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House of Commons

Thursday 10 June 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked-

Garden Development

1. Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. [1535]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): Further to the coalition agreement-

Mr Speaker: Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman should have requested a grouping with questions 9 and 15.

Mr Pickles: You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker. I was just so happy to be here. I hope that I do not go on too long-[Hon. Members: "So do we."] Well, I was not thinking of putting it to a vote.

9. Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. [1543]

15. Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. [1550]

Mr Pickles: Further to the coalition agreement, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibilities for decentralisation and planning, gave notice to the House that we are changing planning guidance and that we have taken back gardens out of the definition of brownfield land. In addition, we have removed density requirements. The matter is now for local people to decide.

Zac Goldsmith: I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his welcome return to the Communities and Local Government brief. I pay tribute to my right hon.
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Friend the Minister, not only for his recent work in developing the Government's ambitious low-carbon economy programme, but for his long-term battle to give communities the power they need to stand up for themselves against inappropriate development.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his answer, but will he reassure the House and my constituents that he intends to repeal perverse rules that prevent local councillors from standing up for their constituents-

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but I must now cut off the hon. Gentleman. From now on, questions and answers must be briefer.

Mr Pickles: I think I got the gist; I think my hon. Friend was referring to predetermination and I am delighted to inform the House that it is our intention to repeal those regulations. That means we can give local councils the thing that Members of Parliament so desire-that councillors with opinions can actually vote on those opinions.

Mr Speaker: Matthew Offord is not here, so I call Bob Blackman.

Bob Blackman: In Harrow East, the decision to safeguard gardens will be warmly welcomed, but another problem remains: unscrupulous developers whose planning application is turned down by councillors at local level, but who then appeal. What proposals are there to prevent the overturning of local planning decisions on appeal?

Mr Pickles: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. We are determined to ensure that planning remains local, but of course an applicant's right to appeal against a decision will remain.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. What estimate has his Department made of the impact of the potential changes to planning policy implicit in this question and the other changes his Government have announced, given that Savills, the respected commentators on housing, project that on current trends and patterns there will be a cumulative shortfall of more than 1 million homes within five years?

Mr Pickles: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. It is entirely typical of his courtesy that his was the first letter of congratulation that I received. However, I have to tell him that it seems perverse for the Labour party to be concerned about housing numbers. After all, last year the lowest number of houses was built since 1946. Under Labour, it would appear that more damage was done to the housing industry than the Luftwaffe did.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State recognise that, stretching back to the time of Herbert Morrison, the green belt is a great Labour achievement? Does he also recognise that the urban densification policy of the past 13 years has protected the green belt and regenerated our cities? Does the policy review announced today put in jeopardy all that good work?

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Mr Pickles: I recall hearing our former colleague John Prescott say from this Dispatch Box that the green belt was a great achievement of the Labour party and that it intended to build on it. That indeed seems to have been the case.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I understand fully the concerns about garden grabbing, but I urge the Secretary of State to adopt a careful approach to how he intends to tackle the issue, because some infill is absolutely necessary in urban areas. Can he assure me that planning policy will be flexible enough to assist and not to detract from urban renewal in constituencies such as mine?

Mr Pickles: I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's support of the coalition's policy, and I thank him for being part of that consensus. He should understand that these matters will now be decided locally, and the Government think that the most sensible people to decide matters of density and particular applications are the local communities that must bear the consequences of those developments.

Financial Propriety Requirements

2. Lorraine Fullbrook (South Ribble) (Con): What ministerial directions in respect of an action likely to breach the requirements of financial propriety or regularity were issued to the accounting officer of his Department in the past 12 months. [1536]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): Although there were no directions in the past 12 months due to propriety and regularity issues, two directions were issued to my Department's accounting officer due to concerns that he had about the value for money of actions proposed by the then Secretary of State: one related to implementing unitary city councils in Exeter and Norwich; the other covered the purchase of Blackpool Leisure Assets. In the interests of transparency, I am today placing copies of both directions in the Library.

Lorraine Fullbrook: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he is aware that the First Division Association-the civil servants' union-has reported that Ministers in the previous Government systematically ignored civil service value-for-money considerations. Can he give us an assurance that this Government will not do the same thing?

Robert Neill: We are fortunate in having able and experienced civil servants at our Department, and we certainly want to listen to their advice. It is worth remembering that that direction not only ignored value-for-money considerations, but contradicted stances taken by the previous Government. We will seek value for money, and we will also seek to be consistent.

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. Can we debate Exeter and Norwich when the Local Government Bill comes to this House, although as these somewhat arrogant, high-handed and incompetent new Ministers have already lost a vote on it in the Lords before it even reached its Second Reading, we may never see it?

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Does the Minister not understand that public investment through regional development agencies in towns such as Blackpool has been vital for business and jobs and should be in the future? Securing Blackpool tower and the Winter gardens for Blackpool and its millions of visitors was the right thing to do. What the House, the people of Blackpool and its Conservative council want to hear today is a promise from the Minister that he will not allow his colleagues in the coalition to undo the crucial deal that has been done. Will he give that assurance?

Robert Neill: The fact is that the deal is done; the money has been spent. We are not seeking to undo it.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the new regulations to stop having to build on gardens will also apply to local authority-owned gardens, not just to privately owned gardens-

Mr Speaker: Order. I must very gently tell the hon. Gentleman that that was the subject of Question 1, but we have moved on to Question 2, and we will now move on to Question 3.

Private Rented Housing

3. Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): What plans he has for the future regulation of the private rented housing sector. [1537]

The Minister for Housing (Grant Shapps): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is important that we strike the right balance between tenants and landlords. The current legislative framework, which I have been looking at closely, does exactly that. We therefore have no plans to take forward the previous Government's ideas about further regulatory measures on this subject.

Julie Elliott: I thank the Minister for that answer. In light of the massive budget cuts announced in the Department, can he assure me that there will be no threat to the measures that the then Government introduced and, indeed, confirm that the Government have no plans to reverse the further powers that Labour has given to councils to introduce local licensing schemes, because in my experience, in my constituency, people want more regulation, not less?

Grant Shapps: In my experience, in my constituency and across the country, people also want a good supply of private rented sector property. Of course, getting that balance right is important. I share the hon. Lady's concern about the extent to which homes in multiple occupation sometimes become a blight on an area. I confirm that we do not plan to overturn the rules that the previous Government introduced, but we will look at them in more detail.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): We already face new planning applications for large-scale and inappropriate housing development in and immediately around my constituency. The Secretary of State's letter to local authorities has been helpful, but what further steps should local authorities such as mine take to revise their housing growth figures, which now seem utterly outdated?

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Grant Shapps: I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that many communities feel put upon due to the regional spatial strategies and many other centrally imposed items. We will ensure-

Mr Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is seeking to respond to the question, but it is outwith the terms of that on the Order Paper.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): What discussions has the Minister held with landlord organisations about possible changes to the capital gains tax regime as it relates to private landlords?

Grant Shapps: That is a matter for the Treasury, but the hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long because the emergency Budget, which has been made necessary by the previous Government's profligacy, will be on 22 June.

Regional Spatial Strategies

4. Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): What steps he plans to take to end regional spatial strategies. [1538]

10. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What steps he plans to take to end regional spatial strategies. [1544]

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): We committed in the Queen's Speech to abolishing regional strategies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to all council leaders saying that he expects them to have regard to that as a material planning consideration in any decisions they are currently taking.

Chris Kelly: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and welcome him to his new position. Will he outline how the Government's abolition of regional strategies will impact on the provision of Traveller sites of the kind that we already have in Dudley South?

Greg Clark: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome, and I welcome him to the House. I know that he has always been a vigorous local campaigner.

The point behind abolishing the regional spatial strategies is that we believe that local communities should make decisions locally and should have the ability to put them into effect. It is, of course, important to make provision for Travellers, but such decisions should be taken locally.

John Howell: I welcome the Minister to his post. Will he confirm that, as I set out in our radical planning paper "Open Source Planning", the expectation is that abolishing regional spatial strategies will reinvigorate our planning system and move us away from the historically low level of house building that we have seen, which has so badly failed us?

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I half expected to find a note on my desk from the previous Housing Minister apologising for the fact that there were no houses, but he did not get round to writing it.

I am glad that my hon. Friend draws attention to his role in what I think will be an important paper. He wrote in that paper that the present system

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That is the reality of the system that we have been labouring under-literally "Labouring" under. The system does not work in practice or in theory; what kind of bankrupt system is that?

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I welcome the abolition of the regional spatial strategies? I referred in the previous Parliament to the system being akin to Soviet-style planning, and it certainly put constraints on the development of housing in my North Durham constituency. However, what will the Minister be doing on guidance and, more importantly, funding to ensure that the housing that is desperately needed in former mining villages in County Durham will be forthcoming?

Greg Clark: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for our policy, which enjoys a degree of consensus throughout the country, if not among some of his colleagues. It is important to recognise that when things are imposed from the centre, people tend to react against it. We need to provide incentives, including funding, so that the communities that host more housing get some of the funding that they need to provide infrastructure and other things associated with it.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): With regional spatial strategies, did not local authorities at least have the chance to have some say about coming together on big strategic issues? Now, however, we presume that the hefty hand of the central controller at his expansive desk in Whitehall will be making all the decisions centrally.

Greg Clark: I will forgive the hon. Gentleman for that remark, because he has been absent from the House for the past five years, but if a central controller had been operating, they had been doing so from Whitehall under the previous Government. The fact is that we want to allow local communities to co-operate. Co-operation is something that people should do co-operatively, rather than by imposition. Although we will encourage co-operation, we will not tell communities what to do from the centre.

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