Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 20th May 2008.

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Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives 2:30 pm, 20th May 2008

If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My Department will continue with our three priorities of building more homes, empowering local people and building strong communities.

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Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

In my constituency, three times as many properties continue to be sold to second home buyers than to first-time buyers. The Government's rural advocate and their Affordable Rural Housing Commission recommend action, and meetings that I had with the Minister for Housing's predecessor and with the Prime Minister have left the door open for action, so can I assume that the Government will act to rebalance the market? If so, when will they do so?

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Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Planning policy statement 3 on housing empowers local authorities to shape housing according to the specific circumstances of their local areas. I understand the point that he is making about rural areas, particularly in respect of second homes. Our problem is that introducing something such as a requirement to obtain planning permission to use a property as a second home is difficult and impractical. That is because decisions on a planning application can be made only on the basis of land-use planning considerations, and whether someone who is purchasing a property already has a main residence elsewhere is not such a land-use planning consideration. I understand the points that he has made, and that Matthew Taylor is examining the matter.

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Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

In the two years since the system's introduction, my local authority, like many up and down the country, has not taken the opportunity to designate areas for selective licensing of houses in multiple occupation, and, as a result, many of my constituents are living in very substandard conditions. I know that a review is being undertaken. Will the Minister incorporate this matter into the review to ensure that we find a way to move forward, so that there can be a genuine partnership between Government and local authorities to cover those who are not being serviced locally?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. We have provided an opportunity in a number of different ways for local authorities to investigate and license properties that represent HMOs—for example, the mandatory licensing system and the additional licensing system for smaller properties. I must say to him that only one local authority has sought permission from the Department to use that power. We also have selective licensing for a wider area, where a local authority believes that a situation is detrimental to the sense of neighbourhood in those communities. I believe that about five authorities have come forward in that regard, and his is not one of those. The Building Research Establishment is reviewing the licensing arrangements and I shall ensure that it takes on board the points that he makes. We must ensure that available powers are used, and where they are not being used, we need to know why. We need to look into this area.

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Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I was very concerned to read in The Independent on Sunday that the Prime Minister is very critical of the Secretary of State's handling of the bin taxes. I was especially interested to read that a Downing street spokesman had said of the bin taxes that they would be

"Brought in over Gordon's dead body."

Given the bin taxes' ability to come, zombie-like, back from the grave, that does not bode especially well for the Prime Minister's long-term prospects. Will the right hon. Lady now lay this discredited policy to rest and kill off the bin tax pilots and the bin tax laws currently before Parliament?

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do not know about people coming back from the dead, but I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the Dispatch Box from Crewe, and I know that Tamsin Dunwoody will be an excellent Member of Parliament for that constituency from Friday morning.

The Government's interests lie in ensuring that we encourage people to recycle. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my care for the environment and ensuring that we have a proper system of incentives and rewards to encourage this country to take its responsibilities for the environment seriously. I thought that the slogan was "Vote blue and go green", but that does not sound very green.

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Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Well, I am not sure that that will do for the Prime Minister. May I remind the Secretary of State that the Government have put a pin into the voodoo doll of the bin tax on four previous occasions? They scrapped it on 27 April, 12 September and 24 October last year, and again as recently as 5 May this year. Given that those occasions coincided with deep crises for the Government, may we anticipate a further announcement about the fate of the bin taxes in the early hours of the morning on Friday 23 May?

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman recognises this statement:

"The Government's decision to provide a power for five local authorities to introduce financial incentive pilot schemes for reducing waste is a good news for councils and local people."

That is a direct quotation from Paul Bettison, who is the Tory chairman of the environment board of the Tory-controlled Local Government Association. Perhaps there is a rift between the LGA and the hon. Gentleman.

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Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Councillor Manjula Sood, who last Thursday was unanimously elected as lord mayor of Leicester, the first Asian woman lord mayor of any UK city, and in almost 800 years of the mayoralty in Leicester? Following Councillor Sood's example, will my right hon. Friend say what progress has been made to ensure the recruitment of a greater number of women councillors and councillors from ethnic minorities, especially women councillors from ethnic minorities?

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in those congratulations. I have met Councillor Sood and I wrote to her on 30 April congratulating her on her appointment. I wrote:

"I am so proud of your achievements. You are an inspiration to others".

I agree entirely that we do not have enough councillors from black and minority ethnic communities, especially women; we have only 168 out of 20,000 councillors. I am pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality this week launched a taskforce to see what practical steps we can take to ensure that more people come forward so that our councils are more representative of our communities as a whole. I have no doubt that Councillor Sood will be an excellent lord mayor and I wish her all the best for her year of office.

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Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Department for Communities and Local Government

Thanks to the Minister for Housing's transparent choice of stationery, we now know that her Department expects house prices to, at best, fall by 10 to 15 per cent. What is the Department's estimate of the worst-case scenario?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

What we are working towards at the moment is how we can engage with the construction industry, mortgage lenders and across Government to ensure that we do whatever we can to deal with the present challenges. Fundamentally, we need a long-term view of how we can ensure that when the upturn comes—and it will—we are on task to build more homes. That is our agenda and that is what we will do. We will continue to engage in a common-sense, practical way that delivers for our communities.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Rt Hon Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

Many of my constituents express increasing frustration about the length of time that they have to wait on Sheffield council's waiting list for a council house. What does my right hon. Friend think needs to be done to improve allocations policy and to make it work more successfully for our hard-working decent families?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I know of my hon. Friend's interest in this subject and her commitment to ensuring not only that we build more affordable homes, including social homes for rent, but that we avoid the mistakes of the past, when we have often created two cities in one—one for those in the social housing sector and one for those in the private housing sector. As we work towards producing our Green Paper on housing reform towards the end of this year, we will look at how the allocation system can be fairer and more transparent and at whether there are inequalities in it that need to be addressed. We need to address how much more we can enable people to get the skills to work while finding ways in which we can support young working people on low incomes so that they get access to housing.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Given that Cranbrook in East Devon will be a prototype eco-town, can we expect some support from the Government in ensuring that it is a zero-carbon development through the provision of a combined heat and power station?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

We are obviously working with the local authorities and partners in the Cranbrook area to support the delivery of the housing and of the necessary infrastructure. To support that, we have provided £1 million in 2007-08 and £5.5 million for 2008 to 2011. At the same time, we are working to see how we can ensure that homes can meet higher environmental standards over the next few years. I am working with the industry on a journey towards zero carbon for all new buildings by 2016. Clearly, some developments in the hon. Gentleman's part of the world will be affected by that.

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F

Definitely didn't answer the question here! If Renewable energy is to work at this sort of scale, the government needs to do much more than just leave it to the market.

Submitted by Francis Macnaughton

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the tremendous contribution that the new deal for communities programme can make to the regeneration of local areas, including King's Norton in south Birmingham. When will she make an announcement on the final year's funding for the new deal for communities programme? When she makes that announcement, will she emphasise the importance not only of the much-needed infrastructure work but of the community development work that will be one of the important legacies of the programme?

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am very pleased with the progress on the new deal for communities in King's Norton. My hon. Friend has been a key driver for that programme. I should be in a position to make some final decisions in June, so he does not have too long to wait. I urge the local authority in Birmingham to work with the community development trust that is already established there. My hon. Friend will know that regeneration is about far more than just bricks and mortar. Unless we support the families in those areas, we will not get the long-term sustainable regeneration that is so important for the future.

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Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Conservative, Hammersmith and Fulham

May I commend the Secretary of State for calling my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson shortly after his victory in the London mayoral election? I think that the Minister for the Olympics did the same. What advice has the Secretary of State given to the Prime Minister, who has yet to make that call? The Prime Minister's spokesman said that he would make contact with the Mayor

"when they have matters to discuss".

In London, an awful lot of matters need to be discussed, not least knife and youth crime. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the Prime Minister, as perhaps it is time for him to make that call?

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Prime Minister has done better than simply making a private call. He has congratulated the Mayor in public and is happy to engage with him. The hon. Gentleman might want to have a word with the new Mayor himself. I understand that the Mayor recently met Mayor Bloomberg, from New York. Mayor Bloomberg's advice to Mayor Johnson was to get rid of his manifesto commitments as soon as he could, because he might find them a bit inconvenient. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell the new Mayor that he wants him to abide by those commitments.

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Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

The Housing Minister will be aware of the concerns that are being raised by some residents of newly built estates about the role of property management companies. She might well be aware of the all-party group that has recently been set up. Will she be willing to meet that group to discuss its concerns and what the Government can do to address those issues?

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Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I welcome the formation of the all-party group, and the work that my hon. Friend contributed to its establishment. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Devine who for some weeks now, if not months, has been talking to me about the problem of the lack of empowerment felt by residents in homes run by property and land maintenance companies in respect of charges on communal areas and other matters. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friends, and I apologise for not having been able to find the time before now. We will make sure that an appointment is put in the diary.

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Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

Could the Minister explain how a contradiction in Government policy will be resolved? On the one hand, the Government are working for the regeneration of our high streets, market towns and seaside resorts. On the other, their planning policies—which may allow an additional four supermarkets in Teignmouth and Dawlish, bringing the total there to seven—are likely to lead to the closure of shops in those high streets.

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B

At last we have an MP who is truly in touch with his constituency , The Threat to town centres across the West Country are being destroyed by the big multiples. Keeping the unique identities of the towns is crucial to the survival of the local communities, that...

Submitted by Brenda Battershill Continue reading

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to press on with our policy of putting town centres first and making sure that they are vibrant, exciting places for people to shop. We also intend to make sure that we plan properly for the impact of major retail developments. There is no contradiction at the heart of our policy making: we intend to make sure that our retail centres continue to be the sort of places to which people want to go to do their shopping and which contribute to the quality of life that is so important to all of us.

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J

What a pointless non answer. Town centres are being devastated by competition from the superstores which are especially favoured by the younger generation who have been brought up on them. Local councils have raised car parking charges and Business rates out of proportion to the free parking available at the supermarkets and every...

Submitted by John Robert Moore Continue reading

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accept that it is time that the Cabinet met outside London? I suggest that their first such meeting should be held in Stockton-on-Tees. That would give Cabinet members the opportunity to listen to, and gain experience from, local people, and to hear about the wide range of delivery of Government service.

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As usual, my hon. Friend is a champion of her area. In a speech just last week, I suggested that the Cabinet might like to consider meeting outside London—

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

In Crewe, indeed. My proposal was not just for the Cabinet to meet outside London, but that it should engage with local people and schoolchildren to take evidence about what is happening in our communities. That is vital, as there is an awful lot that we can learn from the day-to-day experiences at the sharp end. I cannot promise my hon. Friend that the first meeting will be held in Stockton, but I am sure that she will be the first of many to seek such a meeting.

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Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt PPS (Rt Hon Alan Johnson, Secretary of State), Department of Health

My right hon. Friend knows that the best way to tackle extremism is through understanding and knowledge. Crawley's Interfaith Network does a fantastic job of bringing together people of faith—and of no faith—to increase that understanding. Will she ensure that the funding that has made it possible for us to have a co-ordinator will continue, so that the network's excellent work can go on?

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important matter, and one in which she has been particularly active in seeking to build the resilience of her local community. She will know that the Government's inter-faith strategy has been out for consultation, and I hope to be in a position to respond very soon. It is absolutely vital that we bring together people of different faiths. Very often, people discover that the major faiths in this country have far more in common than they have differences. The opportunity for people to debate and to do things together is really important. This is not just about social dialogue: it is about social action that brings people together to share experiences. That is the way we build strong communities.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Hundreds of my constituents are still not in their homes after last year's floods, and dozens are still in caravans. I know that, like me, the Minister is fully aware of the suffering and anguish that so many people have endured in the past year. What steps are he and the Government taking to work with the insurance industry to ensure that people get back in their homes as soon as possible, and that hundreds of people are not still out of their homes come Christmas?

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman is right. Something like 1,000 households are still not fully back in their own homes, and about 300 are still living in caravans in his East Riding local authority area. So far, central Government have given his council over £6 million, and there will be more to come. I met the leader of the Association of British Insurers last week, and I shall meet the chief executives of the leading companies in a couple of weeks' time. I pay tribute to the work that they and local councils such as the hon. Gentleman's have done to try to get people back in their own homes. It is clear now that over the next couple of months we need to step up our efforts and pull out all the stops to get more people back in their own homes, certainly by the anniversary of those terrible floods last summer. That is exactly what we will do.

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