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Topical Questions

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

I want to ensure that councils are performing as efficiently as possible and making the best possible use of every pound of council tax. I am pleased to be able to confirm today that councils have forecast efficiency savings of more than £3 billion by March 2010, making good progress towards the target of £5.5 billion by March 2011. “Smarter Government”, published yesterday, sets out how Government will support councils in continuing to deliver improved services with improved value for money.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Many people in communities such as Southwark and Bermondsey live near major developments from which they get no necessary personal gain. Will he look sympathetically on the proposal to allow development gain money, traditionally called section 106 money, to be used to build or renovate housing for rent in the area affected?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. He will be aware that we are already committed to the development of a more flexible and strategic approach to development gain. We will introduce the community infrastructure levy to supplement and replace section 106, which will give local authorities greater flexibility in the use of development gain money.

T5. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps he is taking to reduce carbon emissions in the existing housing stock, particularly in houses such as those in my constituency in which there is no possibility of cavity wall insulation? (304627)

My hon. Friend is quite right to say, particularly in this week as we build up to the Copenhagen international conference on climate change, that we need to do a great deal more with our homes in future. More than a quarter of our total emissions in this country come from our homes, which requires us to design, build and plan to a new standard in future—I have set out in some detail the plans from 2016 on—and to undertake a national refurb programme, the details of which I and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Energy and Climate Change are currently working on following the heat and energy saving strategy, which we published earlier in the year.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to protect agricultural land for future food use? If so, what steps will he take to prevent allotments being included in local authority development plans? (304624)

I think the hon. Lady would agree with me that local authorities need to be able to draw up appropriate development plans for their areas. I am not sure whether she is suggesting that we should specifically limit the way in which they approach these issues, but we are working with third-sector organisations in this area to promote the importance of allotments and to encourage local authorities to make allotment land available. I share with her the view that adequate provision of allotments is a very beneficial thing for local authorities to include in their local planning.

T6. The market in the historic market town of Chorley is under threat from a new Asda being built in the town centre. I welcome the Asda jobs, but I am concerned that this will have a dire effect on the market and the small independent retailers. What help and support can this Government give to ensure that markets will survive, along with the independent shops? (304628)

I know my hon. Friend has a historic market in his constituency—I think it dates back to the 15th century. It is not quite as old as Doncaster market, but it is still a very valuable one. Under the draft planning guidance—planning policy statement 4—it is possible for local authorities to look very closely at the effect that, for example, an out-of-town development would have on the market. Such effects could include social and economic effects, and perhaps consumer choice would be reduced. That, plus the ability to look much more closely, under the economic assessment duty that is being introduced, at what can be done to assist local markets better are new powers that are being given to local authorities. We also have a retail markets group, which I chair, which will be reporting to Ministers with more ideas as to what we can do.

T3. Following my earlier question, the Housing Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) by saying that 1,800 homes had been purchased through the rent-to-homebuy scheme. That seems at variance with the written answer the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) on 16 October, when he said that the number was zero. Has the Minister inadvertently misled the House and would he perhaps like to put the record straight? (304625)

I do not believe so. The right hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends on the Front Bench indicated their question on that matter earlier. If the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, he will see that in response to his original question, I said that up to the end of September, about 1,800 rent-to-homebuys had been completed—I did not use the word “purchased”. However, I have indicated to Conservative Front Benchers that I will check the record, particularly in relation to the second exchange between myself and the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). If I made a mistake the second time around, I shall clearly correct it, but if the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, I think he will find what I have explained now, and I am grateful to him for the opportunity to do so.

T8. The most recent homelessness statistic published by the Department for Communities and Local Government shows a continued fall in the number of acceptances as homeless by local authorities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Is he aware that in the case of approximately half the homelessness diversions in the private rented sector, we are substituting affordable social housing for astronomical rents in the private rented sector? Will he continue urgent discussions with the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to make it clear that that is not actually a sustainable and efficient use of money over the longer term? (304630)

Indeed I will; my hon. Friend has been very forceful in making that point to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so we will certainly do so.

T4. In answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), did the Minister say that the transitional rate relief will cover in full the increases proposed over the next five years, or does she finally accept that the increases will be unbearable for many businesses? (304626)

I certainly accept that it will not cover all of them, but in most cases it will cover a percentage of the increases. Also, under the business rates deferral scheme, businesses will be able to extend their payments over a period of three years.

T9. Further to the earlier answer given to me about the planning of town centre developments, the handling of much needed major commercial proposals for the heart of Coalville by Tory North-West Leicestershire district council has been an utter fiasco. Will the Minister press the Government office for the east midlands to respond to my urgent request for a call-in, because to describe the present position as a dog’s breakfast would be a grossly unfair slur on canine eating habits? (304631)

I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes. Obviously, call-in proposals are considered by Ministers on the basis of the case that is made, but he has made his views very clear this afternoon.

Does the Minister not understand that the transitional relief scheme will not mitigate the huge business rate hike for businesses in my high street, which face an increase of 120 per cent. in their liability? Is this not the wrong time to push through a revaluation based on 2008 inflated prices, when many of my businesses are struggling to cope in the recession?

May I suggest to hon. Members whose businesses are rightly concerned about business rate increases—there are increases, although the majority of businesses will see a decrease as a result of the 2010 revaluation—that they go on to the Business Link and the Valuation Office Agency websites and make the calculation, because there is a cap on the increases? For small businesses, the cap is 5 per cent. and on large businesses it is 12.5 per cent. If we take into account negative inflation, that drops to 3.5 per cent. and 11 per cent. I am very sorry that businesses are getting so concerned about this when measures are in place to help them with it.

What measures are the Department taking to protect council tax payers against botched asset sales such as those we saw under the previous Government, and which Plymouth city council has now embarked on with its sale of Plymouth CityBus? The figures appear not to stack up.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course the Government do not oppose asset sales per se, but they have to be carried out properly, in the public interest and with the values properly established to ensure that the council tax payer does not lose out. I hope that her council is not like Southampton council, whose leader said a few months ago that the council would privatise for ideological reasons. That is not the way to approach such an important issue.

In light of the economic downturn and the reduction in new homes being built, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of models such as the Milton Keynes tariff in delivering development for local communities?

We looked at this very carefully when we were considering proposals that were part of the Planning Act 2008 and the community infrastructure levy. Shortly, I will be able to set out final decisions and regulations to put that levy in place from 1 April. While the hon. Gentleman is right about the fall-off in building new homes for private sale, he is wrong about the reduction in building for affordable homes. Because of the action the Government have taken, that number is up.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 made tens of millions of pounds in additional, unhypothecated funding available to the Department for Communities and Local Government for electoral registration. Can the Minister guarantee that all the money given to the Department for electoral registration was spent on that, and can he liaise with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that proper funding is available for that purpose?

A certain amount of money is given to the Electoral Commission to look at electoral registration, and that is closely monitored. On discussions with the Ministry of Justice, I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s comments and get back to him.

May I take the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), back to home improvement packs? Will he put his undoubted, enormous intellectual talent, of which you will be aware, Mr. Speaker, to answering a simple question, without resorting to his trademark personal abuse? What proportion of home buyers and sellers, when surveyed, responded that they found the HIP useful?

The hon. Gentleman spent half an hour dreaming up that question, which confirms the point that I made about him earlier. The figures to which he refers actually show that already, in such a short period, nine out of 10 buyers are using the HIPs and one out of three said that it had helped them to decide whether to make an offer. [Interruption.] That is a massive improvement on the figures shortly after the HIPs introduction—[Interruption.]

Order. I feel sure that the outbreak of disorder on the one hand, and the presence of the Under-Secretary and the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on the other, are entirely unrelated.

Those figures are a big improvement on the position shortly after the HIPs introduction and show that the system is becoming more helpful to home buyers all the time.