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Listing Applications (Planning)

11. Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): How many planning applications involving demolition or partial demolition of a building for which an application for listing has been made have been submitted in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [284347]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): These statistics are not collected. It would be difficult to do so, since planning applications are made to local planning authorities and listing applications are made
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to English Heritage. Planning permission is not in any case generally required to demolish an unlisted building outside a conservation area.

Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the Minister for his answer. English Heritage reckons that five properties pending listing have been demolished in the past year. The problem of pre-demolition while listing is being considered is recognised by the Government, who sought to bring in measures for interim protection in their Heritage Protection Bill. That Bill is still on hold. Can they say when they will bring in measures, either as a stand-alone Bill to introduce interim protection, or through the Heritage Protection Bill, which is not controversial and has the majority support of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives?

Mr. Austin: Given the hon. Gentleman’s background in architecture, he has made himself something of an expert on the matter. I agree that it is important to protect such buildings. He is right that a requirement for interim protection for heritage assets, which are the subject of an application for designation, was included in the Heritage Protection Bill last year, and we will introduce such a requirement when there is a suitable legislative opportunity.

Social Housing

12. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What plans he has to increase the supply of social housing; and if he will make a statement. [284349]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): During the recession, we take the view that the Government have a responsibility to maintain the building of homes that people can afford and create some of the jobs that will help the country through it. That is why we announced last week an extra £1.5 billion to support building such homes, more scope for local authorities to manage their allocation policies in future and a bigger role for local government. That means more homes, fairer lets and meeting local needs.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and greatly welcome the Government’s continued commitment to investing in social housing. I am sure he realises that Plymouth is no exception to the pressing demand for more social housing. Does he also envisage a role for community land trusts in filling the gap in affordable and social housing?

John Healey: There may indeed be a role for community land trusts in some areas. For example, in Plymouth, the Devonport new deal for communities is considering developing that sort of arrangement. We believe that community land trusts have an important part to play, and that is the reason for legislating last year in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, and for the availability of funding under the national affordable housing programme. We should respond to the consultation shortly.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Will the Minister acknowledge that there is an urgent requirement for more affordable housing in my constituency and many others in the south-east, but that the infrastructure
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simply does not exist to support it on the planned scale? Will he consider what can be done to increase the share of Government expenditure on infrastructure in the south-east, which currently receives an unfair deal from the Government?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman raises a broader question about funding for local councils, but he also gets to the heart of the matter. If he believes that his area needs more homes that people can afford to buy and rent, his council needs to play a part in the building programme that we are setting up—I hope he will urge it to do that and encourage it to bid. I also hope that he will make representations to his Front Benchers so that those budgets will not be cut in future.

House Repossessions

13. Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): What steps he has taken to assist people under threat of repossession to remain in their homes during the economic downturn. [284351]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): To help people who may be threatened with repossession, we have put in place advice and support at every stage of the process—from free debt advice when they first get into trouble, to free legal advice and representation should their case end up in court.

Derek Twigg: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The claimant count in Halton for May was up 88 per cent. on this time last year; we have almost the worst unemployment rate in the north-west. Is it not therefore essential that when the Government give help to people to remain in their homes, or help with social housing, areas such as mine, which are suffering much more than others, get priority?

John Healey: We are trying to do two things. First, we want to ensure that there is support for everyone, wherever they are, who may run into problems. Secondly, given the unemployment pressures in my hon. Friend’s constituency, he will welcome our changes to support for mortgage interest, which have doubled the capital limit and shortened the period for which people have to wait for that support. I am sure that he will also welcome the money that has gone through his local authority towards debt advice, as well as help in the courts. At no stage, including when the case comes to court, is a repossession a foregone conclusion.

Local Authority Leaseholders

14. Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): What his most recent estimate is of the number of local authority leaseholders facing financial difficulties with major works bills. [284352]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): Information on the individual financial circumstances of the estimated 230,000 local authority leaseholders in England is not available. However, it is estimated that at least 6 per cent. of local authority leaseholders in London have received major works bills for £10,000 or more.

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Ms Buck: May I emphasise again to my hon. Friend the predicament of many council leaseholders in Westminster, some of whom are about to receive bills for up to £58,000? Let me also stress to him that over the years, the local authority and the Government have been pressing home ownership on tenants, yet in some cases they are now being expected to pay bills the repayment of which will total more than their net earnings. Please may I meet Ministers again to discuss what can be done to assist those people and prevent them from risking losing their homes?

Mr. Austin: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic job that she does in speaking up for her constituents on this issue, and on the work that I know she has done on it for a long time. I know how concerned she is about it, and I can tell her that the Department has been keeping it under review. I know, too, that she and other Members wrote to my predecessor to propose a number of measures. I would welcome the opportunity to meet her and other colleagues who have been campaigning on the issue.

Topical Questions

T1. [284360] Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): I would like to refer to the tragic fire that occurred in Camberwell on Friday afternoon. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in offering sympathy to all those affected and, in particular, condolences to those who have lost loved ones. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), the Minister responsible for fire and rescue, met London fire brigade’s incident commander yesterday afternoon to hear about the fire for himself. I would like to take this opportunity to place on the record our gratitude to the fire and rescue service and to other emergency services for the professionalism and bravery that they showed in responding to that distressing situation.

The House will be aware that the fire is being investigated by both the police and the fire and rescue service, but at this stage it would be wrong to draw premature conclusions. However, the public will want to know that they will be kept fully informed. I have asked Sir Ken Knight, the Government’s chief fire and rescue adviser, to report back to me urgently as conclusions emerge from the investigations and inquiries that are under way.

Mr. Timpson: I am grateful for that answer. Let me turn to a more local issue for my constituency. In Crewe and Nantwich, as across the rest of the country, the quality of public pavements is a continuing problem. The issue came to the fore earlier this week when one of my elderly constituents tripped and fell, breaking her wrist and suffering serious facial injuries, which, sadly, is an increasingly all too frequent occurrence. Does the Secretary of State support my view, and that of the Crewe and Nantwich safer pavements action team, that a difference in level of 25 mm between paving stones is too great and that the threshold for deciding—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry for the hon. Gentleman, but the question was far too long. I am sure that the reply will be a lot shorter.

Mr. Denham: This is not a subject that I have yet had the opportunity to look at in detail since I took up my post, but as I recall, the difference in level was originally established by the courts rather than by primary legislation. I have every sympathy for anybody who has suffered in that way, but the need for local authorities to invest in and maintain pavements is important, and it would be harder to do that if the kind of cuts proposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party—£1 billion from my Department alone—were made.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: I call Fiona Mactaggart.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [ Interruption. ] I am impressed at being called after invisibly standing up to catch your eye, although I was standing up to catch your eye earlier. My urgent question is this. The Government have announced extra investment in public housing. Will they ensure that they invest in those local authorities that are ready to dig, such as Slough, where tenants will get houses more quickly than in areas where the local authority will spend a lot of time complaining about infrastructure but not doing anything?

Mr. Denham: Let me reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing. The challenge and the opportunities are now there for local authorities to show leadership. We are providing the funding and changing the rules, and I certainly want to see the money going to those places with housing needs where the local authority is prepared to step up and meet that challenge.

T2. [284361] Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I have given notice of this question to the private office of the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination. A group of my constituents in Bromesberrow parish have written to me about certain charges that have hit their parish as a result of the independent auditor responding to a particular constituent. This has meant that their parish precept has gone up by 45 per cent. in the past year, which they find disproportionate and unreasonable. Has the Minister had a chance to look at the correspondence that was sent to her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), to see whether the Government could introduce any measures to fix the problem?

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): I believe that the correspondence was dated 26 June. I have not yet looked at it, but I will do. I know that concern has been expressed in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency about this issue. There are perhaps quite a small number of such cases. This is a difficult question, but we do not want to make it harder for people to object in the circumstances he has outlined. However, I will certainly look into the matter and into what the Audit Commission has said, and I will respond in writing to the points he has raised.

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Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a shortage of social housing is more likely to be the fault of Tory authorities such as Hammersmith and Fulham—last month, it announced plans to demolish 3,500 newly modernised social homes—than of new immigrants to the country, who, according to an Equality and Human Rights Commission report today, occupy only 2 per cent. of council homes?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is quite right to put the responsibility on local authorities. We shall see whether the local authorities that have in the past talked the talk, but not been prepared to take any action to produce social housing, will now respond to the investment and the challenge that the Government have laid down.

T3. [284362] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that his Department stands between the Government’s commitment on landfill diversion and the one new major facility that will be required every day for the next four years in order to meet landfill requirements? What is he going to do to speed up the planning process in this regard?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): I can tell the House that, despite the fantastic induction that I have received over the past few weeks, I was not aware of that point. I will, however, be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the matter in more detail if she would like to do so.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I welcome the boost that the Government have given to councils building more council housing, but will the Government look urgently at the Co-operative party’s proposals for mutual home ownership, whereby home investments and pension funds could be used to ensure that those on modest incomes who cannot afford to buy a home can get on to the housing ladder?

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): I will certainly look at that. In general terms, I am ready to look at and back anybody and any organisation that is prepared and able to get homes under way, so that people who need them have the opportunity to buy or rent them at a level they can afford.

T4. [284363] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): It is now five months since the Government’s extended consultation on the local authority business growth incentive scheme closed, and we are four months into the financial year. Given that the money involved is meant to incentivise regeneration, and that we are in a recession, when are the Government going to release that money to local authorities?

Ms Winterton: As soon as possible. I am discussing the final details with Treasury Ministers, and we will make an announcement in the next few weeks.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will one of the Ministers outline to the House how the future jobs fund will work? It is a project that has been put together by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions.
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Will the Minister also make it clear to the House that bids from local authorities will be supported only if they include value added—as Stockton’s does—and if the jobs they make available will be permanent?

Mr. Denham: The future jobs fund is an enormously important initiative by the Government to ensure, in particular, that there are jobs for young people who have been out of work for a long time, and for others in areas of high deprivation. Bids to the future jobs fund are being assessed at the moment, and the criterion that they should involve jobs that will last is clearly part of the process. I should also point out that this initiative is part of the Government’s fiscal stimulus, and that our response to unemployment and the recession is possible only because of the wider measures that the Government are taking.

T5. [284365] Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Does the Minister accept that the blanket requirement to find 3 per cent. a year efficiency savings is particularly difficult for smaller local authorities such as Maldon district council? Will he confirm that there may be some flexibility in the imposition of that target that takes account of the size of the authority, as well as of its record in having already achieved savings?

Mr. Denham: That is an interesting question coming from someone who advocates a 10 per cent. cut in local government expenditure, which would have cut my Department’s budget by £1 billion this year. There is a responsibility right across local government, as in other areas of government, to achieve the maximum efficiency and the best possible value for money for our citizens. I believe that the targets we have set are achievable, but I have to say that the destruction that the hon. Gentleman would wreak on local government is something we do not want to see.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): May I tell the Housing Minister how warmly welcomed his statement was last week on the housing subsidy account? May I also urge him to ensure that any changes he makes will enable excellent four-star councils such as Wigan to build on the 80 council houses it will be placing in the Scholes area of Wigan, so that there are more of them in future?

John Healey: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Wigan just 10 days ago. Both he and I are clear that Wigan is a first-rate authority and we are pleased that it wants to take maximum advantage of the new freedoms and the new funding we are ready to make available to help councils build. I hope that my hon. Friend will work with his council to make the most of the opportunities we are now creating.

T6. [284367] Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): May I take the Secretary of State back to the proposal to foist a new town on the people of Leicestershire at Pennbury? Will he answer a philosophical question? What is eco-friendly or environmentally friendly about building 40,000 new homes in pristine and attractive Leicestershire countryside without any infrastructure to support them?

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