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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 July 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Social Housing

1. Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): When he plans to introduce revised guidance for local authorities on social housing allocations; and if he will make a statement. [284335]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): Before the end of the month.

Phil Wilson: Part of Sedgefield has been designated a growth point in south Durham and is attracting a lot of economic investment. What more can the Minister’s Department and Durham county council do to enhance investment in social housing in Sedgefield and other parts of County Durham?

John Healey: I am aware of the commitment that my hon. Friend’s council in Durham has to helping people through this tough period of recession. I am also aware of its long-term plans to lift the county and its residents. He asked me what more the council could do. I suggest that it look at the announcement that we made last week of £1.5 billion extra in order that we can build this year and next year the homes that people need—affordable homes that people can rent and buy. My hon. Friend and his council will notice that we have increased fourfold the funding and therefore the number of homes that councils can build over this year and next year. In short, it should bid for the money.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Minister will know that tenants in the social housing sector need to move from one local authority area to another for family or employment reasons. Does not the injunction from the Prime Minister to give priority to local people inhibit tenant mobility?

John Healey: No—exactly the opposite. As a distinguished former Housing Minister the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we need new homes and we need to build homes that people can afford to rent. He will also know that there is a perception that the system for allocating council and housing association
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homes can be unfair, inflexible and can stop people who need to move in order to take up or pursue work from doing so. The Prime Minister announced and I will set out in detail before the end of the month ways in which local authorities can give greater preference according to the priorities and pressures in their area. That might include, for some, supporting those who want to work but who need to move in order to do so.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that giving more priority to people with local needs is not about race but about trying to help people such as Katie Wilson, in my constituency, who has been on the waiting list for 17 years and simply wants to be housed in the community where she was brought up, where her family and friends are? It is about allowing people to move near grandparents so that they can support the children and allow the parents to go out to work. It is those sorts of issues that are important and they are currently not given sufficient priority in the allocation systems.

John Healey: I hope that we can move beyond this argument about immigration. I am not proposing to change the rules about who can apply so that foreign migrants do not have a right to go on to council housing lists. I want to give councils greater freedom and greater scope to be able to make judgments about whom to give preference after they have housed those who are in the most serious housing need. The views of my hon. Friend’s council in Sheffield might be very different to the support that councils in Southwark or Somerset might want to give. The principle for this Government is that we should give councils that greater scope to be able to devise and run their lettings list in a way that best meets local housing needs.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and to congratulate the Housing Minister—although he is a familiar face in the local government Front-Bench team—on his elevation. I would also like to express my sorrow at the deaths of the six adults and children who died at the Sceaux Gardens estate the other day. I am sure that we all want to ensure that such a terrible tragedy cannot be repeated in any of our social housing estates.

It was slightly cringe-worthy to hear the Housing Minister trying to explain this morning why his priority is to tackle a misperception about access to social housing when the fundamental problem, surely, is the lack of social housing. Is not the key way to solve that to get rid of the housing revenue account subsidy system? Given that the Prime Minister trailed such a move in January and that we now have a further consultation on a review, is it not time that the decision was brought forward rather than delayed further?

John Healey: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. She might have missed my statement last week, which set out my aim to dismantle the housing revenue account and the announcement that, from last week, councils that build new homes will be able to keep in full all rents and any capital receipts from them. It is a first step in making wholesale reforms, which are long overdue, and a part of removing the barriers to councils’ being able to build, commission building and see the provision of homes in their areas that people need.

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Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I am aware of the consultation document seeking views on options for addressing the impact on local communities of high concentrations of houses in multiple occupation. Local residents in the centre of Ormskirk are affected by homes in multiple occupation, and in particular there is a high concentration of students. May I urge the Minister to take their views into consideration and to bring into reality changes to the legislation, as he sees fit from that consultation?

John Healey: I am looking at this matter very carefully, and will take into account the views of the residents in Ormskirk that my hon. Friend has reported to the House. I shall also take her views into account, and I am looking to make decisions on this matter pretty shortly.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I also congratulate the Minister for Housing on his promotion, and welcome him and the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination to their new roles in the Department. Like the whole House, I am sure, I wish to share in the condolences extended to the bereaved from Camberwell.

I had to replay the Minister’s interview on the “Today” programme this morning twice to understand precisely what the Government’s position on housing now is. Will he confirm that the Government’s plans may change the requirement in primary legislation to give housing priority to the homeless, families with children and the overcrowded?

John Healey: I am glad that the hon. Lady is following our announcements so closely. To be clear, I have said consistently—and I confirmed it last week, well before today’s “Today” programme—that I am not changing the requirement for local councils to give priority to those in most serious housing need. In other words, I am not touching the reasonable preference categories. What I am looking to do, and I shall publish this at the end of the month, is to set out new statutory guidance that will allow councils more scope to give preference to people in their area who they believe are in most need, or to relieve the pressures that they are under. However, that can work only when placed alongside a serious programme to build more homes. That was what the housing pledge and the Prime Minister’s commitment last week was all about.

Mrs. Spelman: But given that waiting lists have soared by 800,000, and the legal requirement to house priority groups, is not the Prime Minister’s pledge of

simply empty rhetoric—a dog whistle to Labour’s disillusioned and abandoned core vote?

John Healey: No. What would be empty rhetoric would be a professed concern for housing in this country alongside a plan to take £800 million out of the housing budget this year and 10 per cent. in every year after that, because that would mean that we could not build the homes that we need for the future.

Changing Places Toilets

2. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): What recent steps he has taken to increase the number of Changing Places toilets. [284336]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): New guidance for British standard BS8300 which was published in March includes for the first time detailed guidance for Changing Places toilets. A review of part M of the building regulations, which covers the access to and use of buildings, will begin this year and will consider the possible inclusion of such toilet facilities.

Dr. Starkey: The Minister may not be aware that one of the first Changing Places toilets was installed in the centre of Milton Keynes. It means that families with disabled children can enjoy a day out just like any other family. When part M of the building regulations is looked at, may I urge him to ensure that it includes a requirement that a Changing Places toilet is put in every newly built major public building?

Mr. Austin: First, may I thank my hon. Friend and the many hon. Members of all parties who have written to me about Changing Places? I also thank all those hon. Members who attended the recent Mencap reception for everything that they are doing to highlight the importance of providing suitable facilities for disabled people. No one who attended the reception and who saw the film about Lowri and her mother Bethan could fail to be moved about what they and many other disabled people have to experience.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the impact that she has had at a local level in ensuring that Milton Keynes was one of the first towns in the country to install one of the 85 new facilities that I am pleased to say have been developed. I can give her the assurance that she seeks, and I believe that the 85 facilities that have been developed are a very good start. I encourage all hon. Members to work with their local authorities, as she has, so that more can be provided in future.

East Sussex Waste Plan

3. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What funding his Department has provided to local authorities in connection with the East Sussex local waste plan since that plan was adopted. [284337]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): The Department has provided approximately £70,000 to East Sussex county council and Brighton and Hove city council through a combination of planning delivery grant and housing and planning delivery grant.

Norman Baker: I thank the Minister for that answer, but he might also have mentioned the private finance initiative credits provided previously by the Treasury. Does he share my concern that some of the promises from East Sussex county council, especially about its disliked incinerator, have simply not been carried through? For example, it promised that the incinerator could be accessed by rail, but in reality every deposit will come by road, with a lorry passing through Newhaven every two minutes. What can the Government do to ensure that the county council pays some attention at least to the environmental effect of its actions?

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Mr. Austin: We expect local plans to be based on a strong understanding of the potential for supplying energy to local developments by renewable and low-carbon technologies. We publish practice guidance to help do that and to show how it can be done.

Business Rates Revaluation

4. Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): What impact assessment his Department has conducted in preparation for the 2010 business rates revaluation. [284340]

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): As business rates revaluation is a regular exercise every five years, no impact assessment is carried out in preparation. However, an impact assessment of the transitional arrangements for the 2010 business rates revaluation will be published shortly, alongside a consultation document setting out the Government’s proposals for a transitional relief scheme.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, and I am sure businesses will be grateful too. In a recent survey that I conducted in Beckenham, 46 per cent. of small businesses said that they needed help already with business rates. Given that the threshold for the supplementary business rate is only £50,000, and the effect that that will have on small businesses, does the Minister agree that a revision of that level should be included, otherwise the Government will be accused of sneakily increasing the burden on small businesses?

Ms Winterton: In fact, the small business rate relief scheme is extremely effective. Overall, the assistance to businesses has been about £260 million in the past year. That is something that we introduced alongside a range of other measures to assist businesses during these difficult economic times, very often in the teeth of opposition from the Conservative party.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): No one in the House can be unaware of the difficulty of imposing additional costs on small businesses, in particular at this time. The other side of that, of course, is that businesses continue to make demands on local services, especially the emergency services—fire and police—and especially where premises may be empty for whatever reason. So whatever else happens in the present exercise, will the Minister ensure that while protecting the interests and the balance sheets of small companies, local authorities are properly compensated for any income forgone as a result of that effort to protect small businesses?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some £20 billion in business rates is collected and distributed to local authorities around the country. Given that the business rate increase is based on the retail prices index and that there was a spike from last September, we are introducing the transitional rate relief this year in order to ensure that there is not a big impact on businesses, while maintaining the income to the local authorities.

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Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): This year business rate tax rises were so unaffordable that Ministers have had to introduce an emergency rates deferral scheme. Next year’s revaluation could see thousands more struggling businesses hit again, just because of their location. If, in 2005, 700,000 properties saw their rateable values rise by 20 per cent. or more, how many businesses need to lose out in the 2010 revaluation before Ministers decide that their formula does more harm than good? If Ministers are not going to assess that impact, why not?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Lady made the same point in a recent debate. She still does not seem to understand that the system is based on legislation that was introduced by the previous Administration, and is based on a formula whereby business rates increase by the RPI. There is overall no greater collection of the business rates. It occurs to me that the hon. Lady has never said in any of her contributions what she would do. She knows how the system works, yet she comes up with nothing but empty accusations, and no plans whatever for the future.

Pennbury Eco-town

5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): When he plans to announce his decision on the proposed Pennbury eco-town in Leicestershire. [284341]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): I expect to make announcements in relation to Pennbury and other sites with the potential to be an eco-town before the summer recess.

Mr. Robathan: I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that there is next to no local support for the Pennbury town idea, excepting that of the Co-operative Society—a situation that, I suggest, involves some conflict of interest with the Labour Government. He will know also that there is nothing ecological about building on a greenfield site and no demand for housing on that scale, so will he learn the lesson of past new towns—of building huge new towns without any existing infrastructure and of how unpopular they have been—and understand what a disaster the new town would be for the people of Leicestershire?

John Healey: As I come to make decisions on the matter, I will have the benefit of quite an extensive consultation, of additional assessments that have been undertaken, and of the opportunity that has been given to everyone, including residents in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and Members, to make their views known. I say to him very clearly that the links that any developer or company may have with any of those eco-town proposals and with any political party are simply not a material consideration in the decision that I take, and will not be.

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