Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, action to minimise train delays is an operational matter for Network Rail. Network Rail and train operators have measures in place to address the operational problems presented by autumn conditions and, overall, the rail industry has markedly reduced the number of delays suffered in recent years.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although I am a little surprised that he did not mention the words wet leaves. Why does he not give Network Rail the necessary powers and directions to remove all the deciduous trees that are likely to interfere with the rail system, perhaps replacing them with conifers where necessary?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his question, one that we have often discussed in recent times in your Lordships House. Network Rail feels that it has more than adequate powers to conduct rigorous pruning where necessary. I am sure the noble Earl will appreciate that Network Rail needs to balance environmental concerns with operational issues, but of course it is right that it ensures that we have clear passages so that trains can travel through unaffected by deciduous or other leaves falling on to the track and causing problems.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, does the Minister agree that Network Rail is causing quite enough destruction on the railway, which most of us can see when we travel on trains? Will he turn his attention to the fact that last year the Southern railway company undertook a driver training programme and modified the sanding devices on its trains? These actions substantially reduced delays for passengers and considerably improved the efficiency of its service. While I do not suggest that this is a ministerial matter, will the noble Lord ensure that other train companies know of this good practice and put it into action?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to express concern about excessive pruning. From my own experience, there is a dispute in Hove where a lot of trees have been axed, as it were, by the railway company. This has caused concern among
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Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one thing which would improve reliability on the railway all the year round and not just in the autumn is the restoration of lengths of double track which was taken out in the 1970s and 1980s on routes such as Salisbury to Exeter and Oxford to Worcester? Bearing in mind that both of those routes are now being examined by Network Rail for redoubling, can my noble friend give it every possible encouragement because delays on single lines are appalling?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend is right to point out that single tracks can lead to blockages and delays. Our proud record as a Government has been to increase investment considerably in renewing, repairing and replacing track and dualling where it is right and appropriate to do so. My noble friend has drawn attention to two areas where the considerable investment being made will ensure that some of those blockages no longer occur.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, earlier this winter we had some very strong winds which effectively stopped train services across much of the country for one complete day. Network Rail was highly criticised for that. However, is my noble friend aware that train services also stopped across much of France, the Benelux countries and Germany? Does he have evidence that our system is any worse for delays such as that than those operating on the Continent?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in many northern European countries and in the United States there certainly are delays in the autumn because that is when the weather is most likely to create problems. However, year-on-year our performance during the autumn has improved. Delays are becoming fewer each year and we want to see continued improvements. We now have a rail service that is more reliable than ever and Network Rail is making strenuous efforts to achieve further year-on-year improvements.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I hope the next answer will not be quite so brief. Is it the Governments policy to encourage Network Rail to separate goods traffic from passenger traffic? Quite often, the latter is delayed behind broken-down goods trains. In parts of the Continent there has been a separation of goods and passengers to speed up passenger trains and ensure that they run on time.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to that issue. It causes difficulties and problems on some occasions. It would be fair to say that it is not a major cause of lateness and delays. We have to accept that our rail network is becoming increasingly busy because there is increased passenger demand. Over the past 10 years we have had a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers. That is why we need to carry on with this persistent campaign to drive down delays and achieve punctuality. The rail industry has responded very well over recent years. We need to build on that improvement.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, they never learn, do they? Okay, I confess, I am beaten by that one; I put my hands up. I undertake to write to the noble Lord and see what information we can find that is specific to that part of the network, which, I ought to say, is improving.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, there is just time for this question. Does the Minister think there will be any benefit, and, if so, what does he think it will be, in the Mayor of London having greater responsibility for computerI am sorrycommuter services into London?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not quite sure what the mayor would do with computer services. We have to look at the issue of commuter rail services in the round, and clearly there are benefits in improved integration between the different networks. That is an issue we should all be concerned about, and no doubt the mayor is too.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, progress transferring security responsibility to the Iraqis continues to be good. Maysan province will be handed over to Iraqi control shortly. In Basra, we transferred the old state building to the Iraqi army on 20 March. We will withdraw from the majority of our other bases as Iraqi forces progressively take more responsibility for security. This should see UK force levels potentially reduce to below 5,000 in the second half of the year.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In his future planning for the withdrawal of British forces, will he take into account the recent decision of the House of Representatives and yesterdays decision by the US Senate to require the withdrawal of all American combat troops in the course of next year? Although that decision may be killed by presidential veto, is it not nevertheless clear that American withdrawal from Iraq is simply a matter of time and that it may be sooner rather than later?
Lord Drayson: My Lords, it would not be appropriate for me to get into speculation about US politics. However, as an integral member of the multinational coalition in Iraq, the United States would of course consult her allies should any outcome of a decision be to withdraw US troops from Iraq by the end of August 2008. The other members of the coalition would need to adjust their plans accordingly.
Lord Garden: My Lords, the Minister referred to the handover of Maysan province in his Answer, and said that it would take place shortly. We had in earlier Statements an assumption that it would be handed over at the end of last year; that was delayed until early spring and in the Statement on 21 February, it was said to be in the next few months. Is shortly earlier or later than in the next few months?
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, can the Minister give the House an assurance that everything possible will be done to protect the safety of our forces left in the Basra airbase and that they will not become sitting targets for the approaching militia?
Lord Drayson: Absolutely, my Lords. I visited the base earlier this month, precisely to assess the situation. We are making significant investments in force protection. It would not be appropriate for me to go into details, but I would be happy to give the noble Lord a private briefing if that would be useful.
Lord Drayson: I do not believe so, my Lords. We have shown over the past few years that we have a process whereby the coalition makes decisions on these matters, and we are seeing progress on the ground. Any decisions about transition depend upon the progress of those conditions, but we can see in a number of areas that that progress is taking place.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the commission made more than 100 recommendations, of which approximately 60 per cent were for central Government. We have already implemented many of the commissions recommendationsfor example, through planning policy statement 3and are looking further into others. The commission was keen to acknowledge that central Government were already doing much. Between 2006 and 2008 we aim to deliver more than 6,000 new affordable homes in small rural settlements.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. We will be pleased to hear which of the other recommendations have been implemented. Many practical recommendations were made on tax incentives, bringing empty houses back into use, publicly owned land that should be brought on-stream and reclassifying agricultural land as brownfield, yet very few of those suggestions have emerged into the public arena. The only announcement made this week was that the Ministers department would not add a supplement to council tax on second homes. Can the Minister say why that decision was made?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the Affordable Rural Housing Commission made it clear that its recommendations should be taken as a package, and we agreed. It was content that we would not give one single response but would put forward our recommendations in due course in different ways. Not accepting one recommendation does not mean that we do not fulfil the reports intention.
It was announced today that the Housing Corporation will set up a rural housing advisory group to address many of the different delivery mechanisms. Two people on that body are from the ARHC. In PPS 3, we addressed many concerns about bringing forward land, more predictably, and giving local authorities much more scope to be proactive, reducing, for example, the threshold beyond which you can provide affordable housing to 15 or fewer. There is a great deal happening and it can be tracked on the website.
Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords, there are now no national targets for affordable rural housing. In the light of that, how can the Government ensure that the DCLG requirement for positive planning for affordable rural housing as set out in PPS 3 will be
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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, national targets are less important than having the right information at the local level to do what is necessary. Regional bodies are the right place to set targets because they know the local needs. Those targets are fed through and help to inform local development frameworks, but it is crucial that local targets are based on best evidence. I am delighted to say that strategic housing markets assessment practice guidance will be published very soon. It will help local authorities to determine housing need and demand much more specifically and sensitively than they have been able to do to date.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Lake District Housing Association. Does the Minister agree that a shortcoming of policy towards affordable housing, especially in areas of important landscape, has been an excessive focus on new build and insufficient recognition of the possibilities supplied by the very considerable existing housing stock, whose problem is that it is too expensive?
Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, we need all sorts of housing in rural areas, not just market housing and affordable housing. We need to make better use of our housing stock and, perhaps, look at equity releasefinding ways in which to help people to downsize, which would release larger houses. There are a variety of propositions. The Housing Corporations work with its rural advisory group will enable us to look at that sort of issue.
The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, the Church of England, like other charitable bodies that own extensive landholdings certainly wishes to do what it can to assist the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. To that end, there are notable examples of glebe land being released. However, charity law can often prevent land being sold at less than the maximum market value. One recommendation of the affordable rural housing commission was that the Government should determine whether charity law is inhibiting the Church of England and other denominations from making land available for affordable housing. What specific progress has been made on that recommendation?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that. I shall refer it to the department, but I am certain that it is precisely the sort of question that should be addressed by the bodies that I have just mentioned.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, given that only some 11 per cent of land in the United Kingdom is described as urban or suburban and 89 per cent is described as rural, does my noble friend agree that some improvement in the availability of land might be promoted, especially to aid and abet the creation of affordable housing?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we are increasing the amount of green-belt land available. One thing in planning policy statement 3 that followed from the Barker report was the importance of making land supply predictable, so that local authorities know what land they have and can plan and provide for needs. That would take us beyond the current situation, where land supply tends to be windfall and unpredictable, so it is a definite improvement.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, authorities that represent rural areas get the fair share of investment for their population. In 2006, for example, they received 21 per cent of all affordable housing allocations, which matched their percentage of the population21 per cent. However, that money does not get fed through into the district housing programmes because land is not available, which is why ensuring more flexibility to provide land in the ways suggested today is extremely important.
Lord Best: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the key recommendations of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission was the creation and increase in the number of rural housing enablers, who bring together landowners, planners and the local community? It is a relatively cheap recommendation. Could she report on any progress in achieving more rural housing enablers?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, it is a very valuable demonstration project which helps to show how things can best be done in partnership. To that extent it has informed local authorities about raising the visibility of the programme and being more innovative. About 40 rural enablers are now in place and are working very well, but as with many other programmes I cannot comment on future funding. It is funded to 2008 but everything will be decided in the context of the spending review.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, is it not the case that, in many rural areas of England, people on below-average incomes find that none of the local housing is remotely affordable? Is not the only way to provide affordable housing for less well-off local people to increase the supply of rented accommodation in the social housing sector from housing associations or, unfashionable though it may be, local authorities?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, as I said, we need all sorts of housing, not least to provide cross-subsidy between market housing and social rented housing. The noble Lord is right: we need more social rented housing, which is why we have made no secret of the fact that we shall look to have it prioritised in the spending review.
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