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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for securing this debate today and, indeed, for his warm welcome to me in this role and in responding to this annual event for the first time. I should like to respond particularly to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, about my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles. All I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is that it is such a shame because he speaks so well of you.
Noble Lords have covered a lot of ground in this debate and I may not have the opportunity to respond to all the points that have been put to me. I will do my best today. Where I am not successful, I will, of course, supplement my response with a follow-up letter which I will place in the Library of the House. I will just point out to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that we have a debate on affordable housing before the end of this month so we will be able to return on that occasion to some of the points that he raised.
The starting point in a debate such as this is to look at the context in which we are debating these matters and acknowledge that over the past three years the Government have had to take some tough decisions about the public finances. Tough, but these are now paying off as the economy gets back on track. My noble friend Lord True highlighted one prediction of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, in his contribution to last year’s debate which did not materialise. That was about councils becoming insolvent. It is worth reminding the House that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also suggested last year that we were facing an environment of little growth and increasing debt, but as we look ahead, growth is forecast to be 2.4% this year. The Office for Budget Responsibility expects that jobs will be up by 400,000 and employment is at an all time high.