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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Despite the current market correction, the need for affordable housing in south Devon remains as great as ever, yet both the proposed new towns, which were intended to deliver much of that affordable housing, are now unlikely to happen for many years because of the credit crunch. Can the Minister tell us what plan B is?

Mr. Wright: I am not entirely certain what that had to do with the private rented sector, but one of the things that the Julie Rugg review says is that we must grow the business of that sector—we must improve the supply. That is true of not only the private rented sector but social and affordable housing. As I mentioned in an earlier response, the Government are providing about £8.4 billion to help improve the supply of affordable housing. We need to do that, and we need to correct the imbalance between housing demand and supply, which persists in this country. I hope that Conservative Members will support us in that.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that many local authorities in London have to cope with homelessness by leasing properties in the private rented sector and that such properties are anything but affordable. I saw an example this week where someone was living in a poor-quality three-bedroomed flat, yet the rent was £380 a week. The only consequences of this situation are huge housing benefits bills for local authorities, and people not being able to afford those properties and get into work. What steps does he intend to take to tackle it?

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which demonstrates how this is not solely a departmental issue; it involves working in partnership with local authorities and other Departments. He may be aware that I published the Government’s new rough-sleeping strategy this morning, which pledged that we will end rough sleeping once and for all by 2012. He will also be aware of the housing benefit reform package that the Department for Work and Pensions is taking forward. On his point about unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of the system, I am working closely on that issue, particularly with the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher). I am keen to take a cross-governmental approach, so that we can tackle the problems that he rightly identified.

Gypsy and Traveller Sites

4. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What progress has been made in increasing site provision for Gypsy and Traveller families. [236265]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): Between 2006 and 2008, the Government have awarded grants to provide more than 400 additional socially rented pitches, and 120 sites have been refurbished. The timetable for allocating suitable land for Gypsy and Traveller sites is set out in local authorities’ local development schemes. However, where there is a clear and pressing need, work should begin now on identifying land for sites.

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Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate the Government on their initiative in trying to provide an adequate number of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Does he believe that there is a net increase in the number of pitches being provided? In some situations, refurbishment leads to a reduction in the number of pitches because it expands the size of individual pitches. Does he feel that there is an expansion in the number of pitches that are being provided by local authorities at the moment?

Mr. Khan: I congratulate my hon. Friend; as chair of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform, she has been the catalyst for much of the progress that has been made. She raises a serious point about whether, in our enthusiasm for investing in refurbishment and providing additional pitches, some may be lost in other parts of the country. The important point for local communities and local authorities to recognise is the benefit that the provision of well-managed, authorised sites can offer. They help to reduce the number of unauthorised sites and mean that there are more levers at the disposal of local authorities when it comes to removing unauthorised sites. We will ensure that we encourage local authorities to continue to provide additional pitches and to refurbish those pitches that are already in existence, as they should do.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the rules and laws of this country should apply to everybody equally? If so, does he understand how my constituents in the villages of Wilburton and Haddenham feel at the prospect of another 14 Traveller pitches being granted permission? That permission is being granted not because those sites are wanted there and not because the district council wants them, but because the council is being forced to grant permission on land for which it would not otherwise do so, because of pressure from the Government and from the regional planning policy. One of the two sites has already been rejected for use in building conventional housing. The other is a greenfield site. If anybody else applied to carry out normal development, they would not have a prayer.

Mr. Khan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that demonstration of his prejudice against Gypsy and Traveller sites— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister is in order. How he replies to a question is up to him.

Mr. Khan: Gypsies and Travellers are bound by the same planning laws and human rights legislation as everyone else, which means that they should apply for planning permission before moving on to or developing land that they own. In the same way as everyone else, they are subject to enforcement action if the proper planning processes are not complied with. Local authorities, rather than the Government, should decide what happens in local communities.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Traveller provision might not be politically popular, but does my hon. Friend agree that if every local authority made good provision for Traveller families there would be an overall saving, as illegal sites would not be used, saving all the money that dealing with them frequently costs—not to mention the rental income that would come from official sites?

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Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for that sensible question. The independent taskforce on site provision and enforcement concluded that the Government’s policy framework was sound, but her point is very important. The provision of additional well-managed and authorised sites will help to reduce the number of unauthorised sites. Authorised sites also enable rent and council tax to be created and utility bills to be paid. I hope that we would all welcome that.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The Minister must recognise that no one on the Opposition side of the House objects to reasonable rights being given to Gypsies and Travellers. However, he and his Government are taking away the rights of other people in my constituency. Decent, normal, law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying people are under threat of having the little pieces of land right next to their houses taken away by his Government, by compulsory purchase, to provide sites for Gypsies. What about the rights of the decent, hard-working taxpayers in my constituency?

Mr. Khan: Let me deal with the hon. Lady’s first point. Local authorities spend £18 million a year on enforcement action on unauthorised sites. If we can reduce the number of unauthorised sites by encouraging local authorities to provide authorised sites, that will reduce that bill. Secondly, I know from a letter that I have been passed by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), that the hon. Lady has been involved in a campaign that some would characterise as scaremongering about compulsory purchase orders in her community. There is no truth in the headlines. There is no requirement for local authorities to compulsorily purchase land for Gypsy or Traveller sites. I would ask, caution and counsel hon. Members to use their words carefully and to temper them when it comes to spreading stories that are factually incorrect and misleading.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Leicestershire lies at the heart of England and is very well served by the motorway network, including the M6, M1 and M42, but the county has much more than its fair share of unauthorised Traveller encampments on both private and public land. Would my hon. Friend like authorities to share best practice in respect of how rapidly they deal with such concerns? Northamptonshire, for instance, has a far better record than Leicestershire in that regard. Does he plan to give authorities greater powers in legislation to move Travellers on rather more quickly than they can at the moment?

Mr. Khan: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he is doing with his local community. I should be more than happy to visit examples of good practice, and MPs who articulate it. He is of course aware that the police have greater powers to move Gypsies and Travellers from unauthorised encampments if there are suitable pitches available for them to move to. I hope that the examples of good practice in his community will be adopted elsewhere in the country.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): The Minister will be aware of how controversial this issue is. He said that the point about compulsory purchase made by my
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hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was unreliable, but will he confirm that in 2006 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister issued guidance instructing councils to meet their regional targets for Traveller camps by using compulsory purchase powers? Does he appreciate the ill-feeling that that advice and guidance has aroused, and the harm that such heavy-handed, top-down state interference has caused to community relations?

Mr. Khan: Frankly, the hon. Lady should know better. Compulsory purchase orders are entirely a matter for the local authority. If a local authority wished to compulsorily purchase any land, it would have to demonstrate that there was a compelling case in the public interest before confirming a compulsory purchase order. Such an order should be a last resort that is used only when efforts to purchase land by agreement have failed. However, it is a basic courtesy— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister has been asked a question, and hon. Members should let him reply. [ Interruption. ] I do not see what is difficult about it: people should just keep quiet while the Minister replies.

Mr. Khan: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was going to end by saying simply that it is a basic courtesy to listen to the answer when a question is asked.

Council Tenants (Fixed-term Contracts)

5. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): What plans she has to introduce fixed-term contracts for council tenants; and if she will make a statement. [236266]

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): The Government have announced plans to publish a housing reform Green Paper to create a fairer and more effective system for those living in rented housing. I am currently considering all the evidence and arguments in favour of reform.

The speculation in The Times on 10 November described proposals published by the Chartered Institute of Housing. They are not, as was said, Government policy.

Mr. Mullin: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. My purpose in tabling that question was to enable her to knock very firmly on the head the report in The Times on 10 November. For the avoidance of doubt, will she confirm that, whatever else it contains, the Green Paper will not contain proposals for issuing fixed-term tenancies to council tenants?

Margaret Beckett: As I said to my hon. Friend a moment ago, I have made no decisions about what will be in the Green Paper, but I can certainly tell him that I am not at all sympathetic to the notion that council housing residents should somehow lose their security of tenure. Indeed, I cannot think of a worse time to make such proposals. However, I fear that my hon. Friend—who I know is himself a distinguished journalist—may be mistaken in thinking that it would be easy to knock this notion on the head, since I have observed that, once something gets into the press cuttings, it is liable to be repeated, whether it is accurate or not.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister’s words will be heard with support and encouragement by thousands of constituents who are council tenants in boroughs such as mine, Southwark. May I therefore ask her to be explicit about what I understand to be her view? Is she saying that no council tenant in England will have their status changed and their security of tenure removed, and that the Government will not force those who wish to remain council tenants into a different relationship—one that they do not support—with the council, for example through the involvement of an arm’s length management organisation?

Margaret Beckett: I am tempted to make a joke about “Focus leaflets,” but I will refrain from doing so as the hon. Gentleman is in agreement with me. I can certainly say that we have not the smallest intention of removing security of tenure from existing tenants. I understand entirely his point about those who wish, for a variety of reasons, to remain council tenants, and to retain the mobility that comes with that. One thing is slightly worrying, and makes it important for us to look into and pursue these issues: it is counter-productive to say, on the one hand, that if people are beginning to earn a little more, perhaps they should think about moving out of council housing, whether they wish to or not, and to say on the other hand that we need mixed communities. I understand that right across the House there is acceptance that mixed communities are highly desirable. Let us see how we can maintain them.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I think all Labour Members thank my right hon. Friend for that good answer. As I think she knows, there are other council tenants, including those who live in pre-fabricated accommodation built after the second world war, when materials were scarce. There is a problem with some of that accommodation, including the Tarran bungalows in Bolsover. Will she meet relevant representatives to discuss the problem? It will need a bit of money, and will mean borrowing. We on the Labour Benches are in favour of that, and we can then solve the problem, and those council tenants can remain where they are.

Margaret Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend’s description of the value and benefit of that accommodation. I think that Members across the House are aware that although pre-fabs were intended to last only a short time, they have been extremely popular, and I can completely understand the point of view of those who wish to see whether there is a way of extending the life of that accommodation. Of course I will meet his constituents. As to whether we would be able to find funds, and in what circumstances, that is not something that I dare guarantee from this Dispatch Box, but I certainly heed his remarks.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): As year follows year under Labour, the number of people despairing and desperate in their pursuit of an affordable home grows and grows. There were 1 million people on the social housing waiting list in 1997, and there are 1.7 million people on that list today. Fewer than a fifth of the number of council houses built in 1997 are being built today. Given the Government’s inexcusable failure to provide affordable homes when times were good, how can they possibly hope to meet their targets when the Brown boom has turned to bust?

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Margaret Beckett: May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, despite his remarks, 1 million more people are in home ownership than when this Government came to power? He talks about “inexcusable failure”, but it seems an utterly inexcusable failure that when this Government came to power, we found a backlog of £19 billion of needed repairs and maintenance, particularly in the social housing sector. Investment was made in putting roofs on while the sun was shining—they were left off by the Conservative party—and that has perhaps meant that fewer resources went into new build than might otherwise have done. That was a scandalous failure of the previous Government, but one that our party has rectified.

Small Business Rate Relief

6. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What change there has been in the level of uptake of small business rate relief since the start of the current economic downturn. [236268]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): The Government do not keep an ongoing account of the take-up rate of small business rate relief, but the latest reliable figures show that on 31 December 2006, some 392,000 businesses in England were claiming small business rate relief. The next figures will be available at the end of December this year.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. So many small businesses are suffering from cash-flow problems, but is the benefit not a source of help that is available now, waiting to be asked for? Does she agree that the Department could carry out a campaign to promote take-up of that relief, that there are good examples of local authorities already doing so, and that all of them should do so? Would she encourage all hon. Members to join in promoting take-up of that relief—even those who voted against setting it up in the first place?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a relief that helps more than 400,000 businesses, and in the current economic circumstances the smallest businesses are feeling the greatest strain. I wrote to all local authorities on 17 September, encouraging and urging them to start a take-up campaign for small businesses, and Members from all parts of the House will be delighted to join us in that. As my hon. Friend says, we introduced the measure in 2003, but at that time, I am afraid, the Opposition voted against it. In fact, the Leader of the Opposition voted against it on two separate occasions, but now, apparently, they are campaigning for it. They say one thing; they vote for another.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): If the Secretary of State really wants to help small businesses, will she explain what possible logic there is in charging 100 per cent. business rates on empty commercial and retail properties at a time when those properties cannot be sold and cannot be let?

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