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The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): There will be an opportunity for delegations, including local authorities, to make oral representations to Ministers once the independent boundary committee's process is concluded, following the outcome of the ongoing Appeal Court case.
Mr. Bellingham: Is the Minister aware that these proposals have been met with overwhelming opposition throughout Norfolk and Suffolk? She mentioned the case in the Appeal Court. Why is the boundary committee spending tens of thousands of pounds on appealing against the earlier judgment? Surely the time has come for her to tell the boundary committee to put a stop to these discredited proposals.
Ms Winterton: Obviously, we are awaiting the outcome of the Appeal Court hearing. The hon. Gentleman asked why the process was taking so long; I assure him that we will act as quickly as possible to bring it to a conclusion following the outcome of the hearing. Until then, it would not be appropriate for me to comment.
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister accept that the Government's proposals will place a financial burden on all households in Norfolk for something which-as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) pointed out-local people simply do not want and do not need?
Ms Winterton: As I have said, while the boundary committee process is ongoing, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on particular patterns of the proposals. I should add, however, that there is clear evidence that unitary local government can bring substantial efficiency gains, which can then be used to improve services or reduce council tax. I know that that is not a policy followed by the hon. Gentleman's party.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): Through the advancing assets demonstration programme, which my Department funds, support has been given to Wirral borough council and its community partners since mid-2008 for implementation of the strategic asset review. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his sterling campaigning work, not least in regard to saving library services.
Initially, Wirral council provided little information for community groups on its strategic asset review and transfer, and even fewer resources. That has
caused concern to constituents of mine who want their local halls to be preserved and to prosper. What advice can the Govt provide in terms of benchmarks, management structures, finances and experience elsewhere?
Mr. Malik: This is an important development, which is why, between 2007 and 2011, we shall have invested £5 million in it. A number of organisations are supporting Wirral, including Community Matters and the Development Trust Association. All those organisations can provide access to practical advice and guidance, as well as links to other organisations throughout the country and case studies.
I understand that Wirral has made it clear that it is prepared to consider undertaking capital works to upgrade buildings and providing revenue support thereafter, but if my hon. Friend continues to be concerned, I shall be happy to meet him to discuss the matter.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): The Government's policy is expressed in "Planning Policy Guidance 2: Green belts", which was issued in 1995. It has served the country well, and the Government have reaffirmed that there are no plans to change green belt policy.
There is a presumption against inappropriate development on green belt land. Such development should not be approved except when any harm to the green belt would be clearly outweighed by other considerations, and when there are very special circumstances to justify development. Green belt boundaries can be changed only in exceptional circumstances, through the development plan process, which must involve robust public consultation and independent scrutiny.
Mr. Binley: I am sure that, like me, the Minister welcomes the display of people power which overwhelmingly rejected a ludicrous proposal to build 18,000 homes on greenfield land south of Northampton without any real thought being given to infrastructure or, indeed, to job growth. Will he now tell us when he will scrap the quango which the Government set up five years ago, and restore planning powers to local councils?
Mr. Austin: It is a great shame that the Opposition take every possible opportunity to argue against proposals for housing, growth, strengthening the economy and taking Britain out of recession. They ought to be using this Question Time to explain why the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said that she would revoke the regional spatial strategies, why she urged Conservative town halls-even before the passing of primary legislation-
15. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on rates of local authority participation in the Government's free swimming scheme.  [Official Report, 9 November 2009, Vol. 499, c. 5MC.]
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): There are regular discussions across Departments on the free swimming scheme. Of the 553 eligible local authorities, 260 are offering free swimming under the free swimming scheme, and 4.5 million people have used the programme across England.
Shona McIsaac: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Speaking as somebody who used to work as a lifeguard, I would love for her to name and shame the councils who are not fully participating in this scheme and give them a great big kick up the bahookie so that they get their act together and provide the scheme to both pensioners and the under-16s.
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that this scheme particularly benefits older people, as do the steps we have taken on free bus passes and winter fuel payments. She is right to say that where there are, for example, Liberal Democrat councils such as that in north-east Lincolnshire which are not taking advantage of this, we should make sure that the public know that they are not providing what is a very welcome service to older people in their area.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): I want to ensure that local authorities have the ability to respond to local needs without unnecessary bureaucracy, so today we are publishing our proposals to allow councils and their communities to make certain byelaws without seeking Government approval, and to have them enforced through fixed penalty notices. I will also consult on proposals to repeal or streamline more than half the consent regimes-regimes whereby councils have to seek my Department's permission before acting.
Mr. Timpson: Cheshire East council has recognised a problem raised recently by one of my constituents, which is that 30 per cent. of street lighting in the Crewe and Nantwich area does not meet British safety standards regarding spacing. What can the Secretary of State do to help this relatively new council improve that statistic in respect of what is a very important community safety issue?
It is particularly important that we continue to have in power a Government who want to invest in public services, because the sorts of cuts proposed by the hon. Gentleman's party would not have helped his local authority. I will be happy to enter into correspondence with him about this particular case. This problem has been tackled in some parts of the country with Government support through private finance
initiative consents for renewables street lighting. I am not familiar with the details of the case the hon. Gentleman raises, but I am more than happy to take it forward with him.
T4.  Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My colleagues on the Treasury Bench may well be aware of the total lack of interest in elected mayors shown in Manchester during a recent consultation, and of the comments of the former Tory leader of Trafford council that there is simply no appetite for elected mayors, especially in Manchester. In the light of that, if the Government are not mad enough to enforce these expensive referendums on local communities, who would be?
Mr. Denham: That is a very interesting question. I made my view clear in the summer, which is that we think the current legal framework, allowing the option to go for mayors where communities wish it but not imposing it, is about right. I was struck by the fact that the Opposition, while being committed to decentralisation, said that their first act in power would be to legislate in this place to force people to have referendums on mayors whether they liked it or not. That is a very odd sort of decentralisation.
T2.  Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Given that the local government review in Devon has been a complete waste of time and money from the very start and is a colossal distraction to senior officers in all the district councils throughout Devon, and that the uncertainty continues, will the Secretary of State please now confirm that, just six months away from a general election, this LGR is dead and buried?
Mr. Denham: My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination gave an excellent answer to a similar question a little earlier. We are awaiting the result of the boundary committee appeal hearing. Once that is received, Ministers will be able to proceed, as we would have done previously, to take an appropriate decision.
T6.  Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Given the purchase yesterday of HBOS Employee Equity Solutions by Computershare, will the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber-the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)-who has done excellent work saving jobs in the Calder valley, give me an assurance that all employees affected will be transferred under TUPE arrangements?
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on behalf of her constituents in terms of the financial services industry, not only in our region but particularly in her constituency. I understand from yesterday's announcement that the 190 people employed in Halifax who would be covered by the proposed takeover will be transferred under TUPE arrangements to the new employer. I hope that that gives her some reassurance.
T3.  Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):
Colchester's population is greater than that of many unitary authorities. Colchester borough council is the only one in Essex not run by the Tories, and consequently it is neglected and
politically discriminated against by the county council. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how Colchester's authority can move towards having unitary council status?
Ms Winterton: Obviously, the hon. Gentleman, unlike the Conservative party, recognises that many benefits can come with unitary status. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss the issues that he has raised.
Mr. Denham: It is not for me to make such an assessment, but I must say that anybody who proposed doing away with regional development agencies, regional spatial strategies and all the things that enable us to have economic growth would be an enormous threat to the future of this country.
T7.  Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The 2010 business revaluation is based on market values from April 2008. Given that market values have fallen considerably and that that has affected local businesses, will the Minister put additional resources into the Valuation Office Agency so that appeals can be fast-tracked?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): We are looking at methods to help in this revaluation process, but I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman on his specific question.
T5.  Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I am not quite sure why the Secretary of State is seeking to extend fixed penalty notices, given that most of them go unpaid in the first place. Can he tell the House which of the following is the higher priority for his Department: meeting his arbitrary building targets, or the presumption against building on floodplains?
Mr. Denham: That use of the word "arbitrary" was wrong; the housing ambitions that the Government have set out stem from a hard-headed analysis of how many homes need to be built over the next 15 years or so to ensure that the population of this country is adequately housed. The Conservative party is wrong to describe the targets as arbitrary. By denying the need to provide homes for the families of this country, it is the Conservatives who are such a big threat.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Slough borough council is one of the authorities that over the past five years has built more than 1,160 affordable homes, yet it has not bid, although it would like to do so, for the funds available for house building. That is because it is small, because it is not a building authority and because it is already using the land that is appropriate. Can the Minister find ways to help small authorities such as Slough borough council to bid to build more homes, which the residents in my constituency need?
The Minister for Housing (John Healey):
All local housing authorities, including Slough's, are eligible to bid for the new programme that is in place for council house building. I have to say that Slough's authority has done a magnificent job, particularly in the past couple of years, in finding the scope within the town to build
homes that people in the area badly need. Where the national Government can support the authority, we will do so, and I am always ready to talk to my hon. Friend or her local council leader about how we can do so.
T9.  Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Council tenants in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park pay about a third of their rent to the Government in the form of a subsidy, but the only thing they get for that is the prospect of Decent Homes funding. Some £120 million was promised to their council to pay for upgrading, improvement and renovation of their homes, but that money is no longer on the table. Will the Minister meet me, as well as a number of my constituents who are council tenants, to discuss whether that money can be put back on the table, so that those much-needed renovations can get under way?
John Healey: I never refuse a meeting with a Member of this House, and I shall not refuse the hon. Gentleman. I have made it clear to the House that the Government are totally committed to completing the Decent Homes programme, but the judicial review that his authority is pursuing at the moment is getting in the way of our being able to have the sort of discussions that he wants to encourage us to have.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Given the depressed state of the housing market and the problems being experienced in the construction industry, will the Minister give me an assessment of the potential impact of any delays in the implementation of the regional spatial strategy?
John Healey: The short answer is that the impact could be very serious, because the new homes are badly needed in my hon. Friend's region. Moreover, the investment in them helps to create the jobs that keep in people in work, and the apprenticeship schemes that will give people the skills needed in the future.
T10.  Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): How many small shops in my constituency will lose their eligibility for small business rate relief next year, after revaluation? The revaluation took as its reference point April 2008, when retail rents were very high, compared with industrial and office rents.
Mr. Denham: Obviously, I do not know the details of individual constituencies, but I want to reinforce one point that needs to be made. The business rate revaluation does not raise extra money: rather, it introduces a fair distribution of rates each time a revaluation takes place. That brings winners and losers, so we always put in place transitional arrangements to soften the blow or ameliorate the rate of benefit. Business rates are often described in this House as some sort of penal attack on particular businesses, whereas the revaluation is a fair adjustment, moderated over time. We shall continue with the process and, in government, the Opposition would have to do something very similar.
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