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House of Commons

Tuesday 26 January 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked-

Business Rate Revaluation

1. Chloe Smith (Norwich, North) (Con): Which types of business he expects to experience the highest increase in rateable values as a result of the April 2010 business rate revaluation. [312948]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): Business rates revaluation is carried out by the Valuation Office Agency, which is independent of Ministers. It will not raise a single extra penny for Government. Oil and gas producing properties, power generators and major sports clubs that have improved their trading position or invested significantly in their grounds are expected to see the largest increases in average rateable values. When the occupier of a property is a charity-for example, in the case of lifeboat stations-and might also see large increases, that occupier is protected by a mandatory 80 per cent. relief from business rates on any property that is occupied for charitable purposes. Local authorities may increase that relief to 100 per cent.

Chloe Smith: Local business know best how to create local growth, yet pubs and independent petrol stations in my constituency feel that RV rules are rigid, out of date and wrong. Does the Secretary of State not agree with the Labour Local Government Association group that business rates should be localised?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady raises questions about how valuations are carried out. I would be very interested to learn from her or from the Opposition whether they agree with me that having a valuation office that takes decisions on rateable values independent of Ministers or local councillors is the better way to do it. I would certainly resist any proposals that the rateable values of businesses in her constituency or mine be set at the whim of local councillors.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Independent petrol station retailers in my constituency are also facing huge increases in their business rates from 1 April. Although I agree with the need for an independent
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valuer, there appears to be no right of appeal against these revaluations until they are put in place from 1 April. Will my right hon. Friend look at that again and provide some form of redress for these retailers?

Mr. Denham: There is a right of appeal. What is more, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the £2 billion transitional scheme that has been put in place. It is always the case, every five years, that the independent revaluation of business rates produces winners and losers. That is why we have a transitional relief scheme that means that the impact on rates bills can be no more than 11 per cent. next year and just 3.5 per cent. for small businesses. There is protection alongside the ability to appeal that my hon. Friend seeks.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The Secretary of State faces a very clear choice over the 2010 revaluation: he can either ditch it and allow all business properties to enjoy a small inflation-based decrease in property rates or push ahead with it, which will mean that four out of 10 business properties will see a rates rise. Many of those properties will belong to companies that struggled to survive the recession. What is more important and what is fairer-sticking with the revaluation or supporting these companies?

Mr. Denham: I am surprised if that is the position of those on the Opposition Front Bench-the hon. Lady is proposing to impose a rates increase on the 60 per cent. of businesses in this country that are set to have a rates reduction. I think that that policy should be much more widely known. Those businesses that expect to see their rates bills fall and to be helped in a recession will be amazed to find that the Opposition are proposing a rates increase.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State consider the position of the composting industry? Higher environmental standards have meant more indoor composting and therefore more buildings. Is there not a case for switching the valuation to one that is similar to the system for landfill sites, whereby valuation is based on tonnage rather than property?

Mr. Denham: I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but I repeat to the House the point that I made earlier. There is a real choice for the House as a whole: either the Valuation Office Agency acts independently of Ministers-there is considerable case law over 100 years for how rateable values are to be established-or we move to a system whereby, with respect, the relatively micro-level choices that my hon. Friend sets out become decisions for Ministers. I think we would be worse off if the system of determining rateable values were handed to political ministerial control. With all the ups and downs of it and all the problems that arise with every revaluation, we are better off with an independent system than we would be if we brought the system under ministerial control.

Mr. Speaker: I call Michael Fabricant.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am here today, Mr. Speaker.

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Garden Development

2. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What representations he has received from local authorities on the outcome of his Department's review of garden and infill development; and if he will make a statement. [312949]

8. Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with local authority representatives on steps to reduce the level of infill development of gardens. [312955]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): The Government have received no representations to date from local authorities on the outcomes of the review that I announced on 19 January.

Michael Fabricant: Does the Minister accept that many local councils feel that planning policy statement 3 is just not working when it comes to garden grabbing? Is he aware that councils such as Lichfield find that the city is changing shape simply by virtue of the fact that lovely open areas and big gardens are being redeveloped? What changes can he make to PPS3 to stop this unhelpful practice?

John Healey: I do not accept that and, more importantly, the independent research from Kingston university that I published on Tuesday last week did not accept it. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the report, because it confirms that the problem is not widespread or national, and that local authorities already have the power to take steps to prevent development on garden land, if they choose. They are also able to reinforce their position if the matter goes to appeal.

Mr. Borrow: For some months now, I have been working with Susan Fox from Longton in my constituency who has been campaigning against inappropriate developments in gardens and infill plots in her village. I have always told her that it is up to the Tory council in South Ribble to determine what happens, and she was planning to ask me to present a petition to Parliament. May I ask my right hon. Friend to restate the fact that the Tories on South Ribble council could, if they got their act together, put in place a planning policy to deal with the issue? There is no reason to blame the Government.

John Healey: Indeed, and my hon. Friend may want to send the council copies of my statement to the House last Tuesday and of the Kingston university report. He may also want to draw attention to the fact that I have made it clearer in PPS3 that there is no presumption that previously developed land such as garden land will be appropriate for development. It therefore rests with local authorities to put in place a proper local plan that can cover concerns about garden land. It is for them to make the decisions, and to protect people against unwelcome development.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Infill is a problem, but so too is the situation in which a builder buys three or four houses with large gardens and replaces them with 30 to 40 flats, as has happened in Bassett in the Southampton part of my constituency. Local development
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plans have no influence, especially when it comes to appeals, so what can the Government do to protect areas against having their character ruined?

John Healey: The hon. Lady is wrong on two counts. The independent research by the university confirms that, in four out of five cases, the planning inspectorate backs the local authority on appeal. It also says that local authorities are in a stronger position if they have in place their own local plan covering garden land. If the developer has gone ahead in the way that she describes, that is because the council has not put in place what it could and should have put in place.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a degree of bullying going on in areas such as the Bradford district? A person buys a detached house with a very large and sometimes beautiful garden but the neighbours object at the planning stage and so permission is refused. The owner of the house then allows it to go to wrack and ruin-I know two houses that are in a deplorable state-in the hope that the neighbours will then beg the local authority to give planning permission for the development to get rid of the eyesore that they have had wished on them.

John Healey: The problem that my hon. Friend describes is slightly different from the one we studied in the research report. Local authorities have some fall-back powers to deal with extreme cases of the sort that she has described. If she would like me to, I shall write to her with details of those powers.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): The Minister is simply in denial about how his policies give a green light for garden grabbing. Does he agree with the assertion that

They are not my words, but those of the Secretary of State's own council.

John Healey: I know that the hon. Lady and some of her hon. Friends have pressed this case very hard over the past couple of years, but the research and the facts do not bear out her assertion or her concerns. This is a problem in some areas, but they are clearly in the minority. It is also clear, as the report confirms, that councils have the powers to deal with such matters where they present a problem for neighbours and are unwelcome in the local area.

Mrs. Spelman: Why cannot Ministers just admit that the blight of garden grabbing is the fault of this Labour Government? The Government, not councils, made gardens count as brown field for planning purposes. Is it not time for change-time councils had proper powers to protect neighbourhoods from inappropriate developments?

John Healey: The hon. Lady is wrong again. The definition she takes issue with was set in 1985 and has not been changed since. It was reconfirmed in one of the Conservative Government's Green Papers and in planning guidance in 1988, and again in 1992. That is not the problem.

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The problem, I am afraid to say, is councils that have the powers but will not accept the responsibility of taking the decisions to protect local people and defending those decisions on appeal. If they had proper local plans in place, their hand would be strengthened in doing so. The hon. Lady would do better to address her concerns to her own councils, which are falling far short of what local residents expect of them.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): There are a lot of crocodile tears from the Opposition about garden grabbing. May I give my right hon. Friend the facts on Chorley? In Lancaster lane, Whittle and Shaw Hill, garden grabbing has taken place. The first thing the Conservative council did when it was elected was lift the moratorium that gave protection in relation to all house building in the Chorley area. Does he not agree that it was duplicitous and wrong of the council to blame the Government, for it was the council itself that lifted the moratorium on house building?

John Healey: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that illustrates precisely the general point that I am making: it is in the hands of local councils to decide local priorities, make local decisions and, in his case, demonstrate the difference in approach between a Labour and a Conservative local council in Chorley.

New Build (Migrants)

3. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If he will estimate the proportion of houses to be built in the next five years which will be occupied by migrants. [312950]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): We have no policy on the allocation of market housing, nor would that be appropriate. Foreign nationals who are eligible to apply for an allocation of social housing will have their housing needs considered against those of all other eligible applicants in accordance with the local housing authority's allocation scheme.

Mr. Bone: I am not sure whether the Minister answered the question I asked, but may I push it further? The House of Commons Library tells me that 30 per cent. of new houses will be occupied by migrants coming into this country. Does he agree that if the next Conservative Government limited immigration to this country each year, there would be less need for houses and less need for overdevelopment?

Mr. Malik: It is important that I make it clear, as it would be unfortunate to introduce race to the debate, which perhaps ought not to be introduced, that the overwhelming majority of household growth in this country over the next five years will be indigenously fuelled by increased fertility, increased life expectancy and more people than ever living alone.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing for coming to York at the weekend, and also the Government for providing funding for new council housing in York. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that
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their money for housing projects-whether for private developers or for housing associations or councils-provides apprenticeships in the local area in the building trades?

Mr. Malik: It is crucial that every development has some apprenticeships attached to it. As Thames Gateway Minister, that is something I have encouraged. I am incredibly proud of the fact that we have invested £2 billion in housing growth, which will lead to many apprenticeships. There is £1.5 billion extra funding to councils and housing associations, which will build some 15,500 new affordable homes, with all the apprenticeships that will go alongside them.

Interfaith Projects

4. Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): What funds his Department has allocated to interfaith projects in the last five years; and if he will make a statement. [312951]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): Between 2004-05 and 2007-08, my Department granted more than £5 million to interfaith projects through the faith communities capacity building fund. In 2008, under the stewardship of my hon. Friend when he was Under-Secretary of State, we published "Face to Face and Side by Side". Developed with faith communities, the document set out for the first time a national strategic framework for promoting interfaith activity, supported by some £7.5 million.

Mr. Dhanda: I welcome my hon. Friend's reply. Does he agree that although the fund for preventing violent extremism has over three years been about £70 million, the overall faith pot has been about £15 million? Some of the best anti-radicalisation projects are also interfaith projects. Does he agree that this might be a good time to move some of that PVE funding and use it for more interfaith projects, which does not stigmatise any community?

Mr. Malik: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a good point. A few months ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that another £7.5 million would be put out there to ensure a multi-faith approach to implementing the Prevent strategy. Projects that are PVE-focused do not have to go down the community cohesion route. It is pretty obvious that they ought to go down the Prevent route.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Freedom of religion is one of the pillars of our liberal democracy and society. Does the Minister share my concern about those people-a small minority in the Islamic faith-who condemn as apostates those who leave the Islamic faith, and threaten violence and physical retribution for their doing so?

Mr. Malik: That is the kind of question that does not require a response. Everybody in the House would agree with that 100 per cent. Hatred of any sort ought not to be tolerated, and anything that moves to the physical would be illegal as well.

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