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Margaret Beckett: We are indeed helping local authorities to manage their moneys, with greater investment in authorities and more freedoms and flexibilities, and we are giving what advice and support we can. We have commissioned this research to assess the scale of any problem that there may be because it is our understanding that it is not the norm for local authorities to accumulate moneys in this wayindeed, it would be contrary to our guidanceunless they have some particular long-term infrastructure project for which they are pooling resources. We are anxious to help local authorities maximise the use of their resources.
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): The Minister will not be aware that £160,000 of section 106 money from one development has sat in Manchester city councils bank account for possibly up to four years because of the rules and regulations on how it can be spent. Will she commit to simplifying the rules, so that this money can be spent more quickly?
Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about the matter, I shall certainly inquire into why such moneys are tied up. As I say, this situation is not the norm, but it is clear that he is aware of some of the issues in his own local authority area. We are encouraging all local authorities to keep and publish records so that local communities can be aware of what resources are available and press to make sure that they are used well.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): May I, too, associate myself with the remarks that have been made in all parts of the House? I am sure that the whole Cameron family are in everyones thoughts this afternoon.
The fall in section 106 receipts is having a massive impact on affordable and social housing development locally. Could the problem not at least be tackled in part by freeing up councils to start rebuilding council homes? The Prime Minister indicated at the end of January that local authorities could play an important role in delivering social housing, but rather than just the promise of yet another report, do we not desperately need action to be taken now?
Margaret Beckett: I just say gently to the hon. Lady that we are already consulting on regulations that would allow local councils to do precisely that; of course one must never anticipate the outcome of consultation, but I anticipate that it may well be possible that we can go ahead in the near future.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):
It is five years this month since the Governments own Barker review identified the problems that arise from reliance on the section 106 system and its attendant complexities as a means of driving development. Since then, the Government have added to those complications with measures such as the community infrastructure levy. Against that background and the decline in receipts, to which reference has been made, is it not better to move away from that complicated regime and a system of top-down development targets to one of incentivising local communities and local authorities to accept
development by allowing them to keep some of the proceeds that arise to their own tax base from encouraging development?
Margaret Beckett: I think that the hon. Gentleman left out an important development: in the meantime the Government have made available some £8 billion of resources for investment in housing. That is twice as much as the amount that was available in the previous period, which was itself substantial. I think that he was probably referring to the proposals, in so far as one can call them that, in the Conservative partys latest publication of its policies [Interruption.] I accept that it is a very short read. It is perhaps not entirely well-founded in the statistics that it cites, but I am sure that we will be examining it in future in the House.
Mr. Swayne: Ministers have made it clear that the agency will have a key role in carrying forward the eco-towns initiative. In doing so, will it make any concession whatever to democratic accountability?
Margaret Beckett: The eco-towns initiative is under continuing consultation. When proposals are made, which will not be for some little time yet, they will go through the ordinary planning process in the normal way. There has been plenty of consultation so far, and I have no doubt that there will be more in the future.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will the Homes and Communities Agency have a remit over land maintenance companies? As chair of the all-party group looking at land maintenance and factoring companies, I have been inundated with complaints from all parts of the House about how such companies are treating their customers. That includes companies such as Greenbelt, which this week is using a debt collection agency to take money off my constituents who have refused to pay for an inadequate service. Will that be part of the bodys remit?
Margaret Beckett: Part of the main purpose of the agency, and why it was set up to replace the previous bodies, was to facilitate a single conversation that takes into account the range of issues around land, planning, homes construction and so on. I know that it will be concerned about the points that my hon. Friend makes, but if he would like to write to me about the particular issues arising in his constituency, I would be happy to look into them.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con):
Does the Secretary of State have any plans to alter the system whereby local authorities that own their own housing stock, such as Stroud, part of which I have the honour to represent, are at a considerable disadvantage under
the housing association grant system in comparison with housing associations with regard to the amount of money that they can either reinvest in their housing stock or use to fund future social housing? Does she have any plans to review that system?
Margaret Beckett: Yes; as I said to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), we are consulting at present on changing the regulations that have hitherto disadvantaged local authorities in the same position as his own in benefiting from new housing build, and we also propose to make it possible for them to apply for housing grant.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the right hon. Lady is sensibly reviewing so many things, will she review the whole eco-towns initiative, which is seen by many of us as expensive gesture politics?
Margaret Beckett: I understand the hon. Gentlemans concern, but let me say two things to him. First, it is beyond question and clearly accepted, including across the House, that there is an unmet and growing demand for housing, because of the growth in the number of households. Secondly, I think it is also common ground across the House that something that must be done to address that demand. If it has to be addressed, surely it is better to seek on the basis of some exemplar programmes to provide new housing that meets the standards that the housing of the future will need to meet if we are to tackle climate change. Incidentally, that will also make those houses much more affordable to run. I understand that Opposition Members have sought to use this issue as a campaigning tool in a number of cases, but I am not sure that that is acting in their constituents interests in the long term.
Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): When the Minister was establishing the remit of the Homes and Communities Agency, did she consider changing the rules to allow housing associations to apply for money to refurbish or upgrade empty properties? Does she recognise that the current rules are a disincentive for housing associations to buy up empty properties that could be hugely useful for many people already on waiting lists?
Margaret Beckett: I am always willing to look at anything that is considered a disincentive, but I remind the hon. Lady that, as a result of the September package, we made money available to housing associations to buy up new-build empty properties on which they do not need to do any maintenance. Those properties are ready to be occupied now, and associations have now bought almost 6,000 homes to sell or rent.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her answer about the set-up costs of the HCA, which will be some £20 million. She is no doubt also aware that the running costs of the HCA in administering itself will be £100 million per annum, but is she aware that the HCA is reported to be in the process of employing 28 press officers? Does she think that that is appropriate in these austere times?
The hon. Gentlemans numbers are out of date. I think that £100 million was the original prediction for the HCAs running costs. The
figure is now expected to be more like £86 million [ Interruption. ] As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciatejudging from the noises off, not all his colleagues doit is believed that the amalgamation of the agency and English Partnerships, and the new structure of agencies, will result in substantial savings. From memory, I can say that those savings will be some £400 million, which will allow funding for a substantial number of new homes. I have not been scrutinising the detailed staffing arrangements for the agency, and neither do I think that it is necessarily useful for me to do so. However, it is typical of the Opposition to be much more interested in the number of employees, which they think they can criticise, than in the work being done by the agency, which is releasing thousands of new homes for the use of the British public.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Julie Ruggs review of the private rented sector, which the Government commissioned last year, includes an assessment of how well the sector caters for those on low incomes and in housing need. The review reported in October last year. We are currently considering its findings, including proposals for improvements in the sector and for how we can best provide affordable accommodation.
Rob Marris: The private rented sector certainly has a role to play in providing affordable accommodation. However, may I urge my hon. Friend not to rely wholly on the private rented sector, but instead to launch a mass programme of council house building to provide affordable housing and jobs for construction workers?
Mr. Iain Wright: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in a previous answer, we are putting in place consultation to ensure that councils have a direct delivery role in the building of homes. The Prime Minister said in a speech last month that he is very keen to see local authorities build quickly and wants any barriers to be removed quickly. In the current economic situation local authorities have a direct delivery role to play, as well as a major role alongside registered social landlords and the private rented sector in providing the accommodation that this country so badly needs.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Given that there are some 2 million-plus empty homes in Britain, does the Minister regret the fact that the empty dwelling management order legislation has been totally and utterly ineffectual in bringing private houses back into use, particularly for low-value rents?
No, I would disagree with that conclusion. The empty dwelling management order was always seen as the nuclear option, as it were, for local authorities. It is up to local authorities to determine whether they need to press that nuclear button. I think that the threat
of the orders has ensured that empty homes have been brought back into use. It could well be that those empty homes are not in areas where people want to live. The local authority has not only a direct delivery role, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), but a strategic role in determining what accommodation is needed in each particular locality and what type of accommodation is needed. I suggest that the hon. Lady speaks to her local authority to ensure that it is using the tools that it needs.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): In the London borough of Newham, about 34,000 families are sitting on our councils housing waiting list. If we count those who are in full-time employment, we see that their wages are about £24,000 a year. What does my hon. Friend think of the London Mayors affordable housing strategy, which is predicated on 40 per cent. of social homes being only for families with incomes above £72,000 a year? Is that fit for purpose, especially in these austere times?
Mr. Wright: I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing; she is a real champion of people who need affordable accommodation not only in London, but elsewhere. I am keen to work with the Mayor of London to ensure that people in the capital have the homes that they need. I am disappointed by the fact that his housing policy seems somewhat confused. His proposals about affordable accommodation seem bureaucratic, burdensome and counter-productive, and I certainly think that the £72,000 limit is not fit for purpose and is somewhat elitist.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Minister will know that many private sector landlords are reluctant to accept people on housing benefit as tenants. Will he initiate discussions with local authorities and representatives of the private sector to overcome that resistance and to make sure that the private rented sector plays a much fuller part in meeting the needs of those with housing problems?
Mr. Wright: Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in housing matters, and he was also a very good Housing Minister, so he will know that Julie Rugg presents a valuable analysis of the different segments of the private rented sector, including the housing benefit market. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and I met the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), this morning to discuss housing benefit reform and how our two Departments can work together to make sure that tenants who use housing benefit are not unfairly penalised. That will certainly be part of the response to the Rugg review.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): The value of the private rented sector is that it provides some mobility and fluidity in a sector that often does not provide that, but it is particularly ill suited to families. Is my hon. Friend aware that some families in my constituency have had to move 10 times in 10 years, either through homelessness or simply because they were placed in the private rented sector? In implementing the private sector review, will he look urgently at what can be done to ensure that families in housing need in private rented housing have some security, for the sake of themselves and their children?
Mr. Wright: I agree with my hon. Friend, who, like my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), is a real champion of people who need affordable housing in her constituencyin her case, that is Regents Park and Kensington, North. The Rugg review provides a somewhat contradictory analysis of the matter. Some 21 per cent. of tenants have been in their homes for five years or more, but there also seems to be something of a churn, with 40 per cent. of tenants in the private rented sector having moved within 12 months. As I have said before, the Government are considering very closely the recommendations of the Rugg review, and we will be in a position to respond very shortly.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Minister knows, the Rugg review last October recommended a light-touch licensing system for landlords. Obviously, no one wants that review to be followed by another, given that it followed earlier reviews itself. That approach would be bureaucratic and obstructive, to quote the Ministers own words back at him, so can he simply tell us by what date that recommendation, or any of the Rugg recommendations, will be put into effect?
Mr. Wright: No I cannot, because the Government need to make sure that we respond in a comprehensive manner to the Rugg review. Our objective is to ensure that we have a growing and professional private rented sector. The Julie Rugg review has been enormously helpful in allowing us to consider what needs to be done to ensure that we achieve those objectives. We will be in a position to respond to the review very shortly, and I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until then for an answer to his question.
6. Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): What guidance her Department has issued to planning authorities on protection from development of playing fields that have been out of use for five years. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): Our planning policy guidance note 17, Planning for open space, sport and recreation, makes it clear that playing fields should not be built on other than in a very limited set of circumstances. In addition, Sport England is a statutory consultee on all planning applications affecting open land that has been used as a playing field in the past five years.
Mr. Reed: The Minister is right, of course, to say that the protections in place now mean that fewer playing fields are built on. Under the so-called five-year rule, however, it is possible for playing fields that have not been used in that period to be developed. It is not beyond the wit of some unscrupulous people to fence off areas of playing fields and then develop them five years later. Will he give some reassurance that he is looking at that problem? I am willing to work with him to make sure that there is a way to protect the small but important number of playing fields that are lost as a consequence of the so-called five-year rule.
Mr. Wright: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that offer, and I pay tribute to the enormous amount of work that he does in Loughborough and elsewhere on sporting matters. The figures that we have show that in the latest year for which data are available, something like 97 per cent. of all planning applications involving playing fields have resulted in improved or protected playing fields and sporting provision. However, I am aware that there may be loopholes in the system, and I have worked and had meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport on the matter. In addition, we are hoping to review PPG17 in the summer and, given my hon. Friends expertise in the matter, I would be keen to work closely with him to ensure that we close any potential loopholes.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Following that helpful reply, when the Minister reviews the planning guidance, will he consider the proposal that if there is any land in urban areas that has been used for playing fields, allotments or other open spaceeven more than five years previouslyand if anybody can give it a future that is viable and sustainable, whether for sport or other activities, that should be sufficient to guarantee that it stays as open land and is not built on?
Mr. Wright: The current planning provision in PPG17 already says that building cannot take place on playing fields if a strong case can be made that alternative sites are available. That remains a strong provision in the planning framework, but as I said, we will look at it again in the summer. I would be keen to listen to representations from the hon. Gentleman on this subject. Protecting and preserving sporting facilities and open space is a key part of what we need to do to make sure that they are available for the community to enjoy.
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