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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 October 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

business before questions

Leeds City Council Bill ( By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 5 November (Standing Order No. 20).

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 5 November (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked-

Contingency Arrangements (Fire Service)

1. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What role his Department plays in making contingency arrangements in the event of industrial action by the fire service. [295520]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): The making of contingency arrangements for emergencies, including industrial action, is the statutory duty of individual fire and rescue authorities.

Angela Watkinson: As a member of a fire service family, I know that nobody joins the fire service to earn a lot of money; they do it because they believe that it is a very important public service. In an answer to a previous question, the then Minister indicated that his Department did not keep copies of existing contingency plans, which must vary widely from one authority to another. Will the Minister therefore take a view on whether firefighters should be obliged to cross the picket lines of another fire and rescue authority?

Mr. Denham: I do not follow the connection between the main part of the hon. Lady's question and the second part. Fire plans are the responsibility of the fire and rescue authorities. The Audit Commission reviews those plans, as it reviews other things covered by the comprehensive performance assessment-of course, we are always in close contact with the Chief Fire Officers Association on those issues.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that, in protecting the lives of our constituents, firefighters provide a service that is second to none in this country, and we congratulate
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them-the number of them who have died in recent years is a tribute to the sacrifice that is made. The Secretary of State will be aware also of the recent dispute in South Yorkshire, which arose as a result of management seeking to impose new work schedules and conditions on firefighters, so will he join me in urging management to seek a negotiated settlement rather than provoking industrial action?

Mr. Denham: I join my hon. Friend and, indeed, the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who asked the first question, in paying tribute to firefighters and the role that they play. Under all such circumstances, including the one to which my hon. Friend has referred, negotiated ways forward are preferable, and mechanisms exist through which arbitration, mediation and conciliation should and could be explored.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I begin by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) to her new Front-Bench role. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the event of fire service strikes, there are no contingency vehicles, because the green goddesses have been sold off to places such as Albania and Peru, and that there are no contingency contracts outside London, because of the collapse of Project Fireguard? The Secretary of State seems unaware that his predecessor told me that no contingency plan was held at the centre, which surely cannot be an adequate state of affairs.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady is well aware that the responsibility for contingency plans lies with the fire and rescue authorities, and a moment ago I explained the relationship between central Government and that responsibility. It is perfectly true that the world has moved on since the era of the green goddesses, when the armed forces were expected to step in and provide nationally organised contingency cover. I always regret any local disputes that arise, but in those circumstances we have seen the use of locally made contingency arrangements, and, as far as I have been able to tell, they have operated satisfactorily.

Mrs. Spelman: Nothing seems to exist, therefore, at the centre. As the threat of fire service strikes continues, our country faces a winter of discontent, with rubbish piling up in the streets and Christmas post gathering dust in sorting offices. With no leadership and no authority, this Government have become a sitting target for their union paymasters, so will the Secretary of State now accept that in the event of further fire service strikes, contingency staff must be allowed to cross the picket lines?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady would obviously like there to be such a winter, because she would love to see anything that might damage this country. However, a decision was taken quite deliberately a number of years ago to make it clear that responsibility for contingency cover lay locally with the fire and rescue authorities, and that is the strategy that has been pursued. Based on that strategy, the Audit Commission reviews the quality of the arrangements that are in place, and we have a close relationship with the chief fire officers. I must say that, in so far as I can see, the strategy of local responsibility for contingency arrangements is the correct one.

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Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Reference has been made to the dispute in South Yorkshire, where we have had one day's strike and more are threatened. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that, however good the contingency arrangements, they cannot give the public the same protection as a fully functioning fire service. Will he therefore publicly encourage both sides to take a step backwards, the management to withdraw their highly controversial dismissal notices, the unions to withdraw their threat of strike action and both to go together to the joint secretaries, with the possible help of ACAS, to try to get a considered, negotiated settlement?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes a good point in a measured way. As I said earlier, there are various routes-he mentioned two, and there may even be others-that would lead to arbitration, mediation and conciliation, with the opportunity for both sides to find a way forward that avoids the need for industrial action.

Sheltered Accommodation

2. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): What assessment he has made of the effects on residents in 24-hour resident warden service sheltered accommodation. [295522]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): We have set up a working group, led by my ministerial colleague Lord McKenzie, which is examining a wide range of issues in relation to wardens and sheltered housing. The group includes a range of organisations such as Help the Aged, Age Concern and the National Housing Federation, and it is working on a series of projects, including looking at different ways of providing support to older people, and highlighting the pros and cons of those different approaches. We will evaluate the overall benefits to residents of each one.

Bob Spink: Sheltered accommodation wardens in Castle Point, as elsewhere, are unsung heroes. Does the Minister agree that they are worth their weight in gold, since their small cost saves millions of pounds in social and health care costs that would arise were they to be disbanded or inappropriately used? Will he look carefully at this and ensure that wardens are protected in our sheltered accommodation?

Mr. Austin: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the job that wardens do; they provide a crucial, valuable and, in many cases, life-saving service. I also pay tribute to all those who care for older people, including those providing floating support in the community. I assure him that we will keep this issue under very close review-as he knows, because only last week he was raising the concerns of people in his constituency in debate. On a general point, exactly how these services are provided should be a decision for local authorities, not dictated by me or by other Ministers in Whitehall.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I never thought that I would stand here and say that I agree entirely with the points made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), but I do-although I have to say that in
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Ealing, North we have heroes and heroines. May I ask my hon. Friend to make every endeavour not to repeat the compulsory competitive tendering mistakes of the past and to recognise the importance of added value in terms of individuals' quality of life and health? I urge him to take that into consideration during the review.

Mr. Austin: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in everything that he has said about the valuable role that wardens play in his constituency and elsewhere in the country. I am happy to meet him to discuss this in more detail.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Minister has said, there was a useful debate on this matter last week in Westminster Hall. As well as paying tribute to the work of wardens, does he agree with Imogen Parry of ERoSH-the Essential Role of Sheltered Housing-who said:

Does he agree that it is consultation, first, last and always, that matters with elderly and vulnerable residents?

Mr. Austin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. This is not a party political matter. He makes some serious points about consultation. Residents and those affected by any changes in the services they receive should be properly consulted about those changes. There should be proper and meaningful consultation before changes are made, and people's views should be taken properly into account.

Planning (Open-cast Mining)

3. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If he will revise the planning guidelines concerning buffer zones between residential dwellings and open-cast mining sites in England. [295523]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): All relevant environmental issues were considered by the independent inspector and the Secretary of State.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful for that reply, but I was not going to ask about the specific planning consents that the Minister has referred to. None the less, that is relevant in the sense that if he lived in Scotland or Wales, no open-cast planning consent would have been given to his local authority because of the 500-metre buffer zone requirements, whereas in England only 250 metres is required. Does he think that that is fair?

Mr. Austin: I know that this is a controversial issue in Shropshire, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to turn it into a party political row, especially since my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) has been working just as hard as he has to represent constituents on this subject. Just because we do not have a blanket policy on buffer zones in England, it does not mean that the impact on nearby housing and other environmental matters are not taken into account during the planning process-in fact, they are the key issues that are considered.

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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): On the narrow point about planning guidelines and applications, is the Minister aware of the widespread concern that there are proposals to put them only on the internet in future and not to print them to be published on lamp posts and hedgerows or in local papers? Will he assure me that the Government and his Department will seek to maintain printed publication of planning applications, so that all our constituents can see them in their local papers?

Mr. Austin: We have an open consultation on this issue at the moment, and we will consider my right hon. Friend's point carefully. If he would like to meet me or my colleagues to discuss it in more detail, we would be delighted.

Regional Spatial Strategy

4. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What his Department's timetable is for the revision of regional spatial strategies. [295524]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): To date six regions have published their final revision to their regional spatial strategies: the east of England, Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-east, the north-west, the east midlands and the south-east. The west midlands is taking a phased approach to the full revision of its RSS. Phase 1, covering the black country, was finalised on 15 January last year. I expect to consult on any proposed changes in phase 2 in the new year. The south-west strategy was due to be published last summer, but in light of a legal judgment on a sustainability appraisal, we have agreed to do some further work and consultation. We aim to publish it in 2010.

Mr. Harper: Given that the south-west RSS consultation has had, as one civil servant put it, more responses than any other planning proposal in British history, most of them raising objections, is it not about time that the Secretary of State listened to what those people are saying, took up our proposals, scrapped the RSS and gave those powers back to locally elected councillors?

Mr. Denham: No, I do not agree, for the same reason that the Home Builders Federation said what a threat the Opposition's policies were to housing and growth in this country. The Government's view is that regional spatial strategies are a vital tool in ensuring that there is sufficient housing for our families and children in the years ahead and that there is scope for industrial development and growth. The Opposition, in the middle of our current economic difficulties, are causing enormous damage and uncertainty through the ludicrous letter circulated by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on their behalf.

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Twenty per cent. of Gypsies and Travellers have no legal camping place, which is why my constituents in Thornley are seeing large numbers of Travellers camping in the centre of their village, causing much tension. Do the Government have any plans to provide funding for legal camping sites in future? What pressure can my hon. Friend place on local authorities to follow their own guidelines, and will he or one of his team meet me to discuss the matter further?

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Mr. Denham: I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss two things: first, ensuring that his local authority and the police are using fully the extensive powers that now exist to move on illegal encampments without undue delay; and secondly, using the money that is available to enable new sites to be created, which gives the police even stronger powers to move people on quickly.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Will the Secretary of State help me to explain to my constituents why the people of Suffolk cannot have their own spatial strategy instead of having to have one that is driven by Stevenage and Luton, neither of which is anywhere near nor has any of the same problems as them?

Mr. Denham: The right hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in these matters, and he will understand that providing sufficient land to house the people of this country in future is a challenge that has national, regional and local dimensions. His party's policy of removing entirely any sense of national or regional consideration, or considering the interests of families that will need homes in future and people who need jobs now, is absolutely wrong.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): Warwick district council has just finished its consultation period on its options within the RSS, which are being clearly rejected by the community. I believe that the council needs to reconsider and return with alternative proposals. Will my right hon. Friend support my suggestion to the regional Government office that the council be given some extra time to work on that without jeopardising its additional grant?

Mr. Denham: I set out a timetable earlier suggesting that in the next phase of the west midlands RSS, proposed changes would be published for consultation in the new year with a revision later in the year. I hope that that gives scope for proper discussion of these important issues in the way that my hon. Friend wants, but if he has further concerns, I invite him to write to me about them and I will give him more details on the likely time scale.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the regional spatial strategy process has undermined people's confidence in the planning system? Why does he think that so many people are so angry?

Mr. Denham: It is quite understandable that people look at these issues from a local point of view and at questions about what communities want to see in an area, but I say to the hon. Lady-I hope that she will explain this to her constituents-that we need to ensure that we have sufficient land for housing, growth, economic development and jobs for the future. That cannot be a purely local decision; it must have regional and national elements. I hope that she is not joining with the incredibly damaging position of Conservative Front Benchers in saying, "Jobs don't matter. Housing doesn't matter. Growth doesn't matter." All they want is local populism. There are difficult choices to be made, and we need political parties in this country that, unlike the party opposite, will face up to those difficult choices.

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Julia Goldsworthy: Does the Secretary of State not realise that it is the lack of transparency and accountability in the process that frustrates people so much? I shall quote to him the comments of the planning inspector in relation to the south-west draft RSS:

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