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Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): May I urge the Minister, when he makes an announcement on Pennbury, to reject it firmly? The scheme will have a devastating effect on my constituency and on the city of Leicester in general—on transport infrastructure, in particular, and on regeneration investment in the city.
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The scheme is based on ludicrously unrealistic projections of traffic and jobs and is, frankly, the wrong scheme in the wrong place.

John Healey: I hear what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): And the Minister will hear it again when, I hope, he permits me, the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) and the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) to see him with an all-party delegation, as we have requested, to provide him with some of the facts of life about the popularity and utility of the scheme. It will be in my constituency and it will impose a town of 40,000 residents in the middle of rural Leicestershire. It is an idiotic scheme, and—Mr. Speaker, I shall be very brief—the sooner this Minister, who is the fourth such Minister to have to deal with the issue, realises that and promises not to make an announcement—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think we have had enough, and can I just make the point that what one is seeking at Question Time is questions from hon. and right hon. Members?

John Healey: I may be slow sometimes but I get the message. I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that there has been complete consultation and the decision-taking process is now under way. Just as when planning applications are called in, however, it would not be appropriate for me or any ministerial colleague to meet him or other Members. I reassure him, none the less, that I have an enormous amount of material and a wide range of representations, including from him, to take into account.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Notwithstanding the Minister’s eventual decision on Pennbury, does he recognise that there is an acute shortage of affordable housing in the shire districts and boroughs of Leicestershire? Will he therefore suggest to me how we can encourage the reluctant landlords, which Tory district and borough councils often are, to take advantage of the new announcements that were made last week, rather than to spend their time coercing their tenants into a stock transfer or drumming their fingers waiting for the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to ride over the horizon—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

John Healey: My hon. Friend will realise and, I hope, welcome the series of announcements that I have made so far, building on the excellent work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett). The further announcements that I plan to make are intended largely to remove the bias in the system against councils being able to build the homes that are needed in their area. So, there are some questions for my hon. Friend to ask of his council, and for every Member to ask of their local council. Why are local councils not building or commissioning the building that is necessary? Why are they not bidding for the funds that the Government are making available? Why are they not making the land available on which those homes could be built? Why are they not giving the planning permission for those homes to be built? And, indeed, why are they not going to make the lettings policies fairer in future?

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Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): The Prime Minister launched the eco-town programme in a blaze of publicity in May 2007 and then upped it to 10 eco-towns, but here we are two years later and the Government are still consulting on the matter and still consulting about planning guidance. The small print of last week’s draft legislative programme, however, revealed on page 122 that the towns have now been pushed back to 2020. So, will the Minister—the fourth to have been across the Dispatch Box from me—now just admit that the programme is a shambles, that developers are running scared, that judicial reviews have delayed it, that it will require massive public subsidy when the coffers are bare and that the Government’s own environmental advisory panel said that, at best, only one eco-town was environmentally friendly? Is it not time that this Housing Minister, the ninth since the Government came to power, admitted that the unpopular eco-town programme is a complete shambles and scrapped it?

John Healey: On the contrary. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be a little patient; I have said to the House that I expect to make an announcement before the recess, and I have not yet finished four weeks in the job. Eco-towns give us the opportunity to meet two needs: first, the need for new homes, including those that people can afford to rent; and secondly, the need to build our homes in future in a way that helps us tackle the threat of climate change. Given that more than a quarter of the total carbon emissions in this country come from homes, that is something that we simply must do.

Regional Spatial Strategies

6. Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): What recent representations he has received on the timetable for further reviews of regional spatial strategies. [284342]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): The Department has had a number of recent representations from Members on the timetable for further reviews of regional spatial strategies. Margaret Beckett— [Interruption.] Sorry.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister meant the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett).

Mr. Malik: My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) answered questions in the House on the point on 2 June 2009. In addition, the regional spatial strategy for the south-west has been subject to extensive consultation; there were 35,000 responses on its proposed changes.

Mr. Breed: I thank the Minister for that response. The vast majority of those 35,000 responses opposed the building of 68,500 houses in Cornwall. Is it not time to scrap the targets and provide the funds to local authorities, which can build the affordable housing in the places where it is most needed?

Mr. Malik: The hon. Gentleman misses the point about regional spatial strategies, which are absolutely essential in ensuring that the Government meet their
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target of 240,000 extra homes by 2016. He should support that, given that 161,000 people in his region alone are on the waiting list for homes.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): When my hon. Friend is considering the strategies, will he emphasise the importance of dealing with climate change, and take it into consideration more than nimbyism?

Mr. Malik: That is precisely why the regional spatial strategies—and, shortly, the regional strategies—are being developed. They are to ensure that there is an integrated, holistic approach that takes stock of the challenge of climate change.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the Minister not see the irony? In July 2007, the Prime Minister told the House:

In May this year, the east of England regional plan was struck down by the High Court because, to use the judge’s words, it would

and because there was a lack of a proper strategic environmental assessment. The south-west regional plan has just been indefinitely withdrawn by the Government after the High Court gave an identical ruling, and judicial reviews have now been launched on the same grounds against the south-east regional plan.

The Minister is new to his post. Would it not be a good idea to take this opportunity to scrap the derailed and discredited regional spatial strategy system, the Prime Minister’s discredited promise, or both?

Mr. Malik: Seldom have I heard such a lot of rubbish in such a short space of time. The regional spatial strategies are crucial in ensuring that we get the housing outcomes that we want. With respect to the east of England judgment, small procedural elements needed to be readdressed, and the issue has been remitted to the Secretary of State. We will put it right and we will learn the lessons from the east of England and apply them to the south-west. We will move forward.

Since 1997, the green belt has decreased by 0.8 per cent. However, if we take the New Forest national park into account, there has been a 2 per cent. increase since that year.

Council Rental Income

7. Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): What steps he is taking to allow local authorities to retain rental income from new council homes; and if he will make a statement. [284343]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): On Tuesday last week, I made a statement to the House confirming that from that day councils would be able to keep in full all the rental income and capital receipts that come from any new homes that they build.

Mr. Hamilton: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the changes that he has made would allow Leeds city council to regenerate one of the most deprived housing estates in the north of
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England—the Beckhill estate in my constituency? Will he agree at some later stage to visit that estate to see it for himself?

John Healey: I will certainly see whether I can fix a date—although my diary secretary will not be pleased that I am saying this—to visit the estate and accompany my hon. Friend in doing so. I hope that he will give every encouragement to the Tory and Liberal-led Leeds council to bid for the funds to build the new homes that people in Leeds need. I have been encouraged by the fact that it is one of the 20 local authorities that have signalled their intent to bid in the first round for the money that we will make available from the end of July.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister not accept that these changes—which, by the way, I warmly welcome, as I believe in meaningful local government with a full range of responsibilities—have come too late to prevent what was then Macclesfield borough council from being forced to transfer its housing stock to a housing trust? Will he ensure that in future housing remains within the democratic domain so that it is democratically accountable and local people can decide where houses are built, instead of leaving it to an unelected, somewhat bureaucratic organisation?

John Healey: I thought for a moment that we were going to re-run some of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman and I have had about local government reorganisation in Cheshire. The point that he makes is, in different terms, consistent with what I explained to the House earlier—that part of the purpose of the changes that I have announced is to remove the bias in the system that prevents councils, and has done for more than two decades, from building in order to meet the needs in their area. From this point on, councils will be better able, on a fairer basis, to build in the same way that housing associations have been able to do in recent years.

Independent Local Government

8. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): If he will bring forward proposals to establish constitutionally independent local government; and if he will make a statement. [284344]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): As my hon. Friend knows, the statutory independence of local government is set out in various Local Government Acts, and we are committed to the principle of local self-government. I want to ensure that we have the right balance of power and responsibility between central and local government, and I will shortly launch a consultation that will explore those issues. I want, in particular, to explore how democratically elected local authorities can influence all public spending on public services in their area.

Mr. Allen: In finding the right balance to set local authorities free from what is, in effect, the most heavily centralised state in the democratic nations of the world, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity perhaps to join Conservative Front Benchers and stop chaining
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local government, to set it free, and to allow it both the powers and the finance to look after as much of its own affairs as is possible?

Mr. Denham: I think that my hon. Friend will accept that we have done a great deal to give powers to local authorities: they have had the three-year funding settlement, the amount of ring-fencing has been reduced, and the number of targets has been reduced. As I said earlier, I now want to embark on the next stage by ensuring that local authorities have the powers that mean that when somebody elects a local councillor they are electing someone who can genuinely influence public services in their area. However, it is also important that there are some minimum entitlements to the quality of service. We need to ensure that we balance the rightful, powerful place of local authorities with people’s rights to decent services, wherever they live.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): If the right hon. Gentleman is straightforward in this—and I am sure that he is—will he look carefully at the democratic deficit that would occur if there were a reorganisation of local government in Suffolk, which would mean either that the county of Suffolk took away the powers from locally elected people and covered an area stretching from Mildenhall across to my constituency instead of having real local authorities, or a change to an invented local authority with which nobody has any connection at all?

Mr. Denham: I obviously hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. He knows that I am awaiting the report of the inquiry into that matter, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment, but I assure him that Ministers will give proper consideration to the results of those considerations.

Migration Impacts Fund

9. Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): How many applications his Department received for funding under the migration impacts fund; and if he will make a statement. [284345]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): I am pleased to say that we received some 330 proposals for funding. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly announce the successful projects.

Mr. George: I am delighted that money is being made available—largely, I might say, provided by classes of migrants themselves. Can the Minister indicate not just the advantages accruing to migrants themselves but the general societal advantages of the migration impacts fund?

Mr. Malik: My right hon. Friend is right to point out that the fund is derived from increases in immigration fees and is intended to alleviate pressures on local services from transitional changes. There are a number of examples of projects we would like to fund that would benefit the whole community. One is tackling rogue landlords, which would have a direct impact on both migrants and other people in the neighbourhood and the community. That is the principle on which we are approaching the funding.

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Council Tax

10. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): When he next expects a revaluation of domestic properties for council tax purposes to take place; and if he will make a statement. [284346]

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): We will not be considering whether or not there will be a council tax revaluation until at least 2010-11.

Andrew Stunell: Conventionally, one thanks a Minister for their answer, but may I say that it was very disappointing, especially for my constituents? They are increasingly puzzled and angry at a local tax system based on a 15-year-old valuation of their homes, which has no contact with current realities, equity or their ability to pay. Does the Minister and the Secretary of State not accept the urgent need for a new, fairer system based on the ability to pay, which would allow local councils to deliver good services at a fair cost?

Ms Winterton: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the local income tax, which Michael Lyons looked at but did not recommend for a whole host of reasons, including the risk of substantial increases for the working population, the cost burden on employers and the particular impact on small businesses. Yet again, that is an example of a Lib Dem policy that, while professing to do one thing, has quite the opposite effect.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In advance of any major revaluation, will my right hon. Friend consider encouraging local authorities that want to offer council tax discounts for householders and businesses that have introduced energy-efficiency measures and microgeneration? In one fell swoop, that would deal more quickly with the problems of climate change than anything else that could be done.

Ms Winterton: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is consulting on powers for local authorities, particularly with regard to low-carbon strategies. A number of local authorities are also innovatively considering, during these difficult economic times, how they can link energy-efficiency measures with stimulating the local economy and employing local people. That is exactly the sort of interventionist approach that we think is correct.

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