12.11 pm

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, for what I think is the second time.

I shall begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on securing what is an absolutely vital debate. It has been a very

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good debate, and I am particularly encouraged by the contributions from all parties. We have heard contributions from the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes).

It is important that we set this debate in some sort of historical context; my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby touched on that context in his contribution. There was a break in the post-war consensus, which existed from 1945 through to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. After that election, we saw an ideologically driven Government that really set its face against public housing and many other elements of the welfare state. Council housing was run down and stigmatised, and ultimately we saw council houses being sold off in their millions, and now the Government are at it again.

The new right to buy is not fit for purpose because, first, there is a real problem in the adequate supply of affordable housing for people. Secondly, the commitment that for every house sold another one will be built is not really worth the paper that it is written on for many areas, and the reason is that the houses will not necessarily be built in the area where the houses are sold off.

To return to the historical context, after 1979, rents were driven up and houses were sold off. Then there was a large-scale voluntary transfer, with significant reliance on the private sector to make up for the houses that were sold off. The right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who was then Housing Minister, said when challenged in the House of Commons on 30 January 1991:

“Housing benefit will underpin market rents—we have made that absolutely clear.”

He went on to say:

“If people cannot afford to pay…housing benefit will take the strain.”—[Official Report, 30 January 1991; Vol. 184, c. 935.]

The Housing Minister of 1991 ought to talk to his contemporaries today to say that the direction of travel in which they are taking Government policy is absolutely at odds with that commitment, which was given by a Conservative Minister 20 years ago.

When the Conservatives chose to go down that course on housing, it was a spectacular failure; indeed, it was predicted that it would be a spectacular failure. Since 1991, the housing benefit bill has nearly quadrupled, from £6 billion to well over £22 billion. Then today’s Government—the coalition Government—have the temerity to blame the very victims of a policy failure for which a previous Conservative Administration were responsible back in the early 1980s and 1990s, when council houses were sold off and the private rented sector was supposed to pick up the slack. As the Housing Minister of the day said in 1991, housing benefit would “take the strain.”

Now we are seeing the consequences of that, and we do not really have anything to show for it other than a number of enriched private landlords. We have not got any houses particularly to show for this huge investment in housing.

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What happened was that rather than investing in bricks and mortar, as used to be the case, the situation was turned on its head, and personal subsidy became the flavour of the day. That has resulted in the huge problems that we see now. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we now have the lowest number of housing starts since the 1920s; there has been a catastrophic collapse in new housing starts.

Before the general election, on 30 April 2010, the Prime Minister gave a commitment that the Conservatives supported social housing and would “protect it”. However, one of the first things that they did when they came to office was cut investment in council housing and social housing by 60%. They then launched a wholesale attack on the rights of tenants in social housing. That was a grotesque breach of faith with the British public, as they said one thing before the election, then did the exact opposite on coming to office.

In my view, the cuts in housing benefit are a national scandal. They will do nothing to tackle high rents; all they will do is impoverish people who have no alternative but to live in rented accommodation. The bedroom tax is utterly shameful, and increasing the age rule for the shared accommodation rate to 35 is utterly despicable and an attack on young people, and on people who are not so young.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby discussed a potential return to Rachmanism, but that has already happened. I addressed a public meeting in Brent at the end of last year, and a number of private tenants who attended told me that they had been in their homes for a long time but were being evicted to allow the landlord to rent out their properties at an inflated price to people attending the Olympics.

The Government’s approach in relation to so-called affordable rents, which are set at 80% of market rents, is nonsense. By definition, that approach makes “affordable” housing unaffordable and it will add to the housing benefit bill. People living in social housing will be caught by the housing benefit cap, which is absolute madness. Investment in council housing is absolutely key, and I hope that the Government will think again about their approach, because such investment would give a huge boost, not only to people who are in desperate need of affordable public housing but to the economy. It would create jobs in the construction sector, as my hon. Friends have already pointed out. Indeed, it would create jobs not only in construction itself but in all the ancillary trades and industries that go with construction when there is a buoyant housing market. It should also be said that 80% of the materials used on a construction site are procured within the UK.

The construction sector is on its knees. We need a new approach. The new homes bonus is not fit for purpose, it will not work and it will provide very few houses. We need investment and we have heard some excellent ideas today about linking quantitative easing to that investment, as well as ideas about the use of bonds, pension funds and so on. All those ideas should be considered by the Government. In conclusion, housing subsidy is a good thing; it is just a question of how we deploy it. We absolutely need housing subsidy in our country.

The problem is that the Government—this applies to both parties, because it was not changed when Labour came to power in 1997, so this is not a party political point—did not shift the subsidy back towards bricks

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and mortar. The Government really need to think again. If they are genuinely committed, and there appears to be cross-party support today for council housing, they need to think about their approach to council housing and their enhanced right to buy, which will decimate council housing in the north of the country, but not make too big an impact in the south. They need to look at the supply side, at new ways of investing and, in my view, change course. That is absolutely essential if they are to provide the housing that the people of our country desperately need.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to a very important topic in a timely debate. It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who is a long-standing and passionate campaigner for council housing. In fact, I think he has got more passionate every year that I have heard him, which is from 1997 onwards. I think his passion increased as his despair with his Government’s performance grew. Of course, he is not simply an advocate of social housing. I hope that he will not take this amiss, but he is a fundamentalist who is in favour of council housing.

Several temptations have been offered to me in this debate—for instance, to trespass on the work of my right hon. Friends in the Department for Work and Pensions in relating to housing benefit. I will not go there. I have been tempted to trespass on the toes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in relation to the Government’s approach to stabilising the finances of this country and writing a new Budget. I will not go there. In the limited time that I have, I will focus on the key points relating to council and social housing. I want to make it clear that we accept the analysis that it would be a good thing to have more investment in housing. That is why we are investing more in housing. We think that it is a good idea to have more social and affordable homes. That is why we are investing in social and affordable homes.

I want to put very clearly on the record the statistics for social rented homes—local authority and housing associations combined. They show that in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997—dates chosen not entirely arbitrarily—the number of social rented homes fell by 1,122,000. Between 1997 and 2010—13 years—the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000. The average loss per year under the Conservatives’ 18 years was 62,000 a year, and the average loss per year during Labour’s 13 years was 32,385—a net loss of local authority and housing association homes.

As a result of our investment programme, in the five years from 2010 to 2015, for the first time since 1979 there will be a net increase in social and local authority homes. Although I am ready to concede that it would be good if we could do more, it is important to recognise that this Government are outperforming their predecessors by a margin. The problem is large. We currently have 1,840,000 families on local authority waiting lists in England. As several hon. Members have noted, the Localism Act 2011 gives back to local authorities the flexibility to manage their housing stock without reference to national diktats.

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One thing to emerge from this debate is that there are many different housing markets and many different social housing markets. As an example, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) contrasted the situation in his constituency with the problems facing the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). It is surely right that local housing authorities should have the right and the duty to determine for themselves what their social housing strategy should be, and the Localism Act gives them that additional flexibility.

The hon. Member for Lewisham East made a point about the national planning policy framework perhaps dictating to councils what land they should allocate for social housing. That is surely a matter for them to carry out a proper study of the circumstances in their area and to make appropriate provision.

Heidi Alexander: Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Stunell: No, I have only two or three minutes left. I want to make a point regarding the reduced investment in housing alleged by the hon. Member for Lewisham East and by the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson). It is true that the amount of money that we are investing is lower, but of course the amount of subsidy needed is lower as well. Under the formula that we inherited, every social home built required a subsidy of £85,000 to be built. Under the affordable rents model, it requires a subsidy, on average, of £37,000. We produced a scheme that would invest £4.5 billion in social and affordable homes, and we told the House that we were confident it would deliver 150,000 new homes over the period to 2015.

We were mocked and scorned by the Opposition, who said that the model would not work; it could not possibly deliver. I have not yet received an apology now that we know that not 150,000, but 170,000 homes will be provided with the £4.5 billion injection. Contracts are being signed up all over the country by the Homes and Communities Agency. Indicative rent levels are in a range to fit local circumstances. The average affordable rents range from 65% in London to 79.5% in the north-west. In London, only 5% of the affordable rent homes are being offered at the 80% level. Those are in areas of comparatively low rental values in London.

I want to make a point about decent homes. If I can put it this way, Labour hoped that it had got a “get out of jail free” card for reducing the social housing stock. Of course, the Labour Government improved much of it. We are also improving 170,000 existing social homes to bring the remainder up to the decent homes standard. We are continuing that investment as rapidly as we can in all circumstances.

I will address points made by the hon. Gentlemen from the northern part of Lincolnshire: my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and, of course, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. The new homes bonus does not simply apply to new homes, but to the reoccupation of empty homes. Indeed, the conversion of shops to homes would generate the new homes bonus via the empty homes route. I hope that those hon. Gentlemen will talk to their local authorities to see how best they can make sure that that is dealt with appropriately.

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In my final moments, I will talk about right to buy. It seems to be generally agreed—certainly by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and a number of others—that the problem with right to buy in the past was that there was no replacement policy. When the Prime Minister announced last September that the Government were reintroducing the right to buy policy, he made it explicitly clear that that was on a one-for-one replacement basis. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Derby North disbelieves it. He disbelieved the 150,000, and we produced 170,000. No aspect of this Government’s policy has been taken at face value on Labour’s side of the road, and yet, every time, we have not simply delivered, we have exceeded. I ask the hon. Gentleman, just for once, to accept that the intentions of this Government are clear: to increase the social housing stock and to make sure that we maintain and deliver on the promises that we have made to the House.

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Rossendale Rail Link

12.30 pm

Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the need for a commuter rail link between Rossendale and Manchester. The Government have made key announcements recently that High Speed 2 will reach not only Birmingham but Manchester, which is of great significance to the north-west of England. I also welcome announcements on the electrification of the Manchester-Preston and Manchester-Liverpool corridors. In addition, I am delighted that the Todmorden curve linking Burnley, Accrington and Manchester will be up and running next year. It is a superb achievement for the Conservative Lancashire county council, which, despite the doom-mongers and naysayers, has delivered a new rail service for east Lancashire.

The new rail development will be a huge driver of wealth and growth in our area and shows this coalition Government’s commitment to the north-west of England, an area in which I am privileged to have lived my entire life. Manchester, already a leading centre for commerce, is clearly set to grow rapidly and will remain the dominant commercial force in the north-west.

The biggest threat to the progress of the north-west’s economy, despite Government investment, remains transport capacity issues. I have praised the Government’s programme, but there is a significant gap in transport services to Rossendale. Our only north-south transport link remains the M66, named by TomTom in October last year as the most congested road in the UK. If the Government fail to deal with congestion to and from Rossendale, it is highly likely that the Rossendale economy will not track the region’s median growth rate.

Transport issues already have a significant negative impact on wages in the Rossendale valley, which are between 10% and 25% lower than in Manchester and the north-west as a whole. Wages are lower particularly for employees who both live and work in Rossendale, reflecting a lack of skilled opportunities that I believe is connected to our failure to provide a transport link. As a result, nearly 50% of the Rossendale working community commute out of the valley every day.

In this debate, I hope to press the Minister for guidance on how I can ensure that Rossendale’s economy grows and prospers in line with our region. The key is securing a north-south rail link connecting Rawtenstall, Ramsbottom, Heywood and Bury. A rail link is vital to local business. We in Rossendale do not want to send our brightest and best south down the motorway every day. A rail link will bring investment into Rossendale as well as supporting a mobile and skilled work force.

The rail link is not a new enterprise; I will detail some of the work already done to study it. In brief, the track exists, and a heritage rail line currently runs along it. Local partners support the link, including all local authorities and, I believe, all local MPs on a cross-party basis. If we succeed in providing the commuter rail link, we will have a virtually unique opportunity to run a commuter link along a heritage rail line. That not only makes sense commercially but is an opportunity for this Government to break new ground in supporting our heritage railways.

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Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I echo the comments made by the hon. Gentleman and endorse that point. The rail link runs right alongside my constituency, so I fully support upgrading the line to a commuter line. I congratulate him on securing this debate.

Jake Berry: The hon. Gentleman, like me, has a history of supporting the rail link. I pay tribute to him for supporting a hugely important project.

To set the scene briefly, today’s east Lancashire railway is a heritage railway operating on two contrasting sections of line. Both were originally built in the 19th century, and both routes passed through the then-important mill town of Bury. That was all fine until on 27 March 1963, the chairman of the British Transport Commission, the infamous Dr Beeching, published the Beeching report, or, to give it its correct and more interesting title, “The Reshaping of British Railways”. It contained details of all passenger services to be withdrawn or modified.

To the complete amazement of the local population, the report proposed that Bury lose all three of its direct passenger services to Manchester, entirely cutting off stations such as Rawtenstall and Bacup. Although the Manchester-Bury electric service was eventually reprieved in 1966, services from Manchester Victoria to Bacup, Bury and Accrington ended. On 20 November 1984, the East Lancashire Railway Trust was formed as a partnership between two local authorities and the East Lancashire Light Railway Company to take forward the opening and ongoing development of the railway.

The first success came in July 1987, when the first four miles of track were reopened for regular passenger services—as a heritage rail line, I hasten to add—between Bury and Ramsbottom. On 27 April 1991, the ELR was extended a further four miles from Ramsbottom to Rawtenstall after the completion of major works, including the re-decking of three river bridges and one road bridge, re-signalling in Ramsbottom and the re-grading of Rawtenstall station in my constituency, where the train now terminates.

As I am sure the Minister will agree, it was a superb achievement to bring that line back from the brink and turn it into a fully functioning heritage line open nearly every weekend of the year. It shows the passion and dedication of local volunteers and the determination of the people of Rossendale, despite limited or no Government support for the east Lancashire rail link. We have succeeded with our heritage railway line, but now is the time to turn it into a viable commuter link.

Graham Jones: The hon. Gentleman is making a great case for the importance of the rail link. Does he agree that people in the area fully support that link? A survey in the Rossendale Free Press showed that the vast majority of people support it. The local district council, under both parties, has supported it as well. Does he agree that there is huge support for the upgrade?

Jake Berry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It gives me the opportunity to say that I do recognise the survey in the Rossendale Free Press, one of the finest newspapers in this country, along with the Lancashire Telegraph, both of which I hope will cover this debate.

We have succeeded in running a heritage line; now we want a commuter rail link. That holds its own challenges, which we acknowledge. The idea is not new. I will

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briefly take the Minister through some key developments since 2008. In 2008, a Halcrow report on demand modelling showed a low rate of return, and local authorities questioned the assumptions used. Rossendale local authority questioned them because the report did not take account of our regeneration plans, considered Rossendale as having a small catchment area for stations and assumed a highly attractive alternative bus service. Since the date of that report, the M66 motorway has been named as the most congested in Britain. The bus service is not attractive and, in fact, the bus services using the motorway have recently been reduced.

Graham Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?

Jake Berry: I am sorry. I will not.

In June 2009, a report on the potential reopenings of rail lines nationally by the Association of Train Operating Companies investigated the Rawtenstall-Manchester rail link. The report said that it had a good business case, with a rate of return of 1 to 1.8. That was the fourth best in the 20 or so schemes that were looked at nationally. It assumed a high capital cost, I think as an acknowledgment of the challenges of running a heritage rail operation and commuter light rail side by side, but it had a much more positive approach on potential demand than the Halcrow report. It is my view, as well as the local authorities’, that the ATOC report best reflects relative demand and is a piece of work that we would seek to rely on in the future.

When the multi-area agreement was put in place for Pennine Lancashire, it was recognised that the east Lancashire rail link was a regional, east Lancashire priority, and that remains the case. Investment has gone into the Todmorden curve linking Burnley to Manchester. In addition, the Manchester-Blackburn railway corridor has recently seen investment. That may have followed a similar Adjournment debate that I had with the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and I hope that we will have such success following today’s debate. Looking at the investment in those two lines, it is clear that there is a gap in the middle, and an ELR proposal would complement the Government’s other programmes in the region.

As the Minister will be aware, in late 2009, Manchester’s bid to the transport innovation fund failed following a referendum. However, as part of the TIF bid, a provisional sum of £30 million was allocated to the Rochdale-Rossendale corridor for the ELR. The east Lancashire and west Rochdale area study commissioned by Atkins in early 2010 is involved with a range of partners and has become focused on the ELR as it has progressed. The key issues investigated by Atkins focused heavily on the technical considerations of running a heritage rail operation in parallel with a modern commuter service.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman feel that a tourism potential could be realised if the rail link is opened? If so, how does he think the Government could encourage that to happen?

Jake Berry: I thank the hon. Gentleman. The heritage rail line is already open and has a huge tourism potential. I am sure that it will continue to contribute to our local economy.

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Returning to the ELWRAS report, the local authority’s view is that that developing piece of work has never properly addressed the demand potential, the socio-economic issues and the wider transport benefits. The report has not been finalised, and we hope that when it comes out, it will give regard to our desire for a rail link. As long as the report is not publicly available, the proposals are hitting the buffers, and we are hoping that the Minister will be able to leave the sidings and get the project back on track.

Reports aside, the most compelling case for a rail link in Rossendale is the business case. Knowing that we would have this debate today, I contacted the Rossendale business leaders forum to take some of its views. Lisa Thompson, who is a director of ISSL, an IT company based in Rossendale, and who also runs St Mary’s chambers, a conference centre, said:

“On behalf of St Mary’s Chambers in Rawtenstall we struggle getting people from out of the area to use our facilities as the public transport is so restricted. It means that you have to drive and with the price of fuel this can put people off. With a rail link that connects the wider area such as Ramsbottom and Bury and of course into Manchester would get more people visiting the area and attending events that are held here.”

Peter Boys of B and E Boys Ltd, a major construction contractor in the area, thinks that a rail link is “essential”—it would improve transport links into Rossendale and provide greater employment, making Rossendale more attractive as a place to operate his business. In his view, it would catalyse the development at New Hall Hey and have fantastic effects on jobs and the local economy, extending all the way up the Rossendale valley, through Stacksteads and Bacup. He also believes that it would bring people from Manchester to use Ski Rossendale, Golf Rossendale and the Adrenaline Gateway, which are well known local tourist attractions.

Julie Green Jones of Rossendale, the largest bailiff company in the UK, said that she worked as a nationwide company, and a rail link would give much easier access to clients, many of whom arrive in Manchester on national rail and have to be picked up. She also said that the provision of such a link would encourage people to live in the Rossendale area and provide her work force with opportunities.

Contributions were also received from Bob Killelea of Killelea Structural Steelwork and Amanda Grundy of Golf Rossendale. They all largely supported the idea. Such businesses are not small businesses but major service companies, manufacturers and builders. They are exactly the sort of businesses that we are looking at to pull us out of recession. I cannot speak for the entire Rossendale business community, but Mike Damms of the east Lancashire chamber of commerce probably can. In his view, the principle of connecting Lancashire is already established through the Todmorden curve, which has a far smaller proportion of its population—4%—currently commuting into Greater Manchester, compared with Rossendale’s 50%.

The young people in Rossendale, with small terraced houses, can feel that they are in a social trap. The culture of Manchester—the bright lights of the city—is actually very nearby, but for them it is socially and culturally inaccessible. That is an important point: we need to support our young people into highly paid jobs in Manchester.

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The Minister can see that the demand for such a rail link does not just come from one MP; it comes from two, and I know that more would have been here today if they could have made it. The demand does not come from one political party, one business or one local authority. In fact, I have never been involved with a campaign that has had such overwhelming support from all parties.

I hope the Minister will enlighten me on how we can get past this battle of the studies, where we seem to have several studies contradicting one another on the relative achievability of the rail link. I also hope that he will give some clear guidance to me and the local authority about how we can take forward the funding proposal and, where relevant, make available officials in his Department to meet me, the local authority and other local MPs.

I think we as a Government have a commitment to make the whole country the best place in the world to grow and start a business. Rossendale has a skilled work force. We actually have affordable land and huge business expertise, but we are excluded and marooned in terms of transport. This country’s recovery will be driven by small business, not from London, but out of towns such as Rawtenstall, Haslingden and Bacup. If the Government are serious about backing business, I hope they will be serious about backing the Rossendale rail link.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing the debate, which is of considerable importance to his constituents who live in Rossendale. I know that he has been a strong advocate for his area on the issue for some time.

The coalition Government appreciate the economic benefits that investment in transport can bring to an area. Our priorities in the Department for Transport are economic growth and cutting carbon, so we welcome any proposals that address those issues. The need to encourage economic growth is particularly important in the north-west and, as my hon. Friend recognises, we have already taken steps to address that by announcing a series of rail investments.

My hon. Friend referred to High Speed 2 and the Todmorden curve. He might also have mentioned the electrification of the north-west triangle of lines between Manchester and Liverpool, Liverpool and Wigan, and Manchester and Blackpool; the go-ahead for the Ordsall curve, the first stage of the northern hub, which will help significantly to reduce journey times between Liverpool, Yorkshire and the north-east; the approval, subject to confirmation of the business case, of the electrification of the north trans-Pennine route between Manchester and York via Leeds; the approval of the Metrolink extensions in Manchester, which are being implemented by Transport for Greater Manchester; and our recent agreement with Northern Rail and First TransPennine Express for additional carriages to be provided in the north-west. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that in the short time we have been in government, we have already done a great deal to promote rail investment in the north-west, not least for the reasons he has cited.

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We recognise that wage rates in Rossendale are estimated to be 10% lower than in Manchester, the north-west and the UK as a whole—an estimate to which my hon. Friend drew attention. Transport has a key role to play in improving the economic well-being of an area. We are therefore happy to support the efforts being made by local transport authorities to improve transport in their areas so as to improve access to jobs and attract new employment. In particular, I agree with my hon. Friend on his point about young people having access to major conurbations for jobs and employment, and for social reasons, too.

Rossendale was particularly unfortunate to have its railway line closed as a result of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s and 1970s. Dr Beeching was so keen on cuts that he even cut his own line in Sussex. Lines on either side of Rossendale—between Bolton and Blackburn, and between Rochdale and Todmorden—are thriving. They are being used by greater numbers of people travelling to work in Manchester, and that has led to longer trains being provided and requests for better off-peak frequencies.

The closure of the railway line was bad news for the area. However, had that not happened, we would not have witnessed the tremendous success of the heritage east Lancashire railway, to which my hon. Friend rightly paid tribute. It has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area, as well as creating new jobs. It has given a tremendous boost to the local economy and put the area on the tourism map. I pay tribute to the many people involved in this and other heritage lines, not least the Bluebell railway in my constituency. Such lines have succeeded in making heritage railways one of Britain’s great success stories in tourism towns.

Despite that success, I appreciate that the lack of a regular rail service can put an area at a disadvantage, particularly as regards providing access to a major employment centre such as Manchester. As a Transport Minister in the coalition Government, and also as a Liberal Democrat, I support fully the reopening of railway lines as a means of improving accessibility to places—subject, of course, to there being a satisfactory business case.

Graham Jones: Does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need for public transport investment? I caught the bus to Manchester and it took me two hours to get into the city centre. As the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) pointed out, the M66 is choked up.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. I was about to refer to access to the A56, the M66, the M60 and the M62. They are used by express bus services, but they suffer from peak-period congestion—there is no getting away from that, and that has to form part of considerations—which makes commuting into Manchester by bus relatively unattractive. I understand why the local authority believes that the area is not benefitting from the growth in jobs and average wage rates experienced by other areas, including local areas.

The Department understands that local authorities and Transport for Greater Manchester are working together to see how their transport problems can be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen referred to the 2008 Greater Manchester

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passenger transport executive study, which investigated the scope for using the east Lancashire railway to provide a commuter service from towns in the Rossendale valley to Manchester. The study looked at a number of options, including an extension of Metrolink and a new heavy rail service.

The estimated capital cost of adapting the heritage line to accommodate regular heavy rail services was estimated at between £22 million and £30 million. The study was very sensitive to the requirements of the heritage railway and came up with a series of proposals that enabled both types of service to operate at different times of the day, and days of the week. Personally, I think that the proposal for joint working could be a strength rather than a weakness. It also calculated the operating and maintenance costs of the various service options, suggesting that they would be approximately £1.5 million to £2 million per year.

At the time, the Department suggested that the PTE and local authorities follow up the study with some demand forecasting work, so that an estimate of passenger income could be made and a business case calculated for the scheme. The Department understands that this work was carried out, but we have not seen the results. However, we understand from the local authorities that they were unhappy with the assumptions used to forecast future demand, which has led to the conclusion that the business case for this scheme is not strong. Since that work was done, the Department has produced a guidance note on demand forecasting. It is available on our website; my hon. Friend might like to draw that to the attention of the local authorities.

We are aware that the line was one of many that the Association of Train Operating Companies looked at in its “Connecting Communities” report. Its very high level piece of work suggested it might have a business case of 1.8 at best. That in itself might encourage the local authorities to look again at the scheme in greater depth, with the help and support of train operators.

As for the next steps, it seems crucial for the local authorities to get together and look again at forecasts of demand, and to confirm whether there is a business case. If there is a good business case for a rail scheme and that still appears to be the best way of meeting local transport needs, further development work will be necessary, especially given the necessity of linking the scheme with the heritage railway. The promoters will need to weigh up the costs and benefits, and estimate the need for long-term subsidy. Transport for Greater Manchester and the local authorities will have to make the difficult decision of how high a priority to give the scheme, given the number of competing priorities that we are aware of, both in Lancashire and in Greater Manchester.

The Government can help. In addition to the advice that we are prepared to offer any promoter of a rail scheme, we provide capital funds toward transport schemes. We are currently consulting on the funding process for the major local transport schemes, which will come into effect from April 2015. We have made it clear that local authorities and local enterprise partnerships can use that to fund rail schemes, as well as other public transport schemes and highway schemes. That gives local bodies genuine choice over the best way to meet their local transport needs. We are moving away from the idea that local authorities simply deal with roads, and we are giving them the opportunity to consider road and rail—what

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is best for their areas. As the scheme will address primarily local needs, this would not be a project that the rail industry would be looking to fund in a future control period such as, say, 2019 to 2026.

We will shortly consult on rail decentralisation, with a view to giving greater responsibility for specification of rail services to local authorities and PTEs. Transport for Greater Manchester appears to be very enthusiastic about taking on such responsibilities as part of a larger consortium. The local enthusiasm for transport is probably more advanced in the Manchester area than elsewhere in England—a good development from my hon. Friend’s point of view. A new service to Rossendale is just the sort of service that could be included in a network of services that could be devolved.

In conclusion, I encourage the local authorities and Transport for Greater Manchester to complete the demand forecasting work to establish whether there is a business case, and to continue to consider alternative ways of addressing the issues raised in the debate. Both Lancashire county council and Transport for Greater Manchester are experienced in considering such projects, but the Department is happy to provide advice and guidance if that is needed. I am happy to arrange a meeting with officials, local representatives and my hon. Friend, if that would be helpful in taking the matter forward.

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Not-for-profit Advice Sector

12.56 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.

I begin with the comments made by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who said that the proposed changes to legal aid are not an attack on women and children; they are an attack on fat cat lawyers. Perhaps he could say that to the 1,000 people who used the specialist welfare benefit advice service at the Bolton citizens advice bureau in the month of January alone. Perhaps he could say that to someone like Jeannie, who e-mailed last night, extremely pleased with the result in the House of Lords, saying that perhaps now people like her can leave an extremely dangerous situation and receive the financial help and support to do so before they are murdered.

The changes to legal aid will have a destabilising effect on the funding of advice agencies, law centres and citizens advice bureaux. Hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions, will lose out. The funding cuts will have a disproportionate effect on the not-for-profit sector, which the Government’s own impact assessment agrees will receive 77% of the cuts to civil legal aid. As I have often said, advice agency funding is a bit like a game of Jenga—it is complicated, it is interdependent, and small amounts removed can lead to the whole structure crashing down, leaving vulnerable clients underneath with nowhere else to go.

It is not worth looking at the new position under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill without looking at the current position. Citizens advice bureaux say that they will receive £51.3 million less in 2012-13 than in 2010-11. Law centres have had a 52% cut in their local authority funding. Coupled with the devastating effect that the legal aid cuts will have, citizens advice bureaux will lose £28.4 million, and law centres will lose £6 million and more than 85% of their current legal aid funding. Up to 18 law centres could be lost and up to 50% of citizens advice bureaux—more than 200 bureaux with 1,500 outlets—could close completely. If the changes go through, 100% of law centres and CABs say that they will operate on a vastly reduced service.

In total, the not-for-profit agencies will lose £51 million. In my borough of Wigan there will be a cut of £428,000 for specialist work: the citizens advice bureau loses £133,000, which is 3.5 caseworkers plus their admin support, and the legal aid lawyers, who provide the rest of the social welfare law help, will lose the remainder. These are not fat cat lawyers; they are lawyers working with the most disadvantaged people in their community.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): With regard to not-for-profit advice services and centres, has the hon. Lady seen the statement dated 22 November 2011 by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is the Minister for Civil Society? He says that the Government have committed £16.8 million towards not-for-profit advice centres and services.

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Yvonne Fovargue: I have seen that statement. I will mention statements made by Ministers, including both the Secretary of State for Justice and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who yesterday made an announcement about advice funding.

Citizens advice bureaux alone will lose 500 specialists. Make no mistake: this is specialist work. It is not simple form-filling, which people can do by themselves. The bureau in my constituency told me that in the past three months appeals to the commissioners have increased by 50%. Surely, people are not expected to do this by themselves.

I will tell hon. Members the story of one CAB client called Sharon, who went there when she was told that her income support claim would be stopped as she was living with her ex-husband Darren, who should support her financially. After a lengthy interview with an adviser, Sharon told the specialist caseworker that she was not living with Darren, but that he used her address for financial purposes as he often did not have a permanent address for long periods and that he also stayed, on occasion, to help care for her, as she had severe and chronic mental health problems.

The adviser challenged the Department for Work and Pensions decision, using the lengthy, complex case law about the living-together test, and provided a written submission to the tribunal contesting the DWP’s interpretation of the case law, and expert evidence to show that Sharon’s relationship with Darren was a close friendship. At the appeal, the tribunal judge commented on the substantial body of evidence provided by the specialist and used it to conclude that Darren’s relationship with Sharon was

“more akin to an adult child who goes to care for a frail elderly relative who is living in their own home.”

All Sharon’s benefits were reinstated.

Where does the Minister expect people like Sharon to go for help in future?

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and support the argument that she is making so eloquently. Is it not a particularly cruel irony that these cuts happen at precisely the time when, because of benefit cuts and working tax credit loss, families are under especially acute pressure? Therefore there is double harm from these damaging cuts.

Yvonne Fovargue: I agree. The need for advice will increase when universal credit and the personal independence payment come through. All evidence from the past proves that the need for advice increases when there are changes to the benefit system, particularly in the six months before and after.

There will be no places to go to pick up the slack. Age Concern, the pro bono unit and the free representation unit—all the agencies mentioned by the Minister and the Secretary of State as being able to pick up the slack—have categorically said that this is not possible. Specialist services will be lost.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. To be honest, most hon. Members would be delighted if these measures concerned fat cat lawyers.

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Six paid posts will go at Citizens Advice in Wrexham, leading to an additional problem. What happens to the service that is provided for a couple of hours a week or a fortnight in the surrounding villages? Does my hon. Friend agree that, if services were cut, the impact on villages such as Rhosllannerchrugog and Chirk would be devastating for people living there, particularly those who are currently out of work or on low incomes, who would have to pay additionally for travel to the urban centre—if they could get appointments?

Yvonne Fovargue: I agree. The effect on people using the services, who are disproportionately on a low income, will be devastating. Individuals will not appeal, which will end up costing the state more—hon. Members should remember that they have been unlawfully denied benefit—or may take the case themselves and be unable to present the evidence effectively or provide the right sort of evidence, or will end up at their Member of Parliament’s surgeries. I think all hon. Members will admit that we are not legal experts. However, there will be nowhere else for us to refer such people. I recommend to the Minister a report produced by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers, which demonstrates how much MPs rely on their local advice centres.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Yvonne Fovargue: I need to make a tiny bit of progress, but I will later.

So far we have talked only about welfare benefits. Debt clients will lose access to early advice, giving the perverse result that they may be sent away and told, “If you get into more debt and are at risk of losing your home, we might be able to see you.” Clients who are unlawfully dismissed from employment will have nowhere to go and will end up claiming benefits.

This loss of specialist provision has great implications for the future. The experience of specialists will be lost, not just for this generation, but to future generations, because they are training other advisers—often volunteers—but will be unable to pass on their experience because they will not be there within the agency.

I remind the Minister of the cost of cases. A case such as Sharon’s, which has benefited her, cost £148. That is how much a welfare benefits case costs. A debt case costs £180 and a housing case costs £160. What are the knock-on costs to the other agencies of removing this small amount of funding?

The Minister has said many times that he disagrees with the King’s College and CAB figures on the savings made to the state by keeping such matters in scope. What is his estimate? Has any estimate been made by the Government of the knock-on costs of removing specialist work from legal aid?

The real tragedy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) mentioned, could be the loss of whole agencies. Often, large agencies have done the right thing and diversified their funding and contracted with the Legal Services Commission. The services provided by the Manchester community legal advice service were jointly commissioned by the local authority and the LSC in October 2010. A three-year contract was awarded until October 2013, with the possibility of two more years if the targets were hit—and

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they have been. Some £1.2 million of legal aid funding will be directly lost by that service and that is likely to have knock-on costs of another £800,000 leading to more than £2 million being lost from that service. In addition, 34 specialist advisers will be lost and 97% of the specialist services throughout Manchester will go. Contracts have been signed for premises and other essentials, predicated on the three-year contract that was given to the service. Cuts pose a risk to the continuation of the whole CAB and community legal advice service in the city of Manchester.

In effect, Manchester could become a desert in terms of face-to-face advice. Who in the city will be affected by that? The majority of the clients, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South said, are on low incomes, or have a disability, or are black and minority ethnic. They experience higher than average rates of unemployment, debt and homelessness. These are the people that the cuts will affect—not fat cat lawyers. Will the Minister please comment on the future of the community legal advice services, whose staff signed contracts in good faith and now find that those contracts are being reneged on? That is just one example.

When this matter is spoken about in the main Chamber there are many fine words from all parties, but as a feisty volunteer said to the mayor when he spoke about the CAB in respect of a funding cut, “Fine words butter no parsnips. Let’s see the colour of your money.” That is what we need.

We may talk about the transition fund—£20 million given for advice agencies—but transition, to me, means moving on. I cannot see where advice agencies are going to move to, to get specialist funding. I feel that a lot of them will be transitioning into oblivion.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She is hitting on a key issue; the continued existence of the advice agencies is obviously important but ultimately, if their clients cannot afford to access the services, the existence of the organisation itself is of little value. The legal aid funding that supported welfare claims and appeals was fundamental to many of those people continuing to access benefits to which, it turned out, they were entitled. She is generous to assume that the Government are genuine about wanting to find an alternative, but is it possible that they like the idea that a lot of people will not be able to claim the benefits in the future? That would save money not only on legal aid but in welfare. Is it possible that everything has been planned?

Yvonne Fovargue: Were I a cynic, I might agree with my hon. Friend. Only a few weeks ago, in this very Chamber, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), mentioned that the backlog was of almost nine or 10 months, which will certainly not be the case if people do not have access to appeals any more.

I welcome the announcement by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that there will be more money for advice, but I am a pragmatist and have worked for an advice agency, so the bottom line is when, how much and what for—without answers to those questions, my

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welcome cannot be too great. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) said, is it a coincidence that the funding will be removed at the same time as the need for advice will increase? What assessment has been made of the need for specialist advice in the period of change? Finally, has the Minister—I know it is not his area—discussed with his colleagues when the advice review is due to be published? I thought it would be essential to publish the results of the advice review before the decisions are made on the removal of legal aid from advice agencies.

I welcome the vote in the other place that people should have access to legal services that meet their needs effectively. Citizens Advice and other advice agencies have been offering such services for more than 70 years, which are as vital now as they were then.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Advice services such as Citizens Advice have expressed concerns about the effect of the Bill. Citizens Advice stated that

“what’s left…of legal aid will be…unworkable for too many advice providers.”

Is that the opinion of the hon. Lady as well?

Yvonne Fovargue: It is, because of what is known as a critical mass in the area. We should not forget that advice agencies have already suffered an unplanned 10% cut in the rates of such cases this year. To remove legal aid completely would be to destabilise; for the small amount of work left in scope, it might not be worth employing an adviser—in fact, an adviser could not be afforded.

I have always believed that a thriving advice sector contributes to a healthy society with fairness and access to justice for all at its heart. The changes to legal aid rip the heart out of the advice sector and will leave the vulnerable lost and alone, knocking at the doors of cash-starved local authorities and of MPs’ surgeries. The changes are not only heartless but economically unsound.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing the debate, and on her contributions to a vigorous and informative discussion of an important issue. I understand and share the strong concerns expressed, and the high level of interest, in debates on the value of the not-for-profit advice sector throughout consideration of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in both Houses. Today, I would like to deal with the concerns expressed on behalf of Jeannie, Sharon and other vulnerable people, and assure the hon. Lady that we have listened and are taking action.

The Government value highly the important role of not-for-profit organisations such as Citizens Advice and law centres in delivering advice services locally. The Government want to support such organisations, particularly at the current time. Reforms to the legal aid system will, as the hon. Lady is aware, reduce the organisations’ income, and my colleagues throughout Government and I appreciate that times are difficult for free advice services, which are understandably concerned about their future. Given the financial climate, however,

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any Government today would have to take difficult decisions and make major changes to the services that they fund. Legal aid expenditure is approximately £2.2 billion per annum, which is 25% of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. Legal aid must play its part in fulfilling the Government’s commitment to reduce the fiscal deficit and return this country’s economy to stability and growth. The proposed legal aid reforms therefore have the additional aim of achieving substantial savings.

We are not making the changes lightly, although the importance of seeing them in context cannot be overstated. Our structural deficit, which we inherited from the Opposition, and their mismanagement of the economy present a range of challenges to our economy and to our ethos on public service provision. I am, however, confident about, and stand by, the criteria that we have employed in determining what areas should attract funding under the Bill.

In the Bill, we have sought to define clearly those areas that the Government believe should attract public funding in future under a reformed legal aid scheme. That will allow at least some certainty as to the areas in the legal aid market that we will continue to support and that, I hope, will thrive. We are aware and fully acknowledge that there will be implications for future provision: fewer legal aid providers are likely to be needed; the methods through which many services are delivered will change; organisations might change; and advice provision will also change. That is alongside other changes to the legal market, such as alternative business structures. The full impact assessment has been published, but the hon. Lady also asked about the knock-on costs, and it is true that those are sometimes difficult to define because they often depend on behavioural change, such as people switching from family courts to mediation.

The result of the changes is not necessarily the decline of a thriving legal aid market; the market can still thrive if it adapts. We must acknowledge the need for acceptance and recognition of the fact that the market will be different. We must consider constructively how best people can be assisted, and how sustainable voluntary organisations can be run under the new framework. The important issue is whether services will be available for clients, rather than whether that service is provided by any particular type of provider in a particular way. The expansion of telephone-based advice, to which the hon. Lady referred, will create contracting opportunities, and we already have examples of providers, including those from the not-for-profit advice sector, that run face-to-face contracts alongside centralised telephone advice contracts as part of their business model.

Yvonne Fovargue: How would the Minister answer Steve Hynes from the Legal Action Group, who said that if we wanted to create a system that removes access to advice, we should make it a telephone-based system?

Mr Djanogly: I have spoken to the gentleman about that, as I have to the hon. Lady, who made the same point in Committee. The Government are determined in their view that telephone advice, if used appropriately and provided for the right clients, can be a helpful service, not least for those who are disabled or live in remote rural areas, for instance.

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Andrew Percy: I appreciate what the Minister is saying. As he must know from his surgeries, many constituents come to us and say that the last thing that they want to do is have a telephone conversation with us—they want to see us face to face. Can he assure us that residents who need assistance and do not want to access it down the telephone line—a lot of older people in particular have problems with that—will continue to be able to get face-to-face advice?

Mr Djanogly: The telephone service will be used only in a limited number of areas, so that we can see how it works, and yes, if someone is unsuitable for receiving telephone advice, perhaps because of their age, the alternative of face-to-face advice will be available.

I am pleased to see good examples of not-for-profit organisations acting innovatively, forging partnerships with other organisations and adapting to the changing face of advice provision. I accept that the proposed reforms are likely to be particularly challenging to the not-for-profit sector. Legal aid, however, is only one of many funding streams that citizens advice bureaux and law centres receive. For example, legal aid represents only 15% of the income of citizens advice bureaux. I also point out that our scope changes have not yet happened and will not do so for another year, giving us time to look at the changing needs of the market. Indeed, one of the major issues for the sector is changes to other sources of funding, such as local authority cuts, which are determined by local priorities, not central Government.

Toby Perkins: I am encouraged by the Minister’s suggestion that he has an open mind when it comes to listening to the concerns of the not-for-profit sector. I recognise what he says about the need to reduce the overall legal aid bill, but he will be aware of amendment 11, which was proposed in the House of Lords and which deals with social welfare law. My concern is that if the Minister comes through with this policy without identifying an alternative, the most vulnerable people, who are used to being on benefits and suddenly find that they are not eligible, will be desperately marooned. Will the Minister give us a sense of who might pick up the slack in those cases? If not, will he consider giving Government support to that amendment, rather than scrapping the entire savings proposals?

Mr Djanogly: No. What I will do is give the hon. Gentleman a clear idea of what the Government propose to do to ensure that that slack, as he called it, will not be forgotten or missed. We are committed to ensuring that people will continue to have access to good-quality, free advice in their communities. That is why the Government acted, and set up the £107 million transition fund to support the voluntary sector in managing the transition to a tighter funding environment. That is why we also launched the £20 million advice services fund, and a Government-wide review of free advice services. The advice services fund was always intended to provide support to the sector in the short term only, with the Cabinet Office review of the advice sector providing longer-term solutions. I can advise the hon. Member for Makerfield that the review is expected to conclude later this spring, and it will provide recommendations on proposals to secure the long-term sustainability of the sector.

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As the hon. Lady said, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced only yesterday that the Budget statement will set out that further additional funding will be made available to the not-for-profit advice services in the current spending review period to support the Cabinet Office review, so that advice services are sustainable over the long term.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I very much welcome the Cabinet Office’s work on changing the advice landscape. Will the Minister assure me that when discussions are held with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, it is encouraged to ensure that it passes the new money down to the local citizens advice bureaux, which is where most people experience the organisation’s high-quality work?

Mr Djanogly: Yes. The work that is being done through the Cabinet Office is looking at local CABs. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and also for highlighting that NACAB is funded quite separately from local CABs. It is mainly funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; that is bringing a new player into the debate. That point also highlights the complexity of the debate. One of the problems we have had in the run-up to and passage of the Bill was confusion when people misunderstood the nature of legal advice, and the general advice that is the core of CAB provision, which we are so keen to maintain.

With regard to the issue of existing contracts for law centres—community legal advice centres and networks—which was raised by the hon. Member for Makerfield, we will honour those contracts and review how best to

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implement the Bill when contracts need to be re-let. The needs of Manchester and the local area will be carefully considered as part of that review.

Yvonne Fovargue: I do not think there is a lot of confusion between generalist and specialist help in the minds of the people who use and provide it; it appears to be just in the mind of the Government. The specialist help is needed for areas such as welfare benefits. The Government have tried on many occasions to say that that is about simple form-filling. It is not. There are 8,690 pages of Department for Work and Pensions guidance given to its decision makers.

Mr Djanogly: As the hon. Lady knows, where there is a risk to someone’s security or liberty, or where someone is at immediate risk of losing their home, we are not ending legal aid for civil advice. There seems to be a misconception that we are taking away all legal aid for civil advice. That is simply not the case. We are prioritising our help for those who are most vulnerable, given the overall funding that we have to work with.

I can confirm that my Department is working closely with colleagues across Government, and particularly with the Cabinet Office, which is leading on this area, to support this important cross-Government work. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are aware of the ongoing work; I hope that will assure hon. Members that the Government are listening to the concerns being voiced about the not-for-profit sector, and are urgently taking work forward to address those concerns.

1.25 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Sustainable Communities Act

1.30 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): I am delighted to have secured this debate. Although I have been a Member of Parliament for seven years, this is the first Adjournment debate that I have secured, and I am pleased that it is on such an important topic. Depending on the Minister’s response, it is potentially a groundbreaking debate about an aspect of the planning process that will affect all constituency MPs and the local government areas with which we work.

I remember the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 from the previous Parliament. The Bill had cross-party support but began in the 2001 Parliament with my former colleague, Sue Doughty, then the Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford. Sadly, she lost her seat in 2005, but the baton was taken up by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is now a Member of the coalition Government. The Bill became law in 2007 and is a bottom-up process in legislation—I know that the Minister, whom I greatly admire for his philosophy of localism, has endorsed it on many occasions.

Under the Act, the Government have a duty to help local councils and communities by responding to their suggestions. It is not only about consultation, but about trying to reach agreement with central Government on how those suggestions could be taken forward. If that practice is adopted, it would represent a whole new strand of governance at local level in our country.

There was considerable enthusiasm across the country for the Bill even before it became an Act. In my first year as a Member of Parliament, I addressed a packed public meeting at the Elmgrove centre in Redland in my constituency. That was the first time that I worked with Local Works, which campaigned for the Bill outside Parliament. Steve Shaw, who heads that organisation, has helped me to prepare for today’s debate. The Act had cross-party support and showed the House of Commons at its best. Its purpose was to enable local councillors and communities to put suggestions to central Government on how to improve governance at local level. Today’s debate concerns an example of a council that has taken advantage of that legislation.

In June last year, a small council in Suffolk, Leiston-cum-Sizewell town council, faced a difficult situation when it was sent a planning application for a large out-of-town retail development. Although Suffolk Coastal district council is the planning authority, parish and town councils such as Leiston-cum-Sizewell have a statutory duty to comment and a right to be consulted on such applications. The application in question presented the council with something of a problem: it was 12 inches thick and consisted of 10 specialist consultant reports that had been prepared by the applicant or their advisers. The council could have made comments based on community feeling, or it could have worked diligently and properly—as I am sure its electors would have expected it to do—and ploughed through that documentation and come to a considered opinion. Essentially, we are all in the same position. I am often asked as an MP to comment on planning applications in my constituency. As it is a city-centre constituency, a huge number of such applications are received every

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week, let alone throughout the year, so I do feel the pain that that small town council in Suffolk experienced last year.

District councils, or unitary authorities such as the one that I am more used to in Bristol, have large planning departments and professional planning consultants to advise councillors when determining planning applications. Parish and town councils, however, usually have only a town clerk who may even work part-time, so the whole system is stacked against them.

The proposal from Leiston-cum-Sizewell is designed to address such situations. At its meeting, the town council asked for two things, and I hope that the Minister will respond to these requests. First:

“That any applicant or representatives of any applicant who submits such an application that will have a significant effect on an area must, if requested by the Town or Parish Council attend a meeting of (i) that Council to answer questions from elected councillors; and (ii) a Town or Parish Meeting,”

of all citizens in the area who are interested in the application. Such a move would have an effect across the country. Large urban areas, such as Bristol West which I represent, are not in parishes but they have active residents associations. Liberal Democrat controlled Bristol city council has set up a network of neighbourhood forums in which local councillors can comment and exercise decision-making powers over expenditure in their communities. Such a proposal could be applied across the country.

The second request is that any applicant who submits a planning application that will have a significant effect on an area should,

“if requested by the Town or Parish Council, or a Town Meeting, pay for the Council or Meeting to get an independent assessment carried out as to how the proposed development will affect the sustainability of the local communities.”

That would have been a live issue this time last year when a well-known supermarket—Tesco—was acquiring planning permission for a new store in the Stokes Croft area of my constituency. There cannot be many Members of Parliament who have witnessed widespread civil disturbance and rioting because of a planning application for a shop, but I am afraid that is what my constituents experienced in April last year. When everyone else was enjoying the royal wedding, I was with the police witnessing mayhem on the streets. It was all because of a planning application that the community felt had not been handled properly, either by the council or—more significantly—by the developer, which people felt had not engaged properly with the community. The proposal to require a developer to pay for independent advice and an assessment on how any significant planning application will affect the local community, will strike a chord with my constituents and many communities across the country.

The proposal was considered by Leiston-cum-Sizewell town council on a cross-party basis. It was proposed by Councillor Ron Bailey, an independent green councillor who I am pleased to see is attending the debate today, together with Conservative Councillor Richard Geater and Socialist Councillor Bill Howard. There must be something in the sea air in Suffolk Coastal because no Liberal Democrats were elected to the council. Nevertheless, I will do my best to move the proposal along in this arena.

If small local councils such as Leiston-cum-Sizewell, or parish councils, or indeed local communities that do not have that level of local governance, wish to have

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independent consultants and advice, it is often financially impossible for them to do so. Therefore, I am particularly attracted by the second proposal that funding for that should be provided by the applicant.

We are discussing large-scale applications, such as those for a superstore, in which applicants—particularly the big supermarkets—will spend millions of pounds on acquiring the land and bringing their proposals to fruition. Therefore, the cost of an independent assessment would be only a miniscule proportion of their capital outlay on a scheme.

Since Leiston-cum-Sizewell town council in Suffolk proposed the motion, it has attracted widespread support—support right across the country from the family of 1,500 town, parish and, indeed, Welsh community councils. As you will know, Mr Caton, since the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, there are no parish councils in Wales; there are community councils instead. The proposal struck a chord throughout the country, and Local Works has given me several examples of parish councils that have faced similar situations.

Waldringfield parish council, which also happens to be in Suffolk, faced an interesting proposal to build 3,000 extra houses in the neighbouring parish. Obviously, that would have a major impact on its own community. Closer to home for me, Tibberton parish council in Gloucestershire was sent an application so large that it was contained in three huge boxes of plans and documents. It had to have them delivered from the district council’s office, because all it had been sent was a CD. Presumably, it was not possible for it to print out all the documentation itself.

Durnford parish council in Wiltshire has lent its support, as have Southwold town council in Suffolk, Woodhouse parish council in Leicestershire and High Legh parish council in Cheshire. In fact, I could list quite a few more councils to show how widespread the support is for the imaginative proposal that originated from Suffolk.

What Leiston-cum-Sizewell council, all the parish councils and the parts of England where we do not have parish councils are looking for from the Minister today is another positive indication that the coalition Government take localism incredibly seriously. They have embarked on an imaginative series of proposals to reinvigorate local government. I know that the Minister is in the process of negotiating a city deal for my home city of Bristol. We may be having elected mayors across the country as well.

This is about the grass-roots level of local government, which matters more than anything else to local people. All of us, but particularly those of us who have worked our way up the system—I was a county councillor, district councillor and unitary councillor before becoming a Member of Parliament—know that planning applications can excite people in a way that we might not anticipate when the documentation first appears through our letter box or in our inbox. Communities care very deeply about local planning applications, whether they are for superstores, football stadiums, extensions to cricket grounds or a whole host of other large applications that I could name in my constituency.

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This proposal, under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, puts power back into the hands of local people, into the hands of their local community representatives if they have them and, in the case of the cities where they do not, perhaps directly into the hands of residents associations, too. The Minister is a committed localist. I hope that he can make some favourable comments about the proposals that I have outlined today.

1.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and to have been present to hear what we now realise was the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) in an Adjournment debate that he had called. It was a very accomplished one, reflecting his own passionate commitment to localism, which the House has come to know about over the years. I congratulate him on securing the debate. I also congratulate Councillor Bailey, who has shown that it is possible for the resolution of a parish council or, as in this case, a town council to be debated in Parliament, too, so that the views of local people can go straight to a national debate and be considered in that way.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the authors and midwives of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. It is indeed landmark legislation. Like him, I first encountered it when I was a candidate for this place. In fact, the morning after my selection as the Conservative candidate for Tunbridge Wells, which is now my constituency, I was canvassing on the doorstep and one of my constituents-to-be, Philip Clarkson Webb, said, “I have only one question for you. If you are elected, will you be supporting the Sustainable Communities Bill?” I did not know about the Bill at the time. I took the time to research it and was able to assure him that I would support it.

That was a great pleasure that I shared with my hon. Friend: we were both able to support the passage of the Bill that became the Sustainable Communities Act. I also join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Local Works, which was responsible for driving through successive Parliaments that Act of Parliament. It has had an influence beyond even what I think the original promoters and authors had in mind. I think it is fair to say that it was one of the principal sources of inspiration for what is now the Localism Act 2011, in that the central approach of the Sustainable Communities Bill was to give the right of initiative to local communities—first to local councils, but then to neighbourhoods below the level of local councils, in order to give them the right to challenge how things were done on their behalf, either by the layer of local government above them or, indeed, by central Government. That applies across the board. Hon. Members will be familiar with the rights that the Localism Act entrenches: the right to challenge and the right to list assets of community value, with an opportunity to bid for them.

However, nowhere is the influence more marked than in the planning system and the reforms that we have made, through the Localism Act, to the planning system in order to put local communities at the heart of the planning process. I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), my Parliamentary

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Private Secretary, who has given, over many years, a great deal of thought and commitment to the issue, which has resulted in the provisions that we have enacted.

I want to say a little about the provisions on planning in the Localism Act as they affect parish and town councils, because they constitute one of the principal ways in which the intention behind the Leiston-cum-Sizewell proposal already has the opportunity to be reflected in law. The first application is through neighbourhood planning. Many town and parish councils throughout the country have participated in the development of neighbourhood plans and parish plans, and put a great deal of effort and enthusiasm into drafting them. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West knows, they have had only advisory status. They have been there, usefully, to inform the decisions of district and borough councils on planning applications, but they have had no statutory force. We considered that that was wrong—that those who live in an area and who know their neighbourhood well and have a passion for it ought to be able to have their say and to shape their neighbourhood in the way that they feel will best reflect the interests of their community in future.

The Localism Act therefore introduces the statutory right to have a neighbourhood plan, which then becomes part of the development plan, against which planning applications are tested. The first test is whether a planning application conforms to the local plan. The neighbourhood plan, once adopted, becomes part of that. This is a revolution in the powers that neighbourhood forums or, in this case, town and parish councils have. I would encourage all town and parish councils throughout the country that have not embarked on the production of a neighbourhood plan to do so.

There has been a huge wave of enthusiasm for this. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and I were able to announce yesterday a fifth wave of what we call front-runners in neighbourhood planning. I am referring to town and parish councils and neighbourhood forums that are getting on with producing neighbourhood plans, even in advance of certain measures coming into force. We now have 223 neighbourhoods across the country that are actively engaged in producing neighbourhood plans, which will say in some detail what kind of development should be permitted, where it should be and what kind of character it should have. When combined with the right to a neighbourhood development order, that gives parishes, town councils and neighbourhoods the opportunity directly to confer planning permission on applications that clearly conform to local people’s wishes.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) on securing the debate. I hope the Minister will excuse my naivety, but does the measure mean that local communities could stop an application that would create 500 or 600 jobs if they felt it did not fit in with the area?

Greg Clark: We have a plan-based system in this country, and all applications are judged against the development plan. It is right that the plan continues to be the basis for determining planning applications. In putting together the plan, however, every community

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across the country—whether at district, borough or neighbourhood level—will want, and is indeed obliged, to consider the future prosperity of its area. The beauty of a plan-based system is that local knowledge can inform decisions about how an area can prosper in future and how it can house the people who want to live there. The examination of neighbourhood plans and local plans would test whether something was a reasonable response to the area’s future needs. It is absolutely right that local people are the first to make the decision, and that the content of the plans is not, as was previously the case, substantially directed by regional spatial strategies, which the Localism Act will abolish.

Neighbourhood planning therefore gives parish and town councils an important role. I am delighted to say that the National Association of Local Councils, which represents town and parish councils across the country, is one of a number of organisations that have been funded by my Department to assist parish and town councils that are interested in producing neighbourhood plans. That help is there, and it is already available to local councils.

In response to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), I mentioned the prospective abolition of regional spatial strategies, which, again, took power away from local people, and the consequence of that imposition was to alienate people from the planning system. One thing we know from this country and from the continent is that the more genuinely, the more substantially and the earlier we can involve the local community in plan making and in planning decisions, the better the outcome is in terms of design and serving the area’s needs, and the less contentious things are. If people feel that something is being done to them, rather than involving them in a participative way, they are likely to bridle at that imposition. Part of the point of taking powers to abolish regional spatial strategies was to involve people at a much earlier stage.

I want to make particular reference to a new power in the Localism Act that is germane to this issue: the requirement to have compulsory pre-application scrutiny for significant developments. The earlier a community is involved in a process, the better that is for everyone. Having a requirement to demonstrate to the community that it has had the chance to be involved and consulted before an application is made for a significant development maximises the chances that the application will go with the grain of what people want and need locally and will not simply be in defiance of it.

We have taken those powers. In terms of discharging the requirement to have pre-application scrutiny, parish and town councils are obviously bodies which it would be sensible for applicants to consult. If there is a requirement for pre-application scrutiny, it would be a strange way for applicants to proceed not to take the views of parish and town councils into account. We are therefore introducing—we will publish the regulations shortly—a big change in local people’s entitlement to be involved and to have their say in planning applications.

Parish and town councils are statutory consultees for all sorts of planning applications, and it would obviously be good practice—this goes completely with the grain of the reforms that we have made and continue to make—for applicants to engage constructively with them. It is always difficult to compel someone to appear in a particular place, but I would strongly encourage applicants

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to engage with, and respond to, reasonable requests from parish and town councils to meet. I say that not least because we often find in our lives as Members of Parliament that when we meet to talk about something, it is possible to find common ground on issues that seemed contentious. I certainly endorse and encourage the spirit of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West proposes on behalf of Leiston-cum-Sizewell in terms of the engagement between parish and town councils and applicants.

Stephen Williams: I welcome what the Minister has said, and particularly his strong expectation that applicants will engage with parish and town councils, or with local communities where such councils do not exist. If the experience is that applicants do not engage, however, will the Minister consider whether they should be required to do so in future?

Greg Clark: We have set out a requirement that there will be compulsory pre-application scrutiny for major applications—my hon. Friend will agree that it is sensible to have a cut-off point so that not every application needs to involve that degree of required consultation, which is not desirable always and everywhere. We will shortly publish details of how we propose to interpret that provision through the regulations, and my hon. Friend will find that our proposals would make it clear

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to any applicant that the requirement to engage with communities properly, rather than superficially, is absolutely there.

Let me briefly make a point about the funding side of things. It is not the Government’s policy to compel developers or applicants to make contributions outside the usual means of paying for the scrutiny of planning applications, but it is clearly open to the developer—the applicant—and the town and parish council to have a voluntary arrangement that would assist with the kind of community engagement we all agree is desirable, not least on the part of applicants. The Localism Act—again reflecting the spirit of the Sustainable Communities Act—also provides that a meaningful proportion of the revenues from the community infrastructure levy will have to go directly to neighbourhoods, including town and parish councils, where there is one. The financial resources available to town and parish councils are therefore about to change substantially.

I hope I have been able to respond to my hon. Friend in a way that reassures him of our absolute commitment to continue with this important agenda. We are grateful to him for bringing Leiston-cum-Sizewell’s proposal to us, and the council will find that many of its aspirations are given practical effect through the proposals I have mentioned.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned .