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"I believe this is a good opportunity for the community to work together for the common good of all."
"It is easy to be cynical about Government and see this as a middle class gimmick but we all need to feel more connected to each other...Let's get on and test it."
"If more people did this we would have pride back in where we live. It is not taking jobs from people it is simply helping us to help ourselves."
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will tell us which rules and regulations that apply to the Government, local government, the police and the NHS will be changed to facilitate the big society process. For me and my constituents, that process is about helping people get involved. Currently, they are being prevented from doing so, because a few obstacles have been thrown in their way. Those obstacles are not really necessary and can easily be removed. I accept that the Localism Bill, which the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) has mentioned, is part of that process, but I hope that the Minister and his officials are identifying some of the obstacles. I also hope that will be able to tell us-if not now, perhaps as things develop-exactly what bonfire of regulations and rules will take place to enable people to engage in the big society in the way in which they are keen to.
We all accept that community cohesion is a wide-ranging notion. We all want to live in a community where we feel safe from crime, where we give our children a good education and where everyone comes together at times of need to help those who need help most.
When I was first selected as the prospective MP for Hexham, and we first started talking about the big society and community cohesion, individuals in the 1,100 square miles that I am lucky enough to represent said, "But we already have this. We do this already." However, they would then add a "but" and talk about the obstacles that prevented them from going forward and being freed up to do things. I will attempt to identify those individual problems, although I do not particularly seek to criticise previous Governments. None the less, it is clear that there is much in the big society agenda that we can take forward and use as an asset.
There have been accusations-in The Times on Monday, for example-that the big society is not being implemented in the way in which everybody would like, but, in my respectful submission, that is not right. Although the big society is there to a degree, and it comes to the forefront in times of crisis, the coalition has managed to make it an individual, overriding aim. Apart from wiping out the deficit, which clearly must be done, we want to decentralise government. Effectively, we are enablers; we are trying to take government back to the people,
who are in charge. I can give multiple examples of that, but that is surely all about trying to give power back to the people with whom it fundamentally rests.
It follows from that vein of thought that it is up to individuals actively to transform community cohesion from being big only in times of need, as it was perhaps in the past, to being something that exists at all times. People need to be aware of it at all stages. I implore my colleagues to get behind this initiative, if they have not done so already.
I want to make an unashamed plug at this point. On 11 February, more than 100 individuals will get together in Hexham to see how we can take community cohesion forward. The event is not sponsored by anybody individually, although I am paying the bill. We are bringing together all manner of people-representatives of different faiths, councillors and housing representatives -to look at the opportunities. I will come to that in a bit more detail, but I just wanted to give the context in which we are working.
Ever since I have had the honour of representing Hexham, we have tried to support many big society initiatives, with the aim of creating more community cohesion. I want to list 10 things that we are doing. First, we have an internship programme in the constituency office to which everybody contributes. We have had 35 young people, which is an awful lot in seven months. They have been aged from 16 to 22, and 10 of them have already completed the programme. A further 30 young people have signed up for the internship programme for 2011.
Secondly, the volunteers and I help to run our MP's charity quiz nights. We go to local pubs around the constituency raising money for charities. We have worked for Help the Heroes and a local charity, Tynedale Activities for Special Children.
Thirdly, we are committed to an annual Christmas social action project. Lots of people have such projects, but I want to give some idea of the extent of ours. I have a spare office-it is meant to be my surgery office-but I had to move out of it, because so many people contributed presents. The project mushroomed and acquired a wonderful life of its own. We sent those presents to Support Our Soldiers and collected care packages for our serving troops. The response in the community was wonderful. Almost more interestingly, the two regiments involved-one is 39 Regiment Royal Artillery-wrote to tell us what an amazing contribution that we had made. One individual even wrote just before Christmas, but sadly passed away. We saw the impact on the people we were trying to help on a regular basis.
There is also our social action programme, which has ideas for youth training, job clubs and producing community guides. There is not, for example, in the wonderful, wild world of Northumberland, a universal guide to its best parts, so we are producing one ourselves. We managed to persuade the tourist board to give us what it uses, such as photographs, and we shall integrate all those things into our programme, so that during the weekend all the individuals who are trying to set up bed and breakfast or support for organisations will be supported by us.
We also have volunteers who support nature projects such as tree and bulb planting, and community allotment days throughout the constituency. I am not at all green-fingered, but I am becoming better by the minute and
have, delightfully, been offered the vice-presidency of the Prudhoe allotments, a welcome activity for destressing on a wet weekend.
There are small projects, but there are also very big ones. One is in the village of Humshaugh, which has a village shop. It lost its post office, which is a problem faced by every constituency. In Humshaugh, with the post office having gone and the shop struggling, the villagers faced closure, because they had no money to go on with. So the community rallied round and enlisted the support of a wealth of individuals. I use the word "wealth" because everyone involved-60-odd people-gives their time for free. It is an amazing example of a shop that closed, then reopened and is progressing. There was a contribution by a business man who prefers to remain nameless, but everyone else was involved. People thought that that was so good that they were a bit upset about the pub. The Crown Inn, Humshaugh, had not gone into receivership but it was not far off, so the villagers took it over as well.
I want to discuss broadband. Everyone knows that there are efforts to take it forward. I am lucky in that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), whose constituency neighbours mine, has money and funding for the Eden Valley project, which is a very successful and good project. It is just over the border-I wish it was with us, but such is life, and we must get on with it. We have gone to see what is happening, and we are trying to dovetail with what it is doing. Kielder forest and the Northumberland national park cover huge areas, with probably the largest forest in the country. We have no broadband or mobile phone coverage, and we have a problem with making progress, so we work with a host of different providers. How are they helping us? We have worked on the concept, of which the Minister will be aware, that there are alternatives, and we are considering how we can use Northumbrian Water, which is a substantial, FTSE 100 company. One might consider it and think, "How can you help? You are a very wealthy company." In reality it is telling us that it is possible that it can provide pre-existing sewers and the like, and that we can use them to make alternative provision. There are other good examples to assist us, and I am hopeful that as the Eden Valley project expands, we shall be able to do more.
Hon. Members have individual problems with planning, and they are struggling, but that can be addressed. The Localism Bill will be of huge import, and it will be a huge success in the effort to free up the ongoing planning crisis. I urge hon. Members to get behind it. The Bill is a large one, and we could talk about it for hours, as we saw last week. All the things that I am discussing are about enabling people to do things. I keep coming back to that, because with such enablement we can take good ideas forward. Instead of a system that requires five or six different referrals to go through the Leader programme
or other One North East programmes and get a result, things should be much quicker, simpler and faster. I hope that they will be.
I want to finish by talking about the Tynedale big society summit, which will be held in just over two weeks' time. There will be representatives from business, faith groups, voluntary organisations, local politicians, health and housing, and environmental groups to help people with local government. I hope that the key players in expanding and enabling the big society will come together across Tynedale with the intention of sharing best practice and past successes, and developing a local framework that will help organisations and volunteers to play a strong role in delivering the ideas behind the big society. Participants will be able to question a range of guests on the opportunities ahead for the third sector to play a central role in the procurement and delivery of services.
There will also be specific examples of project-based best practice shared between the various sectors, in which local groups have made a difference to their communities, as well as group discussions on a plan of action taking forward ideas of further co-operation between those existing groups and volunteers. Best of all, the whole day will be staffed-aside from being paid for by my good self-by local volunteers who are interns. The sandwiches will be provided by a start-up company that wants to expand. The essence of what we are trying to do is there.
I could talk about the effect when previous councils, who suffered the blame for unpopular decisions, blamed Whitehall in the face of local anger. Things have developed to the point where very few people seem prepared to accept responsibility for a mistake or for unpopular decisions, whether right or wrong. That has even been transmitted to the social level. We live in a democracy where it is important to feel that someone can have their say, if they want their view to be heard.
We need to consider the glue that binds us together. On a national level, it can be a range of things, such as sport, conflict or even a general election. Those things bring us together, but often in different or separate camps. There are few instances where we are all unequivocally united on one side. We may be divided over the fighting in Afghanistan, but we are united in supporting our troops and doing our bit to ensure that they are supported. It is that sense of shared investment, a shared contribution and a shared goal that brings us together into a cohesive community not only nationally but locally. With the investments and projects that I have described, and with us as enablers, we can and should take that forward.
Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I came to listen to the debate and perhaps make an intervention, but I thought that what I had to say might go on too long and you might ask me to sit down, Mrs Main. Therefore I thought I might say something near the end of the debate if there was time.
When I saw the title, "Community Cohesion", I thought, "What an admirable debate." Is that not what everyone, on both sides of the House, is looking at in
order to see how we can work in our communities? Is that not what MPs do? We try to figure out the solutions to problems and work together. We have to work within the set budget to take that forward, but, at the same time, I have found in my local community a desire to explore the capabilities of individuals and communities, and I have felt a bubbling up from the ground for people to take control of what they are doing.
Big society may be two small words that mean a huge amount to different people, but when the idea was introduced, the people of Wirral West grasped it. When shops closed on the high street, they came together and asked, "What can we do?" They did not want to see that in their little villages and towns, of which they are very proud. Art shops and places for children and families may have opened, but when people saw council-owned pieces of land, such as allotment areas, they wanted to expand on that and have some more, so that their sons could go there with their dads-and mums with their daughters-to understand what a root vegetable is and what fruit and vegetables are, rather than buy them from a supermarket. All those things were bubbling and building up.
There were also asset transfers. The local community centre was not doing so well, so people living in the area thought, "We know what's best," and they have taken it on board and are working together. Even bigger schemes started to bubble up, too. They asked whether first-time buyers could afford local housing and thought about what they were going to do about social housing. They are now looking to develop a plot of land that will be affordable for first-time buyers, and an eco-environment, which we would desperately like in our area.
We are all looking for community cohesion, which is why, when I read an article in The Observer last week which cited ideas on the Labour big society, based on local loyalties, family and common good, I thought that that was not so far removed from the Conservative big society. My example of the allotment is about the family, and my example of the community centre is about the common good for the local area, which is also the case with affordable housing.
The big society must be explored by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we have to work within the set budget. That is why I welcome the Conservative party's proposals for a £50 million community first fund and a £10 million voluntary match fund, as well as the piloting of the national citizen service and the £100 million transition fund. All those things must come together.
I am delighted to hear about community cohesion, which is something that we are all trying to achieve, and I will be delighted to hear from the Minister not just about what else we are going to do that will work in places such as Wirral West, but about what would be an enabler in places such as Sedgefield, which may have very different needs.
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I shall begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate. His description of the community
he serves is familiar to me. We are both very fortunate and privileged to serve as MPs for ex-mining communities. He is right to point out that, over many years, these communities have often been denied the tools to improve their areas, notwithstanding their ability and desire to do so. He was also right to remind us of the centrality of mutualism and co-operatives to the development of communities and, indeed, to the Labour party itself. Moreover, he was right to question whether the Government's agenda is more than self-help.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made a number of interesting points about the role of the state. I say to him that, if Labour went too far in using the state as a way of improving communities, I hope that he would accept that this Government could be going too far in dismantling the state, particularly the welfare state. He might also want to consider the impact of that on disadvantaged areas in particular. He was right, however, to applaud the Localism Bill, which includes some useful elements and has created high aspirations for what it could deliver in my constituency. I hope that the Government will deliver on their rhetoric for my constituents.
As we might have expected, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) started off by blaming Labour for the world's ills, but I hope that he would accept that Labour set out a clear plan to reduce the deficit. We said that we would do it more slowly and carefully than this Government.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: As I said, we set out clearly how we would reduce the deficit more slowly. The amount of money that we would have reduced would, therefore, have been less, so there would not have been these huge, up-front cuts affecting local government. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman outlined vividly one of the points that I wish to make-the voluntary sector and the big society were not invented by this Government. Much wonderful community and voluntary activity is already taking place, as he demonstrated so eloquently by talking about what is happening in his own constituency.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) outlined the obstacles that may prevent voluntary activity, but he gave little recognition to the fact that some individuals are more able than others to undertake such activity. Perhaps the atlas and geography of volunteering need to be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the many volunteers in his constituency and to the wonderful work that is taking place, as I do to the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who has pointed out that much is already happening in her constituency and that the Government could do more to enable further activity to take place.
On the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, he was absolutely correct to focus on what is undermining the big society, rather than to question the principles that underpin the idea of encouraging more volunteering, supporting community organisation and development, and giving a new impetus to social enterprise, co-operatives and mutuals. It would be churlish for us to do that. In Government, Labour
more than doubled the amount of money provided to the charitable sector, and we encouraged more volunteering. Organisations such as V did wonders to improve the number and range of volunteering activities available to young people, and that is just one example. The outcome of Labour's support for the sector was greatly to increase the number of those involved in volunteering, and to expand the role of the sector in delivering services.
Surely, therefore, it is a matter of great disappointment that recent data from the citizenship survey for April to September 2010 show that 24% of people volunteered formally at least once a month, which is a lower level than that which existed previously and, perhaps, a surprise given the emphasis placed on volunteering by this Government. We should not, however, be at all surprised that, this week, we began to see questions in the media about whether the cuts might be choking the sector and impeding the development of the big society. All MPs are now becoming aware of how cuts to funding are impacting on not just the voluntary sector in their constituencies, but on smaller charities and agencies that undertake highly valuable work in all of our communities.
As if things on the funding front were not bad enough, it is interesting to note that Phillip Blond-one of the architects of the big society-is quoted in the press this week as having to argue that the big society is not in crisis. Of course, as soon as he tries to defend the big society, we immediately think that it must be in crisis and that his comments suggest that there is trouble.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has so eloquently pointed out, Labour knows the value of supporting community development. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) did much at the Department for Communities and Local Government to put community empowerment on the agenda, but I sometimes wonder if the current Government understand the support that some communities and sections of communities need for that.
We know that levels of volunteering vary hugely across the country, yet it is the areas that have the lowest levels of volunteering-the poorest areas-that are suffering most from the public spending cuts. Those are the areas where most needs to be done. The deprived inner-city areas of London and the northern cities are experiencing the most drastic cuts, which undoubtedly will be passed on to the voluntary sector. If we are faced with huge cuts to services and funding, the Government will have to redouble their efforts if they are to succeed in developing more enterprise and mutuals in those circumstances. The big society bank has been put forward as a means of achieving that, but there are big questions about the delay in its implementation and whether it will have enough resources to do its job.
As well as flagging up what is happening with the levels of volunteering, the citizenship survey is important in other regards. It shows that 86% of adults in England were satisfied with their local area as a place to live, that 85% thought their community was cohesive and that 64% were not worried about being a victim of crime. That is hardly evidence of the broken Britain that the Government feel has to be fixed by an army of volunteers. That is not to say that volunteering is not important; quite the opposite, it suggests that much of what the Government say they want to create already exists in
communities up and down the country. We saw many examples of that this afternoon. If they are to do more, they need support in terms of finances, resources and infrastructure, at least in a number of areas that face multiple and complex problems and have social needs. Social action can be a key feature in turning communities around, but it is not the only ingredient that is necessary.
I hope that the Minister will say what support he intends to give to groups and agencies suffering cuts beyond the inadequate transition fund and, crucially, how his community organiser programme will work with existing organisations. Perhaps he could answer the question posed in yesterday's leader in The Times on why the Government still have to develop any signature policies or to bring examples of what the big society means. The Times was also useful for letting us know that the Minister has written to ask what ideas Conservative MPs have to make the big society a success. We will await the answers with interest. In the meantime, it is important to do what we can to support community and voluntary organisations and to develop social enterprises and mutuals, not least as a means of employment in our poorest communities. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how he intends to achieve that.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for the first time. We have had an excellent, wide-ranging debate and you have chaired it very firmly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on not just securing the debate, but battling flu so valiantly and presenting a sincere picture of his concerns for his constituency.
I have picked out three things that I would like to respond to directly. First, I shall discuss the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the Government do not really know what big society means-he talked about fresh air in that context. I would also like to address his valid concern about cuts to the voluntary community sector, which was picked up by his colleague who represents the beautiful city of Durham, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). I would then like to deal with the issue of landlords and how their practices risk unsettling, dividing and undermining communities.
Out of courtesy, if I could address the specific issue first, I will undertake to write to the Minister for Housing and Local Government on the issue of a national register. That subject is not my direct responsibility and I am sure that there are lots of complexities underlying his suggestion, so I will write to the Minister for Housing and Local Government to alert him to the concern expressed in this debate. I have discussed the matter with a colleague who represents a seat in Cornwall. That is a long way from Sedgefield, but it has exactly the same problem he mentioned. That area adopted the grass-roots solution of personal advocacy. Basically, the community was fed up with the situation, so it got together and lobbied directly the people causing the problem and forced a change in policy. I do not know how applicable that is in Sedgefield, but there are examples around the country where that problem has been tackled by grass-roots action-a very big society response. I will write directly to the Minister on his behalf.
I shall address the hon. Gentleman's main concerns about what the big society is, what the Government are trying to achieve and what we mean by it. If he wants to look at the record tomorrow, he will see that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) articulated the matter as well as anyone, when he talked about trying to promote a greater culture of social responsibility. The idea is not fresh air because, as the hon. Member for City of Durham and various hon. Members pointed out, a lot of wonderful activity is going on in constituencies across the country, where people are working together and giving up time to try to find better ways of doing things, supporting initiatives and getting things going.
The Government want to throw a bigger spotlight on that activity to try to make it easier for people to do more such things and be more ambitious. The matter should not be divisive. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) put the argument beautifully. We should all be encouraging such things. I shall put the matter simply: it is about trying to encourage more people to get involved. There is no point pretending that all is rosy in the garden, as I think both Labour Members were saying when they cited the citizenship survey. We know that the country faces enormous challenges and that there are very stubborn, expensive social problems. It seems absolutely ridiculous to continue pretending that the state, people here or in Whitehall or even local authority chief executives somehow have all the solutions.
From my constituency, I know that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the value that residents-constituents-can bring to the idea in terms of tapping into the talent, expertise, experience, ideas, networks and skills that are out there in communities. The big society is about trying to get more people involved and engaged in traditional volunteering or in that hugely important valuable work that we all know about from our constituencies. It is about providing the opportunity to give time to help improve someone else's life. The value of that is two-way. Of course, we want to encourage more of that, but it is by no means the whole story. The big society is also about trying to get more people involved in shaping the future of communities, in the decisions that really matter and in trying to save things if things need to be saved, such as post offices, pubs, shops or whatever. It is about trying to combat the voice that I hear from constituents who say, "It's not worth getting involved because it's not as if we can change anything." That is what we want to change.
The big society goes beyond that into the reform of public services and trying to open those up and get the people who pay for them and use them more involved in them. Again, in my constituency, I get a sense that people are becoming increasingly resentful of just taking what they are given and feeling that matters are being dealt with in a very detached way. Yes, this is about encouraging more volunteering, but it is also about getting people more involved at a local level in shaping the public services that they use. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) used the powerful expression, "giving the power back," which I liked.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was entirely right: that is what people want; they would like to get more involved. The citizenship survey showed that, and we are trying to make it easier.
There is a specific, proactive, big role for Government. There is no point in pretending that suddenly Government will disappear. The Government will play a hugely important part in all our lives, whatever the scale of the spending cuts. However, when it comes to making it easier for people to get involved and making the case for that more compelling, the Government are absolutely committed and on track, and will be delivering through three strands of action.
The first strand is about transferring real power to communities. That is now moving from words to realities. The specific measure has been mentioned-the Localism Bill. I am very pleased about and encouraged by the welcome that it has received, not least from the hon. Member for City of Durham. It is raising expectations. I think that that is right. People are excited about it, which suggests that its time has come. It is a huge piece of legislation, with lots of new rights and opportunities. However, there is more to the issue than just legislation.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington challenged me to be more specific about what we are doing to get out of the way. He was entirely right. If he listens to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, he will get the sense that that is a Secretary of State who wants to do exactly that. He wants to change the whole nature of his Department so that it works for citizens.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that our approach is to send this message to communities: "Tell us what is getting in the way and we will work to see what we can do to remove it." There is a specific barrier-busting service, of which he may be aware. That flows from a very powerful piece of legislation called the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which I took through Parliament as a private Member's Bill. Already, communities are responding to this invitation: "Tell us what's getting in the way and we will see whether we can remove it, but give us the specifics." The new website was launched a few weeks ago, and I think that more than 50 proposals have come in already. That is on top of the 300 different proposals that we had for the first wave under the Sustainable Communities Act. These things are community driven, so there is a real determination on our part to get out of the way.
The second strand is about public service reform: opening up the public services to new providers, including, specifically, the voluntary and community sector; bringing those services closer to the people who use them; and liberating people who are in the front line delivering the services. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury talked passionately about schools. He will know from his experience with local heads about their desire to be liberated. Specifically in relation to public service reform, a White Paper, which I think will be published next month, will set out our stall on that and explain exactly how we intend to go about it.
The third strand is about social action-trying to inspire people and make it easier for them to give time and money to get things done locally to help people. Again, the words are now being backed up by actions. The Cabinet Office has published a Green Paper on giving, which will lead to a White Paper. We seek fresh
ideas on what Government can do with partners-the charitable sector and business-to make it easier for people to give time and money.
We have announced the pilots of the next phase of the national citizen service. Again, that is a powerful, positive programme, which is designed to connect young people with their ability to make a contribution to their communities. I think that one of the biggest pilots, involving 1,000 young people, is taking place on the edge of the constituency of the hon. Member for Sedgefield. I urge him to engage with it, because I have seen that that programme can be very powerful in lifting the aspirations and confidence of young people.
The hon. Member for City of Durham rightly challenged me on this important point: the big society must be open to all. We all know that some communities are in a stronger position than others to take advantage of it. I represent a relatively affluent, suburban constituency on the edge of London, a long way from Sedgefield. My communities are well networked, strong and ambitious and, I think, will respond quickly to that agenda, but other communities will need some help.
The Government are determined to be proactive in encouraging, supporting and helping those communities to help themselves. That is one of the driving forces behind our community organiser and community first programmes, which we will be announcing more details of soon. The aim will be to establish, in those communities, people who can bring people together, organise communities and start building networks-people who have the confidence to start getting people together to get things done. With that will be a neighbourhood grant programme. Again, that will be targeted on the most disadvantaged areas, where the social capital is lowest. It will put money into the hands of neighbourhood groups to help them to develop and deliver on their own plans. The hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned the big society bank. That is wholly designed to make it easier for social entrepreneurs-people who want to take a bit of a risk to get things happening and who want to do things differently in those areas-to access capital.
The Government are doing things, but things are also beginning to happen in communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury was very modest about his pioneering work on developing job clubs in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham is getting a big society initiative going in his constituency. In my constituency, I am convening people in exactly the same way-in one ward, people are concerned about the future and feel that they need to come together and think about a neighbourhood plan for the area. I am facilitating that.
Last week I was in Halifax, where groups of people from the public sector-different stakeholders-were gathered round a table, talking about partnership in a way that they never had before, because they felt that that was possible and they were being encouraged to do it. One could sense that they were not going to go back to the bad old ways of sitting in their silos and just pursuing their individual targets and budgets. Something is happening and changing out there, and it needs to, because we have to find better ways of doing things.
I shall spend the time left to me on dealing with the very important issue of cuts to the voluntary and community sector, which is an emotive issue for many hon. Members. I have written to every Member of
Parliament, inviting them to bring in representatives of their voluntary and community sector to talk to me about that, and many have taken up the invitation.
Of course, the voluntary and community sector is hugely important to this project, because of its ability to support and mobilise people, but it is not-we should be frank about this-the whole story. Business has a hugely important part to play, as do citizens and residents groups and as do Government. Charities are not a proxy for community, but they are a hugely important partner in the process.
There is a very difficult issue, which we should not underestimate, in relation to managing the transition. However, we need to be honest about this. Unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune from the cuts. The nation is spending £120 million a day in interest and borrowing £1 for every £4 that we spend. That is not sustainable. We have to reduce public spending on a scale that means that, unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune. That would have been a reality confronted by the Labour Government, exactly as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington emphasised, so there are cuts and there will continue to be cuts.
I would rather not, because I would like to finish this important point. The numbers being bandied around are entirely speculative. The Government are monitoring the situation closely, at central and local government level, because we are concerned that the process should be managed properly. We established a transition fund, which has now closed. That process was well run. From the Prime Minister down, we have sent a strong steer to local authority leaders that we do
not expect them to take the easy option of making cuts to the voluntary and community sector before they have taken the opportunity to pursue their own efficiencies. Many councils, such as Reading and Wiltshire, which I heard about today, are increasing the amount of funding that they are giving to the voluntary and community sector. We are continuing to invest in the training of commissioners. We have reviewed and updated the compact, which is the framework that steers the relationship. The Office for Civil Society is continuing to invest to support and strengthen the sector.
We have three priorities. We ask ourselves, "What are we doing to make it easier to run a charity or voluntary sector organisation?" We are continuing to invest in infrastructure to support the sector. We are examining the red tape and regulation that get in the way. There are reviews across Government in respect of the Criminal Records Bureau and health and safety. Again, we are trying to get out of the way where we can. We are actively examining ways of getting more resources into the sector. The giving Green Paper is about trying to stimulate more charitable giving. The social investment bank-the big society bank-is about trying to grow a new market of social investment. We are reviewing everything that we can to try to make it easier for charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises to deliver more public services.
The transition that we have to manage is very difficult, but we are trying to help the sector to work towards a future in which it can be a very active player in the big society, delivering more public services, helping to give people a voice at local level, and benefiting from the extra time and money that we hope people will give. The Government are absolutely determined to make it easier for people to get involved, to live in even better connected communities and to feel part of something bigger.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Thank you, Mrs Main, for chairing this Adjournment debate. I am told that it is on a subject that has not been addressed in Parliament so substantially before. However, the subject affects the UK economy and other European economies, and my constituency particularly.
Reach Global, in the ward of Church in my constituency, is a major online company involved in the search for, and retrieval and collation of information-it is a search engine. Netmovers is a major property internet search site that Reach Global owns and it is part of Reach Global's portfolio of vertical UK search engines. Reach Global's owners are resident in the UK, they pay taxes in the UK and they employ and train British people. Reach Global is a cutting-edge British company, but like many British companies it is being squeezed out by unfair and anti-competitive practices by Google. There is growing evidence that Google is leveraging its dominance in the search engine market into adjacent markets, much as Microsoft did when it leveraged its dominance in the operating systems market into adjacent markets, such as the web browser market.
E-commerce and e-business are booming. According to 2009 figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK's digital economy supports 143,000 enterprises, generating a total turnover of £178 billion of revenue, with nearly £100 billion of gross added value to the UK economy. Against that exponential growth, however, there is evidence that some smaller companies are finding that they are unable to gain access to the online search engine market.
According to Ofcom, in May 2010, 87% of internet search engine users chose Google. Numerically, that is 32.4 million out of 35 million UK searches, which was up 5% on the previous year. Google's grip is tightening further. By January 2011, its market share had risen to 91% of the UK search market and as a result it dominated online advertising revenue. Bing has 3.87% market share, Yahoo! 2.85%, Ask 1.26% and the remainder of the providers, including UK providers, have just 1.34% of market share between them.
Google has been the focus of much criticism, with claims that it could be abusing its dominant position in the market. In my view, Google has gone from being a competitor to a predator and from a horizontal organic search client to a monopoly giant, with subliminal and unclear sponsored searches that favour other Google products.
It is important that we create the right market conditions to facilitate innovation in the online economy. Competition must be allowed to flourish, which I believe would create the right conditions and defend the interests of British companies, particularly high-tech IT companies.
Concerns are now being raised that Google's dominant position is stifling innovation and preventing smaller companies from entering the market. Earlier this month, Google was in the headlines for disclosing that in 2010 it had made £2.2 billion in the UK market, claiming approximately 50% of UK online advertising revenue.
All that has led to Google becoming subject to an EU anti-trust investigation into its European operations, with allegations of anti-competitive behaviour. There
are suggestions that Google's search results are influenced by advertising and even that Google's technology might deliberately lower the visibility of rival sites.
Acting as the principal gateway to the internet, Google has a responsibility to ensure that it provides an open and transparent service, and one that is free from bias or purchased favouritism. Because of its domination of the global search market and its ability to penalise competitors by placing its own services at the top of search results, Google has a virtually unassailable competitive advantage. Moreover, Google can deploy that advantage well beyond the confines of the search engine sector to any service that it chooses. Wherever it does so, incumbents are toppled, new entrants are suppressed and innovation is imperilled. The top result in any search usually results in 50% of the traffic going through that site, so it is easy to see why anyone would want to have the number one slot in the return on any search that is made.
The preferential placement of Google's price comparison service, for example, caused traffic to the UK's leading price comparison services to fall by an average of 41% over two years. During the same period, internet traffic in general rose by 30%. That is a marked contrast, but more marked is the fact that traffic to Google's price comparison site rose by 125% during the same period.
The preferential placement of Google Maps decimated traffic to Multimap and Streetmap, the UK's two leading online mapping services. The share price of TomTom, a European maker of navigation systems, fell by 40% this week after the announcement of Google's free turn-by-turn satellite navigation service. RightMove, Britain's leading real estate portal, lost 10% of its market value on the basis of a mere rumour that Google was planning a UK property search service.
The delineation between advertising and search results is becoming blurred. It is becoming more difficult to separate a sponsored from an unsponsored result. Google's revenues exceeded $29 billion last year, but that pales next to the hundreds of billions of dollars of other companies' revenues that Google controls indirectly through search results and sponsored links. That revenue-driven model has encouraged Google to begin promoting its own services at or near the top of its search results, bypassing the algorithms that it uses to rank the services of others.
Reach Global in my constituency currently hosts a UK-focused search engine that is in its seventh incarnation. The search engine, Searchers, has been in continual development for seven years and is independent and owned and funded by a private company. It is a very British enterprise. I am led to believe that it is the largest UK search engine apart from those emanating from the United States. Reach Global believes that Searchers could have an important role to play in the domestic economy where it claims Google fails: focusing on British business, promoting a sense of our national identity and, crucially, aiming to keep at least a portion of the massive advertising revenues available within our economy. As it is UK-based, its results are relevant to UK users.
I hope that the Minister will take up an offer to visit Reach Global. It is a fantastic company, and its investment in IT is incredible. I hope that he will accept that offer and see for himself what a great company it is. According to the ONS, Reach Global is one of 65 businesses
working in the information and communications sector in Hyndburn, one of 2,000 in Lancashire and one of 144,000 in the UK.
Foundem is another British company that appears to have been blocked or sanctioned by Google in what appears to be a misuse of internet-filtered search results. The company provides search database solutions to a variety of British high street companies. It was leading the way in supporting US and European Union investigations into monopoly practices. In 2006, Foundem dropped to 144th in Google searches but remained first on Yahoo! and seventh on Ask. It is time to look beyond network neutrality and consider search neutrality: the principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.
Without search neutrality rules to constrain Google's competitive advantage, we may be heading toward a bleakly uniform world of Google everything-Google Travel, Google Finance, Google Insurance, Google Property, Google Telecoms and, of course, Google Books. Some will argue that Google is so innovative that we need not worry, but Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Groups, Google Docs, Google Analytics, Android and many other Google products are all based on technology that Google has acquired rather than invented.
It is not just about computers. Google's Android smartphone operating system is gaining significant market share. The bundling of Google products with the operating system puts other companies that offer a free product, such as Skype, at risk of losing out to Google's in-built advantages.
Mike Weatherley: I thank the hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on securing this debate. I have also met representatives of Foundem. Does he agree that the Google position is stifling British businesses? I congratulate him on taking part in this debate, and particularly on championing the British aspect.
Graham Jones: I welcome that intervention, which is helpful. That is quite true, and it is the thrust of the point that I am making. British companies are being stifled. Moreover, the Treasury is losing out. In 2008-09, The Guardian reported that Google, by locating its companies outside the UK, avoided paying £450 million to the UK Treasury, and that was just in one year. Google is also taking advantage of the lower tax rates. It has leverage with large organisations and can employ other commercial anti-competitive practices to the disadvantage of British companies. I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point; it is very relevant.
I want to come on to the extension of Google into the mobile market. There is speculation that Google may seek to acquire, or seek preferential contracts with, 3G
networks specifically to harness advantageous proprietary Google technology into that network, which again would be to the disadvantage of other companies.
Although I am aware that competition law is predominantly dealt with on a European level, what legislative and non-legislative efforts do this Government intend to take to address the imbalance and protect cutting-edge British companies, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned? I am sure that in his constituency he has IT companies like Reach Global that need our help. What action are the Government planning to take to ensure that a competitive yet innovative market exists in the UK online industry, for the benefit of companies, customers and the economy?
At a time when other markets are struggling, the online digital economy is growing and innovating. We must ensure that it remains open to fostering as many innovative competitors as possible and that British companies and British interests are not compromised.
A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group found that the internet contributed an estimated £100 billion to the UK economy in 2009. To put the figure into perspective, it contributed more than construction, transport or utilities. To achieve its full potential, smaller businesses need to be given the opportunity to grow. The Government need to ensure that we create the right conditions for a new economic activity to flourish.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this debate. Initially, we were scratching our heads when the title was first put in front of us. In a sense, though, the debate is very much about Google and its dominant position in search.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this important debate. Although I recognise his concerns, he has opened up a wider issue, which involves competition, innovation and the internet. I hope that the Minister will address the issue of his Department's responsibilities for securing competition on the internet to ensure that the UK can play a leading part in the innovation and economic benefits that will follow.
I will certainly try to do that. If I do not, I hope that she will intervene again to get me back on the straight and narrow. Essentially, the hon. Gentleman was talking about his concerns, and those of some of his constituents, who appear to be running very interesting, go-ahead, high-tech companies-exactly the kind of companies that we want to encourage in this country. There are concerns that the growth and potential of such companies are being stifled by the alleged dominance of Google. Let me give an illustration of how pervasive Google is-"dominance" is a word that is pregnant with other meanings, so I will use "pervasive". The hon. Gentleman has cited the Boston Consulting Group
report, which pointed out the value of the e-commerce market in the UK. My understanding is that that report was commissioned by Google, which just goes to show that almost everywhere we turn, there is a debate about Google.
This is the second time in this Chamber that we have had a debate in which the focus has been on Google. The last debate was about the breach of privacy that was carried out by street cars that Google put on the road to create Google Street View. Many hon. Members raised concerns about not only that specific breach but privacy on the internet. It is my responsibility, within Government, to try to shape internet policy, so I will try to address some of the issues that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) raised.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the Minister aware that a great many people with tremendous talent in my constituency have had to leave Northern Ireland to get jobs elsewhere? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that that ability and experience can be utilised to its full potential here in the United Kingdom? What does he intend to do to encourage and foster business?
What is the current position regarding search engines? It is absolutely true that the foremost popular internet search engines in this country are based in America. The top two have more than 90% of the market, and that situation is replicated pretty much across the globe, as evidenced by Google's global market share of around 85%. On one level, the internet search engine market obviously operates in a free market environment, and in the UK there are no barriers to a consumer's ability to switch to a preferred search engine or to stay loyal to the one of their choice. Many search engines, including the most popular, have local versions that search only UK websites.
Graham Jones: Will the Minister comment on the bundling of browsers? Apple's Safari has a direct link with Google, in that the Google search is in the taskbar, and Microsoft's browser has its own Bing search engine. Will the Minister admit that such bundling practice is anti-competitive and does not create an open and level playing field with fair competition?
Mr Vaizey: It is open to the consumer to choose the product that best suits them, but it is also open to individual companies to partner with whichever companies they choose. Consumers want a service that offers good performance and enables them to find what they want quickly and easily. Google has entered a market and gained market share by giving consumers what they want.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously not speaking in a vacuum, and he referred in his speech to the investigation that is being undertaken into Google. All businesses operating in Europe have to comply with competition law, and the EU is carrying out an anti-trust probe into the alleged abuses by Google. He has mentioned the case of Foundem, which was one of the companies that
took a complaint to Europe to secure the probe. It cited allegations of manipulation of its search results, particularly the unfavourable treatment of its unpaid and sponsored results, and the preferential placement of Google's own services. The probe clearly demonstrates that regulators are alive to the possibility of dominant market players abusing their positions.
The hon. Gentleman also made the point that a number of companies in the UK-not least in his constituency-have concerns about Google's alleged dominance. It is perfectly open to those companies to ask the Office of Fair Trading to investigate, and I understand that OFT considered the Google case in 2009 and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that UK consumers had suffered as a consequence of Google's market share. In his evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, John Fingleton, the director general of fair trading said:
"Where a company has achieved that position by superior innovation, foresight and better targeting of customers, we're very wary of intervening...We see a lot of customers benefit from what's happening in this marketplace from very high innovation-it's good for the British economy. We don't want to send a negative signal about that."
We must keep in mind that there are, according to one source, 177 UK search engines servicing the UK market, including not only the organisation that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, Reach Global, but companies such as Mojeek, which is based in East Sussex and offers a
"crawler based search engine providing unbiased, fast and relevant search results combined with a clean user interface and user privacy conscious approach."
It is important to say that where allegations of abuse are made, it is open to individual companies to approach the Office of Fair Trading. We have a robust competition regime in this country and in Europe, and where there is evidence of abuse, it is perfectly possible for the relevant competition authorities to investigate it.
We are debating Google, but we could be debating equally interesting issues involving individual companies on or engaged in the internet. For example, many people who use the internet do all their transactions or engagements via Facebook. The hon. Member for Hyndburn has mentioned Safari's tie-up with Google, but again, if one has an iPhone or iPad, much of one's engagement with the internet works through applications vetted and sold by Apple. We are, to a certain extent, coming to a point in the development of the internet where consumers may choose to stay with one or two trusted sites or companies, be it Apple, Facebook, Google or a particular internet service provider, as well as using the open internet where people search and find information.
It is also worth making the point that many ISPs in this country are British-based. One can access the internet through BT or Virgin Media. When raising concerns about the dominance of Google, we should also celebrate the fact that a British company such as BT, which is at the heart of our tech industry, is a global company with a presence in 170 nations around the world.
On general internet policy, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central was probably inviting me to talk a bit about net neutrality, among many other things that take my interest. I am conducting a number of round tables and much policy development work on a host of different issues. The first is illegal piracy and
the unauthorised downloading of music and film. I am seeking to implement the Digital Economy Act 2010, which will obviously affect the development of the internet. There is also the protection of children from inappropriate content. Again, I am seeking a self-regulatory solution from ISPs in order to give consumers the opportunity to choose to protect their children from inappropriate content.
Another issue on which I have spoken and which has produced an interesting debate is net neutrality, on which I will briefly set out the Government's position. The term "net neutrality" is difficult, because it means different things to different people. Interestingly, my speech on the subject was called, "The open internet", but it was interpreted in entirely the opposite way. Let me be clear that we are absolutely committed to an open internet. That is relevant to the constituents of the hon. Member for Hyndburn, because we want small, high-tech and internet companies to have an opportunity to reach consumers without being unfairly discriminated against.
The internet has developed at a huge pace and in directions that were impossible to predict, so we are wary about introducing legislation that would dictate how it might evolve. In my opinion, the internet has done very well without over-regulation, and I want such innovation to continue. Nevertheless, the improved transparency requirements provided by recent revisions of the electronic communications framework, along with a competitive marketplace and the ability to switch easily between providers, should mean that regulation in that area is unnecessary. We want to give the market the opportunity to self-regulate, which is important, but Ofcom will monitor closely how the market develops. If it develops in an anti-competitive way, Ofcom will have the appropriate powers to intervene.
Graham Jones: Does the Minister agree that the examples I quoted about Google's rise show that that has taken place at the other's cost and that other companies have fallen? What has happened has been to the disadvantage of UK firms in an anti-competitive way.
Mr Vaizey: That is a difficult question to answer. First, Google operates in an competitive environment, where there will be winners and losers. As UK citizens, we may be patriotic enough to have wished that it was a UK search engine that had won that particular battle, but the fact is that it was Google. My second point is that it is an open internet, and it is open to any consumer to use any search engine that they choose. Thirdly, although I am not here as an advocate for Google, it is probably worth pointing out that, as a search engine, Google has provided huge opportunities to UK companies-not just high-tech companies, but retailers and small businesses-who have the opportunity to reach a global audience.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has mentioned the talent and ability of young people in Northern Ireland-I completely concur with his
comments-and invited me by implication to talk about how we plan to ensure that our creative industries in this country continue to flourish. In that respect, the hon. Member for Hyndburn and, indeed, his constituents, whose letter I was fortunate enough to see a copy of, are right to point out that high-tech innovation takes place not only within the M25, but all over the country. The north-west and Northern Ireland are two particular areas where there is a lot of expertise and skill. Particularly in the north-west, the development of Salford and MediaCityUK will have a significant impact on the growth of creative industries. The creation of Creative England, with one hub in Manchester, is a source of Government support for the creative industries in general, and I hope that that organisation will have an impact.
In general, we want to create new businesses to try to keep our young talent here. We want to lower the regulatory barriers that have a huge impact on the sector, including employment and environmental laws, and take account of the cumulative impact of existing and potential regulation. We want to look at the international regulatory regime and how it should adapt to the rise of the internet and the challenges and opportunities that it presents.
The constituents of the hon. Member for Hyndburn mentioned the Hargreaves review, which will look at the intellectual property system and consider how it can possibly be reformed to overcome barriers to growth and enable business models to develop that are fitted for the digital age. We want to look at the application of the competition regime and consider how it should be best structured, empowered and guided to deliver a competitive and thriving UK media system. We also want to look at the removal of blockages in the skills system, which mean the needs of employers in the sector are not fully met.
Mr Vaizey: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman has asked me twice now, and the second time he did so particularly nicely. It goes without saying that I am delighted, honoured and flattered to be asked to visit that company in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and see the work that it is doing, which has impressed him so much.
Those are some of the issues that we are considering under the creative industries growth review. Let me sum up briefly. First, I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about Google. The EU anti-trust investigation reflects the widespread concerns, although Google operates in a competitive market and the Office of Fair Trading investigated the issue about 18 months ago. Secondly, I passionately believe that we need an open internet that is not overly regulated and that allows innovation and competition to develop. Thirdly, we are focused on our creative industries growth review, which we hope will produce a strategy for growth that will help young people in Northern Ireland, in the north-west and in the north-east, and that will help this country's huge creative advantages.
Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): I want to begin by saying how grateful I am to Mr Speaker for allocating time for this debate, which I will use to address two connected issues that I am sure are important not only to my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey but to a number of other constituencies with similar demographics. The first issue relates to how we provide development land for much-needed affordable homes, particularly in rural areas, while at the same time protecting what remains of our green spaces. The second issue is how we can help to revive the holiday homes industry on the Isle of Sheppey to reinvigorate the local economy, while at the same time bringing the current stock of holiday homes closer in line with actual need.
I want to deal with the latter issue first. There are more than 7,000 holiday homes in my constituency, mainly mobile homes and chalets. Much of that accommodation is of a high standard, although very little of it is currently suitable for occupation all year round. However, some of the accommodation in my constituency, particularly some of the chalets, is of a very poor standard and is simply not fit for use in the 21st century, even for a one or two-week stay.
I am keen to see a revival in the holiday industry on Sheppey. There is much to commend the island as a holiday destination. It is steeped in history, with one of the oldest churches in the country and an abbey that can be traced back to the birth of Christianity. There is also the recently restored Shurland hall. It was built by Sir Thomas Cheyne, and it was where Henry VIII dallied with Anne Boleyn during their ill-fated marriage. In addition, Sheppey has a rich naval heritage and is also the birthplace of British aviation. Furthermore, the island has some fantastic natural habitats, including the Elmley bird sanctuary, which forms part of one of the most important wetlands in the United Kingdom. Sheppey is easy to get to, with good road and rail links, and it is close to London, Canterbury and Dover.
I make no apology for sounding like a travel agent, Mrs Main. I am proud of Sheppey, and I want to encourage more visitors to the island, so that they can share its riches. To cater for those tourists, we need to maintain a stock of good-quality holiday homes. However, the holiday industry in my constituency needs support and flexibility, if it is to act as the catalyst to reinvigorate the economy of Sheppey, particularly on the eastern end of the island, which has experienced a steady decline in fortunes during the past 30 or 40 years. At this point, I declare an interest, because eastern Sheppey is the area where I cut my political teeth, representing its people on both Swale borough council and Kent county council.
The support for the island's holiday industry must come from local and national Government. Nationally, I hope that the Government will introduce regeneration measures to help the coastal communities on Sheppey, which contain some of the most deprived wards in the country. Locally, we are looking for support from Swale borough council, which until four years ago offered a 50% council tax discount to the owners of second homes or holiday chalets. That discount has dropped to just 10%, and I hope that in time, as the economic
climate improves, the 50% discount can be reinstated, because such financial support would encourage chalet owners to upgrade their properties.
In addition to support, holiday park owners also want more flexibility in the length of time that they are allowed to stay open. I know that Swale borough council is actively reviewing whether the current eight-month occupancy period, which has been imposed on many holiday parks, can be extended to 10 months. I commend my colleagues on the council for undertaking that review, because the extra two months of occupation could make a real difference to the viability not only of the holiday parks themselves but of the many local businesses that rely on holidaymakers for their trade.
I am realistic enough to know that the holiday industry on Sheppey will never return to its 1950s heyday, because we live in a different world. People can now have a two-week holiday in Greece or Turkey for the same price as a week in Britain. Even the Isle of Sheppey cannot guarantee that the sun will shine during a British summer. In Sittingbourne and Sheppey, we must recognise that we no longer need 7,000 holiday homes to cater for the number of holidaymakers whom we can expect to attract.
That leads me back to my first issue, which is how we can provide development land for much-needed affordable homes, particularly in rural areas, while at the same time protecting what remains of our green spaces. We can go some way towards answering that question by bringing our holiday-home stock more in line with current needs and allowing some development on the land that is released.
The vast majority of our excess capacity holiday homes are located in rural areas. Subject to local approval, which is vital, some of the poorest quality chalets could be redeveloped to provide good quality, affordable, all-year-round accommodation, such as the bungalows found on the Parklands Village development in my own constituency.
The irony is that although the Parklands Village homes were built to full building regulations and energy efficiency standards, the home owners can only live there for 10 months of the year and have to find temporary accommodation for the other two months. As I have said before in the House, such a situation is both perverse and ludicrous. Of course, any proposed development would be subject to normal planning and building regulations, which would include consideration of the highways implications and a requirement to provide the necessary infrastructure to support such development.
The problem is that some local planning authorities are loth to grant planning permission for the development of all-year-round housing on holiday sites, insisting that the land on which parks that close down are located must revert to rural status. A solution would be for the Government to classify as brownfield land redundant, out-of-use holiday home parks.
Five identifiers are used to define brownfield land: previously owned land which is now vacant; land that has vacant buildings; land and buildings that are derelict; other previously developed land or buildings that are currently in use but that have been allocated for development in the adopted plan or that have planning permission
for housing; and other previously developed land or buildings, where it is known that there is potential for development.
Holiday home parks might be included in any one of those categories. However, explicitly including holiday park homes as a sixth identifier would leave planning officers with absolutely no room for doubt. Such a policy would not solve the housing problem that we inherited from the previous Government, but it might go some way to providing more affordable homes and perhaps ensure that young people in my constituency can afford to clamber on to the first rung of the housing ladder.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on bringing to the Chamber his understandable concerns on two linked issues. I will do my best to give him some comfort on at least part of what he has to say. I am not sure whether this is an interest that I need to declare, but shortly before he was born, I had a holiday on Sheppey. I have been there, and I expect that somebody bought me the T-shirt.
Andrew Stunell: I am sure that we both wish that that were the case. I have a recollection of the island and its unique character. I have not had the opportunity to go back, which I am sure will upset my hon. Friend. As he has said, times have moved on and he has painted an eloquent picture of the challenges faced by Swale borough council and locally elected representatives, as well as the challenges that he faces as the Member of Parliament.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate and wish him many happy returns for tomorrow. Important points have been made not only about the importance of affordable housing, but about protecting the green belt. The Minister has mentioned the issue of other authorities. The issue with affordable housing in my area of York is very similar to that faced by my hon. Friend. The real problem is that we are not getting development going, and it is the affordable housing thresholds, which are being imposed through the planning process, that are causing developers not to bring land forward. A 50% affordable housing threshold means that 50% of nothing is nothing. Does the Minister think that reducing the threshold might lead to more affordable housing throughout the country?
I want to start with the wider context. We the Government are certainly committed to a major upswing in housing to meet Britain's housing needs. I think that it is well understood in the Chamber that the level of
household formations is approximately twice that at which new homes are being provided, and that is clearly challenging for us. There is an urgent need for low-cost, affordable homes for sale and for rent. The Government's comprehensive spending review announced proposals to introduce a social and affordable housing programme and, by tackling the overall, macro-economic situation, the Government are strongly committed to creating an environment in which the private sector can flourish as well. We want greater stability in the housing market and house price rises to be more in line with earnings growth.
We have put in place a number of policies that are explicitly designed to generate that investment. The new homes bonus scheme will be a powerful and simple incentive for local authorities and communities to increase their aspirations for housing growth. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey had to say about the council tax discounts that have been applied on Sheppey. That is not, of course, a direct generator of new investment, but I want to assure him that the level of discount is a matter for the borough council to determine, and that it is not prescribed by this House.
My hon. Friend asked about a number of other things relating to the current management of the holiday home stock on the island. He drew attention to the fact that the borough council is considering whether to change the planning conditions on the requirement of residence from eight to 10 months a year. That is a matter for the planning authority to decide, and it has the flexibility to do that. Again, it is not subject to national rules and restrictions in so doing.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): May I add to the various comments made by my hon. Friends? I represent an area of south-west Wales that is heavily dependent on the holiday industry, and I wonder whether we are missing something. Will the Minister comment on the report of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, which the previous Government, to their credit, put in place? It made the point that other hon. Members have made about the flexibility of planners and how some of them might not be as flexible as they could be-
Andrew Stunell: Thank you, Mrs Main. I understand the points that are being made and I hope that my hon. Friend will get some comfort when I address the changes to the planning system, which are currently being discussed by the Committee that is considering the Localism Bill.
As I was saying, the borough council has the flexibility to decide what planning conditions it imposes on both existing and projected new developments. Such flexibility already exists in the current planning regime. I will say in a moment how I believe the measures that we have announced in the Localism Bill-should they find favour with the House-will increase the flexibility of local planning authorities to deliver what my hon. Friends, now numbering three in this debate, are really asking for.
We do not consider that holiday caravans are the right way to increase the provision of low-cost housing, and I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was advocating that. We would certainly appreciate any planning authority that took the view that the accommodation as it is at the moment would not be suitable for that use. In deciding whether an area should be developed or redeveloped for housing, any planning authority would want to take into account not just the site itself, but, as my hon. Friend said, issues relating to infrastructure, services, flooding and so on. All such matters should be considered by any planning authority when looking at the suitability of a site. They would have an encouragement via the new homes bonus to do so, which would bring them the equivalent of six times the annual council tax for that property as an un-ring-fenced, upfront payment-as a reward or a bonus for increasing their housing stock.
My hon. Friend said that the current planning frameworks make it difficult for applications on surplus holiday sites to succeed. There is definitely good news available in the planning system that we have set out in the Localism Bill. We are taking away the top-down prescription of what can and cannot be done. It will now be the case that if the Isle of Sheppey, or some part of the Isle of Sheppey, decided that it was appropriate for that community to have its own neighbourhood plan, it would be free to develop such a plan and reach such views as it saw fit about how the development should proceed. Although that would have to be within the constraints of the borough local plan, it would not be constrained by huge, thick volumes of national guidance.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made the point to the House when introducing the Localism Bill that the current planning guidance exceeds in number of words the combined works of Shakespeare. That is clearly a ridiculous amount for any planning authority to take account of and it unduly and unreasonably restricts the capacity of local communities to determine their own fate.
I commend the provision of neighbourhood plans in the Localism Bill as a way forward for the island and for all the different communities in my hon. Friend's constituency. Of course they cannot discount the issues of traffic, they must take account of some of the broader strategic issues, and there will still be the national planning framework, which will provide overall guidance in relation to the country as a whole. None the less, local communities will have a far greater capacity to decide what factors are relevant when considering applications and what factors should be discounted. The sixth identifier that my hon. Friend talked about will rapidly become redundant because the neighbourhood plan will have supremacy-if I may use that phraseology. I believe that the changes to the planning process that we are initiating will provide him with the capacity to tell his constituents that the prosperous, regenerated and renewed island that they-and he-want to see can indeed come to pass.
The message that I have delivered for the Isle of Sheppey is, I believe, just as relevant for York, but I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) that he will have to have discussions with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly. The powers in the Localism Bill will be made available to the Welsh Assembly through provisions in the Bill, and the Assembly may, if it chooses, adopt them and then adapt them to the circumstances in Wales.
I think that I have addressed all the key points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, but if he feels that I have not, I will be ready to take an intervention. I hope that it is felt that I have given him a helpful answer, which is what was intended.