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30 Jun 2010 : Column 272WH—continued

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I am concerned that on this matter, as with other policy areas, we are seeing a gap between what the Government are saying and what they are doing. The new housing Minister says that he and the Government want Britain to be a nation of house builders. That is either top-of-the-range spin or grand self-deception. If that is the case, why was the one incentive system-the housing and planning delivery grant-swept aside as part of this year's £6 billion cuts? Why, as part of those cuts, was £230 million taken from the Homes and Communities Agency budget for building affordable homes, through housing associations, in several disadvantaged areas? Why is it that all the affordable housing investment programmes for which funding was agreed, set aside and put in place now on hold? Will the Minister-this is my first question-tell us when the money for those affordable housing programmes will be released so that building can start again?

The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) spoke of the RSSs as having been abolished, but that is not the case. As the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) said, until Parliament passes legislation to revoke RSSs, they will not be abolished-they will remain in place. I fear that the Pickles letter does little to help the situation. Indeed, it creates a legislative limbo in which councils, planners and the Planning Inspectorate are uncertain of their principal reference points. At a conference at which I was speaking this morning, a distinguished academic who knows a lot about the matter described the planning system-the result of two months of Government announcements-as a vacuum and in a state of chaos. That should surprise no one, because the new Secretary of State has been having a go at every part of the planning system like a bull in a china shop. My second question to the Minister is therefore: what is the legal planning status of the Pickles letter? When will the Government publish the legislation that will allow them to do what they wish?

Martin Horwood: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us the exact legal status of letters issued by Ministers in the previous Government that told planning authorities and planning inspectors in the south-west to pay attention to the emerging RSS there and said that it was a material planning consideration, even though it had not been implemented?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. The framework for regional spatial strategies had been legislated for by the House and that remains the case. However, questions arise about the extraordinary letter sent by the new Secretary of State.

I turn to a point that at least two Members raised this afternoon: the desire to move from a planning-led system to an incentive-based system. There is certainly a case for incentives in the system. It can be said that the housing and planning delivery grant and the extra funding for growth areas and growth points were insufficiently sharp to do the job on their own, but they were an important part of the system and I am sorry to see this year's housing and planning grant go. However, the Government's idea of a council tax match at 100% for every new home built is an 18-carat con-just consider the money!

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The idea is that that would cost £250 million in the first year. It was meant to be funded by switching the housing and planning delivery grant, but that amounted to £135 million this year and it went in the Chancellor's first swathe of cuts. There is no new money for this proposed incentive scheme. In years two, three, four, five and six-the scheme is meant to last six years-it will be top-sliced from local government grant through the formula system at a rate of about £250 million a year. A £250 million cut in the local authority grant system is the equivalent of a 1% rise in council tax. It is not only £250 million a year, however. The effect is cumulative, so the cost in the second year will be £250 million plus another £250 million. In year three it will increase again; and the total over the six years will be £5.25 billion-the equivalent of an extra £320 on the average band D property council tax.

The system will rob some councils in order to pay others. Those hon. Members whose constituencies include county council areas should remember that although county councils are not planning authorities and are not responsible for housing, they will bear the brunt of the cuts through the switch to district councils, which will get the cash. It must be obvious to anyone that if the scheme ever sees the light of day-if DCLG Ministers can persuade the Treasury to put it in place-it will lead to council tax chaos. It will blow the Chancellor's Budget promise of a council tax freeze out of the water. My fourth question to the Minister is therefore: when will the scheme be in place? My fifth question is this: will there or will there not be new money for the scheme, or will it be top-sliced as in previously published plans, and taken from local government budgets?

I shall answer my sixth question myself to save the Minister the trouble. What is the new Government's policy on housing for the future, and what are they saying to those young people who want to move out of their parents' house and set up home for themselves? The answer is clear: no new homes, and a capital "NO" to new affordable homes. Since the two parties got into Government, they have been waving two fingers at those who need decent, affordable, secure homes for the future and at those who aspire to move into and buy their own homes.

We are right at the start of this Parliament, but within three, four or five years-before its end-the consequences of the changes that we are discussing this afternoon will be serious for many young families across the country and very clear to them when they consider how to vote at the next election.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr Benton, to serve under your chairmanship again? It is for the first time in this Parliament-and, literally, the first time from this angle.

The debate has been most interesting and of a high quality. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) in that regard. That may be almost the end of our agreement, but he was right that it was well-informed and stimulating.

Looking at the physical attendance in the Chamber, one of the planning issues could almost have been the spatial imbalance here. Such an imbalance reflects the importance of planning to all my hon. Friends'
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constituents. Planning was also an important issue in the recent general election, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my ministerial colleagues and I make no apology for having moved swiftly to set out our intention to redeem our promise to the electorate that we would remove regional spatial strategies.

I am delighted to see the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne here today, because he and I have done our best to spar in a civilised fashion over the past few years. I hope that he will not take it the wrong way when I thank him for having welcomed me to the Government side of the Chamber, and when I say that I am delighted to see him on the Opposition side; I mean it in the nicest way. He is often the most reasonable of opponents, but that does not mean that he is always right as far as these matters are concerned. Whatever the intentions of the previous Government for the regional spatial strategies, he himself concedes in moderate terms-given the normal moderation of his language, these are strong terms for him-that they had become too inflexible and too top-down. Being a less temperate person, I might put it in stronger terms. The fact is they had become a positive obstacle to good planning in this country and to the delivery of housing in the right place.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) referred to the legal challenges that delayed the south-west regional plan, and they were not unique to that area. They came about because of the top-down structure of the regional spatial strategy, which created an almost immediate antipathy in the communities that were affected. Battle lines were drawn, and a great deal of money and effort was expended on fighting strategies rather than on adopting a bottom-up approach that might have taken communities with it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) observed, such an approach is a key part of sustainable development. It is right that I congratulate him on securing this debate; he has done us a great service by doing so. He has raised important issues, and I will do my best to address them, as well as those raised by other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend has diligently raised the particular concerns of Milton Keynes both in this Parliament and the previous one, and his constituents have been well served by him in that regard. Moreover, I am delighted to welcome the reinforcement of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is very experienced in such matters.

Let me deal, as best I may, with the significant points that have been raised. In the interests of time, I will not go through the preamble about the particular circumstances of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North and of Milton Keynes itself because he has set them out and we are in agreement about them. It is a city that is committed to growth. It has grown fast and shown diligence in recognising the pressures and the need to accommodate such growth. Its ambitions are ones that the Government wish to see fulfilled for the benefit of its residents.

Mark Lancaster: As we are so short of time, may I ask the Minister, on behalf of my colleagues, to write to all hon. Members with responses to any unanswered questions?

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend has that assurance. I have been doing my best to make notes, which is probably terrifying for my officials because there have been too
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many medical men in my family and my handwriting has been influenced accordingly. None the less, I will certainly do as my hon. Friend suggests, and I will also do my best to get what I can on the record now.

Let me deal with the specific points that have been raised. We have made it clear that we will proceed to the full-scale abolition of the regional spatial strategies as soon as possible. Ultimately, there will be a need for primary legislation to sweep such matters away, which will be dealt with in a localism Bill that will be introduced to the House in this Session. However, despite the caveat raised by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), we will also explore the possibility of using secondary legislation to remove the most difficult part of the regional strategies in advance of that. We are actively discussing with officials the means by which this may be done.

The next step is to issue more detailed guidance. The Pickles letter-a letter issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State-was intended very specifically to mark out to all concerned the Government's intention to move swiftly to redeem the coalition pledge, which is part of the coalition agreement. In relation to its status, we are quite satisfied with the legal advice that has been given to us that it is a material consideration and should be regarded as such, both by local planning authorities, in considering applications, and by the inspectorate. That was why we communicated the letter both to local planning authorities and the inspectorate. I am aware that there has been some attempt to dispute that, but I will simply say that lawyers disagree. However eminent the opinion of Mr Village QC, it is at odds with the opinion of those who advise us. I hope that local authorities will not place any more weight on the view of one lawyer than that of many others and that of their communities and electors as to the appropriateness of planning applications. As a material consideration, the opinion must be put into the mix. Of course all applications must be decided on their facts, and that remains the case.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I can assure him that I do not want to cause him any difficulties, but will he do whatever he can to encourage planning inspectors to get on and hear cases rather than adjourning them, so that the emerging position becomes clear?

Robert Neill: I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I take his question in the spirit in which it was intended. The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and I are in discussion with the Planning Inspectorate, and we will ensure that such a factor is taken on board. Everybody wants to move as swiftly as possible, but because the arrangements for planning regulations under the previous Government were so complex, we have something of a legal minefield to walk through to ensure that we get it right. If we make important changes, we are determined that we do not have any false starts. I hope that Members will understand our reasons for doing so.

There will be further guidance. I am sorry that I am not able to say to hon. Members that I have it here today, but when I say that my right hon. Friend will
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issue the guidance soon, I mean it. I hope that people understand that a good deal of work is being done at the moment, and that we intend to move very swiftly to set it out. I am conscious that such guidance should involve both the transitional arrangements and some of the implications that follow therefrom. We have already made it clear that the abolition of the regional strategies is emerging Government policy and, therefore, a material consideration and that local planning authorities should not feel intimidated from getting on with adopting those parts of their local plans that are appropriate.

Moreover, we will give local authorities the opportunity to revise partially those plans to reflect the abolition of the regional strategies and the imposed targets that went with them. Sometimes it is felt that the revision of a local plan is a long-winded process and rather daunting, but let me assure Members that a focused revision of the plan that concentrates on certain aspects, such as the housing aspects that are affected by the removal of the regional strategies, need not take that degree of time. I hope that hon. Members will take back that important message to their constituencies. The revision can be done swiftly and without great expense to the local authorities. Some local authorities are already taking that on board. Those are key steps that we are keen to take at an early stage.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. That finishes the debate. We now move on to the next debate.

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Fire Stations (Warwickshire)

4 pm

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate fire station provision within Warwickshire. I am also delighted to have the support of my colleagues from the county. However, I am sure that we in Westminster Hall will especially appreciate the presence of the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright). Owing to the convention that Whips do not speak in Westminster Hall debates, he is prevented from participating, although his thoughts on this matter are well documented.

Warwick is passionate about its fire station, and I will let my hon. Friends from the county speak in support of their own fire stations. Recently, 12,000 of my constituents signed a petition to keep Warwick fire station-a move that garnered support from the entire community, not just for emotional reasons, although Warwick residents will be forgiven for wanting to keep their fire station, given that much of the mediaeval town was destroyed in the great fire of 1694.

Warwick is an old town that is rich in heritage, and it is the central point of an ancient county. Warwick castle is located in the very heart of the town, and I need not go into great detail about the dangers that can occur from castle fires. Alongside our local NHS hospital, we have the 500-year-old Lord Leycester hospital. Both buildings are located not more than half a mile from the present fire station.

Local residents want to go to sleep safe in the knowledge that their town is secure and that, if the worst should happen, there is a fire station nearby to deal with any emergencies. It is not too much to ask to keep that fire station; local people should not have to plead to keep it.

People in my constituency appreciate-indeed, I do, too-that things need to move on. Local residents are not opposed to change, but they just do not understand why they have to lose their fire station because of change. Frankly, they do not think that they have been given a good enough set of reasons to explain the loss of their fire station. The very first priority must surely be front-line public safety.

It would not be too much to say that people in my constituency are also frustrated by the whole process of change. A flawed consultation, costing in excess of £300,000, was carried out, but it consistently showed the local population's anger at the proposed closures. People have turned to their local town councillors and district councillors, who have supported them. They have also turned to their county councillors.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I am the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, and I will speak very specifically about the three fire stations in Alcester, Studley and Bidford. I just want to bring to hon. Members' attention-

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a speech. You can make an intervention, with the permission of the Member who has secured the debate-I understand that to be the case. Any contribution to the debate must take the form of an intervention, not a speech.

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Nadhim Zahawi: You put that very beautifully, Mr. Benton; you are quite right. I therefore thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene on him in this debate. I shall just add that the initial consultation on this issue was deeply flawed, which I think was recognised in the end. I went to see the chief fire officer before May-I will see him again on Friday-to press the point home that the local community and the local fire officers in Bidford, Studley and Alcester have not been in any way objectionable. In fact, they have been very proactive and John Maples, my predecessor as the MP for Stratford-on-Avon, has worked very hard with them. They have put forward a very strong proposal, which I have supported throughout this process, and I just implore the councillors to look at that proposal for Bidford, Studley and Alcester fire stations to remain open, because if one looks at all the evidence that I have before me, which I am sure my hon. Friend has also seen, one sees that if those stations close the length of time that firefighters will take to get to fire hazards would be increased to what I believe would be an unacceptably long time. So I implore the councillors to listen very carefully before they make the decision to close those three fire stations.

Chris White: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. If the arguments that he is using are not enough, the proposals really fail on the common-sense test. The proposals rightly say that the range of incidents and the types of risks have changed-those things have changed-but the consultation document has not considered the fact that Warwickshire is due to experience an increase in housing and industry. As the economic recovery happens, we still need to look at how we strategically place our fire service provision.

We need a more reliable and faster fire service; but on a common-sense level, how can that be achieved with fewer firefighters and fewer fire engines? Withdrawing a third of the local fleet does not seem to be the best method to increase response times or reliability. The proposals say that we need to increase the training of firefighters, but what good will that do if there are not enough of them to go around? Getting rid of a group of highly skilled retained firefighters will not help to tackle a skills shortage.

Even more unreasonably, the proposals say that retained fire engines suffer from insufficient crewing. Obviously, therefore, the most logical response to a shortage of retained firefighters is not to get rid of retained firefighters. Who in their right mind would apply to become a retained firefighter, sacrificing their time and energy as well as taking enormous personal risks, when they can be got rid of so easily?

Tackling road incidents is the fastest growing area of work for our fire service. Forgive me if I am wrong, but surely it is obvious that responding to that growing area of work requires more fire engines, not fewer. However, having fewer fire engines is exactly what the fire service is proposing. It is seeking to reduce the number of local fire engines by 10, yet it has gone to the great length of hiring a new assistant chief fire officer, which, from my point of view, seems to be a very retrograde step.

I appreciate that our fire service is a key part of the national resilience network and that arguments have been made that a greater focus is needed on that aspect of its work.

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