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Topical Questions

Volume 498: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009

I want to ensure that local authorities have the ability to respond to local needs without unnecessary bureaucracy, so today we are publishing our proposals to allow councils and their communities to make certain byelaws without seeking Government approval, and to have them enforced through fixed penalty notices. I will also consult on proposals to repeal or streamline more than half the consent regimes—regimes whereby councils have to seek my Department’s permission before acting.

Cheshire East council has recognised a problem raised recently by one of my constituents, which is that 30 per cent. of street lighting in the Crewe and Nantwich area does not meet British safety standards regarding spacing. What can the Secretary of State do to help this relatively new council improve that statistic in respect of what is a very important community safety issue?

It is particularly important that we continue to have in power a Government who want to invest in public services, because the sorts of cuts proposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party would not have helped his local authority. I will be happy to enter into correspondence with him about this particular case. This problem has been tackled in some parts of the country with Government support through private finance initiative consents for renewables street lighting. I am not familiar with the details of the case the hon. Gentleman raises, but I am more than happy to take it forward with him.

T4. My colleagues on the Treasury Bench may well be aware of the total lack of interest in elected mayors shown in Manchester during a recent consultation, and of the comments of the former Tory leader of Trafford council that there is simply no appetite for elected mayors, especially in Manchester. In the light of that, if the Government are not mad enough to enforce these expensive referendums on local communities, who would be? (295548)

That is a very interesting question. I made my view clear in the summer, which is that we think the current legal framework, allowing the option to go for mayors where communities wish it but not imposing it, is about right. I was struck by the fact that the Opposition, while being committed to decentralisation, said that their first act in power would be to legislate in this place to force people to have referendums on mayors whether they liked it or not. That is a very odd sort of decentralisation.

T2. Given that the local government review in Devon has been a complete waste of time and money from the very start and is a colossal distraction to senior officers in all the district councils throughout Devon, and that the uncertainty continues, will the Secretary of State please now confirm that, just six months away from a general election, this LGR is dead and buried? (295546)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination gave an excellent answer to a similar question a little earlier. We are awaiting the result of the boundary committee appeal hearing. Once that is received, Ministers will be able to proceed, as we would have done previously, to take an appropriate decision.

T6. Given the purchase yesterday of HBOS Employee Equity Solutions by Computershare, will the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber—the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—who has done excellent work saving jobs in the Calder valley, give me an assurance that all employees affected will be transferred under TUPE arrangements? (295550)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on behalf of her constituents in terms of the financial services industry, not only in our region but particularly in her constituency. I understand from yesterday’s announcement that the 190 people employed in Halifax who would be covered by the proposed takeover will be transferred under TUPE arrangements to the new employer. I hope that that gives her some reassurance.

T3. Colchester’s population is greater than that of many unitary authorities. Colchester borough council is the only one in Essex not run by the Tories, and consequently it is neglected and politically discriminated against by the county council. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how Colchester’s authority can move towards having unitary council status? (295547)

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman, unlike the Conservative party, recognises that many benefits can come with unitary status. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss the issues that he has raised.

T8. Have the Government made an assessment of whether the policies of some Conservative local authorities pose a real threat to economic recovery? (295552)

It is not for me to make such an assessment, but I must say that anybody who proposed doing away with regional development agencies, regional spatial strategies and all the things that enable us to have economic growth would be an enormous threat to the future of this country.

T7. The 2010 business revaluation is based on market values from April 2008. Given that market values have fallen considerably and that that has affected local businesses, will the Minister put additional resources into the Valuation Office Agency so that appeals can be fast-tracked? (295551)

T5. I am not quite sure why the Secretary of State is seeking to extend fixed penalty notices, given that most of them go unpaid in the first place. Can he tell the House which of the following is the higher priority for his Department: meeting his arbitrary building targets, or the presumption against building on floodplains? (295549)

That use of the word “arbitrary” was wrong; the housing ambitions that the Government have set out stem from a hard-headed analysis of how many homes need to be built over the next 15 years or so to ensure that the population of this country is adequately housed. The Conservative party is wrong to describe the targets as arbitrary. By denying the need to provide homes for the families of this country, it is the Conservatives who are such a big threat.

Slough borough council is one of the authorities that over the past five years has built more than 1,160 affordable homes, yet it has not bid, although it would like to do so, for the funds available for house building. That is because it is small, because it is not a building authority and because it is already using the land that is appropriate. Can the Minister find ways to help small authorities such as Slough borough council to bid to build more homes, which the residents in my constituency need?

All local housing authorities, including Slough’s, are eligible to bid for the new programme that is in place for council house building. I have to say that Slough’s authority has done a magnificent job, particularly in the past couple of years, in finding the scope within the town to build homes that people in the area badly need. Where the national Government can support the authority, we will do so, and I am always ready to talk to my hon. Friend or her local council leader about how we can do so.

T9. Council tenants in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park pay about a third of their rent to the Government in the form of a subsidy, but the only thing they get for that is the prospect of Decent Homes funding. Some £120 million was promised to their council to pay for upgrading, improvement and renovation of their homes, but that money is no longer on the table. Will the Minister meet me, as well as a number of my constituents who are council tenants, to discuss whether that money can be put back on the table, so that those much-needed renovations can get under way? (295553)

I never refuse a meeting with a Member of this House, and I shall not refuse the hon. Gentleman. I have made it clear to the House that the Government are totally committed to completing the Decent Homes programme, but the judicial review that his authority is pursuing at the moment is getting in the way of our being able to have the sort of discussions that he wants to encourage us to have.

Given the depressed state of the housing market and the problems being experienced in the construction industry, will the Minister give me an assessment of the potential impact of any delays in the implementation of the regional spatial strategy?

The short answer is that the impact could be very serious, because the new homes are badly needed in my hon. Friend’s region. Moreover, the investment in them helps to create the jobs that keep in people in work, and the apprenticeship schemes that will give people the skills needed in the future.

T10. How many small shops in my constituency will lose their eligibility for small business rate relief next year, after revaluation? The revaluation took as its reference point April 2008, when retail rents were very high, compared with industrial and office rents. (295554)

Obviously, I do not know the details of individual constituencies, but I want to reinforce one point that needs to be made. The business rate revaluation does not raise extra money: rather, it introduces a fair distribution of rates each time a revaluation takes place. That brings winners and losers, so we always put in place transitional arrangements to soften the blow or ameliorate the rate of benefit. Business rates are often described in this House as some sort of penal attack on particular businesses, whereas the revaluation is a fair adjustment, moderated over time. We shall continue with the process and, in government, the Opposition would have to do something very similar.

There is widespread agreement that the housing revenue account system is not fit for purpose, so I give the review that is under way a warm welcome. The Treasury has proposed taking an extra £7 billion dowry from councils, but does my right hon. Friend agree that that would prevent them from implementing the Decent Homes standard, and that it could be seen as a tax on council house tenants?

What I have launched is not a review of the housing revenue account system but a plan to dismantle the system that has been in place for more than 20 years. That system has held councils back from being able to build and maintain homes at a decent standard. It is not just that there will be enough money in the system to ensure that all councils can maintain all their homes to a decent standard, because in fact there will be more money for those purposes over the next 10 to 20 years. I am now doing the detailed work with those local authorities that want the reform, which will replace the old system with a structure that will give authorities control over their own rents and housing. That will enable them to provide better services for tenants in the future.

The panel appointed by the Secretary of State to examine the west midlands regional spatial strategy has now reported. In my constituency of Solihull, we had an agreed new homes target of 7,600, but now we find that that target is 10,500. That will almost certainly mean that we will have to lose great swathes of our green belt. Will the right hon. Gentleman describe how it is desirable, or even possible, to override the plans and wishes of Solihull’s—

As I have tried to make clear a number of times this afternoon, the examination process means that local plans that take only the local perspective into account have to be tested against regional and national housing need. The examination process takes place in public, and when revisions are made it is because the evidence in favour of the need to provide land for housing wins out. It is difficult to conceive of a different system. The only possible alternative would involve the abandonment of any national or regional targets, but that would undoubtedly lead to a massive collapse in house building and a massive under-provision—

Was my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister as angry as I was to learn that, notwithstanding 23,000 people looking for affordable homes in Liverpool, the Liberal Democrats rejected a project for 60 new homes by a housing co-operative on the grounds that there was no such need in the city?

I have said how disappointed I was that Liverpool city council is not taking advantage of the central Government support that we are prepared to give to deal with some of the very serious housing problems in that city. I will continue to do what I can to assist, but it would help if the council started to play its full part and do some of the heavy lifting that it should be doing already.

Does the Secretary of State accept that if his Government go ahead and scrap the £15 excess payments of local housing allowance, all that will result is rent inflation and no savings to the public purse? Will he agree to work with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to rethink the proposal?

Recent statements by the Local Government Association have echoed the view of the Fire Brigades Union that the fire control project is now out of control and should be abandoned. Does the Secretary of State accept this? If not, why is he the only one out of sync with the people who work in the service and the people who run the service?

It is worth restating that we need a system of fire control that can operate over more than one fire and rescue service and that is able to provide efficient communications, particularly on major incidents where appliances and staff may be drawn from a variety of different fire and rescue services. The fire control project is designed to enable us to achieve that. We continue to work with the LGA on the implementation of the project, and I understand that we, and people at local level, will need to work with the FBU on the details of implementation, but the need for this type of control system, which goes beyond individual fire and rescue services, is, I believe, unanswerable.