at local authority level became available, we would be able to consider more carefully whether to include those data in the three-year grant distribution system. However, that would need to be considered in the same way as any other changes to the formula system, through discussion involving the official-level settlement working group and consultation.

In relation to the improving migration and population estimates programme, it is important to know that that work involves local government in a number of ways, as both data suppliers and data users. Local government is represented on the programme board and in the working groups by the Local Government Association. The ONS and the LGA are holding an open workshop to explain the research that has been undertaken towards the end of 2008. Implementation seminars are likely to be held in April or May 2009 further to explain any changes to the estimates. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman encourage Westminster council to take the opportunity to engage with the ONS through those workshops.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned three specific issues regarding funding for Westminster: the three-year formula grant settlement; affordable housing and homelessness; and foreign nationals’ recourse to public funds. I would like to deal with each of those in turn. With regard to the three-year formula grant settlement, the Government worked closely with local authorities in the context of the comprehensive spending review 2007 to examine all pressures on councils up to 2010-11 and the ways in which those pressures could be mitigated and managed. Councils will receive an additional £8.91 billion over this CSR period in total Government grant.

With regard to distributing formula grant to local authorities, the amount of grant paid to a local authority is based largely on its socio-economic and demographic characteristics and its relative ability to raise council tax locally. We then ensure that every authority receives at least a minimum increase, which is called the floor, on a like-for-like basis—that is, after adjusting for changes in funding and function. Understandably, population forms the main element of the demographic characteristics, and we use the ONS population projections, split into different age groups where appropriate, as the client group for most of our relative needs formulae, but it is not the only factor that determines the funding allocation. I stress that, to be fair when calculating local government finance settlements, we have consistently used the best data available at the time and that those data have to treat all authorities consistently. We took that approach when calculating the final 2008-09 settlement and the provisional 2008-09 and 2009-10 settlements in January.

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For population projections, the best data available at the time were the revised 2004-based sub-national population projections published by the ONS in September 2007. That means that for the population client group for Westminster, we used the population projection for 2008 of 256,266 in the 2008-09 settlement, 262,592 in the 2009-10 settlement, and 268,569 in the 2010-11 settlement. In turn, Westminster received a 2 per cent. increase in formula grant on a like-for-like basis for 2008-09 and benefited from the floor damping mechanism by £14.4 million. Other local authorities were not so fortunate with the damping mechanism. Furthermore, in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Westminster will receive increases of 1.75 per cent. and 1.5 per cent. respectively and will again benefit from the floor damping mechanism by £8.5 million and £2.7 million respectively.

I will write to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to mention, because it is a particular passion of mine, affordable housing and homelessness in Westminster. Tackling the shortage of affordable housing is central to our efforts, and it is a major part of my work and priority as a Minister. As the hon. Gentleman said, demand for homes to buy or rent is growing faster than supply, and it is the most vulnerable in society who suffer from housing shortages. We have at our disposal some £8.4 billion for new social housing until 2010-11, and we will build some 45,000 new social homes a year. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Government’s strategy to cut rough sleeping by two thirds, with the longer-term goal of bringing levels as close to zero as possible.

Local leadership underpinned by our Supporting People programme, along with local homelessness strategies, has promoted effective partnerships and improved services. In December 2007, I announced homelessness grant funding of at least £200 million over the next three years to continue to support local authorities and voluntary sector organisations to tackle and prevent homelessness in their area. That was the largest ever cash injection for homelessness services in this country. Westminster received £6.6 million for 2008-09, which was the largest homelessness grant allocation ever provided for London.

I do not have time to discuss foreign nationals with no recourse to public funds, but as the hon. Gentleman suggested, responsibilities—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. We have to move on to the next debate.

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Affordable Housing

4.30 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am delighted to have secured this important debate, which follows on from previous debates that the Minister has had with me and many other Members. The issues that I intend to raise today are not necessarily specific to my constituency, although I shall mention some issues that arise there. I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton, and to have the opportunity to debate the subject again with the Minister, who has been very generous in offering advice. However, as I shall say in a moment, I hope that he will be less constrained today than he was in yesterday’s debate in Westminster Hall, when we debated the regional spatial strategy for the south-west.

The subject of affordable housing presents a vast and varied picture, but I want to address two aspects of it. The first relates very much to yesterday’s debate. The canvas on which we paint our response to the need for affordable housing clearly has to be the existing planning and housing strategies. The regional spatial strategy obviously has a significant impact on the ability of local authorities to respond.

Secondly, I want to reflect on the impact of the present financial crisis, particularly in relation to today’s announcement about the bank rescue package, and especially the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable people. In response to interventions during his speech yesterday, the Minister said:

and so on. The Minister then said:

I checked the guidance myself. There are two versions, but the one to which the Minister referred—as he properly said in our previous debate, it was produced prior to the Secretary of State’s proposed changes to the regional spatial strategy—clearly constrains Ministers. That is clear as far as those stages of the development of the regional spatial strategy are concerned. However, paragraph 17 of the document on guidance to which he referred states:

I should have thought that Hansard was a pretty good note, and it is certainly publicly available.

I hope that the Minister will feel less constrained today than he did yesterday, in view of my reading of the advice in that guidance. Perhaps we can look a little more carefully at some of the points that I raised in a debate on 25 June, and clarify the extent to which the regional spatial strategy is the product of the collective will—the desire of the population in the government zones, in this case, of the south-west—or that of the Government. Does he agree that the lessons of the past, particularly trend-based projections, should inform the
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production of the strategy? Does he accept that many of the unique challenges faced by the Isles of Scilly that I mentioned in that previous debate are shared in other areas?

If one wanted to create a new structure of unaccountability, the regional spatial strategy would certainly be a good model on which to base it. First, it is not based on a region that exists, in the sense that it has its own internal integrity or community of interest. It is obviously a bureaucratic construct for bureaucratic convenience, and it is served by an assembly that is not directly or democratically elected. It is a relatively flimsy, remote and permissive body, and it is about to be disbanded. It suffers all the constraints of being an agent of the Government rather than being able to make decisions with the latitude that one would expect of a body that was able to draw up a regional strategy.

The response from local authorities and others to the process that has led to the current state of affairs shows that, for a number of justifiable reasons, the proposed changes are inappropriate. For instance, they give too much weight to trend-based projections of household growth when compared with other planning considerations such as the impact on settlement character and infrastructure, and the need to balance housing with job growth. They are based on projections and a distribution that lack adequate evidence and justification. They also contradict other Government policies on the environment and climate change that give justifiable protection to other areas under other planning polices.

As I pointed out in a previous debate, if people wanted a classic example of how trend-based projections do not work but become part of the problem rather than the solution, they should come to Cornwall and see what has happened there over the past 40 years. Our housing stock has more than doubled over that period. Cornwall and its people cannot be criticised for being nimbys. Because of the imposition of trend-based projections and as a result of following them through, we have permitted and even encouraged development; in fact the area has the third-fastest growth in the United Kingdom. However, the housing problems of local people have become significantly worse.

One conclusion that we can draw from that example is that growth has been relatively unsustainable. The sheer rate of change has created real problems in many parts of Cornwall, and it has been difficult for the infrastructure of the place to keep pace with the changes. Having allowed it to happen, the real question is whether the building of all those houses has added to the problem. It certainly has not addressed our housing needs. Perhaps we should take a more sophisticated approach. Perhaps local authorities in Cornwall should enter into a dialogue with the Government rather than simply allowing things to carry on.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): On that point, will my hon. Friend press the Minister to ensure that the planning system is mended? Indeed, funding provided out of the £8 billion set aside for social housing to ensure that we get more affordable housing in a managed way in rural areas could formally support my “Home on the Farm” scheme, which already has the backing of the president of the National Farmers Union and of South Lakeland district council. It would
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allow the conversion of unused or disused farm buildings for the specific purpose of social housing for local families.

Andrew George: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I am aware of the interesting “Home on the Farm” initiative. I hope that he will send a copy of it to the Minister, as it could provide a solution, particularly in remote rural areas

Although farmers and landowners in my constituency and in my hon. Friend’s constituency are paragons of rectitude and virtue, and one can rely on them without having to surround them with all the covenants and legal restrictions of section 106 obligations to achieve genuine affordable housing in perpetuity for local people on their land, sadly that is probably not necessarily the case in the rest of the country. The one thing that we need to do in the proposal is ensure—this is a belt-and-braces approach—that public good results from any permission that is granted on those farm buildings. That needs to be enshrined in the proposal, because, as my hon. Friend knows—it is also true in my constituency—when redundant farm buildings such as barns become available, planning authorities, applying existing planning law, will allow them to be converted for holiday accommodation, but not to meet local housing need. In fact, there is a way forward. It does not require an Einstein to propose a method to manage such developments, even if they are not attached to the local community, which is to say within reach of a local shop, bus service or school. Many local families could benefit from the kind of accommodation that my hon. Friend described. I hope that I have endorsed what he said, and that he will continue to pursue the matter.

As was mentioned in the debate on 25 June, the RSS does not apply to the Isles of Scilly in the same way that it does to mainland Cornwall. There is no attempt to apply proportionately the Government’s target of 3 million homes by 2026 to the islands. In effect, the RSS says that it is a local-need-only housing development plan for the period. However, I question the justification for giving the islands what is effectively a locals-only development constraint—although it is right that it does—when that is not extended to other areas that experience the same problems.

I believe that I have demonstrated that the Minister is less constrained than he was in yesterday’s debate. Does he accept that it is reasonable to advance the debate about the ownership of the document and the process as I did earlier? Does he agree that the lessons of the past are relevant, especially regarding trend-based projections of population growth and housing need, and that the RSS should be a plan with internal integrity and not simply a hotch-potch or collation of Government-imposed targets? Will he explain why the challenges of meeting affordable housing need on mainland Cornwall do not apply to the Isles of Scilly?

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