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Traveller Sites

7. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What planning guidance and circulars have been issued relating to the provision of Traveller sites since 2005. [259890]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): Planning policy for the provision of sites for Gypsies and Travellers is set out in Office of the Deputy Prime Minister circular 01/2006, which is helpfully called “Planning for Gypsy and Traveller Caravan Sites”. There are additional publications that supplement that planning guidance and are part of the overall planning framework for Gypsy and Traveller sites. All those publications are available on the excellent DCLG website.

Andrew Selous: I represent an area that already has quite a large number of Traveller sites in it, and the Government are asking us to take more sites. Most of the Travellers in my area are foreign nationals from other EU countries, which make virtually no provision for foreign Travellers in their own countries and do not even make provision for Travellers from those countries themselves. Can the Minister explain to my constituents why the United Kingdom seems to be rather out of step with those other countries in this matter?

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Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supplementary question. The basic principle is that it is for local authorities to decide the needs of the local community. They identify where there is a need and make plans and provision to meet it. [Interruption.] The problem with the alternative is more and more unauthorised sites. From his own example, and from his colleagues’ experience, too, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the cost in human misery that those cause.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): As chair of the Gypsy and Traveller law reform all-party parliamentary group, may I ask my hon. Friend what discussions he has had about the 90 Gypsy and Traveller families who are due to be evicted from Dale farm, and who include many young children and elderly people? I gave notice to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) that I would raise this question.

Mr. Khan: Again, this may not please hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, but it is for local authorities to decide whether enforcement action should be taken, what enforcement action should be taken, and how it is carried out. The example of Dale farm is one in which enforcement action is being taken by Basildon district council. I know that my hon. Friend has highlighted the fact that vulnerable people—the very young, children and disabled people—are involved there, and I hope the council will take on board the concerns that she has expressed and make sure that it deals sensitively with the people affected.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Returning to the subject of Dale farm, the Minister will be aware that some Travellers are reported to be preparing to resist an eviction, despite having exhausted all their arguments in court. No one wants to see a forced eviction and the sorrow that that would bring, so will the Government do what they can to use their influence to persuade Travellers to move on peacefully? To this end, will the Government help to identify transit sites, so that families are not made completely homeless?

Mr. Khan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is for the council to consider what to do. He will be aware that the Travellers have sought leave to appeal to the House of Lords, so we will have to wait and see what the House of Lords decides to do. As he knows, if there are authorised sites available, the police have more options for moving Travellers and Gypsies on. One of the incentives for Basildon to try to find authorised sites is that that gives the police even more powers to take action against the Travellers and Gypsies to whom he refers.

Government Offices for the Regions

8. Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the role of Government offices for the regions in enabling people to cope with the credit crunch. [259891]

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): Government offices play an important role in supporting the delivery of local services, including advice on credit information and money management. The network of
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Government offices is also working closely, particularly at the moment, with regional development agencies on supporting local businesses, and with the Homes and Communities Agency on the supply of housing that people need.

Mrs. Hodgson: The Minister mentioned RDAs. Does he agree that the part played by One NorthEast, my local RDA, as part of the rapid response group dealing with the loss of 1,200 jobs at Nissan, goes to show how important it is for RDAs to have our continuing support?

John Healey: Nissan is important to the region, and its job cuts are going to hit the whole of the region. That is why it is important that the regional development agency has stepped in to co-ordinate the Government action that can be taken to help the workers at Nissan and those in companies affected through the supply chain. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those who argue that we can do without regional policy or regional development agencies are wrong: without RDAs, regions such as the north-east would lose out on the jobs, investment and business support that they need, particularly during this difficult economic time.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Would not cutting out the expenditure on Government offices and unelected regional government in England be a no-brainer at a time of a massive increase in public borrowing—to the point at which every man, woman and child in this country has had £70,000 of liabilities and borrowings imposed on them by the reckless financial incompetence of this Administration?

John Healey: The right hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong; he does not get it. In the past few years, the regional development agencies have brought in additional investment of more than £8 billion to deprived areas. I was the Minister responsible for floods recovery, and let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that within four days of the start of the floods that affected wide parts of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire RDA had set up a helpline and a £5 million scheme to support local businesses, the first payment from which was made within seven days. Can the right hon. Gentleman imagine Whitehall, or any single local authority, responding as quickly? That is the value of our regional development agencies, and that is the importance of their work. All that would be lost if he had his way.

Topical Questions

T1. [259909] Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): 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 and cohesive communities. Our priority now is to focus on supporting individuals, businesses and communities through the downturn, and to create opportunities for when the upturn comes.

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Mr. Timpson: How does the Minister believe the introduction of supplementary business rates—on top of the impending 5 per cent. rise—helps the more than 3,000 local firms in Crewe and Nantwich that currently pay business rates to get through the recession?

Hazel Blears: Clearly, that is a matter for the local authorities, which reflect the views of their communities and their local businesses as to whether they want supplementary business rates. We built a whole series of safeguards into the legislation to make sure that we give people flexibility to raise funds, and so that varying economic circumstances can be taken into account. Hopefully, that is local government at its best, reflecting local priorities.

T2. [259910] Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Before the end of 2008, the Government took the decision not to extend the finalisation date for projects funded through EU objective 1 moneys. An extension might have allowed surplus moneys to be utilised in those projects. Has my right hon. Friend any proposals to revisit that decision?

Hazel Blears: As my hon. Friend will know, that is not simply new or free money available to us—it was an extension. The terms on which it was offered by the European Union were extremely inflexible. We have to be aware of how to get the best value for money from these programmes. Nearly £3,000 million is available in the new set of programmes from 2007 to 2013, with nearly £600 million—£531 million, in fact—for Yorkshire and Humber. It may well be that concentrating on those new programmes will be better value for money than simply seeking a bureaucratic extension on very inflexible terms.

T6. [259914] Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): In a speech to the London School of Economics at the end of February, the Secretary of State said:

the Government She went on to say:Will she therefore demonstrate that moral clarity, and join me in seeking from the Home Office the banning of the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which clearly operates outside any core values of Britain?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will know that the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir are kept under extremely close review by the Government. He will also know, however, that in order to proscribe a group, it has to be concerned with or involved in terrorism. The moral clarity that I absolutely believe we need to have in this area is to say that even where groups are not acting illegally, when they promote values that seek to undermine the shared values of this country, we seek to engage with and to challenge the values that they seek to promote.

T3. [259911] Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): This year, housing completions in Milton Keynes are above target, but housing starts have fallen
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drastically, in large part because developers who have planning permission for quite large developments are fearful of going ahead because of cash-flow problems. Will the Minister consider giving the Homes and Communities Agency greater flexibility so that it can explore risk sharing with such developers to allow these developments to go ahead?

The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on behalf of her constituents and their housing needs. I have already, in various respects, given the HCA greater flexibility to deal with a number of issues that have arisen. I assure her that should it come and say that it has a problem in this respect, I will certainly look on that approach favourably.

T7. [259915] Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Would the Minister for Local Government find it helpful if I were to repeat in public an assurance that I gave him in his office last week—that I will welcome and accept any amendment from him that improves my private Member’s Bill on the payment of small business rate relief? I hope that that might encourage him to support the Bill’s Second Reading on Friday.

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): The hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise so well, has a persuasive way of putting his arguments. I am glad that he supports our small business rate relief, which we introduced three years ago. He is right that it is valuable for small businesses; last year it was worth about £260 million. We are considering whether some degree of automatic operation of the system may be the right approach —and as he knows, his Bill would not achieve that. We think that such action is right, and we are looking at the case for it alongside other measures that may help businesses in other ways, particularly at this difficult time.

T4. [259912] Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): For seaside towns such as Blackpool, effective policies to control the concentration of houses in multiple occupation in deprived and tourism areas are key to regeneration, and particularly to incentives to regenerate brownfield sites. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Homes and Communities Agency to give urgent priority to this problem in seaside and coastal towns, and if necessary to revisit its budgets to suit?

Margaret Beckett: I know that my hon. Friend chairs the coastal group of MPs, and that the subject of HMOs is of great concern to him and to his colleagues in that group. I will certainly consider discussing with the HCA ways in which it can help. As he has in the past raised the issue of licensing, I hope that he is aware that my Department has met his local council and is discussing with it whether there are ways in which a suitable additional licensing scheme, at local discretion and at the invitation of the local authority, might be considered.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Ministers will know of the scam occasionally used by Travellers—it happened recently in Enderby in my constituency—of buying agricultural land, moving on to it on a Friday night, putting in concrete standings and utilities, and
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then applying for retrospective planning permission after the weekend is over, when the council offices reopen. Will the Secretary of State pledge that her guidance will give absolute support to any planning authority that refuses such retrospective applications, and that it will state that all members of society, whatever lifestyle they wish to enjoy, must abide by and are subject to all laws, including planning regulations?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I can certainly agree with the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question: there is one law in this country, both for Gypsy and Traveller communities and for the settled communities. The concept of the retrospective planning application is an important part of our planning framework, which can take into account ignorance or a genuine mistake, and I do not think that we would want to revisit that. I am certainly keen to enforce the idea on local authorities that each case needs to be decided on its own merits, but allowing for retrospective planning permission does not necessarily mean that planning permission should be approved.

T5. [259913] Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the recent report by the centre for housing and planning research on behalf of Shelter, which showed that the previous Mayor of London’s targets for affordable rented housing underestimated, if anything, the need in London. What can the Government do to ensure that affordable rented housing is built in London, given the current Mayor’s abandonment of any targets and his replacement of them with the sort of bizarre, ad hoc announcement that he made last night, without any consultation or Government funding?

Margaret Beckett: I know of my hon. Friend’s great concern, and that of many of my colleagues throughout London, about the provision of affordable housing and the considerable housing need that Shelter identified in London. I too have concerns. I am perfectly willing in principle to work with the Mayor on a different way of delivering the affordable housing targets, which he seemed to feel that he could do simply by asking local authorities to co-operate. So far, that does not seem to be delivering. I share some of my hon. Friend’s concern, in principle. If the Mayor wants to work with the funding that the Government have made available for London, and to follow in the footsteps of the schemes that we introduced as early as last summer—it sounds as if he is looking at something like our rent-to-buy scheme—I am perfectly willing to work with him, in principle, if it is a way of delivering affordable housing. I am concerned, however, that the proposals in question were not put forward for proper scrutiny and agreement in advance, which does seem a rather chaotic way to continue.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): As the recession bites, have we yet seen an increase in the number of rough sleepers? Given that homeless people sometimes hide from view, that local counts are recorded as zero if they are less than 10, and other such recording problems, does he agree that it is time to look at the methodology of recording rough sleeping, so that we can get an accurate picture of how many people are, unfortunately, sleeping rough in this country?

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Mr. Iain Wright: I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. I visited Leeds a couple of months ago, where Faith Lodge and St. George’s Crypt are doing tremendous work on provision for rough sleepers. We have not seen an increase in the numbers of people rough sleeping as a result of this recession. That is a result of the biggest ever cash injection we have seen in this country, from this Government, and of better partnership working between local authorities, the voluntary sector and ourselves. But the hon. Gentleman’s point is a sound one. We need to ensure that the methodology is the start of the process rather than the end, so that that count, which provides for a consistent process, allows us to see what help is needed to get people off the streets permanently, to ensure that we end rough sleeping once and for all, which is the centrepiece of our revised rough sleeping strategy.

T8. [259916] Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I tell the Housing Minister that the biggest single spanner in the works as regards the delivery of the Government’s policy for the Thames Gateway is the eastern region office of the Environment Agency, which perversely, and not in kilter with the London office or the national Environment Agency offices, is blocking all planning applications in the Thurrock area? As a consequence, the Government’s policy for residential development, job creation and the building of a new environment is being frustrated. Good developers who have marshalled sites and are up to their necks in debt are now really sweating, and are likely to go under if immediate action is not taken by her, along with the Thurrock Thames Gateway development corporation, to kick the backside of the Environment Agency in Ipswich. It is perverse, bonkers and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to be brief in topical questions in future.

Margaret Beckett: I hear my hon. Friend’s concerns very clearly, as does the whole House. If he would care to give me more details of the particular projects that he feels are being impeded, I would be happy to look into the matter.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said a few moments ago that in the matter of providing sites for Gypsies and Travellers, it is up to the local authority to make provision according to its own discretion. How can it be then, that the Under-Secretary himself—I have a letter to show this—has directed Epping Forest district council to provide an extra 39 sites for Travellers in our small area, on top of the 94 sites that we already have? That direction has come from the Government. Why are they being so unfair in requiring proportionately more from Epping Forest district than from any other district in the region?

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