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Lord Rooker: My Lords, first, I pay tribute to my noble friend, as I did in the Statement, and to her leadership of the task force. The answer to her point on ring-fencing for rural communities is, "Yes". But what I mentioned in the Statement goes beyond that by giving local authorities more powers to ring-fence for local communities and to ensure that those houses are available for the next generation, which is crucial but has been the problem in the past. We lose those houses after the first or second sale. There are issues here on which consultation is necessary, but that is our intention.

I want to make it clear, before I get a real slap on the knuckles, that I was only joking when I said that there will be 13 daughter documents. There is a partner document on the five-year plan. I think that there are three daughter documents. I said 13, but that was just my little joke. The documents will be available in Manchester. As my honourable friend walks round the £60,000 house, she will be able to read those as well. I would welcome a debate in this House on any aspect of the plan at any suitable time.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I gave way to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean—it was right that she should have intervened as no one from their Benches had done so—but she slightly stole my thunder. I hope that the House will forgive me if I continue the discussion on the provision of affordable housing in rural areas.

I understand that the Statement only said:


 
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Can the Minister tell us more about that?

I have two other points. First, however, I should like to raise an issue which is not a sideswipe but a real issue. Two of the issues that make it so difficult for first-time buyers are the rate of council tax, as I think we would all agree, and the rate of stamp duty. I hope that adding my voice to those of others who have spoken on that issue will give the Minister a little more weight when other discussions take place later.

I turn to my two questions. First, why have the Government chosen not to designate redundant farm buildings as brownfield sites? I know that that would make a lot of difference. It is a move for which my honourable friend John Hayes has been calling for for some time. As the Minister will know, I too regularly call for it in this House.

Secondly, why have the Government not included the use of cross-subsidy of options for a limited amount of open-market housing in order to try to get more such provision in villages? We are talking about rural villages which may require only three, four or five extra houses. Someone in our family has allowed some land to go for affordable housing and would be willing to do so again. For those who are willing to do that, it is frustrating that there is no agreement on permitting the building of a certain amount of non-affordable housing. I suspect that such agreement would help reduce land values, which, in some areas, are the major cost in building affordable housing. I wonder why the Government have not considered that at all. It seems rather a wasted opportunity. I should be very grateful if the Minister would comment.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, my comments on the first two parts of the noble Baroness's question, on council tax and stamp duty, are basically as before. However, I note that she has raised the issue and I am grateful that she has done so.

Two other documents beside the strategy have been published today, both of which are PPG3 documents, or planning policy guidance notes. As the noble Baroness said, the planning change will allow local authorities to allocate sites only for affordable housing in rural communities. However, those must be permanently dedicated to meeting the needs of local people in rural communities. The point is that there is that extra lock-in.

There does not seem to be any change on farm buildings. I know that the issue has been raised before. Business in the Community is working with landowners on a scheme. I went recently to the launch of a programme, at Eaton Hall, in Cheshire, where 200 landowners were assembled. The joys of releasing land for affordable housing, particularly in rural areas and the small settlements, and the fact that that would repay itself not only in sustainable communities but in
 
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jobs and services in those communities, was made clear to them. It was not just a question of housing. As no new policy was enunciated today on the release of land for non-affordable market housing, it was not covered in the Statement.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I share my noble friend's disappointment in that. Our villages really do need help to develop into sustainable communities. That is not just affordable housing. We need to build new employment in villages and we need to build the houses for those who will have that employment. What I also felt was missing from the Statement was initiatives on moving economic activity north. This endless pressure to build houses in the south-east comes from the economic success we are having here. We need to continue to find ways of reviving economic activity in the north and doing what we can to push it up there. I have always liked the idea of moving the House of Commons to Stoke-on-Trent. I thought last week that would have the added advantage that we could move the world dance championship to Gerrards Cross and depress house prices there.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, as I said, we are an unbalanced country, housing, economically and population wise—everyone knows that. What we cannot do—you hear this on the radio and see it in the media—is order where people will live and work. That is not possible; we do not live in that kind of society.

We are operating on many fronts to rebuild the communities of the north. The north has beautiful countryside and better quality of life than is sometimes the case in the overcrowded south east, but the south east is the economic generator of the country. We do not want to do anything to upset that; that would be barmy. On the other hand, we have to face facts. The greatest pressure regarding housing in the wider south east of England comes from families who live there. That is where the pressure comes from. It does not come from incomers from other regions or from overseas.

As I say, the greatest pressure is exerted by families in the wider south east to prevent their sons and daughters being driven out of the areas where they were born and raised. We have a duty to meet that pressure while maintaining the environment and everything else; hence the policy of the four growth areas, which I listed. It is planned that half of all the growth will take place in those four growth areas so that we do not wreck our villages and countryside. That is what the sustainable communities plan is all about. People talk about numbers and concreting over the land. However, we have proved that growth can be achieved using less land. Growth will be managed in a targeted way so that it is not just spread all over the wider south east. That way it is easier to manage the creation and development of more sustainable communities.
 
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Fire and Rescue Services (National Framework) (England) Order 2004

Baroness Hanham rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 14 December 2004, be annulled (S.I. 2004/3217).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the framework document for 2005-06 is similar to that for the previous year, but that does not mean that it does not raise significant questions, which I believe it is appropriate that the Minister should address. It is for this reason that I have prayed against the statutory instrument.

The first matter may not be one of complete surprise to the Minister as it relates to the continuation of the principle of regionalism within the organisation of the service. The electorate, as the Minister will recall, resoundingly rejected the possibility of having elected regional assemblies, where it was tested. My understanding is that the Government have to all intents and purposes come to the conclusion that regional assemblies are a dead duck. It is an important matter in terms of the fire and rescue service, since authorities have been led to believe that they had no choice but to set up regional management boards. Indeed, they were instructed to do so, well before the legislation was in place, with the threat of the Government using their statutory powers to impose such structures if they did not. Now the 2005-06 framework suggests that combining fire and rescue authorities might be achieved at a sub-regional level.

That immediately begs two questions. First, why are the Government continuing to demand a regional structure when the new wording would at least suggest that regional management boards are not now a requirement? Secondly, would it not be a sensible conclusion to reach that sub-regional structures could be constituted from local authority partnerships and/or clusters, and that regional management boards should be developed only on a voluntary basis? Will the Government be advising local authorities of this new position to enable them to revise the fire and rescue service management into smaller divisions, if they so wish?

There are two further matters that arise from the regional organisation, which appear later in the framework, which I can and will address now. The fire and rescue authorities are obliged, within this structure, to co-operate with other,

What is the logic of expecting a local service to be organised regionally in order to work with,

and with local authorities to which the service is already happily linked?
 
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The framework calls for greater co-operation with police and ambulance services, but these are local services, so what is the benefit of having regional management boards running this service which is, by definition, a local service?

Why are regional management boards being instructed to draw up human resources strategies, when this should be conducted at a local level? It is clear that there will be considerable displacement of staff from control rooms, but it is anticipated that they will be absorbed into, or have the situation managed by, local authorities. Why is a regional HR strategy required?

I will address the situation regarding the FiReControl project; that is, the regional control rooms. The 2004-05 framework said that a finance working group had been set up to make recommendations on funding issues associated with the project by September 2004. The Minister will know that it did not report until November, and then there were highly restricted details on finance. How will authorities be expected to respond to this report, and the outline business case, in the light of the sparsity of information, and in a significantly reduced time-scale?

It is apparent, at paragraph 2.14, that more information has been given to the chairmen of the regional management boards, and they have been consulted on the full outline business case. The fire and rescue authorities have been consulted on the outline business case but with some commercially sensitive information excluded. How are the full boards to make decisions on financial matters when the business case will not be published until mid-2005?

I have already put down some Questions on the Firelink project. As we know, the contract signing has been delayed. Will the Minister confirm that either in the absence of such a contract, or one being signed imminently, there will be no call on fire and rescue authorities to make any contributions in this financial year, since they would now be under very short notice for their financial planning? It would also be a good opportunity here to record the considerable concerns of local government about the speed and secretiveness of the Firelink project, particularly as local government are already committed to the responsibility for bringing the computer system in within the Government's time-scale, and, presumably at its negotiated costs.

There are still some big issues around with regard to the new fire and rescue service. I have at least raised some of them here, and I hope that the Minister will answer them tonight, or if unable to deal with them all, give a written reply.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 14 December 2004, be annulled (S.I. 2004/3217).—(Baroness Hanham.)


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