Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Smoke Alarms

1. What her estimate is of the percentage of residential dwellings fitted with at least one smoke alarm in (a) Kettering, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England. (206421)

Ownership of smoke alarms in England now stands at 80 per cent. of households and we are seeking to raise it further as those without alarms are often in those groups who are most at risk from fire.

Information on smoke alarm ownership in Kettering and Northamptonshire is not held centrally. However, 82 per cent. of households in the east midlands region own one or more smoke alarms.

Last year, in Northamptonshire there were fires in 463 homes, 247 of which did not have smoke alarms fitted. Will the Under-Secretary congratulate the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, which has launched a campaign to get smoke alarms fitted in residential homes, and ensure that those that are fitted work? What steps are the Government undertaking to spread the message that those who do not have a smoke alarm are twice as likely to die in the event of fire?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He is right that the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph is running a good, strong local campaign. Eighty per cent. of homes have smoke alarms, but people are twice as likely to die in a house fire if they do not have a smoke alarm. In one third of cases, there is no working battery in a smoke alarm, so we are running a high-profile campaign with the actress Julie Walters’s television programme. It is a hard-hitting campaign to ensure that people check their smoke alarms on a weekly basis. We also pump-primed the fire and rescue service with £25 million over four years. That money has been used to ensure that 1.9 million smoke alarms nationally have been fitted and I think that that is making a huge difference across the country.

I have been delighted to be involved in my hon. Friend’s campaign on smoke alarms. Has he also considered the huge importance of sprinklers? Is he prepared to consider making mandatory the installation of fire sprinklers in residential homes, especially in care homes for the elderly and for children?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for her ongoing campaign for her constituency—we have done some work together on that. We have made it a requirement for all new care homes to have sprinkler systems when there is more than one bed in a location. If there is only a single bed, it is a requirement to have a sprinkler or a system whereby there is a smoke alarm and a door-shutting mechanism so that fire cannot spread. Through building regulations, we have also introduced a requirement for fire sprinklers for buildings of, I believe, over 30 m and for warehouse-style buildings above a certain size and height.

Some alarms can now also detect carbon monoxide, which is responsible for the death of 30 to 40 people every year in this country. There are concerns that many more problems go undiagnosed. Will the Under-Secretary join me in urging the use of devices that can detect not only smoke but carbon monoxide?

I am happy to do that. I believe that Cleveland in particular has provided a strong local service, and it is part of the statutory duty to go out and ensure that community fire safety work is taking place throughout the country. Cleveland and many other fire and rescue authorities focus on carbon monoxide, whereas others focus on smoke alarms. Other fire rescue services have done completely different things—for example, in one area, chip fat fryers are being replaced with safer versions so that there are fewer kitchen fires. I therefore congratulate the hon. Lady on supporting the carbon monoxide campaign, and I know that fire and rescue authorities up and down the land are taking a closer look at it.

The Under-Secretary knows that a good proportion of domestic fires, and the injuries and deaths that go with them, are associated with discarded smoking materials. What steps have the Government taken to pursue the development and sale of reduced ignition propensity cigarettes of the sort that Canada and some states of the United States of America require? They need to be actively smoked, otherwise bars along the length of the cigarettes mean that they go out. Are not they a safety device, and why are we not moving along that path more rapidly?

We are working with our partners in the European Union on cigarettes that are less liable to cause house fires, through my chief fire adviser, Sir Ken Knight, who has been actively engaged on the issue. I am sure that my hon. Friend will see some of that work come to fruition in the coming months, as we work with our partners on guidance to help change the system, both here and across the continent.

Does the Minister agree that one of the most effective ways of increasing the percentage of domestic dwellings fitted with fire alarms in England is through the work that the fire services do in providing people with free advice on the use and installation of fire alarms? In that respect, will he join me in praising Essex fire service for the tremendous work that it does by increasing awareness of safety and installing free fire alarms in domestic dwellings?

I am very happy to congratulate Essex fire and rescue service on the work that it is doing. Such work is being done throughout the land. As I have said, 1.9 million smoke alarms have been fitted through the £25 million that my Department has provided between 2004 and 2008. Some 1.5 million home fire risk checks have been performed by fire and rescue services throughout the country. Fire and rescue services are finding that ensuring that people are alerted to fire risks in the first place not only is effective in saving lives—we now have the lowest number of fire deaths since 1959—but results in savings, because it means that fire appliances and crews are called out less and less often to put out fires.

Overcrowded Accommodation

2. What assessment she has made of the capacity of the private rented sector to contribute to a reduction in the number of families in overcrowded accommodation. (206422)

Working with local authorities has shown that providing access to larger properties in the private rented sector can be a positive solution to the problem of overcrowding in some circumstances. We will shortly be publishing good practice guidance on the Department’s website demonstrating the practical solutions that local authorities can take—and which some are taking—to address the problem of overcrowding.

I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s response. Will she outline the review of the private rented sector that Julie Rugg is undertaking and will she also tell the House when we will receive information on how she sees larger houses being utilised to manage overcrowding?

The review of the private rented sector that Julie Rugg is undertaking will report in October and is focusing on four key themes: how to create an accessible private rented sector; security of tenure for tenants; the provision of safe and decent homes; and improving landlord-tenant relations. Over the past few months, I have had a number of conversations with colleagues in the House, local authority leaders and others about the question of whether, if it comes up to standard, the private rented sector could be part of a family of providers, as well as about tackling houses in multiple occupation and overcrowding. I hope that that will all feed into the housing reform Green Paper that the Prime Minister announced will be forthcoming at the end of this year.

Has it dawned on the Minister that the move to pay housing benefit directly to tenants rather than to landlords for new tenancies will result in an increase in evictions and a reluctance among private landlords to let their houses to people on benefit?

With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a somewhat patronising attitude towards tenants. I understand that the driver for the change was about ensuring that those renting in the private sector who have traditionally been in receipt of housing benefit can take more responsibility for finding their housing and assume more financial responsibility, too. The change is about developing a more independent approach, rather than a dependent approach. I also understand—I am sure that colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions will be happy to provide him with information on this—that safeguards are in place, particularly for vulnerable tenants, to ensure that rents are paid and, where appropriate, that adequate and suitable support is given either by Jobcentre Plus or by local authorities, or by charitable organisations working with particular groups of vulnerable people.

Milton Keynes council is using the private rented sector to try to provide more suitable accommodation for many of the people on its waiting list and those in overcrowded accommodation. However, does the Minister accept that a major disincentive for council tenants to move to the private sector is the security—or rather, the insecurity—of tenure in the private sector? Will she ensure that the review considers that issue seriously?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have outlined, security of tenure is one of the issues that Julie Rugg and her colleagues are addressing. For people to feel safe and comfortable about alternative options, particularly where children are involved, they want to be assured that if accommodation is provided in the private rented sector, they can make the appropriate arrangements for schools, doctors and, I hope, employment, too. I hope that my hon. Friend and colleagues on both sides of the House will engage and make their views known to Julie in her review.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the private sector can take advantage of the housing market because people cannot afford to buy their own properties, which is driving up rents in the private sector? Has the time not come for more investment in the public sector, because it is the people in that sector who can really deal with the housing problem? Can we make more houses available through the public sector?

It is absolutely the case, as my hon. Friend has outlined, that although we seek to engage with positive landlords in the private rented sector and to tackle landlords’ bad practices, the issue is also about building more affordable homes for low-cost ownership and, importantly, for rent. That is why we are investing more than £8 billion in the next few years. We want to increase the number of homes being built and those that are available for social rent. As I have said to colleagues across the House, MPs play an important role in making sure that local authority bids for growth points or housing supply targets are underpinned by an understanding of the housing needs of those communities and the priority that should be given to those who need homes for social rent. As MPs, we can play an important role in ensuring that what is talked about locally is delivered on the ground.

Council Tax

The Government have no plans to abolish council tax. We agree with Sir Michael Lyons, who concluded in his independent report on the future of local government that council tax is basically sound and should be retained.

Sir Michael Lyons also said, at paragraph 7.239:

“I am satisfied that a local income tax could be feasible…and could viably replace all or part of council tax”.

Given that the council tax is being used in Gloucestershire even to top up flood-relief spending, and that the poorest households still pay 7 per cent. of their income in council tax, compared with just 2 per cent. for the richest, is not it time to perform another tax U-turn for the lowest paid?

Sir Michael Lyons also looked, very properly in my view, at the implications of moving either to full or local income tax. If we went to full income tax, there would be a rise of 7.7p in the pound, and if we went to a local income tax that covered only half of council tax, that would add 4p to the basic rate of income tax. I do not think that families want to pay such amounts.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a local income tax were levied instead of council tax, practically it could only be levied nationally and assigned locally? That would make the word “local” in local income tax rather redundant.

My hon. Friend expresses himself with great knowledge, as usual. He is a bit of an expert on these matters. I understand that if we were to have a local income tax, not only would it have to be administered nationally, but the cost for business would be absolutely enormous. The latest estimate is that the administrative costs would be £100 million, particularly affecting small businesses.

I do not know whether there is a discount for council tax payers in England for senior citizens aged over 70 who live alone, but if not, will the Minister consider introducing a scheme similar to the one introduced in Northern Ireland by my colleague the Finance Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)? Such a scheme would be very productive in targeting senior citizens who live alone and who are at the lower end of the income scale.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a general discount of 25 per cent. for people who live alone. Clearly, local authorities have discretion regarding other adjustments that they would like to make. A number of local authorities have given discounts to particular sections of the community, so that option is open to local authorities.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to keeping a property-based council tax at the heart of local government finance, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that local councils should be able to raise finance from a range of sources other than a property-based council tax? Does she agree that it is particularly important that a higher proportion of their revenue is raised locally if they are to be accountable to the local electorate?

Yes, it was Sir Michael Lyons who said that the property-based tax was an important element in the accountability of local authorities to the people that they serve. It is clearly important that local authorities have some flexibility, and we have recently decided that we will give them the ability to raise supplementary business rates in their area, subject to a whole range of safeguards to ensure that they do not impose a burden on business. There are already business improvement districts, in which local people get a vote on raising more money so that they can do the things that really matter to their local communities. It is important that we do not enter into the debate on a local income tax lightly, because such a tax would involve a massive shift from older people to hard-working families. I know that the Liberal Democrats choose to talk about a local income tax as though there would be no losers; actually, there would be many thousands of losers, mainly from hard-working families.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, although I might agree with her that a local income tax is the wrong answer, a real problem has none the less been created by her Government as a result of the plethora of unfunded burdens, regulations, inspection regimes, red tape and ring-fenced funding that reduces the scope of local authorities to make local decisions for local people? Against that background, does she regard it as a considerable achievement that one third of the increase in the basic state pension is now eaten up by the increase in council tax?

Much as I like the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “Surely some mistake!”] It is only because I can look him in the eye. Much as I like him, I am afraid that he is significantly out of date, and I urge him to catch up. In the past 12 months, we have slashed the number of targets for local authorities from 1,200 to under 200. We have also un-ring-fenced £5 billion of resources for local authorities and their partners to spend on the things that really matter to local people. There is now a slimmed-down regime for local government, because I am determined that local authorities should be able to respond to the things that people think are important. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on that.

Household Rubbish (Charges)

5. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the relationship between charges for the collection of household rubbish and council tax. (206425)

Our Department is working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on policies to reduce household waste, including possible waste incentive schemes.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will not the Government’s plans for bin taxes simply harm the local environment by causing a surge in fly-tipping and backyard burning, as well as increasing bills for families? Is he aware that in the Republic of Ireland, which already has bin taxes, one in 10 people burn rubbish in their backyard? Surely the Government should be working with councils to extend recycling opportunities.

Of course, we are doing just that—extending recycling opportunities. The performance of local authorities in recent years—including the hon. Gentleman’s own, to which I pay tribute—has been extremely good. I recognise that fly-tipping is a concern, and we have made it clear that any pilots that go ahead would have to be in authorities that could show that they already had a good fly-tipping programme in place, as well as good recycling programmes. I think that we can reduce the risk, but this is clearly one of the things that we can test through pilot schemes, once we get them up and running next year.

In his discussions with his ministerial colleagues on how we manage household waste, will the Minister look at what is already happening in continental Europe, where biodegradable waste is being put back into the waste stream in order to deliver heat and electricity from biogas on a scale that the UK is barely even paddling in? When residents can be the beneficiaries of sustainable energy systems from their own waste, we see a profound change in the culture. Will the Minister explore that process for the UK as well?

My hon. Friend is right, and he knows a great deal about these things, including what goes on in many parts of the continent. My Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are encouraging local authorities to look widely into the kinds of investments and methods that are used—including on the continent—to make the best use of waste as well as to encourage recycling. Part of the provision that we shall put in place over the next three years will double the amount of private finance initiative cover to allow investment in a range of different techniques to go ahead.

May I caution the Minister? In some authorities, including my own—Liberal Democrat-run St. Albans—the literature that accompanied the waste collection was so badly worded that it caused utter confusion and had to be redrafted, rewritten and re-sent. [Hon. Members: “Recycled?”] Unfortunately, we have not had a Tory administration in St. Albans since 1997; otherwise, I am sure that we would have had a better service. Compounding that, we are now going over to a fortnightly putrescible waste collection, which is causing disturbance as well as raising concerns about smells, odours, flies and, indeed, infections. May I ask the Minister to keep a close eye on authorities that are going over to that system and to evaluate the situation after a reasonable time, as I am concerned that residents in my constituency are not being well served?

In the end, the decision on whether to move towards collecting mainstream household waste every other week—in many areas where that happens, they also collect the recyclable waste at the same time—is clearly one for local authorities. I am sure that the hon. Lady will keep a close eye on the situation. We in central Government are interested to see the impact of these schemes, but in the end it is properly a decision—all Members would surely recognise this—for local authorities to take in view of what is best for their area and what can best help them achieve the recycling rates that this country requires over the next few years.

Council Housing (Disrepair)

In 1997, we inherited a £19 billion backlog of disrepair in council housing. To tackle that, we committed to making all social housing decent, which includes tackling disrepair. By 2010, more than £40 billion will have been invested in improvements to social housing, and work will have been completed on more than 3.6 million properties, improving the homes of 8 million people, including 2.5 million children.

I very much appreciate the track record that my hon. Friend has set out. Is he aware, however, that 31 local authorities, including Northampton borough council, will not meet the decent homes standards until after 2010, and that another 19 have arm’s length management organisations that do not yet have an investment programme, and no date has been given? What is the Department going to do to put pressure on those local authorities to deliver decent standard houses by 2010? I have to say that their failure to do so means that some of my constituents live in unacceptable standards of housing and some of the most vulnerable families live in harsh poor conditions.

My hon. Friend is a true champion on behalf of Northampton and a real expert on housing issues. I have visited her constituency and we also discussed this matter in an Adjournment debate last year. I understand that, in January, Northampton borough council completed a consultation on a borough-wide housing strategy in which the priorities for housing in the borough were identified as increasing supply and improving the condition of the housing stock. I know that she is providing strong political leadership in her borough on this matter. I ask her to continue to flag it up to me so that we can continue to work together to minimise further slippage on disrepair.

Does the Minister agree that for people living in council areas where there is a history of disrepair and deprivation, there is a knock-on effect on the well-being of tenants, which often leads to low self-esteem, low educational attainment, depression and a reliance on drugs? Does he agree that it is therefore necessary for the Government to have a robust and external cyclical maintenance scheme in operation on a regular basis in order to improve the quality of life of people living in council houses?

The hon. Lady makes a really important point, because housing is a key indicator of life expectancy, educational attainments and general feelings of well-being. It is right for the Government to have moved forward by investing unprecedented sums of money in decent housing so that this generation does not have to face the enormous backlog of disrepair left by the previous Tory Administration.

Will the Minister use a departmental circular to remind local authorities of their moral obligation—quite apart from their legal obligations—to ensure that when they allocate houses, the fixtures and fittings are there and the house is clean? Far too often, my constituents and, I think, those of other hon. Members, complain to us about the callous disregard of housing departments, including Thurrock borough council, that allocate dirty and squalid housing units that are falling apart as a result of inadequate fittings. That has got to stop, as these people are under a lot of—

My hon. Friend has made an important and serious point. When there are voids and when housing is reallocated by a council or housing association, that provides a good opportunity to ensure that any necessary repairs are carried out and any necessary health and safety measures undertaken. I shall go back to the Department and consider what he has said.

Given that the Government’s expenditure of £12 billion on decent homes standards has increased the number of homes that meet those standards by only 14 per cent., given that they now admit that there is no chance of their meeting the 2010 target on decent homes, and given that a record 1.7 million families are on council housing waiting lists, is it not about time the Minister admitted that the Government are letting down the very people whom they claim to represent?

I may have misheard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I do not think he declared any interests in housing policy in regard to private contractors.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is missing a trick. We ought to consider where we have come from, and what we have achieved over the past 11 years: 580,000 new kitchens, 440,000 new bathrooms, 910,000 new central heating systems and—here I follow the trail of answers given by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda)—the rewiring of 630,000 council houses to ensure that they meet fire and safety requirements. The hon. Gentleman’s party created an appalling backlog in repairs and maintenance, but this Government have tackled it.

I welcome the decent homes target, but does my hon. Friend accept that council house management and maintenance allowances are far too low and below the level required for the decent homes standard to be met? Incidentally, we inherited that legacy from the Opposition.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s expertise in housing matters. His local arm’s length management organisation, Bolton At Home, is a fine example of what can be achieved in the context of decent homes. I can tell him that management and maintenance allowances per dwelling have increased from about £1,031 in 2001-02 to £1,721 in 2008-09, which constitutes an average real-terms increase of 4.6 per cent. per annum.

We are examining the whole principle behind the financing of council housing, and will report shortly. One of the issues that will be examined is management and the maintenance allowance.

Flooding

7. What assessment she has made of the impact on the summer floods of 2007 of householders concreting over front gardens; and if she will bring forward proposals for planning permission to be sought prior to such alterations being carried out. (206427)

Two thirds of the homes that were flooded during last summer’s floods were flooded by the run-off from surface water. That is why the Government announced in February that, in future, people would need planning permission to pave over front gardens when the material used makes the surface impermeable.

The Minister will know that 5,500 householders have been unable to return home, and that about a quarter of them are still living in caravans. To what extent has he implemented the conclusion in the Pitt report that no householder or business owner should of right be able to add any impermeable surface to his property? Will he support the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), which will be presented to the House in due course?

The hon. Lady is right. Figures that I published today suggest that 5,500 householders are still not fully back in their own homes, and although the number living in caravans has fallen by some 1,000 over the last couple of months, it is still about 1,400. Progress has been made, but more needs to be done over the next few months.

As the hon. Lady said, one of the drainage recommendations in the Pitt report was that people should have to obtain planning permission if they wished to hard-pave their front gardens. We will implement that recommendation from October.

Before my hon. Friend goes down the planning consent route, will he acknowledge that a charge is incurred by local people who make planning applications for developments of this kind? Will he instead go down the building consent route, which would mean informing all contractors in the area that they must abide by the regulations laid down by their local authority on water containment?

The best approach to deal with the particular problem of increased run-off as a result of paved front gardens is the planning permission route. We are looking at whether, having implemented that in October this year, we should apply similar standards to non-domestic properties such as offices, industry and car parks. My hon. Friend may like to know that we will produce guidance on how householders can pave over their front gardens without using impermeable materials that will require planning permission.

The many thousands of houses that were tragically flooded last summer, partly because of the concreting over of front gardens, will not be helped in any shape, size or form by the prevention of that in the future, because the concrete that is there already will still be there unless the Government intend to make the measure retrospective. What is important is that gardens as a whole should be preserved—not just front gardens, but all gardens. Will the Government therefore ask the planning system to take a look at garden grabbing? We need to keep our gardens in our town areas. If we do that, that is where the water goes, so never mind setting up an army of spies to look into whether people are planning applications for their front gardens.

That is a matter for local authorities as local planning authorities, and they take such issues into account where they are relevant.

Community Groups

8. What progress has been made on proposals for the transfer of assets to community groups; and whether the proposals in the empowerment White Paper will affect this process. (206428)

Since May last year, community groups have been assisted on asset transfer projects in 20 areas, the Cabinet Office has allocated £30 million in refurbishment grants, and there is new guidance for local authorities. The White Paper will build on that, and in particular propose a new right for citizens which will ensure that councils consider proposals to transfer underused properties or land to community ownership.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and I particularly welcome the emphasis she placed on the transfer of land. Does she agree that community land trusts have a particularly important role to play in achieving a permanently affordable stock of intermediate housing, and will she encourage the transfer of assets to such trusts?

My hon. Friend has an extremely good record of being imaginative and innovative and of supporting such projects in her area. We now have 14 community land trust pilots—overseen by Salford university—in both rural and urban areas. In some of the rural areas, we already have people occupying the homes that have been built in this way. This is a very imaginative way of ensuring that affordable housing remains for the long term. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) later today to consider how we can press on further with this agenda.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I thank her for seeing me about the Cashes Green site—and I also look forward to hosting the Under-Secretary when he comes to Stroud. What progress is being made on the pilots, and when will the full report eventually be produced by Bob Paterson and others?

My hon. Friend is also extremely supportive on these issues, and I know he has been imaginative in taking them forward in his own area. I can promise him that there will be a report on the pilots. He will know that there are still some technical issues to be explored, particularly in relation to the urban pilots, which are on a broader scale and therefore require more work to be done. I will make sure that we come forward with our proposals as soon as we can, as I understand that there is a pressing need to get a proper framework for this way of working. Not only community land trusts but community ownership in general can ensure that organisations are sustainable for the long term, with an income stream that means they are less dependent on grants from local authorities. That is why such trusts are such an important part of the Government’s business.

Preventing Violent Extremism Programme

I have held regular meetings with a range of partners, including Muslim communities, the police, the Local Government Association, parliamentarians from both Houses and others with an interest in the preventing violent extremism programme. We are working closely with these partners at every level—local, national and international—to build the resilience of local communities so that they are able to stand up to the messages of extremism.

Can we be sure that, in pursuing her laudable aim of combating Islamic extremism and fundamentalism, the right hon. Lady conducts a very thorough audit of the Islamic bodies that participate in these schemes and receive Government recognition? Can she also say whether the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an extremist organisation, participates in any way in the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board or any of its contributing bodies?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is extremely important that, in allocating our funding to local authorities, we have a good degree of reassurance about the kind of projects funded. We are about to embark on a three-year programme involving £45 million for local authorities, so I am absolutely determined to ensure that we will fund projects that really help to build the resilience of local communities. The local police are closely involved with local authorities in making these funding decisions at local level. The Government offices are being strengthened to ensure that there is extra reassurance. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, despite the fact that this money is, in general, local government grant, I want to make absolutely sure that after 12 months we look at the situation again.

On the organisation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, I am extremely keen to ensure that we continue with our policy of engaging with the groups that are prepared to stand up and tackle and condemn extremism. That will be the continuing policy, and wherever people are not in that category, they are not groups with which we wish to collaborate in our endeavours to tackle extremism.

I am encouraged by that response. Will the Secretary of State confirm that part of the money allocated to this programme will be used to try to convey to young Muslim people the message of senior Muslim scholars that the use of violent extremism in political causes is essentially un-Islamic?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, and a key part of our strategy is to tackle the ideology perpetrated by extremists. It is absolutely vital that young people, and also women, have the ability, knowledge and skills to stand up and combat these messages. That is why we have an extensive programme of work with women. There is the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, and I intend to have a similar group of young people who will be empowered to take on leadership roles and to play a much larger part in their communities. This is the point at which we move from small projects that reach a few people, to trying to get the message across not just to the Muslim community but to all our communities that it is the voice of the overriding, law-abiding majority that we must hear, and that we must tackle this ideology, which threatens our communities.

The Secretary of State will be aware of claims that the Muslim Association of Britain—one of the four founder members of MINAB, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) referred—is, in effect, the British arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Has she carried out an assessment of this claim and can she definitively say to the House that it is untrue?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the founding partners of MINAB are those organisations that have committed to having proper standards in their mosques, and to being part of our policy of standing up and condemning and tackling Muslim extremism. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that checks are carried out regarding all the organisations that we fund. There was some question recently—it was perhaps raised by the hon. Gentleman—about the Cordoba Foundation, in Tower Hamlets. That organisation was not funded under our preventing violent extremism programme. The local authority in Tower Hamlets was going to engage with the Cordoba Foundation; it decided not to, and that was absolutely the right decision. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that these checks are carried out, and I am determined that we will fund organisations that want to stand up and encourage the mainstream, moderate Muslim majority in this country to feel strong enough to rebut these messages of hate and extremism that threaten a minority of our community, but which nevertheless constitute a very serious and important threat.

Local Government Expenditure

10. What proportion of local government expenditure was (a) raised locally and (b) met by Government grant in 2007-08. (206431)

About a quarter of council revenue spending is financed by council tax; about three quarters is financed from Government grant.

Is the balance of funding right? If more money were raised locally, would not local authorities and local councillors be more receptive and sympathetic to the needs of people who live in their areas?

Some argue that, but it is also important for all local councils to be properly funded. That requires a significant redistribution of central Government funding, which we make each year, and, thus, a significant proportion of central Government support, which we give each year. Over the past 10 or 11 years, the proportion of funding raised through council tax has remained at about a quarter. The proportion of central Government funding has, of course, risen: local councils have seen rises of more than 39 per cent. above inflation over those 10 years, which directly contrasts with the three years before 1997, when there was a 7 per cent. real-terms decrease.

Why is local government grant divided in such a way that a child educated in Devon receives £500 per annum less than a child educated in Manchester? Given that teachers are paid the same nationally, how on earth can that be fair?

Quite simply because, although the hon. Gentleman’s party leader does not appear to want to continue it, we have a system of funding local councils and the people who live in their areas according to the needs in those areas. That is intrinsic to our system, and that is the way it will remain.

Topical Questions

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

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?

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 the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) is examining the matter.

T2. 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? (206412)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

T3. 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? (206413)

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.

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?

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.

T4. 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? (206414)

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.

T9. 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? (206419)

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.

T5. 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? (206415)

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.

T10. May I commend the Secretary of State for calling my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (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? (206420)

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.

T6. 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? (206416)

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 the Member for Livingston (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.

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.

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.

T7. 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. (206417)

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—

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.

T8. 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? (206418)

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.

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?

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.