Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 491: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2009

My Department continues to focus on helping people through the recession through practical measures, such as our town centre strategy to try to fill up empty shops, and to build strong, cohesive communities where people want to live, work and bring up their families.

I understand that the ring-fencing of the Supporting People programme will be abolished shortly—which I welcome—and the money will be included in the base funding for local authorities. I urge my right hon. Friend to take this opportunity to ensure that that money goes to local authorities on the basis of measured need, rather than historical spending patterns.

My hon. Friend has a proud record of making the case for the allocation of resources on the basis of need and ensuring that we address deprivation in particular communities. I am pleased that he welcomes the un-ring-fencing of the Supporting People grant, for the very reasons that we debated earlier today. If we give more freedom and flexibility to local authorities, we often get better results from spending. I will certainly take notice of the points that he has made today about allocation on the basis of need and will report back to him fully.

T3. The Secretary of State will have sat in many Cabinet meetings and agreed that the best way to counter terrorism is through a global effort working closely with our allies. Under the circumstances, was she as concerned as I was to hear the remarks by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), attacking the use of Predator drones in Pakistan by the United States, no doubt in an attempt to curry favour with one minority or another? Will she remind him of the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility? He cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds on an issue as important as that. (269435)

My hon. Friend has recently completed a worthwhile and useful visit to Pakistan, where he was able to see at first hand some of the pressures felt. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to work with our international partners to tackle the severe terrorist threat that this country faces, and it is not the case that my hon. Friend was seeking to distance himself from a particular policy. He was rightly drawing to our attention the need to ensure that we are aware of the pressures on a range of communities, both abroad and in this country, and are therefore able to prepare our response accordingly. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend shares absolutely our policies aimed at tackling radicalisation in this country.

T2. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be well aware of the economic pressures facing businesses, and I wonder what more her Department can do to encourage more flexible use of shop premises so that we do not see lots of empty shops in our town centres. (269434)

My hon. Friend has an excellent record, through her membership of the all-party small shops group, on making the case for our local town centres. She will know that last week the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport and I did some joint work to try to find alternative uses for empty shops, such as for rehearsal spaces or arts activities. The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills is also interested in local, flexible, informal learning centres in our shopping precincts. We are considering standard legal documentation, temporary leases and other practical measures to give businesses real help during this difficult time.

T4. In rejecting last month the very modest proposals contained in the Taylor report regarding the impact of high levels of second-home ownership in areas such as mine—we are talking about a few areas of the country—the Government referred to the human rights of second-home owners. Given that last year three times as many properties were sold in my constituency to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers, what has the Minister to say about the human rights of the many thousands of families who have not yet got a decent first home? Will she keep the matter under review? (269436)

We always keep this matter under review. The hon. Gentleman will know that as a result of representations from Members from all parties who represent rural areas we have very deliberately set targets for the provision of more affordable housing, particularly in small settlements. I take his point entirely about areas in which second homes have a particular impact, but all I can say is that we considered the issue very carefully and we will continue to do so. So far we have found that the difficulties of definition and of deciding at what point such a policy would be triggered are insurmountable. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to consider how we can overcome the impact of the lack of housing on local communities. We believe that that is the way forward.

T8. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the work that she has done on community land trusts. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and I have had a very good meeting with Sir Bob Kerslake of the Homes and Communities Agency. Will my right hon. Friend say a few more things about how we can make progress with that very important model of housing, particularly in rural areas, and ensure that my own Cashes Green site is developed as a matter of urgency? (269440)

I can assure my hon. Friend, and you, Mr. Speaker, that I was in no danger of forgetting my hon. Friend’s concerns about this issue in his constituency and, in particular, about the proposals to which he referred. He is right to say that the Government take very seriously and are very interested in the proposals for community land trusts. I am not surprised but glad to hear that he had a very constructive meeting with Sir Bob Kerslake. I can assure him that the Government are looking to see what further contribution such proposals can make to housing development.

T5. What advice would the Department give to the London borough of Croydon in terms of making a good case for the next set of three-year local government financial settlements? It is very clear that there is real stress on the budget, because the borough has seen the third highest increase in council tax in London while services have been reduced. We have a real dynamic to consider, as we are the host for the Border and Immigration Agency, and dynamic change is also happening with our population and our population make-up. (269437)

The first piece of advice is that the council should manage what it has got over this three-year settlement well. It should manage it efficiently and do more to tighten its belt, as everybody expects councils to do at the moment. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman’s council, like many others, will be interested in two areas of work that we have under way at the moment, working closely with local government. The first involves considering the future basis for deciding grants from central Government to local government, while the second involves improving the collection of population and migration statistics. Local government has a big role to play in that and can make a valuable contribution to that work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage his council to do just that.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on flexibility for the use of empty shops, but I am sure that she would agree that it is best that those shops should not be empty, and that support should be given to our local small businesses, cafés and restaurants. More than 100 constituents and local traders have contacted me, concerned that a large supermarket has shown an interest in opening up in a marvellous area of small shops in my constituency of Hove. Is she considering possible secondary legislation so that the impact on the community and small businesses of such developments can be taken into account in such cases?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. What we also need to do is to try to support businesses so that the shops do not become empty in the first place. That is why we have small business rate relief and why we have allowed a lot of small businesses to defer their pay-as-you-earn, or—PAYE—tax. More than 100,000 businesses have taken advantage of that. My hon. Friend also discussed the impact of large supermarkets, and she will know that in our planning policy statement 6 on town centres, we have done a great deal of work to try to ensure that any possible impact on our town centres is taken extremely seriously when any development is proposed. At the moment, we do not have proposals for legislation, but she will know that the planning framework is crucial to ensuring that those development decisions do not damage the very important vibrancy of our town centres.

T6. I welcome the Government’s policy of restricting development in the green belt, on floodplains and on school playing fields that have been sold off by councils. What would the Minister say to Castle Point borough councillors who want to build hundreds of houses on a school playing field on Canvey Island that is in the floodrisk area and in the green belt? (269438)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the caution with which Ministers have to approach comment on planning issues, but we and the Environment Agency always take matters to do with flood risk and development on floodplains very seriously indeed. He may not be aware that a recent reassessment of protection against flood risk has conveyed the fact that we appear to be rather better protected, and for longer, than had been thought until recently. Perhaps, therefore, he may to some extent be able to reassure his constituents—who, like people everywhere in the country, are no doubt keen to get extra housing.

There has been a big increase recently in the number of people in my constituency losing their homes, so it is vital that more social housing be constructed and made available as soon as possible. However, new figures published in the past month or so show that my constituency has suffered one of the biggest increases in youth unemployment in the country. Will Ministers ensure that putting in place apprenticeships for young people is given a big priority when discussions are held with representatives of the construction industry and housing associations? Those apprenticeships are needed quickly if we are to alleviate some of the problems that exist now in my constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which touches on an extremely important point. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing noted in an earlier answer, we need to learn the lessons of previous recessions and of past failed Governments in this respect. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that young people can get apprenticeships in the construction industry, and that we continue to stimulate local, sub-regional and regional economies with housing as a key feature. I should be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and to visit his area to ensure that what we are doing in terms of social housing in the north-west is appropriate.

T7. The European Commission has indicated that it is minded to uphold a complaint that I have made against East Sussex county council for breaking procurement rules in respect of its waste contract, and in particular of the hugely unpopular proposed incinerator in Newhaven. On this occasion, my concerns are naturally to do with the Tory council rather than the Government, but nevertheless I understand that the formal notification is likely to come to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Will the Secretary of State agree to arrange for me to have a short meeting with the relevant Minister before she sends a formal response to the European Commission? (269439)

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say when she intends to conclude the review of housing provision and support for survivors of domestic violence, especially in the light of the recent report entitled “Map of Gaps”? Moreover, it was reported recently that the Mayor of London intends to renege on his promise to provide support for victims of domestic violence, and that he will not provide the rape crisis centre that he promised in his manifesto. Would she like to comment on that?

I am perfectly happy to report back to my hon. Friend, who has a long record of campaigning for the support of women who are subject to domestic violence. She will be aware that an inter-ministerial working group is looking at a range of support measures to ensure that we reduce domestic violence—on which we have a very proud record—and that we give people the support that they need, where they need it. She also asked about the Mayor of London, and these are clearly very serious matters. I shall certainly investigate them, and come back to her with information as soon as possible.

T10. The “Real help for communities” project has just been announced, with 50 areas benefiting, including Bradford, Wakefield, Kirklees and Calderdale, but not a single penny for Leeds. Can the Secretary of State explain the criteria for the project and why Leeds is not to qualify for any real help for its communities? (269442)

I and my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench share our puzzlement with the hon. Gentleman’s question. None of us recognises the scheme he is talking about, but I am happy to meet him if he wants to lay out the detail. I think he may have the name of the scheme and the funding wrong, but I am happy to explore that with him.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to persist in her determination to involve more Pakistani women in the leadership of both community and mosque groups? Should there be resistance to that, such groups should not be in receipt of either Government or local authority money.

My hon. Friend has a very impressive record in being prepared to say sometimes difficult things on this agenda and I am proud of her for doing that. She will know that the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group is comprised of feisty, challenging women from all over the country, and they are absolutely determined that they will take their rightful place in the governance of mosques and the leadership of community organisations. My hon. Friend also makes the point that such values should be reflected in the groups that we sponsor and support through our funding. She is absolutely right.

Given that national parks are in effect local authorities by a different name and have power over the lives of thousands of British people, does the Secretary of State agree that at least some members of those national parks ought to be directly democratically elected?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am quite a fan of direct elections, and I am certainly keen to ensure that there is as much democracy as possible in our political system. I have never believed that direct democracy is somehow challenging to other organisations. Having said that, I am sure that there will be debate about membership of the national parks organisations. I will certainly examine the issue to see whether it is possible to have more direct democracy in those organisations.