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3 Mar 2010 : Column 314WH—continued

Shared owners contributing towards the costs of repairs and maintenance through their services charges may challenge them through the leasehold valuation tribunal when they believe the charges to be unreasonable, and they may receive free advice about that and other rights
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available to them from the Leasehold Advisory Service. I am aware that service charges, including charges relating to management, are a matter of concern to those who have purchased their property. Free legal advice is available on the various remedies available to shared ownership and other leaseholders when faced with a service charge demand that they believe to be unreasonable.

In December, the Government issued a consultation paper setting out how we will reform housing benefit to deliver a simpler and fairer system of housing support that pays a fair rate of benefit to customers while protecting taxpayers. It also sets out our long-term aspiration to move towards a housing tax credit that is properly integrated into the wider tax and benefit regimes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North knows, housing tax credit is not something that we can implement overnight. Such changes will take time to achieve if they are to be affordable and achievable. We will ensure that the changes go hand in hand with wider housing policies to build more social and affordable housing in mixed communities.

The consultation sets out our next steps for reforming housing benefit and includes those measures that we want to implement quickly, as well as those that we will deliver as part of our longer-term reform of the benefits system. As part of the consultation, we sought views on how to set fairer and clear benefit rates. The local housing allowance is set at the median level of rents in an area and is intended to ensure that approximately half the properties available to rent in any area are affordable to people receiving housing benefit. That balances the needs of customers, enabling them to afford decent, quality accommodation, with the needs of taxpayers not to subsidise unreasonably high rents.

We must consider again how we set local housing allowance rates, and examine the effect of areas with pockets of high rents in driving up the median. We also want to consider how to define geographical areas for local housing allowance rates. We recognise that rents vary significantly throughout the country, but in London they are typically much higher than in other areas. High rents mean that, after housing costs have been taken into account, people are more likely to live in a low-income household in central London than in any other area of the country. There also tends to be wider variation-

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. That terminates the time allocated for the debate.

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Land Registry Office (Peterborough)

4.30 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight a vital issue affecting my constituency, which is the loss of more than 300 high-quality, white-collar jobs at the Peterborough Land Registry, mooted for September 2011 under the Government's accelerated transformation programme. Nationally, there are plans for 1,500 redundancies, and hon. Members may wish to intervene to highlight specific issues in their constituencies.

I raised the issue during the Christmas recess Adjournment debate, and the Deputy Leader of the House was as good as her word and passed on my concerns to the Minister. He wrote me a helpful letter dated 14 January this year, in which he confirmed:

We look forward to the publication of the response from Her Majesty's Land Registry in due course.

I have serious misgivings about the proposals by the Ministry of Justice and the chief executive of the Land Registry, the chief land registrar, to close five Land Registry offices in the so-called greater south-east. To add insult to injury, if my constituents are made compulsorily redundant, the timetable may preclude them from receiving severance payments that are as advantageous as those of people doing equal jobs in three other Land Registry offices-namely Stevenage, Croydon and Portsmouth. We await further details of discussions with the Cabinet Office on that specific issue.

In November last year, I had the opportunity to speak to the chief land registrar, Peter Collis, to express my dismay and disappointment at the proposals. I also had a round-table meeting with a couple of dozen members of Land Registry staff at the Touthill close office in Peterborough city centre, on 25 November. I pay tribute to all those who work at the Land Registry for their professionalism, stoicism and quiet determination, and the reasonable approach that they have taken in this worrying period of their working lives.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I have an interest in the matter as I have an adjoining constituency to his in which some of those who face unemployment reside. Does he agree that those people are extremely talented individuals and well experienced in the field in which they work? It will be a loss to the Land Registry if they are not properly looked after, but are simply discarded. Their skills are invaluable in assessing the job that they do.

Mr. Jackson: It is perverse that the Land Registry proposes to dispense with the services of people with knowledge, skills and experience gained over a number of years when it recruits new people who do not have that level of skill and expertise.

There is significant concern about the evidential basis used by the Land Registry in making the business case published by Ministers on 22 October 2009. The former chief land registrar, John Manthorpe, has prepared a detailed document responding to the accelerated transformation programme, putting a different slant on
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the information provided by the Land Registry. Mr. Manthorpe, who we should remember was a distinguished chief land registrar from 1985 to 1996, has described the plans for closure as, inter alia,

based as they are on the historically low level of property and mortgage market activity.

I will focus my remarks on the implications for the Land Registry office in Peterborough, but I feel sure that other hon. Members, perhaps including my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), will argue the case for their own Land Registry offices. Many people have provided detailed responses to the consultation.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I rise to make a brief intervention and to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, which has implications for us all in terms of Land Registry closures in the south-east. I would like to underline his point about the prospective expense as it applies to Croydon. Would it not be ironic for the Land Registry to find itself making a huge financial loss when selling the building in Croydon that it invested in recently-Trafalgar House-as it will lose about £15 million? That would seem to be a poor performance by an organisation that is supposed to be an expert on property.

Mr. Jackson: The hon. Gentleman, my erstwhile hon. Friend, makes an extremely astute point. I have yet to be convinced that the Land Registry has fully thought through the financial ramifications of the disposal of the various offices across its estate, and the cost to the taxpayer.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my view that across all public services we need to find a way to provide those services most cost-effectively? The issue is whether decisions that might be made this year could prove more expensive to undo in future years should demand increase. That is the essence of the matter-is the economic case that is being prepared robust enough or, if it is wrong, could it lead to further public expense?

Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes an astute point. In my opinion, it is appropriate to look again at the Lyons review, which is now somewhat historical, and at how it impacts on the financial and resource allocation decisions of the Government in their dying days.

I want to focus on the issues of staffing premises, the implications of a misapplication of the Lyons review and the economic impact on the city of Peterborough. The proposals pay little heed to the long-term experience of the staff at Peterborough, who are to be forced to accept compulsory redundancy at considerable cost to the public purse. Under Mr. Manthorpe's alternative plan, all 19 current offices would remain open, with a continuation of the natural wastage programme through retirements, resignations and transfers to other Government offices and Departments in my constituency-for example, Jobcentre Plus, the Environment Agency and Natural England-as well as the continuance of the highly successful voluntary severance scheme, and the sale and lease of surplus office capacity across the Land Registry estate nationally.

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The Land Registry business case advocates the recruitment of 594 new, inexperienced staff across the 12 retained offices post-2011, and the removal of 1,500 experienced, dedicated and skilled staff through compulsory redundancy, and a cost to the Exchequer, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells, of £186 million. Those plans do not stand up to scrutiny and are wrong-headed, short-sighted and flawed for reasons that I will elucidate.

On premises, there is an acceptance that the building occupied by the Peterborough Land Registry is too big and expensive for the staff complement occupying it, and the Government must, of course, address issues of cost and surplus estate. However, there is the capacity to let the excess space to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for example. The lease expires in 2013 and will need to be paid whether or not the building is occupied post-2011. Early surrender of the lease would be at a premium.

It is understood that DEFRA is interested in taking a sub-lease of at least one of the vacant floors in Peterborough, and that negotiations have progressed to the extent that occupation is expected to take place this month. The projected rental income for a single floor of the office is about £162,500 per annum, and the cost for occupying a floor, including rates and other fixed costs, is around £315,300 per annum. That proposed rental income represents approximately 20 per cent. of the rent paid for the Peterborough office, or a 20 per cent. saving on annual office costs. However, if the decision to close Peterborough office is confirmed, DEFRA may reconsider its position and the benefit of that income will be lost.

Valuation Office Agency data show that in rental terms Peterborough is significantly less expensive than many other localities. Headline rental values for the type 1 accommodation in the Peterborough office are £125 per square metre, compared with £145 in Leicester, £150 in Nottingham, £240 in Croydon and more than £1,000 in central London. There is no reason why the Peterborough office could not move to alternative, smaller rental premises in the city on expiry of the lease in 2013. For instance, Trinity Court, just half a mile from the current building, is being let at the moment for less than £100 per square metre.

Peterborough city council and the East of England regional assembly published a study in August 2004 that maintained that Peterborough was an ideal location for civil servants relocating out of London and the south-east under the auspices of the Lyons review, not least because the city has excellent rail and road links north to south and across the country to the midlands and the north-west of England.

The case for maintaining an office in Peterborough is that it would be considerably cheaper than maintaining one in London, and the office in the Peterborough constituency already has the necessary IT, telephone and furniture requirements. In the view of the property consultancy King Sturge in its report for Sir Michael Lyons, and according to the Lyons review and the Office of Government Commerce guidelines, it makes sense for the head-office functions to be located in the existing Peterborough office. That would reduce the Land Registry's underlying cost base. The Peterborough building is leased, there is no capital asset value to be
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unlocked and it would otherwise be a continuing drain on resources through redundancy payments.

We are talking about people's jobs and, in particular, older workers who have shown dedication and loyalty over the years to this important specialist work. This issue is about human capital and human resources, and the accumulation of knowledge, skills and experience, especially legal resources. Bluntly, lawyers are extremely expensive for the Land Registry to recruit, train and retain.

Let me move to the Lyons review criteria. The Lyons review has been interpreted wrongly in the Land Registry's business case, and I want to spend some time on that misapplication, as it is integral to my case for a review of the decision as it affects the Peterborough office. The mandatory OGC guidance issued on 5 January 2009 relating to the Treasury approval of accommodation proposals states that there will be a strong presumption that existing civil estate properties in all the Government office regions outside London and the south-east will be used to meet new accommodation demands from Departments. It can be argued that, to comply with the review, it is not necessary to close the Peterborough office.

It is wrong to allocate a so-called red marking to the office by suggesting that it is non-compliant with the Lyons agenda. The criteria have obviously been misapplied. By that, I mean that Peterborough has been allocated a position as part of the greater south-east, but it is not Oxford, Milton Keynes, Surrey, Hampshire or Kent. It is on the border with the east midlands and it is in the north-west corner of the eastern region. It is not in the greater south-east and there was a clear error about that in the decision taken and the case made for closure.

Bizarrely as regards the Lyons report, table 4 of annexe G of the Land Registry document, on assessment against retention criteria, assigns a green marking to the Portsmouth office, confirming that it is compliant with the Lyons agenda. That is despite the fact that Portsmouth, the last time I looked, was in the county of Hampshire in the south-east. If the criteria had been correctly applied, the Nottingham and the Leicester offices would have been deemed more suitable for closure than Peterborough. The case for closing Peterborough in preference to other offices has not been correctly made.

In response to the report, Her Majesty's Treasury set out in its letter of 23 March 2005, as part of the Government's efficiency programme, the requirements for Treasury approval for all substantial accommodation proposals in London and the south-east. The protocol applies to new property leases, as well as lease renewals and extensions. It refers to the presumption against locating public sector activities in the greater south-east, which is defined as the whole of London, the south-east and the east of England. However, the protocol states at paragraph 5 that that requirement for relocation does not mean that activities already based in the east of England are expected to relocate outside the region when new accommodation needs are being considered.

At paragraph 6, the protocol confirms that proposals for accommodation in the east of England region in respect of public sector activities already located in the region are exempt from external Treasury oversight and Chief Secretary to the Treasury approval.

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I want to finish by examining the significant impact on my constituency of the potential closure of the Peterborough office. Of all the proposed office closures, the Peterborough one will cause the greatest pain to staff due to the limited prospects for comparable work in the city, with no capital gain to the organisation.

The advice sought by the accelerated transformation team has been on the basis of socio-economic profiling of the areas that currently have Land Registry offices and with reference to the Government's regeneration framework, to which all Departments are signed up and which the OGC is keen to see applied in decisions on the location of Government agencies. Although it is apparent from the Department for Communities and Local Government advice that the deprivation in Peterborough is not the same as that in, for instance, Hull and Birkenhead, the local economy and job market should be carefully considered.

Peterborough is a city with significant areas of deprivation. One ward-Dogsthorpe-is among the most deprived wards in England, some parts of the city are within the 3 per cent. most deprived and a further seven wards are deemed to have high levels of deprivation. National indices of deprivation rank Peterborough 80th out of 354 local authority areas. The east of England may be seen on some indexes as comparatively affluent, but it is important to assess the characteristics of specific locations. The male unemployment rate in the Peterborough constituency is 10.4 per cent. We have seen significant job losses over the past two years involving Pearl Assurance, Indesit, the city council, the Freemans catalogue company, Ideal Shopping Direct and the Norwich and Peterborough building society. Wage and skill levels are below the east of England and the south-east regional averages.

Therefore, the business case for closure of the Peterborough office is contrary to and wholly inconsistent with the regeneration framework and Government guidance, and the socio-economic impact has not been sufficiently or correctly considered in the wider context. Peterborough and its wider sub-region have a very different economic profile from most of the south-east, which should be taken into account when assessing the socio-economic impact of the proposals.

The Land Registry has failed to make a coherent or logical case for the closure of the Peterborough office in September 2011, but there is an alternative, as enunciated by the Public and Commercial Services Union individual consultation involving members of staff at the office. The Land Registry has brought forward plans that are financially and organisationally at variance with the Government's objectives and economically damaging to my constituency, and that involve the straightforward misapplication of the decision-making criteria in respect of the Lyons review. For those reasons and with due cognisance of the contribution of the staff now and in the future at the Land Registry in my constituency, I urge the Minister to think again, review the plans and level the playing field so that the Land Registry in Peterborough can continue its excellent work.

4.48 pm

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