The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin):
No recent representations of this nature have been received by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The tragic events of the past few weeks underline the importance of reducing flood risk to new development. Planning policy statement 25 provides a robust policy
framework for local planning authorities to avoid, manage and reduce flood risk to new development, as endorsed by Sir Michael Pitt in his review of the lessons learned from the 2007 floods published last year.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Is the Minister aware that the Somerset levels are low-lying and very prone to flooding, both from the sea and from river water? Why, therefore, have the Government placed almost the whole of my constituency in flood zone 3, which will prevent almost all development, including housing development, while failing to provide funding or means for flood relief? Does the dull instrument on the Treasury Bench-
Mr. Austin: This is a very important issue. That is why we have produced a clear, strengthened planning policy statement, PPS25, to reduce flood risk to new development and to deliver safely, without exposing people to unnecessary flood risk, the level of house building we want to see. I am not aware of the particular circumstances in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I would be happy to meet him to discuss that in more detail.
The Minister for Housing (John Healey): There has long been a mismatch between the supply and building of new homes and the demand for those homes. That mismatch led the Government to consider and set the house building targets in the first place. Clearly, the situation has got worse as a result of the global economic downturn, with the demand and need for housing continuing to grow and, particularly in the private sector, the level of building falling through the floor. That is why we stepped in over the summer to put extra money-£1.5 billion-into building the homes we need right across the country.
Bob Spink: But surely the economic crisis and the subsequent fall in net immigration that we saw as a consequence has caused a reduction in forecast demand for new housing need. Can the Minister therefore now reduce the target for new housing need so that we can increase the protection of our green belt, which is most important to our constituents?
John Healey: I said a moment ago that there was a long-term mismatch between the houses we are building and the demand and need for them. Taken over the long term, that continues. Migration is cyclical. It is a relatively small part, but a part nevertheless, of the projections of the need for housing in future. A bigger factor is demographic change in our own country, with the number of households increasing, people growing older and living for longer, and the need for greater mobility within Britain. We are trying to ensure that we can build the homes to meet those factors in future.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend is right-there is a mismatch. The mismatch in Chorley is between lots of house building but no social housing; the council collects section 106 money for
social housing but never spends it. What is he going to do to ensure that social housing is provided in the Chorley constituency?
John Healey: I am disappointed to hear my hon. Friend's report about his local council and the attitude it is taking towards affordable housing. I have to say that this is not the first time I have been disappointed to hear his reports about Chorley borough council. There is a great deal more that it can and should do to ensure that the affordable homes needed in his constituency are provided. It can play a much greater role in that, and I hope he will not cease in his campaign to try to ensure that it does so.
15. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): If he will require local planning authorities to act on objections by the Environment Agency to planning applications on the grounds of the risk of flooding. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): Again, the terrible events of the past few weeks underline the importance of these issues. Our planning policy requires local planning authorities to re-consult the Environment Agency where the agency objects to a planning application on flood risk grounds. This is backed by a direction requiring planning authorities to provide the Secretary of State with the opportunity to intervene where the agency sustains an objection to major development proposals.
Mr. Illsley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. I recently read a briefing which said that about a quarter of local authorities were ignoring Environment Agency recommendations against developments in areas prone to flooding. Does that cause him some concern?
Mr. Austin: This issue will concern many members of the public, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise it. We have made the Environment Agency a statutory consultee on planning applications in areas at risk of flooding. The figures I have suggest that in about 97 per cent. of cases in which the agency objects on flood risk grounds, the final decision is in line with its advice. I know how seriously he takes these matters, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss in more detail the figures that he has.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the Minister go further and join in our calls to make water companies statutory consultees as well, to ensure that where there are major new developments, sewage can fit into waste water pipes to prevent future flooding?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): Regular revaluations are a statutory part of the business rates system and as such do not require impact assessments. However, we have carefully considered the impact of the 2010 revaluation on businesses, including public houses, and are introducing a £2 billion transitional relief scheme for the minority facing increases. An impact assessment of that scheme has been conducted and was published on 17 November. From 1 April, we will also offer extra help to individual public houses in rural areas by increasing their rateable value relief threshold from £10,500 to £12,500.
Chloe Smith: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she not agree that it is irresponsible not to conduct a full impact assessment on such policies, especially in the case in question? The distortions that accrue from using April 2008 property figures may bake property boom prices into business rates for pubs in urban areas and businesses next door to them.
Barbara Follett: The hon. Lady is quite correct to point out that the system contains problems, as it values properties backwards so that the 2008 values are reflected in the 2010 figures. That is exactly why the multiplier is set at a 17-year low of 15 per cent., and why we have implemented a transitional rate relief scheme this year and had an impact assessment.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): I want to ensure that councils are performing as efficiently as possible and making the best possible use of every pound of council tax. I am pleased to be able to confirm today that councils have forecast efficiency savings of more than £3 billion by March 2010, making good progress towards the target of £5.5 billion by March 2011. "Smarter Government", published yesterday, sets out how Government will support councils in continuing to deliver improved services with improved value for money.
Simon Hughes: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Many people in communities such as Southwark and Bermondsey live near major developments from which they get no necessary personal gain. Will he look sympathetically on the proposal to allow development gain money, traditionally called section 106 money, to be used to build or renovate housing for rent in the area affected?
Mr. Denham: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He will be aware that we are already committed to the development of a more flexible and strategic approach to development gain. We will introduce the community infrastructure levy to supplement and replace section 106, which will give local authorities greater flexibility in the use of development gain money.
T5.  Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab):
Can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to reduce carbon emissions in the existing
housing stock, particularly in houses such as those in my constituency in which there is no possibility of cavity wall insulation?
The Minister for Housing (John Healey): My hon. Friend is quite right to say, particularly in this week as we build up to the Copenhagen international conference on climate change, that we need to do a great deal more with our homes in future. More than a quarter of our total emissions in this country come from our homes, which requires us to design, build and plan to a new standard in future-I have set out in some detail the plans from 2016 on-and to undertake a national refurb programme, the details of which I and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Energy and Climate Change are currently working on following the heat and energy saving strategy, which we published earlier in the year.
T2.  Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to protect agricultural land for future food use? If so, what steps will he take to prevent allotments being included in local authority development plans?
Mr. Denham: I think the hon. Lady would agree with me that local authorities need to be able to draw up appropriate development plans for their areas. I am not sure whether she is suggesting that we should specifically limit the way in which they approach these issues, but we are working with third-sector organisations in this area to promote the importance of allotments and to encourage local authorities to make allotment land available. I share with her the view that adequate provision of allotments is a very beneficial thing for local authorities to include in their local planning.
T6.  Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The market in the historic market town of Chorley is under threat from a new Asda being built in the town centre. I welcome the Asda jobs, but I am concerned that this will have a dire effect on the market and the small independent retailers. What help and support can this Government give to ensure that markets will survive, along with the independent shops?
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): I know my hon. Friend has a historic market in his constituency-I think it dates back to the 15th century. It is not quite as old as Doncaster market, but it is still a very valuable one. Under the draft planning guidance-planning policy statement 4-it is possible for local authorities to look very closely at the effect that, for example, an out-of-town development would have on the market. Such effects could include social and economic effects, and perhaps consumer choice would be reduced. That, plus the ability to look much more closely, under the economic assessment duty that is being introduced, at what can be done to assist local markets better are new powers that are being given to local authorities. We also have a retail markets group, which I chair, which will be reporting to Ministers with more ideas as to what we can do.
T3.  Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con):
Following my earlier question, the Housing Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe
(Mr. Goodman) by saying that 1,800 homes had been purchased through the rent-to-homebuy scheme. That seems at variance with the written answer the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) on 16 October, when he said that the number was zero. Has the Minister inadvertently misled the House and would he perhaps like to put the record straight?
John Healey: I do not believe so. The right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends on the Front Bench indicated their question on that matter earlier. If the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, he will see that in response to his original question, I said that up to the end of September, about 1,800 rent-to-homebuys had been completed-I did not use the word "purchased". However, I have indicated to Conservative Front Benchers that I will check the record, particularly in relation to the second exchange between myself and the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). If I made a mistake the second time around, I shall clearly correct it, but if the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, I think he will find what I have explained now, and I am grateful to him for the opportunity to do so.
T8.  Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): The most recent homelessness statistic published by the Department for Communities and Local Government shows a continued fall in the number of acceptances as homeless by local authorities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Is he aware that in the case of approximately half the homelessness diversions in the private rented sector, we are substituting affordable social housing for astronomical rents in the private rented sector? Will he continue urgent discussions with the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to make it clear that that is not actually a sustainable and efficient use of money over the longer term?
T4.  Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): In answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), did the Minister say that the transitional rate relief will cover in full the increases proposed over the next five years, or does she finally accept that the increases will be unbearable for many businesses?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): I certainly accept that it will not cover all of them, but in most cases it will cover a percentage of the increases. Also, under the business rates deferral scheme, businesses will be able to extend their payments over a period of three years.
T9.  David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
Further to the earlier answer given to me about the planning of town centre developments, the handling of much needed major commercial proposals for the heart of Coalville by Tory North-West Leicestershire district council has been an utter fiasco.
Will the Minister press the Government office for the east midlands to respond to my urgent request for a call-in, because to describe the present position as a dog's breakfast would be a grossly unfair slur on canine eating habits?
Mr. Denham: I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes. Obviously, call-in proposals are considered by Ministers on the basis of the case that is made, but he has made his views very clear this afternoon.
Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does the Minister not understand that the transitional relief scheme will not mitigate the huge business rate hike for businesses in my high street, which face an increase of 120 per cent. in their liability? Is this not the wrong time to push through a revaluation based on 2008 inflated prices, when many of my businesses are struggling to cope in the recession?
Barbara Follett: May I suggest to hon. Members whose businesses are rightly concerned about business rate increases-there are increases, although the majority of businesses will see a decrease as a result of the 2010 revaluation-that they go on to the Business Link and the Valuation Office Agency websites and make the calculation, because there is a cap on the increases? For small businesses, the cap is 5 per cent. and on large businesses it is 12.5 per cent. If we take into account negative inflation, that drops to 3.5 per cent. and 11 per cent. I am very sorry that businesses are getting so concerned about this when measures are in place to help them with it.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): What measures are the Department taking to protect council tax payers against botched asset sales such as those we saw under the previous Government, and which Plymouth city council has now embarked on with its sale of Plymouth CityBus? The figures appear not to stack up.
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course the Government do not oppose asset sales per se, but they have to be carried out properly, in the public interest and with the values properly established to ensure that the council tax payer does not lose out. I hope that her council is not like Southampton council, whose leader said a few months ago that the council would privatise for ideological reasons. That is not the way to approach such an important issue.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): In light of the economic downturn and the reduction in new homes being built, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of models such as the Milton Keynes tariff in delivering development for local communities?