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Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue, and I am very aware of the impact on commercial and industrial properties. However, he has never mentioned the context of those empty property rates. There is a
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three-month full exemption for non-industrial premises, and a six-month full exemption for industrial premises. When we brought in the measure, we reduced the rates for charities and sports clubs to zero, and we have a done great deal to help on empty property rates. If the hon. Gentleman wants further rate reductions, the money will have to be found from somewhere. Obviously, we are aware of the pressures, we are keeping the issue under review and we are engaged with the property sector, but it is right that we establish the context of those empty property rates.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my right hon. Friend says and I warmly congratulate her. Will she talk to her colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform about how post offices are now able to take up the small business rate relief, because now that we have recognised the value of sub-post offices, is it not right that we give all of them the opportunity to stay in business by ensuring that communities invest in them? That idea is one way they can do so.

Hazel Blears: That is an excellent idea from my hon. Friend, and, again, I am sure that Members, particularly on the Government Benches, will have welcomed the announcement about post offices which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made last week. I also think that local authorities can do much more to ensure that services are provided through the post office network, and we are already engaged with a number of local authorities that are seeking to maintain as a key anchor in their communities post offices that have played a very important role.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): The right hon. Lady was very quick to dismiss the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). Does she dismiss the concerns of the Government’s own Chief Whip, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who labelled the charges on empty properties “destructive”? Indeed, 60 colleagues have called for them to be scrapped. That £1 billion tax increase on empty buildings at the beginning of a recession will cost jobs now and seriously hamper the recovery. Will the right hon. Lady next week advise the Prime Minister to undo the damage that he inflicted as Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of empty property rates, but he will know, as I do, that if we get rid of empty property rates, we will have to look for funding elsewhere. Very interestingly, we have seen a very dramatic development this morning: we have seen from the Leader of the Opposition—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is best not to share that information with me.

Mr. Pickles: The right hon. Lady should just stop digging. Her right hon. Friend the Chief Whip may have a different view. The Government’s policy on retrospective taxation states that backdating should take place only when it is fair, proportionate, necessary to protect revenue and in the public interest. In what way do the Government’s backdated business rates on
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ports meet those criteria? How can it be proportionate that the rates bill for one port operator alone has gone up from £50,000 to £1.25 million? How can it be fair that that backdated tax will cost 100,000 jobs throughout the United Kingdom? And how can it be in the public interest for such companies to be transferred to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will know that in the past 11 years the Government have done more to regenerate communities, support businesses and create jobs in this country than his Government ever did. He will also know that when empty property rates were brought in, a whole range of companies were deliberately leaving properties empty in order to find homes, sometimes for offshore funds; it was absolutely right to encourage those empty properties to be let.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that there is an issue about valuation in relation to ports and that we are seeking to take whatever steps we can to ensure that the impact on the port sector is measured and moderated. However, for the Conservative party to talk about building—

Mr. Speaker: Order.


7. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): What steps she is taking to minimise the number of repossessions of homes. [236269]

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): We are working with a range of stakeholders, including mortgage lenders, local authorities, the courts and third sector advice agencies, to ensure that appropriate support is available for all households in financial difficulty. On 2 September, we announced plans for a mortgage rescue scheme targeted at the most vulnerable households facing repossession.

Andrew Miller: My right hon. Friend has made an extremely important statement. It is vital that we get the message out through local authorities, building societies, mortgage lenders and in particular the courts. What can she do to work with other Departments to make sure that the message gets through loud and clear and that there are no further unnecessary repossessions?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right: is important that we convey the message of where people can seek help—and that they should seek help, rather than waiting until the last minute. Some 340 local authorities, as well as lenders, money advice agencies and officials from the Housing Corporation, have attended briefings, at a regional level and in other ways, to try to get information across. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are working particularly with the Ministry of Justice to improve provision of advice at the courts.

I hope that hon. Members across the House will take on board the fact that it is very important that people in difficulties contact their lenders as early as possible; it will often be possible to make arrangements with which those people can live and which they can readily meet. However, for those who go as far as the door of the court before seeking advice, we, with the Ministry of Justice, have funded court desks in about 90 per cent. of
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courts across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They have had an average success rate of 85 per cent. in averting repossessions, even at that late stage.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The pre-action protocol is intended to encourage communication between borrowers and lenders, but will the Minister concede that it does not require lenders to do anything at all and that it offers the courts no sanction for non-compliance? Does the guidance not need to be accompanied by changes in legislation, and will the Government finally agree to support amendments to that effect in the Banking Bill next week? That would give courts the power that they need to make a real difference on repossessions.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Lady is right to say that the position does not place a requirement on lenders, but it is a heavy encouragement to lenders to know that what they are doing will be scrutinised. I hope she is aware that, quite apart from the encouragement given by the Government and the justice system through the protocol, the Council of Mortgage Lenders itself has issued guidance strongly advising people to take the same kinds of steps. The whole thrust of the approach, whether from the council or the courts, is to make sure that repossession is a last, not a first, resort.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the Minister accept that if the Government are genuinely to take a sensitive approach to the growing problem of debt for families, a further step would be to set the issue in the context of the enforcement of other civil debt? They should cancel their current plans to implement proposals to give bailiffs powers of forced entry into family homes to pursue things such as parking tickets and credit card debt.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is rather taking us away from the issue at hand. I completely understand and sympathise with people who feel distressed when they are approached on such grounds. However, the issue is not of the same order as the threat of losing one’s home. The hon. Gentleman should recognise and concede that the Government are doing a great deal to help people in those very worrying circumstances, and they hope to do more.

Topical Questions

T1. [236287] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): My Department continues to work to build strong, safe communities where people want to live, work and bring up their families. In recent weeks we have been especially focused on the effects of the tough economic times on communities. We are working hard to keep people in their jobs and in their homes, and we are giving them real help in tough times.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful for that answer. I want to have my say in support of eco-towns, just as others want to speak against them. Will my right hon. Friend
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confirm that there has been consultation on the general principle of eco-towns? There is currently consultation on the proposed planning policy statement, and there will in future be consultation on each individual site through the planning process.

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am grateful to him. We sometimes get the impression in this House that absolutely nobody is in favour of eco-towns. The second round of consultation has now begun, and I hope that people will respond to it as thoroughly and enthusiastically as they did to the first round. He is also right to say that when all the processes are completed and we have the final set of proposals for places that may be suitable for an eco-town, ordinary planning procedures and decisions of local authorities will then come into play.

T2. [236288] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Secretary of State recently ruled that the large and entirely illegal Gypsy encampment at Minety in the middle of the countryside in my constituency should remain indefinitely on the grounds that there was insufficient provision elsewhere. In view of that, will she now tell the House, first, how many Gypsy caravans there are in England; secondly, how many pitches there are for them in England; thirdly, how many Gypsy caravans are illegally parked; and fourthly, given that these people are nomadic and coming from as far away as southern Ireland and Romania, how she knows those figures?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The hon. Gentleman has raised with me on several occasions the issue of Gypsy and Traveller encampments in his constituency. I can give him the information, although I think I may already have done so in a written parliamentary answer. Let me reiterate the point made by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan). The provision of authorised sites helps to improve planning, has ensured that we have better social cohesion between the settled community and Gypsy and Traveller communities, and can help to reduce council tax bills. Everybody wins with the provision and assessment of authorised sites, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that.

T4. [236290] Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Last week, I met four firefighters from Wakefield who were concerned about the level and quality of training in the fire service. Will my hon. Friend work to ensure or at least consider the idea of a national training framework for firefighters so that the brave men and women who enter burning buildings to rescue others can take that decision without putting their own lives at risk?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I know that my hon. Friend, like me and my colleagues, takes the issues raised by the recent lobby and report very seriously. I hope that she will be reassured that all firefighters, whether whole-time or retained, are trained to the same standards. Firefighter training is based on national occupational standards, which ensure that a consistent and appropriate level of training is maintained across the country. Those standards also give individual
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fire rescue services the flexibility to ensure that all their staff are trained for the particular risks that are identified in their local integrated risk management plan.

T3. [236289] Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Following the end of the consultation on the south-west regional spatial strategy, will the Secretary of State, when she comes to consider her response, take into account the many objections that have been submitted, not only by me but by many other people in Tewkesbury, to the building of houses in flood risk areas? Only last week, when it rained rather heavily on the Monday, we had further flooding on fields and roads, and although no houses flooded on that occasion it would not have taken much more for that to have been the case. Will she bear these objections in mind?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman has pursued these issues conscientiously on behalf of his constituents on a number of occasions. There have been some 35,000 responses to the south-west strategy. I am in the process of considering them very carefully, and we will respond in due course.

T5. [236291] Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What curbs does the Minister intend to put on landlords who are abusing the assured tenancy scheme, which means, in the current credit crunch, that companies are going around buying up family properties at vastly reduced prices, with the promise that people can stay there and rent the family home, only to kick them out on to the street six months later?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend raises a serious and alarming issue. I am indeed aware that such scandalous behaviour is occurring. I assure him that we are ascertaining what we can do to discourage it heavily. It is clearly alarming and to the disadvantage not only of the individual families, but of the whole sector in the long term.

T8. [236294] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The shadow Cheshire East council has voted for a mayor rather than a chairman, which its predecessor, Cheshire county council, had. Bearing in mind that there is no historical precedence for it, unlike in Congleton, which received its charter in 1272 and Macclesfield, which received its charter even earlier, in 1261, will the Minister ensure that local people are enabled to express their view of the matter, one way or another, bearing in mind that the proposition is rather pretentious?

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I note the hon. Lady’s views on the matter. In setting the framework for the new unitary authorities, we are having detailed discussions with them so that they can keep some of their chartered rights and ceremonial positions intact. It is for the respective new unitary authorities to make such decisions. We will work with them to enable them to set up their authorities in the way they choose for their area and their residents.

T6. [236292] Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Those on the Front Bench know that councils throughout the country have sat on section 106 money that has not been spent. Much of that money has been earmarked for social housing. What can they do to ensure that
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local authorities such as Chorley, which has sat on millions and does not provide much-needed social housing for families, spend that money? It would give a real injection not only to the housing market but to the construction market.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend asks an interesting question. Like him, I deplore it if his local authority has retained section 106 money, which could be put to good use for the people of his area. I am not entirely sure whether we can do anything to encourage local authorities to use it in that way, but I assure him that, following Question Time, I shall find out.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the appropriate Minister give further and sympathetic consideration to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and Opposition Front Benchers made about empty property relief? There is a crisis. Three business men approached me separately at the weekend, requesting that I make representations to the Government for such relief, even if it is reintroduced only for the period of the recession and the financial crisis. The only way they can currently get around the problem is by taking the roof off their property. That cannot be considered value for money. Will the Government reconsider the matter for the period of the recession?

Hazel Blears: In responding to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), I said that we kept such matters under review. I am aware of the impact, especially in the current economic climate. I wanted to stress the steps that the Government had taken to try to ensure that we provided some relief and support. If the hon. Gentleman was approached by only three members of the commercial property sector last weekend, he was probably lucky. I have been approached by many more members of that sector and I am well aware of the position. Indeed, we are very much engaged with the sector and we are examining the impact of the empty property rates in different places.

T7. [236293] Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may not be aware of the 68 per cent. vote in favour of a stock transfer that was announced in Plymouth today. However, I know that she is aware of the concerns that have percolated through the media this week about security of tenure. Has she had time to consider and revisit the Law Commission report on a single form of tenancy, which has benefits for all tenants, whether council tenants, those opting for stock transfer or private tenants?

Margaret Beckett: I am indeed aware of the Law Commission’s report and anticipate hearing something further from it in the near future. I will not disguise from my hon. Friend the fact that, although I respect the work that was done and the careful thought that went into it, I have concerns about some proposals in the report. For example, private rented sector tenants have been mentioned during today’s Question Time, and there is concern that some of the proposals might reduce security of tenure for some in that sector. That would worry me. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I will consider the matter with great care.

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Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for refusing HelioSlough’s proposed 3.5 million sq ft rail freight interchange in my constituency. However, I am extremely disappointed that only five weeks after that refusal, which cost my council and my residents several hundreds of thousands of pounds in defending themselves, HelioSlough has yet again asked to make a planning application. Although I am aware that under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 councils can stop similar applications, HelioSlough was apparently somewhat comforted by the Secretary of State’s comment that she might have agreed the proposal if the site specification and assessment work had been done first. The fact that HelioSlough did not do so correctly—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I would have thought that an Adjournment debate was in order for the hon. Lady. The Secretary of State will try to answer.

Hazel Blears: I am pleased that the hon. Lady and her residents were pleased, but clearly we have not managed to please her enough in this instance. If commercial operators want to bring forward applications, it is not within my power to prevent them from doing so. It is a matter for the market to determine whether such applications are made.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): May I ask my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and the Minister for Local Government in particular, about the situation regarding Icelandic banks? I am thinking of those local authorities that looked at the credit ratings and made sensible judgments about investing in those banks. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement to the House about that matter? In particular, will he meet some of the leading councils that suffered because of that advice, not least my city council in Nottingham?

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