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Regeneration (Liverpool)

5. Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): What plans he has for the regeneration of north Liverpool. [304601]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): Her Majesty's Government recognise the importance of regeneration in north Liverpool. There has been significant investment in the area, including £34 million of housing market renewal funding, £40 million to support business and create jobs, £18.4 million of European regional development funding, and £8.6 million through the future jobs fund, creating 1,320 jobs. I am also pleased that the £5.5 billion Liverpool Waters plan is moving forward, as is the £150 million Project Jennifer redevelopment of Great Homer street. We will continue to support the regeneration of north Liverpool.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, although I barely recognise the picture that he paints. May I invite him to visit my constituency to see for himself the result of 10 years of malign neglect under Liberal Democrat council control? While he is there, will he advise us on how Everton and Liverpool football clubs could be used to lever in the kind of regeneration funding that is still desperately needed, notwithstanding the roll of honour that he has just related?

Mr. Denham: I assure my hon. Friend that the investments that I have described either are or have been taking place or are anticipated in the future. I shall welcome the opportunity, if it arises, to go to his constituency; I always welcome an opportunity to inspect the malign neglect of Liberal Democrat councils.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has just made clear, the regeneration of north Liverpool is intricately linked to the regeneration of Kirkby. Will my right hon. Friend welcome the efforts that are being made by Knowsley council, Tesco, the Government office for the north-west, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the Minister for the North West, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), to put together a modified application for the regeneration of Kirkby, which I hope will be presented to my right hon. Friend in due course?

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Mr. Denham: I pay tribute to the efforts that my right hon. Friend has consistently made to support his constituency and regeneration. My decision on that planning application was taken on the basis of planning guidance, planning law and the conclusions of the inspector's report. However, I am very pleased that, following discussions with me, the Regional Minister and others are engaging with the council and others to see what is the best way forward for the regeneration of Kirkby.

Houses in Multiple Occupation

6. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What recent progress has been made on the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. [304602]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): Since the introduction of the licensing provisions for houses in multiple occupation, councils in England have received applications for about 30,000 HMOs, and have issued licences for about 20,000.

Chris Ruane: I thank the Minister for his response. Last year, I asked Denbighshire county council how many HMOs it had licensed in a three-year period. The answer was just 33. After pressure, it has agreed to apply for additional and selective licensing, and next year it will start on licensing 433, taking the council from the worst to the best in the country. What lessons has the Minister learned from the Welsh experience in increasing the number of HMOs that are licensed?

John Healey: The whole House will have heard my hon. Friend and learned the lesson that local authorities that are prepared to tackle the worst landlords in their area, and to build up concentrations of HMOs that change its nature and character, are able to put in place additional licensing schemes. I am glad to hear about the successful campaign that he has run to persuade his council in that regard. That is precisely the way ahead, as we want councils to make maximum use of the provisions that are in place at present.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Landlord licensing is one solution, but the use classes order is far more significant in many areas with concentrations of HMOs. Will the Minister give me an update on the progress of the Government's examination of that? Does he agree that restrictions on the number of HMOs in such areas will increase the balance of the community and be in the interests of all?

John Healey: Indeed, and that is why our general policy is to promote mixed communities, as they tend to be better balanced and more stable. The hon. Gentleman asked for an update on our examination of whether changes to the use classes might help us pursue our objectives. At present, we are sifting the 900 or so responses that we have received to the consultation, and I hope to be able to update the House on this shortly.

Gas Storage Facilities (Planning)

7. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): What guidance his Department issues on the permitted distance between high-rise developments to gas storage facilities. [304603]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): Government circular 04/00, "Planning Controls For Hazardous Substances", provides that the Health and Safety Executive must be consulted on any proposed development near hazardous substances installations such as gasholders and that, in view of its acknowledged expertise, any advice from the HSE that planning permission should be refused should not be overridden without the most careful consideration.

Martin Linton: Is my hon. Friend aware that planning permission was granted in Wandsworth for a 42-storey tower only 18 metres from a gasholder? That was against the HSE's advice, which said that the risk from a fireball was "unacceptable" and 17 times higher than the level at which it would normally advise against. Is it not a matter of concern that planning committees have the power to disregard HSE advice even when it is expressed so strongly, and that it is so often left to public inquiries to assess the real risk to the public?

Mr. Ian Austin: We are working closely with the HSE to ensure that local planning authorities are fully informed about the advice available to assess risk around major hazards, and to make that advice more accessible. I cannot comment on the specific planning application that my hon. Friend has raised, but an inquiry into the development of the Ram brewery site in Wandsworth is currently under way. The inspector will submit his report and the Secretary of State will determine the application as soon he reasonably can.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I well understand the concern of the residents represented by the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), but what does the Minister have to say about the fact that we in Britain have only 15 days' strategic gas storage? That compares to 92 days in Germany and more than that in France. Elsewhere across the world we have large quantities of gas. What is Britain going to do to stimulate investment in gas storage, taking into account the concerns of residents such as those that have been raised?

Mr. Austin: That is probably a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is written to. However, the question that he ought to be asking his Front Benchers is why the Conservative party continues to refuse planning applications for wind turbines.

FiReControl Project

8. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What his most recent estimate is of the cost of the FiReControl project. [304604]

12. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): What his most recent estimate is of the cost of the FiReControl project. [304608]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): The estimated cost of delivering the FiReControl project is £420 million.

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James Duddridge: At the start of this debacle in March 2004 we were told that tried and tested methods would be used for IT, and that the project would be done and dusted by November 2007. There has been a little bit of slippage on the time scale, but is the Minister serious and does he stand by the words of his predecessors? Was the IT really tried and tested, because that clearly does not seem to be the case?

Mr. Malik: The case for FiReControl is absolutely compelling-[Hon. Members: "No, it is not!"] It is interesting, because I met representatives of the Chief Fire Officers Association only last week, which is as committed to FiReControl as ever. The idea that the Opposition are better placed to talk about national resilience in the context of the fire service than the CFOA is frankly laughable. FiReControl will improve national resilience and bring unprecedented levels of co-operation and interoperability- [ Interruption. ] That is a difficult word as well. For the first time, we shall have a national network with nine regional control centres, all of which will be able to operate at peak times in a way that we have never seen before.

Christopher Fraser: Given the vast over-cost and the considerable delay, does the Minister believe that taxpayers are seeing value for money?

Mr. Malik: We would not have engaged in the project if we did not believe that it was value for money. All the major stakeholders believe that it is value for money. Sometimes I think that the Conservatives seem to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The set-up costs of the FiReControl project are already £400 million over budget, the project is years behind schedule and the Local Government Association and the Chief Fire Officers Association-previous supporters of the Government on the project-are bailing out. In his written statement of 15 July, the Minister promised to underwrite all pre-cutover upfront costs of the project. Is he still in a position to meet that undertaking?

Mr. Malik: We are fully committed to ensuring that FiReControl is achieved as set out. The idea that there is a £400 million overspend is so far off the mark that it is frightening. The reality is that when rescheduling took place in July this year the cost went up from £380 million to £420 million. Those costs will all be reaped back from EADS via royalties and a reduced fee for FiReControl operations.

Public Service Delivery

9. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of local authorities in delivery of local public services. [304605]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): Local government has improved significantly during the past decade. It plays a key role in local areas, ensuring that citizens receive high-quality public services from all local providers. In yesterday's White Paper we announced increases in flexibility and reductions in bureaucracy, which will
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help fulfil that role more effectively. Tomorrow, we will see the first comprehensive area assessment results, which will provide transparent information, enabling citizens to hold local service providers to account.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he agree that in localities such as the Barnsley metropolitan borough council area the regional development agency plays a very important part in ensuring that the effectiveness of local authority services is improved, by being able to focus on the wider issues of transport and employment to help in creating the jobs that Barnsley needs so much?

Mr. Denham: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly the role that regional development agencies play. In many other ways, they support growth and the improvement of public services, which is why the CBI, the House Builders Federation and many others are so appalled at Conservative proposals to abolish regional development agencies and the essential role they play.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Is the Secretary of State not completely right to say that local authorities have improved enormously over the past few years, because most of them are now Tory-controlled?

Mr. Denham: The reason why local authority services have improved is that real spending and real investment by central Government in local authorities has improved by 37 per cent. over the past 10 years. That is a sharp contrast with the 7 per cent. real-terms reduction when the Conservatives were last in power. Local government has improved because for the first time there has been comprehensive and effective inspection and accountability of those services, and I am proud of the role that this Government have played with local councils of all parties in improving the quality of services to local people.

Council Housing

10. Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): How many local authorities (a) submitted successful bids in round 1 and (b) have submitted bids in round 2 of the Government's council housing new build programme. [304606]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): Forty-nine local authorities were successful in bidding for grant to build new council homes. All are set to start on site, with 217 schemes, before the end of March, which makes it the largest council house building programme for nearly two decades. The deadline for round 2 submissions was the end of October, and I hope to make announcements on successful bidders early in the new year.

Clive Efford: May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent work in making resources available for council house building? However, he will be aware of speculation about the demand for those resources, so will he consider making a statement to support new bids for council housing where the demand for resources outstrips what has been allocated so far?

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John Healey: My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about those matters, is right. The level of interest and the number of bids that we have had for the second round of the council house building programme has certainly been greater than that which we received for the first. When I announced the £1.5 billion of extra funding in the housing pledge, I made it clear that the four elements of that pledge, and the budgets allocated against them back in the summer, included the capacity to flex some of that spend between those parts of the programme, and I am certainly ready to do so if there is a good case.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): This Labour Government have let down the poor in so many ways, but I shall not mention spiralling youth unemployment, falling educational standards or, indeed, failing public health. Instead, I want to ask why this Labour Government have built fewer affordable houses than were built in any year of the previous Conservative Administration. Why is that? Why have this Government let down the poor on housing?

John Healey: May I say that this Labour Minister in this Labour Government is pleased to have been able to offer the hon. Gentleman's Tory council money to build council homes, which are needed in the East Riding of Yorkshire just as they are throughout the rest of the country.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): When the Mayor of London published his draft housing strategy, he tore up the commitment to make 50 per cent. of all new homes affordable, saying that his target of producing units would help us to deliver more affordable housing. Given that this week it has been announced that he will miss that target, too, will my right hon. Friend have urgent discussions about how we can deliver the much-needed homes to tackle overcrowding and homelessness in London?

John Healey: The jury is very much out on Mayor Johnson and the pledges he made more than 18 months ago. In housing, more than any other area, there is a big shortfall if we compare what he promised in the run-up to his election with what he has been able to deliver so far to meet the very serious housing needs that exist throughout the capital.

Home Information Packs

11. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect of home information packs on the housing market since their introduction. [304607]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): We are currently working up proposals to evaluate the effectiveness of the HIPs programme, and we expect the results to be available in 2010. However, early independent research undertaken by Europe Economics and published in November 2007 concluded that the introduction of HIPs would not have a negative impact on the housing market.

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Mr. Robathan: Let me add my voice to the research, because all my constituents tell me that they find the HIPs to be-[Hon. Members: "All?"] Those constituents who raised the matter with me tell me that they find HIPs to be untimely, expensive, bureaucratic and, really, a waste of time. They quite like the energy performance certificates, so will the Government realise the error of their ways, realise what a waste of time-time, effort and money-the process has been, and scrap it?

Mr. Austin: The hon. Gentleman does not need to ask ludicrous questions like that to confirm to the House that he is not exactly the sharpest tool in the box. [ Interruption. ] However, thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process. Some 13,000 people- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I realise that there is some enjoyable badinage, but I actually want to get down the Order Paper and reach some questioners lower down. I know that Members will want to take that into account-rudeness notwithstanding.

Mr. Austin: Thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses depend on the HIP process. Some 13,000 people have invested thousands in training as energy assessors, so the Opposition need to explain why they would put all those jobs and all those businesses at risk, and the hon. Gentleman needs to explain to all the people in his constituency whose livelihoods depend on that process why he wants to put them out of work.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Does the Minister not realise that most house purchasers would far rather rely on searches and inquiries carried out on their behalf by a solicitor of their choice than by a home information pack provider, of whom they know nothing?

Mr. Austin: The Leader of the Opposition swans off to the Arctic to hang around with huskies, but the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition are showing today why nobody will take seriously anything they say about climate change. As a result of HIPs, 2 million home owners now have an energy assessment and energy recommendations that can help them to cut their fuel bills by up to £300 and reduce carbon emissions. Is it not extraordinary that even today, as the world gathers in Copenhagen, the Opposition are still committed to abolishing the HIP, which is one of the main ways of helping home owners to cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change?

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