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Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I know that his constituency was affected by last year’s floods, and I pay tribute to the emergency services, local authorities and others in pulling together to address
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them. He rightly raises the point about balance: there is a balance to be struck in making sure that householders are able to improve their homes without bureaucracy. That frees up a lot of bureaucracy within the local
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authority system, and it helps encourage, as much as possible, sustainability. Those are the principles behind the permitted development rights we have introduced for impermeable surfaces for front gardens, and I am keen to look at their application to rear gardens as well.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I congratulate the Government on introducing measures to include microgeneration in general permitted development order arrangements. Does my hon. Friend intend to bring all microgeneration under that order, and thereby end the current anomaly whereby some are included while others await inclusion?

Mr. Wright: Yes, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on environmental improvements. On 6 April, we provided permitted development rights with regard to microgeneration with one or two exceptions—most notably wind turbines, because of noise issues. The balance to be struck between neighbours’ interests and the ability to improve one’s own home is key. I hope we can extend as much as possible permitted development rights to ensure we can reduce as much as possible the carbon footprint from homes.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Is the Minister aware that many local authorities and their planning committees are deeply concerned about these permitted development rights, and that many villages—such as Mottram St. Andrew and Prestbury in my constituency—are having their environment gravely damaged by the concreting over of gardens, the cutting down of mature trees and the building of massive mansions by footballers and cricketers? Is he not aware that if we are to protect our environment, the permitted development rights need to be strictly regulated? I hope he will respond positively to that observation.

Mr. Wright: Local authorities are very much in the driving seat. They are able to put measures in place, such as through planning policy statement 3 on housing development that is available in their area. My feeling from speaking to councils is that local authorities want to see this; it will stop the clogging of the planning system and it will remove about a quarter of all planning applications, most of which are non-contentious. Local authorities decide the rule. If they want to extend permitted development rights, they can do so through a local development order. Conversely, if they want to restrict them, they have an article 4 direction to allow revision.

Topical Questions

T1. [226361] Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): I normally do not make a statement on departmental responsibilities, but I am delighted to welcome our new team to deal with matters across the piece, including local government planning, housing, regeneration and community cohesion.

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Mrs. James: Will the Secretary of State provide assurance that assistance given to local authorities and councils in England with their investments in Icelandic banks will also apply to Wales?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend raises a point that concerns all Members and all local authorities. We are working extremely closely with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh Local Government Association. We had a meeting last week with the latter, and we plan to have another meeting tomorrow at which the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will be present. We will keep in close contact and make sure that the information and the way in which we can provide support and assistance is shared between us.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): The right hon. Lady just admitted that no investment advice had been issued to local authorities since 2004, and that the advice on Icelandic banks remained that they were good until almost the end. Perhaps she has inadvertently forgotten that, Arlingclose, the financial advisers, was advising its clients and local authorities to avoid Icelandic investments. Why was no additional advice issued to local authorities in the intervening period? Does the right hon. Lady understand that there is a difference between light-touch regulation and neglect?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that local authorities are informed investors. They are major organisations that have fully qualified and professional directors of finance and treasurers, who have access to the very best advice. The advice that the Government issued was to local authorities, and it was on the criteria to be taken into account when making their range of investments. As I have already said, the advice is very clear: security and liquidity are the top priorities. It is only within that context that local authorities should then seek to get the highest return on their investments. Local authorities are well informed and intelligent investors, and therefore have access to the very best advice.

Mr. Pickles: The Secretary of State criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) for relying on newspaper reports for the list, but still the Department has not produced a comprehensive list of the authorities affected. Will she undertake to do that, so that we know what the position is for councils, police authorities and fire authorities? Is she now actively examining the investments of housing associations, of PFI schemes in local authorities and of regional development agencies, which we understand are at risk? Until we have a comprehensive list, the Government cannot take serious action. It is no use their relying on others to provide it; it is up to the Government to provide that list.

Hazel Blears: I would hope that the hon. Gentleman was absolutely up to date with the action that the Government have been taking on all these issues. He will know that last Thursday there was an extensive meeting with the Local Government Association, and that at that time just over 100 local authorities had investments in Icelandic banks. So far, we have details of 116 local authorities with £858.3 million invested. We are also examining the position of housing associations, and the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon.
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Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who has responsibility for policing, met the police authorities last week. I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman not only that this Government are on the case, but that we have taken bold and decisive action that has been welcomed everywhere.

There will be a further meeting with the LGA tomorrow to try to identify the authorities that are struggling with these issues, but local authorities have confirmed that none of them will struggle to meet their payroll bill. Many local authorities have said that there will be no impact on the front-line services that are crucial to council tax payers, but we will ensure that where people are in difficulty, we stand ready to help.

I inform the hon. Gentleman that we now have a rapid response team, fully staffed by people from local government who are able to go in and assist.

T6. [226366] Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): May I ask about the Olympics? As we know, the social and economic impact of the Olympic games on my constituents could be massive and very beneficial. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that we derive a good, positive social and economic impact for my constituents and the rest of the east end?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend is clearly concerned about the legacy of the Olympic games for her constituents, and rightly so. At the moment we are working with all five boroughs in the Olympic area and developing a multi-area agreement to examine social and economic issues. The most important thing is to enable the people from those deprived boroughs to get the skills that they need to take up the jobs that will be left in those areas as a result of the massive £9.3 billion investment that is taking place in the Olympics.

T2. [226362] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Is the Minister for Housing aware that her officials are putting it about that they will shortly publish the planning policy statement on eco-towns, and that it will be site-specific? If so, may I please urge her to reconsider? Much of the evaluation on the sites has yet to be completed. For example, in Weston Otmoor the rail infrastructure evaluation has yet to be done with Network Rail, First Great Western and Chiltern Railways. This is a really dysfunctional way of doing things and will inevitably lead to further judicial review and further delay.

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, because I think that there may be some misunderstanding. The planning policy statement to which he refers will be a draft and subject to substantial consultation. Not for quite some considerable time do I expect the final version. I am sure that he will know, because he follows the issue closely, that the previous consultation has resulted in a slight delay in the issuing of the draft policy statement, because the response has been so substantial. If the same thing happens again, we will be talking about more time. I would say that we are therefore some distance from any site-specific, and particularly final site-specific, proposals. I hope that that gives him some reassurance.

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T8. [226368] Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): The housing market pathfinder programme is, at long last, starting to make a real difference in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Minister confirm that the money originally allocated this year as part of that programme but withheld from the indicative amounts will still be available to programmes, such as the one in my constituency, that are deemed to be performing well, including by an independent Audit Commission audit?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I have been to Stoke and Staffordshire to examine Renew North Staffordshire, and I was greatly impressed by some of the progress being made there. Like me, my hon. Friend will have been delighted that I was able to announce a £1 billion investment for the next three years, with flexibility of plus or minus 10 per cent. on that budget. Given the current turbulence in housing markets and the need to ensure that the gap between the housing market renewal areas and the rest of the market is as small as possible, I am keen to push forward that flexibility as much as possible and to work with her and others, such as Renew North Staffordshire, to ensure that that happens.

T3. [226363] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the new Minister for Housing accept that, unlike energy surveys, home information packs help very few homes? Will she take this opportunity to help very hard-pressed home owners who wish to sell their properties by announcing that there will be a moratorium on HIPs, which will eventually lead to their demise?

Margaret Beckett: Good try! I am new to the portfolio, but not so new to it that I do not know both that HIPs are a subject of some controversy and that the reason they were devised in the first place was a strong level of perceived need for something to help in the housing market. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I shall examine the issue. I cannot assure him, at present, that I am mindful to take the course that he urges.

T9. [226369] Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): May I tell the Minister for Housing and the Secretary of State that I recently held a well attended housing information event in my constituency? My constituents were engaged in it, and were interested to learn about the new shared ownership schemes that the Government have introduced. However, it was obvious that there was a lack of awareness about the details of such schemes and about to whom they were available. Most people thought that they were available only to key workers. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that people are made aware of shared ownership schemes and that they are therefore able to access them?

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that, because, as she says, the Government have introduced a number of initiatives to try to help people through the particular difficulties arising at present. She also rightly identifies the various shared ownership and shared equity schemes as a good way forward. I am sure that she is right to say that not enough people are yet aware of what is on offer. The Department has begun the programme of information and intends to develop and extend that. I am grateful to her for making it clear how necessary that is.

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Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): After their joint meeting last week, the Department and the Local Government Association issued a joint statement saying that

Given that almost £1 billion of public money is tied up in the collapse, if it is not local authorities, who or what does the Secretary of State think is to blame? Is it the credit ratings agencies, the organisations advising the councils, or her Department for the guidance it issues? Is it not vital that that is reviewed? Should there not have been a six-point plan, rather than a five-point plan, today?

Hazel Blears: I genuinely do not think that at this point, when we are trying to help in difficult economic circumstances and get stability into the banking system, and trying to ensure that people can get mortgages and that small businesses do not fold during this difficult time, we should seek to play the blame game. At this point, we must consider what we can do to help the local authorities that are in difficulty. That is my absolute top priority at this moment, and not simply in order to help the local authorities; we need to help those people who depend on their services—some of the most vulnerable people in this country. I mean to ensure that the Government put their full effort behind that.

T4.[226364] Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Ministers have confirmed that there is sufficient previously developed—or so-called brownfield land—in the Thames corridor to meet the Government’s current building targets for the region in full, so why are the Government continuing to put so much green belt at risk in the area, and in Castle Point in particular?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. The Government are not putting green belt at risk. Indeed, when it comes to housing development, we set our face against any such development. He will also know, however, that it is for local authorities to consider how they make their proposals; indeed, that is in train in his constituency. Knowing him as I do, I am confident that he will keep a close eye on that and, should the local authority make such proposals, that he will raise them again —[ Interruption. ] My understanding is that the local authority has talked of perhaps doing so at some time in the future, but that there are no concrete proposals at present.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): In 1996, when I was chair of South Yorkshire fire and civil defence authority, we employed just one woman firefighter. Now, South Yorkshire fire and rescue service employs 32 women firefighters, up 25 per cent. in the last four years. The service is working towards level 3 of
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the local government equality standard. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the service on the progress it is making on the equality and diversity agenda?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I thank my hon. Friend for the passion he shows on the issue of gender equality, not only in South Yorkshire, but around the country. He will be aware that in 1997 less than 1 per cent. of firefighters in South Yorkshire were women, but now 13 per cent. of new recruits are women. I join him in congratulating the service on the huge strides that it is making towards becoming more fair and gender-equal.

T5. [226365] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Does the Secretary of State not now accept that, at the very least, the guidance that was issued to local authorities should have included advice that the higher the rate of interest, especially over the basic deposit rate, the higher the risk?

Hazel Blears: This is the third time that I have reiterated the advice that was issued. It provides a good framework, because it tells authorities up front that their top priorities must be security and liquidity and that only in that context should they consider the rate of return and try to get the highest rate they can. Local authorities are informed investors, as I said to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). They all have professionally qualified treasurers and investment accountants. Clearly, they should seek to spread their investments to ensure that they do not take unnecessary risks, but the guidance is clear and provides a good framework in which they can operate.

T10. [226370] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that the boundary committee’s proposals for a unitary authority for the whole of Norfolk and part of Suffolk have met universal opposition? All the MPs, including the four Labour MPs, are totally opposed to the proposals, which would undermine democracy in Norfolk. Does she agree that at a time of economic crisis, when each Department’s budget will be under huge pressure, those highly damaging proposals should be scrapped?

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he will know that at the moment this is a matter for the boundary committee. He will also know that we have charged the boundary committee with reporting to us by December with proposals for any changes it thinks appropriate. For the moment, he and anyone else with strong views on the subject should make the boundary committee aware of them so that it can take those views into consideration—which it will do.

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National Curriculum Tests

3.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on national curriculum tests—and the next steps that we will now take to strengthen school accountability. The far-reaching reforms that I am announcing today will strengthen the role of key stage 2 national tests for 11-year-olds; radically reform the current key stage 3 testing regime in secondary schools; and introduce a new, simpler and more comprehensive way of reporting to parents on primary and secondary school performance.

When I made my statement to the House on 22 July, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was engaged in commercially sensitive contractual negotiations with ETS Europe. On 15 August, the QCA terminated its five-year contract with ETS Europe and recovered payments amounting to £24.1 million—two thirds of the moneys due to ETS Europe for the first year of the contract which was paid back to the taxpayer. I also announced that the QCA would tender for a single-year contract for the delivery of the 2009 tests. That new procurement is under way and has been informed by advice from Lord Sutherland, whose independent inquiry into the procurement and management of the contract for the delivery of this year’s tests will set out important lessons for all such future contracts. Lord Sutherland expects to complete his final report before the end of the year.

In my statement in July, I also made it clear that the current testing and assessment regime is not set in stone. I know that some hon. Members were disappointed that I was unable to go further at that time, but it was important that we evaluated the case for change before making decisions. Over the summer, we have been able to study the Select Committee’s report on testing and assessment, which was debated in the House last week. We have studied more detailed evidence from our Making Good Progress pilots and I have heard from a range of experts and partners, including Ofsted, head teachers, teachers and parents.

I fully agree with the Select Committee that the principle of national testing is sound, but I take seriously the concerns raised by the Select Committee, teachers and parents. Testing, assessment and accountability must encourage and reward the best teaching so that it properly supports pupils in their learning and development. Schools should be judged fairly on how they support the progress and well-being of every child.

I believe that three key principles must guide our approach. Our system of testing and assessment should first give parents the information they need to compare different schools, to choose the right school for their child and then to track their child’s progress. Secondly, it should enable head teachers and teachers to secure the progress of every child and the school as a whole without unnecessary burdens or bureaucracy. Thirdly, it should allow the public to hold national and local government and governing bodies to account on the performance of schools. Over the summer, and guided by those principles, the Schools Minister and I looked carefully at our system of national testing and accountability across key stages 1, 2 and 3.

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