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The recent Office of Fair Trading consumer research on the HIP process showed that a third of buyers were influenced by the HIP and that they had found the new property information questionnaire the most useful
component of it. As I said earlier, Connells estate agents surveyed 37,000 transactions and showed that HIPs sped up the process, which is good news.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Parliamentary questions have compelled Ministers to publish opinion research on HIPs done at a cost of £60,000. The survey of 4,000 buyers, sellers and estate agents showed, among other things, that there was minimal public knowledge of and interest in HIPs, that people considered them a waste of time, that buyers were not consulting them and that costs were being duplicated. When will the Government admit that their £500 million experiment has been a disaster, listen to consumers and scrap this discredited scheme?
Mr. Austin: As I said a short while ago, what the research actually shows is that in a short period, nine out of 10 buyers used the HIP. One in three said that it helped them decide which home to buy, which is a big improvement on the figures shortly after the introduction of HIPs, and shows that the system is becoming more helpful and useful all the time. The question that the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Front Benchers must answer is why they want to sling out of work the thousands of people who have invested time and money in training to implement the process, and to cut the jobs of their constituents who depend on it.
Mr. Betts: Would my right hon. Friend like to offer reassurance to members of the Westfield tenants and residents association, who are somewhat alarmed to see comments made by the chief executive of the Tenants Services Authority, who said that in future, tenants in areas of high demand might lose that security? If so, will my right hon. Friend completely dissociate himself from the comments of the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, who said that one problem with social housing was that it was hard to get rid of these people?
John Healey: The comments that my hon. Friend attributes to the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council are very revealing-they reveal a deeply held prejudice against people in public housing. As for the comments of the chief executive of the Tenants Services Authority, it would be worth while for my hon. Friend to reassure residents in his constituency that matters of policy concerning the security of people's tenure are for the Government, not the TSA chief executive.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the Minister be supporting the excellent Mortgage Repossessions (Protection of Tenants Etc.) Bill, sponsored by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), on Second Reading?
12. Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What guidance his Department provides to planning authorities on dealing with contested applications for development of waste treatment plants. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): General guidance on handling all planning applications is set out in our 2004 statement on general principles for the planning system. This reminds local planning authorities that they should determine each application in line with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
Natascha Engel: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can his Department do anything further to ensure that planning authorities such as Derbyshire county council, which is now Tory-run, do not drag their feet when faced with difficult planning decisions, because that results in hundreds of people putting their lives on hold to campaign against, for example, an incinerator application?
Mr. Austin: I visited my hon. Friend's constituency and I know what a fantastic local MP she is in representing her constituents. She will understand, I hope, that I cannot comment on the specific proposal that her constituents are concerned about, but I can tell her that we wrote to Derbyshire county council last October to ask it to get a move on with delivering its waste plan.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Does the Department's guidance suggest that it is sensible to place a large energy-for-waste plant in an attractive rural area, clogging up local roads and causing all kinds of highway issues? If not, will the Minister encourage Devon county council to throw out the Viridor scheme for Lee Mill in my constituency?
Mr. Austin: The guidance shows that waste planning authorities should identify suitable locations for waste facilities in their local plans, and in doing so take into account our planning policies for waste.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Shahid Malik): All regional strategies, except that for the north-east, contain some targeted proposals for review of green belt boundaries in their respective regions. The purpose of the regional strategy is to consider where development should take place in the most sustainable way possible. Reviews of green belt are undertaken by local authorities, and the decision on whether to make changes is theirs. We remain absolutely committed to maintaining the area of green belt at its 2007 level, and to saying that changes to parts of the green belt should take place only in exceptional circumstances.
Anne Milton: Following Guildford borough council's judicial review of the south-east plan, what plans does the Minister have to remove the designation in that plan to build on the green belt in Guildford, in the light of the Prime Minister's promise to protect the green belt? He has let the country down and he has let Guildford down.
Mr. Malik: I reject the latter point completely. The fact is that there are an extra 34,000 hectares of green belt land in this country because of this Government. I accept that the application of the sustainability appraisal process in relation to Guildford was flawed, and negotiations are going on between the Government and the litigants, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the matter any further.
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): Over the past decade, local authorities have gained significant powers, responsibilities and financial freedoms from central Government to enable devolution of decision making to local communities.
Ms Smith: On 11 January the Government formalised and made available to local government new powers in relation to bus services which complement the concessionary bus pass scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be perverse for a future Government who profess to believe in devolution to repeal those powers, which have been warmly welcomed by local government?
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As the Minister who took the relevant Bill through the House, I know that Conservative Front Benchers opposed it-it is an important Bill that gives powers to local authorities to gain greater control over bus services-despite the fact that Conservative councillors wrote to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and said that it was about time that she and her colleagues listened to what councillors were saying about the importance of bus services to local communities. The Opposition have also said that they would abolish quality contracts, which would be a kick in the teeth to councillors who want to ensure that they have good bus services for local people.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is the Minister aware that her top-down planning policies mean that places such as Wokingham have to build on floodplain, leading to flooding of adjacent dwellings, because they are instructed to do so when they would not otherwise dream of it?
Ms Winterton: Considerable guidance is in place on building and floodplains. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that guidance applies at various levels. It is important that councils are able to take decisions according to the situation that they face locally.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): My Department continues to work to create prosperous, resilient and cohesive communities. Today's growth estimate demonstrates that we have been right to support families in the economy through the downturn. We had a plan for the recession and we have a plan for the recovery. Stepping up help for people to stay in their homes, the transformation of front-line services through initiatives such as Total Place, the opening up of local services and public data, extending scrutiny powers and the slashing of red tape all play a vital role in driving growth.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: What about light pollution? Does the Department realise that excessive lighting not only blocks out the night sky, but is fantastically wasteful of energy? Will the Minister review the planning policy statements with a view to cutting out excessive lighting pollution and nuisance?
Mr. Denham: I looked along the Front Bench hoping to see one of the ministerial team thrusting themselves forward, but in the absence of that I acknowledge the importance of the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I welcome the recent announcement of the light pollution-free park in Scotland, and I will write to him with an update on the current planning powers on this issue.
T2.  Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The Government have introduced a helpful package of measures to protect homeowners against repossession, and the Minister recently announced some additional measures to be rolled out, including in Milton Keynes. Can he give a little more information about the proposals for my constituency, which I think are being undertaken in conjunction with the citizens advice bureau?
The Minister for Housing (John Healey): I can, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend is right. The range of measures that we have put in place essentially to help people to stay where they should be during a recession-in their own homes-has led to 333,000 families getting help or advice from the Government in the past year. The initiative in her area is a combination of extra press and radio advertising, and in some areas face-to-face advice events to ensure that people know what help is available and are encouraged to take it up. We know that if people bury their heads in the sand, their homes and futures are much more at risk.
T4.  Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): The Labour charter trustees in Crewe have recently voted to increase their part of the council tax bill by 122 per cent. Will the Government's proposed council tax revaluation make many of my constituents' council tax bills even higher?
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton):
The council tax revaluations are obviously required by statute and
undertaken by an independent body. In addition, we have made available a £2 billion transitional relief scheme for revaluation to assist where there are higher increases.
T3.  Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Hard-working families in Chorley and across the country are struggling to pay their council tax bills, and it would only be right to look for a zero increase in council tax. Can we ensure that no time bombs have been built into authorities by miscalculations and playing around with the budgets wrongly, and does the Secretary of State have a view on this?
Mr. Denham: It has been suggested that there should be a two-year council tax freeze funded by central Government, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that the cost of such a policy would be £1,970 million in the first two years. Those who promise it cannot say how they will pay for it or when it would start. Even on their own dodgy, unrealistic and out-of-date figures, there is a £470 million hole in the Opposition plans.
T5.  Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Last night, at a meeting of Croydon council, in response to four questions from independent members of the public and independent councillor, Councillor Cakebread, the council was unable to say how much remuneration councillors received outside their council employment and how many hours they worked. Given that Croydon has the highest basic rate of pay for councillors, will the Government give guidance to councils advising that when there are cuts to services they should make similar cuts to councillors' salaries?
Mr. Denham: The remuneration of councillors is fully devolved to local authorities. Many have independent review mechanisms, rather than allowing the decision to be taken entirely by members. The hon. Gentleman makes the valuable point that, at a time when it is important to use every taxpayer pound as effectively and efficiently as possible, those authorities with particularly high levels of councillor remuneration may need to consider their policies.
T10.  Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Further to the Secretary of State's visit to Blackpool, when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) had an opportunity to show him much of the regeneration taking place in the town, has he had an opportunity to consider what role his Department can play in the exciting plans for Blackpool council to take over the winter gardens and tower as part of that regeneration strategy?
Ms Rosie Winterton: I know of the support that my hon. Friend has given to this project, which I understand is being looked at jointly with the regional development agency and the Department for Transport. It is an exciting project, and such regeneration is important. It is another example of the Government and local councils understanding that, in times of economic difficulties, it is important to intervene in such areas-unlike the approach of the Conservative party.
T6.  Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Can the Secretary of State tell the House when he intends to comply with section 6 of the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004 and place before the House his statutory report, which is now 13 months overdue?
Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency last week and seeing for himself the Ridings school site, which the Tory council plans to demolish, against local wishes. Will he join me in sending a clear message to Calderdale council that such sites should not be demolished or sold off just to make a quick buck, but put to community use?
Mr. Denham: I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend's constituency last week. I was particularly interested in the project to transfer control of the former Ridings school to a community trust in some form. She knows from our discussions that I undertook exactly that exercise in my constituency back in the mid-1980s, taking over a former secondary school so that it could be run as a social enterprise by the local community. I am pleased to say that my Department's asset transfer unit stands ready to provide support to local people, with business plans and guidance. I hope that her council is prepared to listen to the exciting ideas that local people have and that it can make them a reality.
T7.  Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Local authorities up and down the country send out Criminal Records Bureau disclosure forms to anyone who wants to work in a school or old people's home. How effective does the Minister think those forms are, given that they contain 66 questions of quite a detailed personal nature, including on personal bank details? No. 66 is "Do you have any unspent criminal convictions?" What confidence can we have that any unsuitable person-
Ms Rosie Winterton: It is extremely important that proper checks are carried out. I know that there is ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of the checks that are carried out and the systems that are adopted. I am not completely sure about the hon. Lady's point about unspent criminal convictions, but in general it is vital that proper checks are carried out, and we should all contribute to the debate about how we improve that. If she has any ideas on where specific changes should be made, I suggest that she contact the appropriate Department.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): In Sedgefield there are many properties let out by private landlords, but a significant number are empty at any one time. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what progress we are making towards a national registration scheme for private landlords, to try to get rid of some of the rogue landlords in our communities?
John Healey: The proposal for a national register of private landlords is only one of those that we are looking at to try to tighten up the activities of the worst landlords, who give the tenants to whom they rent their properties a bad standard of housing and service. The private rented sector is important to many people in this country, but it is our duty as a Government to ensure that the very worst landlords are stamped out.
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