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Topical Questions

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2010

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.

T2. Given that school transport comes out of the general local government funding formula, and not the education budget, and that it is being reviewed, will sparsity be looked at carefully given that it has a huge impact now in scattered areas such as Northumberland? Potentially, that impact will be even greater when education is compulsory up to 18. (321022)

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.

T4. Is my right hon. Friend concerned about some local councils charging extra for some lesser services, but in the meantime keeping council tax low for political purposes and not meeting the needs of the poor and the needy? (321024)

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.

T3. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to address the question put to him earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman); namely, where will the funding come from in the current financial year to provide for the Government’s proposals on social care? (321023)

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.

T9. Does the Minister share my concern and that of many other Blackpool residents that our local Conservative council is refusing to put in an extra £148,000 to repair the many potholes that have appeared after the winter, when it has £6.8 million in reserves? (321029)

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.

T5. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the mortgage repossession scheme operated by Rochdale council has been one of the most successful in the country in keeping people in their own homes. However, funding for that scheme nationally is available only until next year. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that funding is available when the current funding finishes next year? (321025)

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?

May I reassure my hon. Friend that although the report from the taskforce on making efficiencies in local government—

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.

T6. From next month lap dancing will have to be licensed by local authorities. Will the Secretary of State look into whether the income from the lap dancing licence should go into paying officials to spot whether the conditions are being met and whether any of the girls dancing in a club may have been trafficked? (321026)

I am sorry to give the hon. Gentleman a disappointing answer, but his question does not really fall under the remit of my Department. He will have to address it to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or to the Home Office.

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.

T7. Thousands of students in Leeds and around the country are still not protected by the tenancy shorthold protection scheme. Last November, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) said that the Government would shortly be publishing the results of the review, but those people are still not being protected. Will he give us an update and tell us why that is the case? (321027)

T8. A few days ago, the Secretary of State gave permission for 3,000 new homes to be built in Wellingborough north, against the wishes of local residents, local councillors and myself. What democratic credibility can this Government have when the Secretary of State makes such a decision so near to a general election? (321028)

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.

Order. I would like to accommodate several more colleagues, but I hope that they will be considerate of each other.

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?

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I was not aware that I was persistently refusing, and I would be most happy to see him.

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.

How does the Secretary of State reconcile his duty to champion local government with his decision to impose unitary authorities that are not wanted? Does he believe that the gentleman in Whitehall still knows best?

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?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the publication “Cameron’s Councils”, because it sets out for everybody the very clear warning of what it would be like if people were so ill advised as to elect a Conservative Government.