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"The emerging RSS has reached an advanced stage...and so its policies may be given significant weight."
Mr. Denham: The reality is that we have moved from the previous guidance to the regional spatial strategies and are now going through an extensive and, I believe, open process of consultation, as those strategies are developed. As the new leaders boards come into place, that will provide a further degree of oversight and scrutiny to the process. Inevitably, people will not always like what is in the strategies, but I reject the hon. Lady's contention that there is something secretive about the process. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said earlier, there have been masses of public representations, a great deal of debate and a great deal of openness.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Given the curtailed debate last week on clause 67 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, will the Secretary of State ensure that planning guidance to the new regional development agencies on the regional spatial strategies will give weight to environmental as well as economic concerns?
Mr. Denham: Indeed. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the draft consultation paper and guidance on implementing the new strategies include an important quote about sustainable economic growth. It says that sustainable economic growth means
"economic growth that can be sustained and is within environmental limits, but also enhances the environment and social welfare, and avoids greater extremes in future economic cycles."
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Will the Secretary of State accept that his strictures might have a little more weight if his own Government were not failing by delivering less housing than at any time since the war? Before he misrepresents other people's policies, will he consider withdrawing the guidance on the use of the draft strategy, which has been described by planning experts as
"driving a coach and horses through strategic environmental protection."?
Mr. Denham: I tell the hon. Gentleman that it was not me but the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey who described his party's policies as "scary as hell"-I hope that that does not breach any parliamentary code-because of the uncertainty being created. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has made available significant additional new money to kick-start private sector housing schemes and to get new social housing under way-all measures that his party has opposed in saying that our Department's budget should be cut and that there should be no fiscal stimulus. He cannot criticise our record, and he has to admit that he would do far, far less.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): We have decided to carry out additional sustainability appraisal work to appraise alternatives to the areas of search for strategic development introduced or amended by our proposed changes to the RSS. It is expected that this additional work will be completed early in the new year. We will then decide what action we need to take to complete the strategy in the light of the appraisal's findings.
Mr. Chope: Will the Secretary of State concede that his Government's plans to destroy the south-east Dorset green belt have now been successfully thwarted? Will he concede also that the south-west regional spatial strategy, like this Government, is a dead duck?
Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman knows from the strength of my previous answers why I think that that would be absolutely disastrous. If the policy put forward by his spokesman were put into practice-the policy of abandoning the strategies and failing to make available the land needed to house families in this country or to create the possibility of jobs or economic development-it would be an absolute disaster. I will do everything that I can to prevent that from coming about.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend accept that when we talk about the regional spatial strategy, we are talking not just about house building, but about other key issues, such as transport? I have just had an Adjournment debate on the redoubling of the Kemble to Swindon line. If we do not have regional co-ordination, transport will be one of the great losers. Is that not a strong argument for regional government and regional accountability?
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right. I have probably made my attack on the Opposition too narrow. The reality is that they would not just sweep away land for housing and jobs; they would sweep away all regional transport planning. They would also sweep away the regional development agencies, which have been so crucial in pushing economic development, particularly over the past year.
May I bring to my hon. Friend's attention the fact that Kent science park has recently been allowed to extend on to green land? That was done with his Department's knowledge and before the transport analysis
had been done in respect of exit 5 of the M2. Will his Department do some joined-up thinking, so that transport is taken into consideration before more is done on green land?
Mr. Austin: I know that my hon. Friend is working hard to represent local people and raise their concerns on the issue. The local authority needs to consider the proposal in line with its development plan and other material considerations in the usual way.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I wonder whether the Minister will answer the question that the Secretary of State ducked twice, which is this: why is the south-west spatial strategy, which has been roundly condemned up and down the peninsula and which has now gone back to the drawing board, still being used in guidance as a basis for planning in the rural areas of the south-west?
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I would not want to tear the Minister away from Dudley at a weekend, but will he come the short distance up the M42 to North-West Leicestershire to meet me, Mr. Steve Leary and the Minorca open-cast protest group to look at the impact of the application on the eastern fringe of the large village of Measham? He might then give a different answer from the one that he gave to question 3 a moment or two ago.
"I assure the House that we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt."-[ Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1450.]
"We are not proposing any changes to our very robust protection of the green belt."
Mr. Austin: That is nonsense. We have not changed our policy on the green belt and we have no plans to do so. Green belt has actually increased by 34,000 hectares since 1997, while 80 per cent. of development takes place on brownfield land. The hon. Gentleman should be telling his constituents and the rest of the country why the Conservative party has adopted a policy that is anti-growth, anti-housing and anti-doing anything to get us through this recession.
The Minister for Housing (John Healey): All local housing authorities in England are eligible to bid for the programme. Last month, I announced grants for 49 successful councils that, in this financial year, will start the biggest council house building programme in this country for nearly two decades.
Mr. Kilfoyle: Is the Minister aware that, despite the long waiting lists for housing in Liverpool, the city council, which holds no housing stock itself, has made no application under the rules? It has, however, recently managed to appoint a new assistant executive director of housing at a salary of £102,000 a year, plus a 10 per cent. bonus. Does my right hon. Friend think that that is in the spirit that the Government are trying to foster in relation to accommodating people in need of housing? Does he also agree that it is typical of Lib Dem authorities?
John Healey: Like my hon. Friend, I was disappointed that Liverpool did not bid. I was disappointed that it chose not to see the chance to build new council homes for people in the city as a priority, and that, like other flagship Liberal councils in Hull and Newcastle, it did not bid. I am, however, able to ensure that other parts of the housing investment programme mean that, whatever stance the council takes, there will be investment in Liverpool. Last month, I visited a very good Kickstart scheme in Gilead street, where more than 50 new homes will be built as a result of the investment that we are ready to put in to help private developers to kick-start sites that have stalled in the recession.
The Minister for Housing (John Healey): We expect local authorities to assess the demand for housing as part of their strategic role. As part of trying to encourage the building of the homes that we need, and of getting the country through the recession, I was able to put together an extra £1.5 billion over this year and next to build the affordable homes that we need in this country. I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that the Yorkshire region is already benefiting from more than £63 million.
Chris McCafferty: I thank my right hon. Friend for the investment that the Government are putting into Yorkshire and the Humber. I am sure that he is aware, however, of the disappointing statistics for 2009 from the National House-Building Council, which show that the number of new houses completed in the region is down by more than 50 per cent. What plans does he have to kick-start affordable housing and to create jobs in the local construction industry, especially in semi-rural areas such as the Calder valley?
John Healey: The £63 million that I have been able to release since June for affordable homes in Yorkshire and the Humber will lead to 6,000 extra affordable homes, and I hope that there will be more to come. The housing need there, as in other regions across the country, requires the Government to play their part alongside the private sector, if we are to see the affordable homes that we need being built.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Because of excessive Government housing targets, there are plans for some beautiful countryside in Micklethwaite in my constituency to be concreted over so that houses can be built on it. If the Government are so obsessed with affordable housing, why do they not ensure that more houses are built in those parts of Yorkshire that have cheaper houses, rather than in beautiful countryside in my constituency?
John Healey: I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman can stand up in this House and suggest that there are no young couples, no families and no elderly people in his constituency who need homes. That is why we are ready to invest in this programme, not only in his constituency but right across the country, and it is why the Government must play a leading part in it.
The Minister for Housing (John Healey): Last month, I announced that all future rounds of funding for house building in this country-under the new housing pledge and the affordable housing programme-will require those taking the Government grant to have in place apprenticeship schemes. This means that, over this year and next, we will be able to create an additional 3,000 apprenticeship places across the country.
Christine Russell: I recently visited the further education college in my constituency. It is getting a new campus, and it will train the new generation of construction workers. While I was there looking at the new building, however, I was lobbied by some of the mature students. They asked whether there would be any jobs for them, and whether there would be any homes for them. In west Cheshire, 13,000 people are waiting for housing. What more can be done to encourage local authorities to bring forward their surplus sites?
John Healey: If my hon. Friend wants to take a message directly to her own local authority, it should be this. It should bid for the funds we are making available for building; it should drive a harder bargain with its private developers; it should encourage housing associations in the area to build more homes; and it should be ready to give the go-ahead to sensible developments that will lead to the sort of homes that people need in my hon. Friend's area and to house building that can bring jobs for the people she was talking to at her local college.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): As regular revaluations of the business rate system are required by statute, no impact assessment for 2010 is necessary. However, an impact assessment of the proposed 2010-11 transitional relief scheme, which caps revaluation increases at 5 per cent. for small properties and 12.5 per cent. for larger ones, was published on 8 July.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: With next year's revaluation set to hit smaller businesses disproportionately, not least because of the severe recession and debt problems, does the Minister, who I wish well in her new responsibilities, agree that it would be sensible, pragmatic and right to make small business rate relief automatic to every eligible firm?
Barbara Follett: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about small businesses. I am glad to say, particularly when I know that his constituency has many empty shops as retailers have been badly affected by the recession, that retailers will be largely unaffected. They should see a reduction in business rates of 1 per cent., while in industry and manufacturing we will see a fall of 3 per cent. in business rates.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The Minister says she is concerned about the impact on small companies, but a report from Westminster city council today includes a survey showing that one in three businesses facing large rates rises believe that they will go bust as a result of them-with a devastating effect on jobs and communities. Nationally, there are 700,000 companies, most of them small ones, facing rates rises; what assessment has the Minister made of how many of them will go bust as a result? If Westminster city council can do it, why cannot she?
Barbara Follett: I can assure the hon. Lady that we are very concerned and actively watching the situation with small businesses, and that much of what is coming from the press and the Opposition at the moment is exaggerated. For example, the hon. Lady says that businesses in Westminster are facing rate rises of 10 per cent., but our calculations show that, with inflation and relief, none will face more than 3 per cent.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): The first local spending report was published on 29 April this year, following the first phase of our consultation on this topic. The report is available on the DCLG website.
Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for that response, but it has been estimated that unelected quangos now spend £64 billion a year-equivalent to more than £2,500 for every single household. Why are the Government so reluctant to fulfil their pledge and allow local spending reports to publish figures on quango expenditure in local areas?
Barbara Follett: The Government are not reluctant to allow quango expenditure to be included in local spending reports. In fact, what we want to do is develop local spending reports to include this amount, but we have to look at the cost-effectiveness of doing so, and we are not in a position to include quangos at the moment.
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