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Greg Mulholland: The Minister completely failed to answer the previous question. In Otley, in my constituency, we lost Lotus Construction last year, with the loss of 80 jobs-an experience common to many constituencies. Considering that on average it costs £10,000 to bring an existing property back into use, compared with £100,000
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for a new social house, how can the Minister possibly say that the Government are doing enough to bring homes back into use?

Mr. Austin: We are investing money in improving existing properties, as well as in building new ones. This Government's record in supporting the construction industry through the downturn has been absolutely first-class. This has been the first recession in which a Government have invested record amounts to keep the economy moving, protect jobs in construction and provide the skills that the industry will need in the future.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The Government have given Milton Keynes council funding to appoint an officer to start implementing the empty dwelling management order, because the Liberal Democrat-controlled council has done absolutely nothing on it for the past three years, despite the fact that I went to it with lists of empty properties that were prime candidates for the order. Does the Minister agree, however, that house building is required to meet housing need, and that empty homes, although important, are a flea bite compared with the breadth of housing need in places such as Milton Keynes?

Mr. Austin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to build more homes, and that is why we are investing record amounts in the house building industry. She is also absolutely right about empty homes, and I congratulate her on her work in Milton Keynes to ensure that they are brought back into use.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend welcome the programme, which will create many jobs, to bring 5,300 socially rented homes in my constituency up to and beyond the Government's decent homes standard, with new kitchens and bathrooms, rewiring, new boilers- [ Interruption. ]-windows and doors, roofing, chimney repairs, repointing and insulation works? Is not that a good record for a Labour Government and a Labour council?

Mr. Austin: That is a very good record, and the Opposition were interjecting because they do not value that investment in improving homes for ordinary people. I welcome what my right hon. Friend says. Once again he has demonstrated the faultless judgment that he has exercised over a lifetime's public service.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): This is the fourth Housing Minister whom I have faced over the Dispatch Box, but I congratulate him on having, this weekend, outlasted at least his immediate predecessor, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett).

Today, the Library confirmed that house building has fallen to its lowest level, excluding the war years, since 1924, when Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister. Is that damning indictment of Labour housing policy a result of the record nine different Housing Ministers, or of Labour's obstinate refusal to work alongside local people to build more homes?

Mr. Austin: What complete and utter nonsense. The answer is neither of those reasons. The level has fallen to its lowest level because-the hon. Gentleman may
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not have noticed this-we have just been through the most extraordinary recession that this country and the world have ever seen. That is why we have invested £1.5 billion this year and next to build 20,000 new affordable homes-investment opposed by the Opposition. Building work has started on more than 80 kickstart projects; the first homes in more than a decade are being built under the local authority new build scheme; and residents in those areas-the families who are desperate to get a home-as well as construction workers and building companies, too, want to know why the Opposition want to cut that spending this year and next and put all those jobs at risk.

Unitary Authorities (Essex)

5. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will arrange for public consultation to take place in Essex on the subject of establishing unitary authorities. [321000]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): The statutory process for establishing unitary authorities requires a council to make a unitary proposal in response to an invitation from the Secretary of State, and does not provide for any public consultation in advance of such an invitation.

Bob Russell: I invite the Minister to extend that invitation to Colchester borough council without further ado, because Essex county council is an appalling local authority which should be abolished. May I advise her that, as I told one of her colleagues last year, surveys in Colchester show that 75 per cent. of the population wish to break away from Tory-controlled county hall because, as the only local authority in Essex not run by the Conservatives, my local council suffers political discrimination from the Conservatives at county hall?

Barbara Follett: As Minister for the East of England, I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I would advise him to get Colchester council to request the Secretary of State to make such an invitation. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination about this, and I understand his concerns well.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I want to make much sharper progress down the Order Paper from now on. I call Mr. Jim Cunningham.

Local Authorities (Recession)

6. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What recent representations he has had from local authorities on the effects on them of the recent recession. [321001]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): My Department is in regular dialogue with local authorities about the impact of the current economic climate and the commendable measures that most councils are taking to ameliorate this. Their efforts have been helped by above-inflation funding increases from central Government to local authorities overall.

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Mr. Cunningham: I will be very quick, Mr. Speaker. Can the Minister tell me what the financial impact will be on social cohesion?

Barbara Follett: Fortunately, the impact on social cohesion has been less than it was in previous recessions in the previous century. In fact, certain statistics such as crime figures have fallen by 8 per cent., whereas in the previous recession they went up by 19 per cent.

Unitary Authority (Norfolk)

7. Chloe Smith (Norwich, North) (Con): For what reasons he overruled the advice of his Department's accounting officer in relation to the value for money of his proposals for unitary restructuring in Norfolk. [321002]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): Following the end of the consultation on 19 January, Ministers gave careful consideration to the boundary committee's advice, the representations we had received, and all other relevant information, including the advice from the permanent secretary. While expressing concern that our proposed approach would impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector as compared with the alternative options available to us, he highlighted the savings that would be achieved by the unitary Norfolk and unitary Devon proposed by the boundary committee.

We had previously been consistently advised that we were not duty bound to choose the cheapest option. We noted that the unitary county option did not command the support of any of the principal councils, including Norfolk county council and Devon county council, and we were reluctant to pursue recommendations that did not meet the broad cross-section of support criteria. We concluded that a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich which were locally supported was the best way forward for local people, creating councils far better placed to deliver jobs, growth and services.

Chloe Smith: In one way, at least, I am grateful for the very long answer given by the Secretary of State, because my further question is this: will he tell us why, in this matter, he has ignored the wishes of the public, only 3 per cent. of whom want his wilful, capricious and cavalier proposal for a unitary Norwich?

Mr. Denham: I note that three out of the four political parties represented on Norwich city council favour the unitary proposal, and all the parties represented on Exeter city council support that proposal, so that is an indication of support in key places.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Referring to the accounting officer's letter to the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), made this observation on his blog, which is named "Ben's Brain Bubbles":

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Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that very serious allegation warrants investigation, and if so, will he undertake it? If he disagrees, will he now say so on the record and invite his fellow Secretary of State-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is of course about Norfolk only, and I know that the Secretary of State will factor that into his reply.

Mr. Denham: In which case, Mr. Speaker, I take your guidance and will not refer to my right hon. Friend's blog. [Interruption.]

Robert Neill: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Denham: However, it is a matter of record in a statement issued by my Department that there was no leak of correspondence. It was placed in the public domain and provided to the National Audit Office in a perfectly proper way, and I believe it was also provided to a Member who had raised the topic in correspondence.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I simply point out to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that he ventilated his views very fully and forcefully, and that points of order come after questions.

Gypsy and Traveller Sites

8. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What progress has been made in providing security of tenure for Gypsies and Travellers on local authority sites. [321003]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): I begin by paying to tribute to my hon. Friend for her chairing of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform. The Government remain committed to bringing security of tenure to local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites, which is a complex issue involving amendments to primary legislation that we must get right. Statutory instruments will be laid as soon as parliamentary time is available.

Julie Morgan: I am dismayed that Gypsies and Travellers as yet have no security of tenure, bearing in mind that the Connors judgment in the European Court was six years ago and the Government's proposals to change the law using the Mobile Homes Act 1983 were more than two years ago. There has been intensive discussion with Gypsies and Travellers and with support groups, and I wish to express my extreme dismay. What hope can the Government give Gypsies and Travellers who are living in uncertain situations and who had great hopes of this Government?

Mr. Malik: I absolutely understand my hon. Friend's frustration, and I know of her commitment to the matter. I think she will fully understand my commitment to it, too. I recently became the first Minister to visit a Gypsy and Traveller site. We are completely committed to the issue. I know that she wants me to say that I will consider the timing, but it would be disingenuous of me to say that knowing that in practical terms, it
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would be impossible to lay an instrument before Parliament this side of a general election, so I can only apologise.

Non-Domestic Rates

10. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): How much on average was paid by a business in non-domestic rates in (a) 1997-98 and (b) the latest year for which figures are available. [321005]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): We do not hold figures for the average bill paid by an individual business for national non-domestic rates in 1997-98 and in more recent years. However, for 1997-98, the figure derived from dividing the net rate yield from local authorities' rating lists by the number of hereditaments on the local list as at 31 December of the previous year is £6,796, and for 2008-09 the equivalent figure is £11,274. That reflects changes in the retail prices index and the NNDR tax base due to increased economic prosperity.

Mr. Swayne: I thank the Minister for that well researched reply. Fully a third of businesses that are eligible for small business rate relief are not claiming it, according to the Government's own figures. What will she do either to simplify the system or to make it automatic?

Barbara Follett: I am afraid the hon. Gentleman's figures are out of date. Recent figures suggest that 92 per cent. of the relief is being claimed.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I ask the Minister to look yet again at how empty property tax works at the moment? I have a lot of constituents who have converted agricultural property into workshops, in line with Government policy, and now find it completely impossible to get business tenants despite their best endeavours. They end up with a financial millstone around their neck for following Government policy. Will she look again at the operation of the tax?

Barbara Follett: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but if the rateable value of such property is less than £18,000, it should not attract empty property rate relief-or should I have said that it should not attract tax? I will be happy to unscramble that answer by meeting him privately.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I think the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will need that unscrambled. The hon. Lady's boss, the Secretary of State, recently said that in his opinion, companies will be helped by his business rates revaluation, but the Government are killing community shops across London with a business rates revaluation that will raise business rates by more than half a billion pounds over the next few years. That will affect the shops that we all-particularly elderly and low-income families-rely on: the newsagents, the launderettes and the convenience stores. Why does the future of those London jobs, businesses and communities matter so little to the Secretary of State?

Barbara Follett: Once again, the figures are being exaggerated. Sixty per cent. of businesses will not see any rise in their business rates.

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Working Neighbourhoods Fund

11. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of the working neighbourhoods fund which has been allocated to local authorities. [321007]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): Since 2008, we have allocated over £1.5 billion of the working neighbourhoods fund to help local authorities with high rates of worklessness to support their communities. That has all been allocated to local authorities.

Joan Walley: Of the £1.5 billion allocated, I thank the Secretary of State for the £27 million that has come to Stoke-on-Trent from the working neighbourhood funds. Will he join me in congratulating the jobs, enterprise and training centre in Burslem, the YMCA and the charity Groundwork on the difference they make to helping the long-term unemployed to get back to work?

Mr. Denham: I am delighted to praise the organisations that my hon. Friend mentions. The JET centres use the working neighbourhoods fund and other sources of money, and the organisations she mentions all play a very valuable role. One of the aims of the working neighbourhoods fund has been to allow local authorities to tailor what they do for workless people to the needs of local areas. In many areas, the sort of voluntary organisations she talks about are key to success.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I understand that no such funding came to Lancashire last year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that local authorities are able to implement the working neighbourhoods fund flexibly, so that they can aid projects to regenerate communities in rural areas such as the one I represent, where we have seen firms, shops and local schools close, or where there are sometimes no rural buses?

Mr. Denham: The working neighbourhoods fund has been targeted at those areas with the highest levels of worklessness and deprivation. That has been the right thing to do, but it is within the area-based grant, which gives local authorities the maximum flexibility locally in tailoring what they do to local needs. Obviously, other Government initiatives-for example, to help high streets suffering from empty shops-have gone to a wider range of local authorities, including some in rural areas.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): North East Lincolnshire council was allocated more than £13 million of working neighbourhoods funding. However, to date, it has used just £1.5 million of that. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what checks are made on councils to see that they are actually using the money for the purpose for which it is intended? I fear that some of my constituents could have lost out because the council has just sat on that money.

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