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Angela Watkinson: Surely the Minister has realised by now that home information packs were a bad idea from the outset. Even when the housing market was buoyant, neither sellers nor buyers had the slightest interest in them. Now that the housing market is so stagnant that estate agents are going out of business, the Minister could take this opportunity to abolish the utterly superfluous home information packs without loss of face. Will she do that?
Margaret Beckett: First, let me say to the hon. Lady that the intentionand, indeed, the effectof home information packs is to provide much needed information for consumers on the most important purchase of their lives. She talks as though home information packs have had no impact and no benefit, but 1.2 million such packs have been issued. They are the most simple way of getting information for that most important purchase. She may feel that it is not important to protect consumers; consumer representatives do not, and nor do the Government.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab):
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem in the housing market currently is not a shortage of people wanting to sell their homesone just needs to see the number of estate agents boards around the placebut a shortage of people able to afford houses and, in particular, of
first-time buyers able to afford mortgages? Does she agree, therefore, that it would be completely counter-productive at this time to transfer costs from people who are desperate to sell to buyers, particularly first-time buyers, who are working at the very margins of affordability in seeking to buy a home?
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the key to the housing market in many ways is the role of the first-time buyer, who will incur no such costs but to whom the packs can provide extremely useful information. We recognise that this information does not take a great deal of time to obtain or, in the context of a house purchase, involve a great deal of cost, yet it can make a big difference to consumers.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I pressed the Minister on this issue when she appeared before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 27 October. At that time, she estimated that £5 million had been spent on marketing the packs, to provide a benefit of only £30 per pack. I said that I was concerned that the packs were becoming outdated in a slack market, to which she said:
Of course that is an issue that we are looking at with the relevant authorities.
Margaret Beckett: All I can say to the hon. Lady is that there is no evidence that this is a growing problem, and yes, of course we keep the matter under review; it would be unwise not to. However, while a house remains on the market, the same HIP can continue to be valid. Even if a house is taken off the market, the pack can be used again if the house is put back on the market within 12 months of the first day of marketing. So, in fact [ Interruption. ] The hon. Lady makes a great deal of noise, but the consumer representatives share our view that this kind of information, on the biggest purchase that most people will ever make in their lives, is of real potential value and actual value. That remains our view.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the packs contain information about factoring and land maintenance companies? I am the chairman of the all-party group on land maintenance, and I have been inundated with complaints from people throughout the United Kingdom who buy a house without realising that they will have to pay up to an additional £400 a year to a factoring company. Nor do they realise that, even if the company provides an inadequate service, they cannot get rid of it.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I am not convinced that the Minister really believes that home information packs are the right way forward. If they are so beneficial to the housing market, why was the former grace and favour residence of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)Government house in Pimlicoplaced on the market by the Minister without a fully completed home information pack?
Margaret Beckett: Any property that is put on the market has to have a fully completed home information pack, and I am sure that that one will. I am not familiar with the case that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I am sure that the law will be met by those who are placing that property on the market, as with any other. I would simply say to him what I have already said to his hon. Friends: this provision is of real potential benefit to consumers, and I wish I could say that it was untypical of the Conservatives not to share that concern.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell me what evidence there is that home information packs have, in practice, saved people buying or selling houses any money whatever, or speeded up the process in any way?
Margaret Beckett: Yes, I can. In practice, the evidence shows that the average cost of searches has gone down by some £30, and there are examples of the cost coming down by as much as £120. There has also been some welcome, and expected, market-led innovation. For example, if, for whatever reason, a search needs to be refreshed, or a second search is needed, some estate agents are beginning to provide them free of charge. I assure my hon. Friend that there is an indication that, in some cases, the packs are speeding up sales. They are certainly giving valuable information and, as I have already said, they are reducing costs.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The Secretary of State received about 35,000 responses from individuals and organisations to the consultation on her proposed changes to the south-west regional spatial strategy. This is the largest number ever received to such a consultation. My officials at the government office for the south-west are assessing the responses, and the Secretary of State will consider proposals for a revised timetable shortly.
Mr. Robertson: The Minister will be aware of a number of Adjournment debates secured by me and other hon. Members on this issue, in which he has been unablefollowing guidance, I am sureto discuss the details. We are constantly told that Ministers cannot talk about the details of the regional spatial strategy. The Minister kindly agreed to a meeting with Gloucestershire MPs tomorrow, but said in an e-mail that he cannot discuss the content of the RSS, and cannot communicate the points raised at the meeting with decision-making Ministers because that would avoid new issues arising that might necessitate a further round of consultation. Surely Members of Parliament should be given the right to discuss with Ministers such an important issue that affects their constituencies. It is not just me who is pressing for this: hon. Members from different political parties across the south-west are very unhappy with the RSS. Surely we have a right to a proper discussion of it.
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point and summarises the planning position extremely well. He alludes to the fact that we have had a number of Adjournment debates on this issuehe secured one in May 2008and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has answered questions on the issue on the Floor of the House. I take the position that hon. Members should have quick and rapid access to Ministers in order to put their concerns. Having said that, it is also very important to be mindful of the propriety of planning guidance. Paragraph 26 of that guidance is very clear: at the current stage of proposals, when the draft stage has been out to consultation and the Secretary of State is considering those consultations, Ministers involved in the decision-making process cannot make representations. That is fair; otherwise, as the hon. Gentleman says, we would have to have a further round of consultation. That would not be fair and it would delay the consultation still further, which I do not think he wants.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): May I say thank you to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government for his welcome visit to Plymouth, where he heard of our ambition to be the engine driver of the far south-west? I would also like to thank colleagues for listening during the period in which we could make representations and be heard. Finally, I would like to observe that we really hope that Plymouth will be reinstated in the final version of the regional spatial strategy to reflect its role as engine driver of the far south-west economy.
Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment and her question. I was down in Plymouth last weeknot in my hon. Friends constituencyand saw first hand the ambition and how good community representatives are in that area. She is aware that the consultation has now finished, so I cannot put what she has said forward to the planning decision maker, but I certainly take on board those points.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): My constituents find it very difficult to reconcile statements from Ministers that the Government are absolutely committed to protecting the green belt with proposals in the regional spatial strategy for large-scale development in the green belt. Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, what assurances or reassurances can he give my constituents about the criteria and methodology that the Government will use in assessing the green-belt issues?
Mr. Wright: My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made it very clear that the planning policy arrangements surrounding green belt are robust and have stood us in good stead for something like half a centuryand we continue to adhere to them. There has actually been an increase in the number of hectares of green belt since 1997. We have been protecting the countrysidesomething that the Government will continue to do.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab):
I entirely appreciate the constraints on the Minister in responding to questions today, but I urge him and his colleagues to take into account the concerns of people in urban areas that implementation of the regional spatial strategy may
make it easier for developers to pick off sites in undeveloped areas rather than put their resources into developing regeneration sites on brownfield sites in city centres. I urge him to ensure that we do not lose sight of that objective.
Mr. Wright: I certainly take on board my hon. Friends points. I think that that was made clear during the consultation process. She is aware that I cannot take that forward at the moment, because the consultation period has closed and the Secretary of State is considering the responses, but the issue certainly came out during the consultation period.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): The Minister will be aware that last week the planning inspector upheld a decision of East Dorset district council to refuse planning permission for 60 houses in the green belt at Colehill in my constituency. Can my constituents take heart at that decision, in that the Secretary of State will not persist with her proposals to build in the green belt in south-east Dorset?
Mr. Wright: I am reluctant to comment on specific proposals because of the quasi-judicial nature of the function of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this context, but I repeat what I have said in earlier responses. We have robustly defended the green belt, and we have actually expanded it since 1997. We see it as a major, powerful planning tool to help prevent urban sprawl. It is absolutely essential, and we will continue to defend it wherever necessary.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Perhaps the Minister would like to explain to us how many of those representations relate to the removal of green belt protection from land around Bristol, Bath, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bournemouth and south-east Dorset. He referred to the quasi-judicial nature of the Secretary of States function. Will he bear in mind that the Secretary of States own statement that
the proposed changes would result in loss of green belt land
As I said earlier, we received 35,000 responses to our consultation, the largest number ever. The consultation featured three broad themes: the overall level of housing provision, infrastructure and the regional distinctiveness of the south-west. All those points need to be taken into account, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that they are addressed.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears):
The Government are committed to community-led development. In October last year, we launched a consultation on how a sustainable
community land trust sector could be developed. The consultation closed on 31 December. We have received 63 responses from a wide variety of stakeholders, which we are currently analysing. We will publish the results in the near future.
Mr. Drew: I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I am pleased that progress has been made with community land trusts, but will she have a word with the Homes and Communities Agency, whose representatives I shall be meeting in my constituency on Friday, to ensure that development of the Cashes Green sitewhich, as she knows better than I do, is a pioneer siteis accelerated as a matter of urgency? I hope that the whole site will be available because otherwise there will be piecemeal development, which does not help the concept, let alone the practice, of community land trusts.
Hazel Blears: I pay tribute to my hon. Friends determination and tenacity. This is an innovative policy that requires forward-thinking people to push it forward, and that is exactly what we are doing. A master plan has been developed for the Cashes Green site, which was presented to the public on 8 January, and the matter will proceed.
The concept of community land trusts is important, and not just for housing development. The whole point of such trusts is to secure community ownership and give communities a sense of being able to influence local services and assets. This is new territory, involving co-operatives, mutuals and, of course, community ownership, which is why it is so important for us to get it absolutely right.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Will the Secretary of State examine the role of community land trusts, and the possibility of genuinely community-led development, in relation to the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites? In my constituency it is private developers who are currently submitting applications for development on those sites, and, although such development is entirely contrary to the wishes of the community and local people, it seems likely that the applications will be imposed on them by virtue of the regional assemblies that we thought we had got rid of in the referendum.
The sites proposed for Gypsy and Traveller provision were proposed by the local authorities. It is not a case of imposition; there has been consultation on the proposals. Provision of this kind is always a matter of controversy, but I think all Members will recognise that unless provision is adequate, we shall continue to experience the problems of people moving from site to site that have caused difficulties to many communities in this country.
David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend referred to community land trusts in the context of a co-operative and mutual approach to housing. She will know of the Commission on Mutual and Co-operative Housing, which was launched at last years Co-operative Congress. Will she examine the findings of the commissions report when it is published, with a view to establishing what further support the Government can give the co-operative and mutual sector in the provision of affordable housing?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is now a call for evidence and an inquiry into the roles that co-operatives can play in this respect. It is interesting that when people become involved in housing co-operatives, they often go on to set up social and business enterprises in other areas. I am told that in one co-operative in Redditch, around 15 per cent. of the tenants who have been involved in managing their properties are now school governors, and are trying to improve the education system in their area. There are many spin-offs and benefits to mutual ownership.
8. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent discussions she has had with housing associations on fulfilment of their current plans for social housing in Greater London. 
The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): Ministers and officials have been meeting housing associations and the National Housing Federation to discuss provision of affordable housing in the current downturn. In response, we have taken a number of steps to encourage delivery, including bringing forward £550 million of spending to help to provide up to 7,500 new social rented homes earlier. The Homes and Communities Agency has increased flexibility on levels of grant funding to support development. The HCA is working closely with housing associations, including those in London, to maximise delivery.
Simon Hughes: I welcome the Ministers reply. She may know that Southwark council has two very large schemes to demolish the Haygate estate at the Elephant and Castle and the Aylesbury estate a bit further south in Walworth, and to replace them with more affordable housing. Both are supported by London government and by Ministers. Will she ensure that both her officials and people at the Homes and Communities Agency facilitate the passing of the money to the housing associations now? The plans are there and everyone wants the homes to be built, but something in the pipeline is holding them up. The communities of south London would welcome those thousands of good, new affordable homes soon, and they would help the building companies that are looking for work in the affordable sector.
Margaret Beckett: I am aware of the schemes that the hon. Gentleman identified, as well as the need for them and the local communitys desire that they should be completed. I am also aware that there have been recent concerns about delivery, and both the council and the HCA are working closely together to decide how to resolve the problems and, hopefully, to overcome them.
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