Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am grateful to the Minister for that response and for his earlier telephone call to my office. He will be aware that, in a planning appeal in Innsworth in my constituency, although the public inquiry date has passed and the inquiry has finished, a change of details has been submitted by the developer. A rather confusing letter from the Secretary of State’s office purports to reopen the inquiry, but surely that cannot be an open and transparent way of dealing with planning applications. Will the Minister look into this issue further?
The material change of circumstances in that case was the offer from the developer, after the inquiry, to increase the proportion of affordable housing in the proposals—something that I would have assumed that the hon. Gentleman welcomes. Clearly, it would have been wrong if the Secretary of State had not then sought the views of the parties at the inquiry to that change in the proposals. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has acted openly and done the right thing in seeking those views. He is currently considering the case carefully.
I asked an expert taskforce, chaired by Sir Steve Bullock, mayor of Lewisham, and Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council, to look at how best to achieve efficiency savings and protect front-line services. Their report “Putting the Frontline First: Meeting the local government challenge” was published on 1 March. It sets out 10 decisive steps that councils can take to achieve efficiency while delivering high-quality local services. Local people will rightly be intolerant of any council if they are told that front-line services like care provision, libraries or youth services will be cut because it has failed to carry through all the recommendations made in our experts’ taskforce report.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the disgraceful situation at the now Conservative-led Lancashire county council? It has received a 5.1 per cent. increase in Government grant but has cut the budget by 3 per cent., with the likelihood that 200 to 300 jobs will now be lost. The council is also failing to support the staff at the National Football museum who need an agreement to be reached between Lancashire county council and Manchester city council so that the museum can remain at Preston and in Manchester as well.
First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s sterling efforts to support the football museum and to retain it for his constituency? He makes an important wider point, because some local authorities are trying to suggest that the cuts that they are making to front-line services in some way reflect cuts in central Government finance or the wider economic circumstances. As he has rightly highlighted, English local authorities received, on average, a 4 per cent. cash increase for the coming year, and the cuts that are being made reflect the decisions of Tory and Liberal local authorities to make them at a local level.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council on delivering a council tax cut for the fourth year in a row while preserving its four-star quality rating for services? Will he also use this occasion to apologise to the leader of the council for saying that the leader had allegedly said of council tenants, “These people are hard to shift”? That is totally and utterly untrue, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman apologised for that mis-statement.
I prefer the records of the eight Labour London local authorities that have frozen council tax while protecting front-line services. He will be aware of the impact of local decisions to raise charges for elderly people and of housing strategies that seem to be designed to deny security of tenure to people who have long enjoyed secure local housing. I do not share his assessment of his local authority’s record—indeed, far from it; I think it is a warning that should be broadcast to tenants up and down the country, and I will do my very best to make sure that it is.
Ryanair was recently voted the least family- friendly company in the country. In the light of that, what is my right hon. Friend’s view of local authorities that seek to make efficiency savings by instituting two-tier services, with a no-frills basic?
I worry greatly about councils that are proposing what they call a budget-airline or Ryanair approach to local government, with services stripped down to the most basic level. The only people who enjoy decent services are those who can afford to pay for them twice—once through the council tax, and once through charges. For example, I was told the other day that Wolverhampton council has made it part of its standing orders that every service should be charged at a full-cost recovery rate, unless specifically authorised otherwise by a cabinet member.
I think that that approach will leave large numbers of people on middle incomes unable to enjoy decent council services. It is a shame that it is being championed by the Opposition.
The Secretary of State seems very keen to talk about this year’s Budget settlement, but less keen to talk about Government grants looking ahead. What guidance has he received from the Treasury about the scale of future cuts that councils will need to make? Does he really believe that efficiencies alone will be able to halve the deficit?
I certainly believe that the budget reduction programme set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the pre-Budget report is a credible one. It can be delivered in local government without damaging front-line services, provided that the hard decisions are taken to deliver efficiencies. My Department set out in the PBR where we expect savings to be made through operational efficiency and through savings on particular local government services. That can be done so that members of the public see their services protected and improved where they use them.
The problem is that the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinks that that is simply not possible, and that deep cuts will follow in years ahead. Given that no credible detail is forthcoming from either the Government or those on the Conservative Front Bench, should the right hon. Gentleman not be doing the responsible thing and advising councils to prepare for the worst-case scenario pointed out by the IFS—that is, reductions of up 23 per cent. over four years from 2011?
The hon. Lady is wrong on both counts. In reply to an earlier question, I said that we have published a report from two respected local government leaders on precisely the measures that local government should be planning to take now to make the most efficient use of the available resources. As the House knows, however, the reality is that there has not yet been a comprehensive spending review for the next three-year settlement because we have been through a year of the most extraordinary economic change. The policies that we have implemented have seen the Government, the country and local government through the crisis, because we rejected the calls from the Opposition to cut our spending last year. It would have been irresponsible to try to project exact levels of spending for four years from today, given the uncertainties of the past year. Clearly, spending plans will have to be set out, but the timing is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Given the levels of support that Birmingham city council has had from the Government over the past decade, why does my right hon. Friend feel that it has got itself into such a financial mess, to the extent that thousands of jobs are threatened and services to the public are being put at risk?
I can understand the concern of my hon. Friend and other Birmingham Members of Parliament. It is true that Birmingham has not received the highest rating, shall we say, from the Audit Commission, for the quality of its financial management. The record shows that it has been given resources by the Government for tackling worklessness, but that it has failed to devote them to tackling that problem. It is a shame that Birmingham’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat council is saying that front-line services will have to go, when issues about how the council manages its resources clearly need to be addressed closer to home.
Instead of shamelessly scaremongering, it would have been nice if the Secretary of State had acknowledged that local government has already had considerable success in delivering efficiency savings. Can he understand why councils feel so furious about being instructed to meet the £250 million shortfall in the Prime Minister’s latest commitment to personal care? The Government define a new burden as
“any new policy or initiative which increases the cost of providing local authority services.”
Will he explain which part of that £250 million is not covered by that doctrine?
It is a shame that the hon. Lady has not welcomed the fact that the Prime Minister’s proposals for free care at home for those with the highest needs involve the biggest single transfer of resources from the NHS to local government since the NHS was founded in 1948. It is a massive vote of confidence in the ability of local government to deliver the policy. I believe that the savings that local government is being asked to make can be achieved. As she herself has said, local government has proved its ability to make efficiency savings and to plough them into other front-line services.
We all want to see help for those who most need it. The question is where the money is coming from. The Government must be living in cloud cuckoo land if they believe that the £250 million bill for changes in personal care does not fall under the definition of an unfunded burden. Is it not the case that the efficiency savings earmarked for that policy will not materialise until 2012-13, yet the policy comes into force this year? Can the Minister explain to the House where the shortfall will be found, and whether the figure of £250 million is capped? If not, is it not the case that as well as being unfunded, the policy is uncosted?
In which case, Mr. Speaker, I will respond to the point that we all want to do something to help. I recall that when cross-party talks were taking place in an attempt to establish a consensus on social care, it was the Conservative party which broke out of those in order to launch a cheap-shot poster campaign, rather than try to address the serious issues that concern elderly people in this country.
An independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers published in March 2009 established that, on average, every £1 of regional development agency spend, much of which is in partnership with local authorities, will add on average £4.50 of value to their region. The PWC report found that in the Northwest Regional Development Agency area, 41,000 jobs were created or safeguarded, 8,000 businesses were assisted and 48,000 people were helped with training.
Those figures are impressive. Does it not beggar belief that there are those who cannot make up their mind what they should do with regional development agencies, which have been such a great success in regenerating and creating employment in the north-west of England?
My hon. Friend is right. As somebody who meets a number of businesses, I know that they are horrified by the idea that any Government or potential Government would talk about abolishing the regional development agencies. That is the view not only of businesses, but of business organisations such as the Engineering Employers Federation, the CBI and the chambers of commerce. However, I notice that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) have now written down their policy, in a vague attempt to see if it will last longer than one day.
Last Friday’s edition of Property Week condemned the Government’s track record on regeneration by pointing out that the pathfinder scheme has been responsible for the demolition of more than 16,000 homes, yet has created only 3,700 new homes, with a net loss of 12,000 homes. In short, the scheme has cost £2.2 billion and knocked down four times as many homes as it created. Does the Minister regard that as a success?
As I understand it, for the scheme to which the hon. Lady refers, the expenditure so far has been on acquiring the land. It will continue. The Government are looking at ways in which we can intervene in the economy at local, regional and national level to address the problems that have arisen during the economic downturn. The Opposition have a hands-off, “don’t care” attitude to regeneration and economic development.
I know that my right hon. Friend is well aware that the public railway in the centre of Sheffield has been transformed by the actions of the then Labour-controlled city council and Yorkshire Forward working together. She is probably also aware that at a Regional Select Committee hearing recently, every employers body that came to give evidence praised the actions of Yorkshire Forward in helping its members in the recession. For both those reasons, would it not be folly to get rid of Yorkshire Forward and other RDAs, particularly at this time of economic difficulty?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and as the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber I know also how much Yorkshire Forward is valued in terms of the work that it has done. At this point, even talking about removing that help sends completely the wrong message to businesses, because we can put together assistance to help people through into the recovery. For the Opposition to talk about dismantling that help is a very bad approach.
House Building Projects
In September 2009 we announced that all new housing projects funded with public investment will be required to offer apprenticeships and local labour opportunities. The aim of that policy is to increase opportunities for young and unemployed people who have been particularly hard hit in the current economic climate.
I understand that, but I am sure that the Minister is aware that there are 750,000 empty homes, and that more than 200,000 construction workers are chasing 300 jobs. Does he not accept, therefore, that the Government ought to do more to bring empty homes back into use?
The Minister completely failed to answer the previous question. In Otley, in my constituency, we lost Lotus Construction last year, with the loss of 80 jobs—an experience common to many constituencies. Considering that on average it costs £10,000 to bring an existing property back into use, compared with £100,000 for a new social house, how can the Minister possibly say that the Government are doing enough to bring homes back into use?
We are investing money in improving existing properties, as well as in building new ones. This Government’s record in supporting the construction industry through the downturn has been absolutely first-class. This has been the first recession in which a Government have invested record amounts to keep the economy moving, protect jobs in construction and provide the skills that the industry will need in the future.
The Government have given Milton Keynes council funding to appoint an officer to start implementing the empty dwelling management order, because the Liberal Democrat-controlled council has done absolutely nothing on it for the past three years, despite the fact that I went to it with lists of empty properties that were prime candidates for the order. Does the Minister agree, however, that house building is required to meet housing need, and that empty homes, although important, are a flea bite compared with the breadth of housing need in places such as Milton Keynes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to build more homes, and that is why we are investing record amounts in the house building industry. She is also absolutely right about empty homes, and I congratulate her on her work in Milton Keynes to ensure that they are brought back into use.
Will my hon. Friend welcome the programme, which will create many jobs, to bring 5,300 socially rented homes in my constituency up to and beyond the Government’s decent homes standard, with new kitchens and bathrooms, rewiring, new boilers—[Interruption.]—windows and doors, roofing, chimney repairs, repointing and insulation works? Is not that a good record for a Labour Government and a Labour council?
That is a very good record, and the Opposition were interjecting because they do not value that investment in improving homes for ordinary people. I welcome what my right hon. Friend says. Once again he has demonstrated the faultless judgment that he has exercised over a lifetime’s public service.
This is the fourth Housing Minister whom I have faced over the Dispatch Box, but I congratulate him on having, this weekend, outlasted at least his immediate predecessor, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett).
Today, the Library confirmed that house building has fallen to its lowest level, excluding the war years, since 1924, when Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister. Is that damning indictment of Labour housing policy a result of the record nine different Housing Ministers, or of Labour’s obstinate refusal to work alongside local people to build more homes?
What complete and utter nonsense. The answer is neither of those reasons. The level has fallen to its lowest level because—the hon. Gentleman may not have noticed this—we have just been through the most extraordinary recession that this country and the world have ever seen. That is why we have invested £1.5 billion this year and next to build 20,000 new affordable homes—investment opposed by the Opposition. Building work has started on more than 80 kickstart projects; the first homes in more than a decade are being built under the local authority new build scheme; and residents in those areas—the families who are desperate to get a home—as well as construction workers and building companies, too, want to know why the Opposition want to cut that spending this year and next and put all those jobs at risk.
Unitary Authorities (Essex)
The statutory process for establishing unitary authorities requires a council to make a unitary proposal in response to an invitation from the Secretary of State, and does not provide for any public consultation in advance of such an invitation.
I invite the Minister to extend that invitation to Colchester borough council without further ado, because Essex county council is an appalling local authority which should be abolished. May I advise her that, as I told one of her colleagues last year, surveys in Colchester show that 75 per cent. of the population wish to break away from Tory-controlled county hall because, as the only local authority in Essex not run by the Conservatives, my local council suffers political discrimination from the Conservatives at county hall?
As Minister for the East of England, I understand exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I would advise him to get Colchester council to request the Secretary of State to make such an invitation. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination about this, and I understand his concerns well.
Local Authorities (Recession)
My Department is in regular dialogue with local authorities about the impact of the current economic climate and the commendable measures that most councils are taking to ameliorate this. Their efforts have been helped by above-inflation funding increases from central Government to local authorities overall.
Fortunately, the impact on social cohesion has been less than it was in previous recessions in the previous century. In fact, certain statistics such as crime figures have fallen by 8 per cent., whereas in the previous recession they went up by 19 per cent.
Unitary Authority (Norfolk)
Following the end of the consultation on 19 January, Ministers gave careful consideration to the boundary committee’s advice, the representations we had received, and all other relevant information, including the advice from the permanent secretary. While expressing concern that our proposed approach would impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector as compared with the alternative options available to us, he highlighted the savings that would be achieved by the unitary Norfolk and unitary Devon proposed by the boundary committee.
We had previously been consistently advised that we were not duty bound to choose the cheapest option. We noted that the unitary county option did not command the support of any of the principal councils, including Norfolk county council and Devon county council, and we were reluctant to pursue recommendations that did not meet the broad cross-section of support criteria. We concluded that a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich which were locally supported was the best way forward for local people, creating councils far better placed to deliver jobs, growth and services.
In one way, at least, I am grateful for the very long answer given by the Secretary of State, because my further question is this: will he tell us why, in this matter, he has ignored the wishes of the public, only 3 per cent. of whom want his wilful, capricious and cavalier proposal for a unitary Norwich?
Referring to the accounting officer’s letter to the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), made this observation on his blog, which is named “Ben’s Brain Bubbles”:
“The selective leaking of internal correspondence has confirmed the suspicions long held in Exeter (and Norwich) that London-based civil servants have consistently been biased against Exeter and Norwich and have been firmly in the county camp.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that very serious allegation warrants investigation, and if so, will he undertake it? If he disagrees, will he now say so on the record and invite his fellow Secretary of State—
However, it is a matter of record in a statement issued by my Department that there was no leak of correspondence. It was placed in the public domain and provided to the National Audit Office in a perfectly proper way, and I believe it was also provided to a Member who had raised the topic in correspondence.
Gypsy and Traveller Sites
I begin by paying to tribute to my hon. Friend for her chairing of the all-party group on Gypsy and Traveller law reform. The Government remain committed to bringing security of tenure to local authority Gypsy and Traveller sites, which is a complex issue involving amendments to primary legislation that we must get right. Statutory instruments will be laid as soon as parliamentary time is available.
I am dismayed that Gypsies and Travellers as yet have no security of tenure, bearing in mind that the Connors judgment in the European Court was six years ago and the Government’s proposals to change the law using the Mobile Homes Act 1983 were more than two years ago. There has been intensive discussion with Gypsies and Travellers and with support groups, and I wish to express my extreme dismay. What hope can the Government give Gypsies and Travellers who are living in uncertain situations and who had great hopes of this Government?
I absolutely understand my hon. Friend’s frustration, and I know of her commitment to the matter. I think she will fully understand my commitment to it, too. I recently became the first Minister to visit a Gypsy and Traveller site. We are completely committed to the issue. I know that she wants me to say that I will consider the timing, but it would be disingenuous of me to say that knowing that in practical terms, it would be impossible to lay an instrument before Parliament this side of a general election, so I can only apologise.
We do not hold figures for the average bill paid by an individual business for national non-domestic rates in 1997-98 and in more recent years. However, for 1997-98, the figure derived from dividing the net rate yield from local authorities’ rating lists by the number of hereditaments on the local list as at 31 December of the previous year is £6,796, and for 2008-09 the equivalent figure is £11,274. That reflects changes in the retail prices index and the NNDR tax base due to increased economic prosperity.
I thank the Minister for that well researched reply. Fully a third of businesses that are eligible for small business rate relief are not claiming it, according to the Government’s own figures. What will she do either to simplify the system or to make it automatic?
May I ask the Minister to look yet again at how empty property tax works at the moment? I have a lot of constituents who have converted agricultural property into workshops, in line with Government policy, and now find it completely impossible to get business tenants despite their best endeavours. They end up with a financial millstone around their neck for following Government policy. Will she look again at the operation of the tax?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but if the rateable value of such property is less than £18,000, it should not attract empty property rate relief—or should I have said that it should not attract tax? I will be happy to unscramble that answer by meeting him privately.
I think the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will need that unscrambled. The hon. Lady’s boss, the Secretary of State, recently said that in his opinion, companies will be helped by his business rates revaluation, but the Government are killing community shops across London with a business rates revaluation that will raise business rates by more than half a billion pounds over the next few years. That will affect the shops that we all—particularly elderly and low-income families—rely on: the newsagents, the launderettes and the convenience stores. Why does the future of those London jobs, businesses and communities matter so little to the Secretary of State?
Working Neighbourhoods Fund
Since 2008, we have allocated over £1.5 billion of the working neighbourhoods fund to help local authorities with high rates of worklessness to support their communities. That has all been allocated to local authorities.
Of the £1.5 billion allocated, I thank the Secretary of State for the £27 million that has come to Stoke-on-Trent from the working neighbourhood funds. Will he join me in congratulating the jobs, enterprise and training centre in Burslem, the YMCA and the charity Groundwork on the difference they make to helping the long-term unemployed to get back to work?
I am delighted to praise the organisations that my hon. Friend mentions. The JET centres use the working neighbourhoods fund and other sources of money, and the organisations she mentions all play a very valuable role. One of the aims of the working neighbourhoods fund has been to allow local authorities to tailor what they do for workless people to the needs of local areas. In many areas, the sort of voluntary organisations she talks about are key to success.
I understand that no such funding came to Lancashire last year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that local authorities are able to implement the working neighbourhoods fund flexibly, so that they can aid projects to regenerate communities in rural areas such as the one I represent, where we have seen firms, shops and local schools close, or where there are sometimes no rural buses?
The working neighbourhoods fund has been targeted at those areas with the highest levels of worklessness and deprivation. That has been the right thing to do, but it is within the area-based grant, which gives local authorities the maximum flexibility locally in tailoring what they do to local needs. Obviously, other Government initiatives—for example, to help high streets suffering from empty shops—have gone to a wider range of local authorities, including some in rural areas.
North East Lincolnshire council was allocated more than £13 million of working neighbourhoods funding. However, to date, it has used just £1.5 million of that. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what checks are made on councils to see that they are actually using the money for the purpose for which it is intended? I fear that some of my constituents could have lost out because the council has just sat on that money.
That is a very important issue, and I understand that my hon. Friend is meeting my right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination later this week to discuss it. There really is no excuse for local authorities not to spend the money that they have been allocated to help people through the recession and to get into work. There is another crucial issue here. The Government have rightly listened to local authorities that say, “Don’t ring-fence every penny and tell us exactly how to spend it. Trust us.” When that trust breaks down, and when money is not used, there is a real problem, which I hope can be addressed very quickly.
House Building Targets
The Department receives a large number of representations on house building. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that almost all of them argue that we should do more to build more homes in all parts of the country, including Lichfield. That is exactly what I have set out to do in my great nine months as Housing Minister.
Oh good! Anyway, of the 3 million homes, he will know that the Government project that 1 million will be built as affordable homes by 2020, but the Home Builders Federation has said that the Government will achieve less than half that number. Has it got that wrong?
No, the HBF is reflecting the fact that, over the last 12 to 18 months, during the most serious recession in this country for 60 years, private sector house building by the HBF’s members has fallen through the floor. At the same time, instead of stepping back, we have increased the investment in building affordable homes and we will build more this year and next year than in any year since we came to government.
For the first time, I have made available Government grants and backing, on a similar basis to housing associations, to all local councils that are willing to build and want to meet the needs and aspirations that local people have for new homes. That means that this year we have under way the largest council housing building programme for nearly two decades. I am really disappointed that Chorley council is not playing a full part in that programme and not doing more to meet the need for more homes in the area.
My Department has no plans to issue guidance to local authorities on the granting of licences to massage parlours, because in most areas they are treated as ordinary businesses and do not require special licences. However, things are changing and some authorities, particularly in London, now require such businesses to have a licence.
I suggest to the Minister that all local authorities should require special treatment licences but, although it is all well and good to have licences, what will she do to ensure that officials make regular visits to these massage parlours to identify and help victims of human trafficking who are often found there and need to be rescued?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has a long and honourable history of concern about this subject. The problem is that most of this issue falls under the Home Office, and another small section of it under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, so however much I might like to encourage officials in DCLG to pay regular visits to check such establishments, I do not think that I could.
Home Information Packs
It is unfortunate that the Minister has not taken a little more time to review the issue. If he had, he might have looked at Northern Ireland where Ministers introduced energy performance certificates without HIPs. Perhaps after he has done so, he might be able to take the opportunity to come back to the House with a fuller answer.
Despite the difficulties in the housing market, HIPs are helping to speed up the process. A survey of 37,000 transactions—[Interruption.] Well, what happens is that every month, those guys—I am sorry, I mean the Opposition—come along and ask these questions and I have to tell them that a survey of 37,000 transactions showed that when a HIP is available, exchanges were completed more quickly. I accept that HIPs were criticised following their introduction in 2007, but we listened to those criticisms and have made major changes to improve the system, introducing the new property information questionnaire containing basic information that buyers said that they wanted; improving the quality of searches; binding in the practice of using insurance; and providing that HIPs must be available when marketing starts.
Since its inception in 1999 the Northwest Regional Development Agency has consistently met or exceeded all targets set by the Government. In addition, the Government have allocated £480 million to local authorities in the north-west via the working neighbourhoods fund and the local enterprise growth initiative to enable them to tackle worklessness and support enterprise in deprived areas.
A clear indication of the effectiveness of the Government’s plans for regeneration in Blackpool has been the substantial rise—in some instances, 40 per cent.—in the numbers of visitors to the town. Some have come to see the new St. John’s square, the Brilliance project and the new promenade taking shape. Will the Minister continue, therefore, to support regeneration projects in Blackpool and the regional development agency’s excellent work?
First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all her work on behalf of her constituents in Blackpool? I was glancing through a document on the economic impact of the Northwest Regional Development Agency and noticed that there is a Blackpool masterplan encompassing many of the issues she just mentioned. She is right to say that we need action from the local authority and regional development agency to bring about the kind of economic regeneration to which she referred.
Will the Minister accept that county towns such as Macclesfield could do with assistance from regeneration funds, particularly now when we are seeking to establish in Macclesfield a national silk centre? I hope to meet the chief executive of the Northwest Regional Development Agency shortly. Will the Minister give this project her support?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will bring the merits of the silk centre to the attention of the chief executive of the Northwest Regional Development Agency. The hon. Gentleman is making exactly the same point I was making earlier: it is vital to have this kind of strategic assessment of the economic needs of all the region, and I hope that he will put his best efforts into persuading his Front-Bench colleagues that they are wrong to want to abolish the regional development agencies in the way that they have set out.
One of the most important local authority regeneration initiatives is the proposed Mersey gateway bridge, which will provide hundreds of construction jobs and thousands of jobs thereafter. Will my right hon. Friend speak to her opposite number in the Department for Transport to ensure that we get a decision quickly, because the planning inspection decision comes from within that Department? We need a quick decision to get on with the project, create those jobs and sort out the congestion in my constituency.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on this matter. When I was a Transport Minister, I met him and colleagues from the council to discuss the project, and I know how valuable it is to the local economy, so I shall certainly bring his point to the attention of Transport Ministers.
Much has been achieved on antisocial behaviour, and the number of people who think that it is a problem in their neighbourhood has fallen to the lowest level since records began. However, there are still communities where such behaviour causes problems, and people need to feel confident that they, with the police and local councils, can tackle the problem. Last month, we began training up to 10,000 community champions to join their neighbours, police and councils to take a stand against antisocial behaviour.
I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend is focusing on tackling antisocial behaviour. In view of the importance of local authorities working with the police to drive down crime, will he encourage local authorities across England to follow the experience in Cardiff, where a joint analysis, involving the NHS, of violent incidents has led to a reduction in violent incidents by more than 40 per cent. in terms of the numbers of people coming through the doors of accident and emergency departments requiring treatment?
Yes, I will. I understand that lessons from the Cardiff approach are being followed through in Leicestershire and Tyne and Wear. More generally, the Total Place approach, which we are pioneering and which is looking at all public service spending, will encourage the health service, local authorities, the police and others to work together much more closely to tackle such problems in the future.
Obviously, local authorities receive funding. Northumberland has just received a 2.9 per cent. increase in funding and has the flexibility to use it as it wishes. However, we will consider the point that the right hon. Gentleman has raised.
I am concerned about that. Charging for some local services has always been part of the operation of local government, but some local authorities now seem to have a deliberate strategy of keeping basic services as basic as possible and allowing people on middle incomes to get a decent service only if they are prepared to pay twice. That is not the way that I want to see local government services going, and my hon. Friend is quite right to highlight those political parties that are indulging in that approach.
As I set out earlier, local government has already planned to make efficiency savings. We believe that it can make the additional savings needed to fund services for the new policy, which comes in not at the beginning of the coming year, but halfway through it. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that, as I said earlier, the policy will be accompanied by the biggest transfer of funding into local government from the national health service since the establishment of the NHS in 1948. I hope that he will welcome that.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about that. The weather has been exceptionally severe. That is why, in acknowledging the problems of the severe weather, the Government have trebled funding to local authorities to invest in their roads, and last year we announced new funding to help them better assess the condition of their roads.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s recognition that the steps that we have taken locally and nationally, including on the funding to support the scheme, to try to help people struggling with their mortgages during this recession have been working well. We have put that funding in place for this year and next year. That action—Government action that we have been prepared to take—is one of the reasons why repossessions in this recession are running at around half the rate that they were in the last recession.
May I take the Secretary of State back to the issue of maximising scarce resources, efficiency savings and protecting front-line services, and offer a view? The problem is that since 1974, Labour, Liberal and Conservative Governments and councils—all three parties have been equally to blame—have constantly reorganised local government, creating unnecessary tiers of management. Why do we not return to a lean machine, get rid of the layers of management in local authorities and start calling people “The borough engineer” or “The surveyor”, which people understand, rather than calling them after these God-almighty directorships of something-or-other, which vary from week to week?
Bullock and Leese. The taskforce does not, as I recall, call for the re-establishment of the position of borough surveyor; none the less, it directly addresses the need to reduce layers of management both within local authorities and, in particular, between them in areas with two-tier councils.
Do those on the Front Bench agree that local authorities that are paying compensation for bullying ought to offer better training and that they should be better employers? Should not the public also have a right to know how much money is being paid out in such circumstances?
I am on record as being very much in favour of people having as much knowledge as possible about local authorities’ spending. We have set out measures over the past few months to ensure that that happens. We also believe that people working in local government, which is a vital public service, deserve the best quality of human resources management, as it is called in the jargon these days. What that really means is treating people properly and with respect.
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information now, but I would be happy to meet him and discuss the matter in detail.
Since I came into the House in 1992, I have held the view that Parliament and this House were sovereign. I do not share the concept that there is a period of time when the House is sitting when decisions should not be taken. Decisions are taken properly and in accordance with the law, after we have considered all the relevant processes. It is only right that Ministers should continue to take decisions as long as the House is sitting as a properly constituted, democratically elected Chamber.
Given the consensus that exists in areas such as south Worcestershire about the need for more homes—and for more affordable homes, in particular—may I urge the Secretary of State, even at this late stage, to tear up the west midlands regional spatial strategy and to allow local communities to decide exactly how many houses they need and precisely where they should go?
It is important that the combination of local, regional and national policy should be used to secure sufficient homes to meet the needs of families in this country in the future. We have rejected calls to scrap regional spatial strategies and planning targets and to leave everything to decision making at local level because we know full well that the house building industry would grind to a halt, that land would not be available, that growth would be slowed and that the needs of this country’s families would not be met. The house building industry is terrified by the prospect of such a policy being brought into play.
After five years, the south-west regional spatial strategy is still grinding on with unsustainable housing targets that are way in excess of economic reality and local housing need. It has attracted 37,000 objections and run into legal challenges; it has also now clearly run out of time. When will the Government admit defeat and return to local people their right to plan the houses that they need where people want them?
The total number of houses is based not on some whim of central Government but on a hard-headed assessment of need. That need translates into the families of this country who want to know that their children will have homes that they can move into, and that there will be provision for elderly people in the future. Those who pretend that we can simply say that we are not going to provide that housing and that someone else will provide the space in which our children need to live are wrong. It is enormously damaging to suggest that. It is also, frankly, misleading to local people to suggest that the hon. Gentleman’s approach would work. There must be a mature discussion in this country about meeting the needs of people now and in the future, and I am sorry that he does not share that view.
The South West of England Regional Development Agency is pumping millions into the Porton science park in my constituency, in partnership with Wiltshire council, which is regenerating the social and physical infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State have a word with Ministers in the Department of Health, who are talking about supporting the Health Protection Agency in moving nearly 800 of its work force out of the south-west, which needs the jobs, into the overcrowded south-east? Is the Lyons review still living, or is it dead?
I will talk to my right hon. Friend at the Department of Health if the hon. Gentleman will talk to his hon. Friend on the Front Bench to say how crazy it would be to scrap the regional development agency that he values so highly in his constituency, because that is exactly what would happen.
Why is the junior Minister for local government refusing to meet me to discuss the persistently low level of grant given to Sevenoaks district council? It has had an increase of only 7 per cent. over the last 10 years compared to an average for district councils of more than 50 per cent. Will she reconsider?
My local council wants to build and renovate many more affordable homes. Will the Government give Southwark council permission to borrow at the lowest interest rates that the market offers rather than at the highest rates that it is currently locked into?
We are not just making grant available to support councils that want to build affordable homes across the country, including in Southwark, but we are looking at ways of dismantling the system of financing council housing for the future. I hope to be able to update the House on that before long.
The proposals we are putting forward are indeed wanted in Exeter and in Norwich. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination and I propose having a unitary council for Exeter and one for Norwich, which I think is the right thing to do.
Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), does the Secretary of State believe that the pay packages of senior council officers have increased for selfish reasons to indefensible levels? Does he believe, as I do, that it is time that we slimmed down these fat cats?
It is very clear that over a period of time in which the average pay of council workers has gone up by £6,000 a year, the average pay of chief executives has gone up by £40,000 a year. Although I pay tribute to the vast majority of those people with a lifetime of public service, things have got out of hand at the top. That is why we have required from April the publication of the full details of every named post in which an individual is paid more than £150,000 a year, and details of the pay in £5,000 bands from £50,000 upwards. I will also talk to local government about what further measures we can take when it is proposed to create or fill one of these very highly paid posts.
Turning to the earlier question about Hammersmith and Fulham, the Secretary of State seemed entirely unaware of the quote that he had made about the leader of the council, so let me take him back to the opening line of his party conference speech, when he said:
“‘They are hard to get rid of’, the Tory Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham moans about his council tenants.”
That was an invented quote, which has been repeated many times by his colleagues, including in the document, “Cameron’s Councils”. Will he finally take the opportunity to withdraw this disgraceful slur on one of the best-run councils in the country?