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Social Housing (Southern England)

10. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What estimate he has made of the need for additional social housing in southern England. [152917]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Because of the wide variation in need between different parts of the country, the Government believe that local authorities are best placed to carry out local housing needs assessments. In determining housing requirements for their regions, and in order to meet the full range of housing needs, regional planning bodies may have to estimate the future balance between general

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market and affordable housing. Draft regional planning guidance for the south-east suggests a provisional indicator of 18,000 to 19,000 affordable homes per year, and draft regional planning guidance for the south-west suggests a figure of between 6,000 and 10,000 per year.

Mr. Swayne: That is an extraordinary statement from the Minister, given that his Department is interfering and preventing New Forest district council, which is a beacon council, from getting on with the job of building social houses to relieve homelessness. Is not that why 50,000 fewer social dwellings have been built under this Government than were built in the preceding four years?

Mr. Raynsford: New Forest district council has done extremely well under this Government. In the coming financial year, it will receive a housing allocation of more than £5 million, which is 25 per cent. higher than in the current year and 88 per cent. higher than the allocation when the Tories were last in power. This Government are giving more money to local authorities and more money for housing.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order to assess the need for additional social housing it is a good idea to have some plan of the overall housing need in any region? Does he agree that a policy of abdicating the need for any planning guidance or planning decision in favour of allowing local authorities to build housing in their own areas, as the Conservative party believes, is a recipe for little or no social housing or for such provision to be unpredictable? Will he commit himself to ensuring that, in planning regional housing need, careful consideration will be given to what level of social housing is required and how it can best be provided?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend rightly emphasises the fact that it is important to make a proper assessment of the considerably varying needs from area to area. That is why we put the focus on local authorities analysing the needs of their own areas. We think that it is right and appropriate for regional planning bodies to estimate the balance between affordable, social housing and general market housing. That is an essential element in developing a proper analysis of each region's needs to inform local authorities' local plans. We will adopt that approach to ensure that a serious analysis is conducted region by region and local authority by local authority.

Railtrack (Investment)

11. Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): What assessment he has made of the benefits of encouraging train operators to invest in Railtrack. [152918]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): The Government's 10-year plan provides scope for new ways of securing private sector finance and expertise, including from train operators when that makes sense. The

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Strategic Rail Authority, Railtrack and the preferred bidder for the south central franchise are currently working together to establish the first such partnership.

Mr. McCabe: Does my hon. Friend accept that the fragmentation of the service and the complete split between track and train was probably one of the worst aspects of the previous Government's botched privatisation of the railways? In those circumstances, does he agree that there would be strong public support for any practical measures designed to reintegrate the structure and improve the performance, management and financial strength of the railways so that we can achieve the targets in the 10-year plan?

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly reasonable point, but I have three observations about the argument on vertical integration. First, it would reduce the autonomy of franchisees and undermine current and proposed franchises. Secondly, it would make the Rail Regulator's role more difficult. Thirdly, it could hinder the efficient operation of cross-franchise operators, such as freight companies.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Does the Minister agree that if Railtrack's structure is not changed, the notion of anyone investing in it is almost a joke? Given the complete chaos on our privatised railways, does the Minister believe that privatisation of the railways has created a market where "the customer is king", has led to

and has ensured that

Is he aware that those paeans came from his Labour colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and does he agree with them?

Mr. Hill: It is good to see the Liberal Democrat beast waken from its slumber at last. I am sure we are all extremely grateful for that.

Under the current structure of the railway industry--notwithstanding the difficulties experienced in the aftermath of recent tragic events--there has been a significant growth in rail usage of 70 per cent. over the past three years. The train operating companies are succeeding in attracting customers, and the Government are committed--by our proposal to invest £60 billion in the system over the next 10 years through the transport plan--to increasing passenger volume on the railways by 50 per cent. That is an objective to which I believe the whole House can happily assent.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Has my hon. Friend read the words of the Rail Regulator this morning? Given what he has just said about vertical integration, will he tell us what plans he has to ensure that before taxpayers invest £8 billion in the system they have some indication that their wishes will be carried out, that they will be given value for money, and that they will not be simply handing large amounts of their money to private investors?

Mr. Hill: I have noted the remarks of the Rail Regulator, which the Government broadly welcome.

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Through various mechanisms, the Government are working extremely closely with both the Strategic Rail Authority and Railtrack to achieve exactly the goal desired by my hon. Friend--the securing of proper value for money through the investment that the Government propose to make in the railway industry and, in due course, through Railtrack.

Road Accidents

12. Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): What steps he has taken to reduce the number of road accidents in the past three years. [152919]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): In March last year, the Government launched their new road safety strategy for Great Britain, "Tomorrow's Roads--Safer for Everyone". It included targets to reduce overall deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent. and to reduce child deaths and serious injuries by 50 per cent. by 2010, compared with the average for 1994 to 1998, together with details of many policies and initiatives that will help to achieve them.

Mrs. Cryer: I have very good reasons--personal reasons--to welcome any measures that will reduce the number of road traffic accidents. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the safest method of travel remains travel on our railways?

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Following earlier questions, and in view of many letters in my postbag at home, I am beginning to be increasingly concerned at the number of people who tell me that they are returning from the railways to their cars--which can only bring about more accidents--owing mainly, in my area, to the chaos created by Railtrack at Leeds city station. May I encourage my hon. Friend to read early-day motion 69, which bears 108 signatures, and part of which calls for what is now Railtrack to be returned to public ownership?

Mr. Ainsworth: The whole House recognises and appreciates my hon. Friend's interest in road safety.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Despite efforts made over a long period to make our roads safer--and our record in that regard bears comparison to that of any of our European colleagues--and despite the difficulties, and publicity about those difficulties, that rail has experienced over the past year or so, rail travel is still seven times safer than road travel. We must continue to make people aware of that, and encourage them as far as possible to use rail rather than roads, for safety as well as for environmental and other reasons.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): What action are the Government taking to encourage county councils to impose 30 mph speed limits through rural villages?

Mr. Ainsworth: We have given councils the power, where they think it appropriate, to introduce 20 mph speed limits. That is part of the programme introduced in the paper "Tomorrow's Roads--Safer for Everyone".

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