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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 10 June 2010

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Garden Development

1. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. (1535)

Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman should have requested a grouping with questions 9 and 15.

You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker. I was just so happy to be here. I hope that I do not go on too long—[Hon. Members: “So do we.”] Well, I was not thinking of putting it to a vote.

9. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. (1543)

15. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to prevent infill and garden development. (1550)

Further to the coalition agreement, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibilities for decentralisation and planning, gave notice to the House that we are changing planning guidance and that we have taken back gardens out of the definition of brownfield land. In addition, we have removed density requirements. The matter is now for local people to decide.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his welcome return to the Communities and Local Government brief. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister, not only for his recent work in developing the Government’s ambitious low-carbon economy programme, but for his long-term battle to give communities the power they need to stand up for themselves against inappropriate development.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his answer, but will he reassure the House and my constituents that he intends to repeal perverse rules that prevent local councillors from standing up for their constituents—

Order. I am sorry, but I must now cut off the hon. Gentleman. From now on, questions and answers must be briefer.

I think I got the gist; I think my hon. Friend was referring to predetermination and I am delighted to inform the House that it is our intention to repeal those regulations. That means we can give local councils the thing that Members of Parliament so desire—that councillors with opinions can actually vote on those opinions.

In Harrow East, the decision to safeguard gardens will be warmly welcomed, but another problem remains: unscrupulous developers whose planning application is turned down by councillors at local level, but who then appeal. What proposals are there to prevent the overturning of local planning decisions on appeal?

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. We are determined to ensure that planning remains local, but of course an applicant’s right to appeal against a decision will remain.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post. What estimate has his Department made of the impact of the potential changes to planning policy implicit in this question and the other changes his Government have announced, given that Savills, the respected commentators on housing, project that on current trends and patterns there will be a cumulative shortfall of more than 1 million homes within five years?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. It is entirely typical of his courtesy that his was the first letter of congratulation that I received. However, I have to tell him that it seems perverse for the Labour party to be concerned about housing numbers. After all, last year the lowest number of houses was built since 1946. Under Labour, it would appear that more damage was done to the housing industry than the Luftwaffe did.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, stretching back to the time of Herbert Morrison, the green belt is a great Labour achievement? Does he also recognise that the urban densification policy of the past 13 years has protected the green belt and regenerated our cities? Does the policy review announced today put in jeopardy all that good work?

I recall hearing our former colleague John Prescott say from this Dispatch Box that the green belt was a great achievement of the Labour party and that it intended to build on it. That indeed seems to have been the case.

I understand fully the concerns about garden grabbing, but I urge the Secretary of State to adopt a careful approach to how he intends to tackle the issue, because some infill is absolutely necessary in urban areas. Can he assure me that planning policy will be flexible enough to assist and not to detract from urban renewal in constituencies such as mine?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support of the coalition’s policy, and I thank him for being part of that consensus. He should understand that these matters will now be decided locally, and the Government think that the most sensible people to decide matters of density and particular applications are the local communities that must bear the consequences of those developments.

Financial Propriety Requirements

2. What ministerial directions in respect of an action likely to breach the requirements of financial propriety or regularity were issued to the accounting officer of his Department in the past 12 months. (1536)

Although there were no directions in the past 12 months due to propriety and regularity issues, two directions were issued to my Department’s accounting officer due to concerns that he had about the value for money of actions proposed by the then Secretary of State: one related to implementing unitary city councils in Exeter and Norwich; the other covered the purchase of Blackpool Leisure Assets. In the interests of transparency, I am today placing copies of both directions in the Library.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he is aware that the First Division Association—the civil servants’ union—has reported that Ministers in the previous Government systematically ignored civil service value-for-money considerations. Can he give us an assurance that this Government will not do the same thing?

We are fortunate in having able and experienced civil servants at our Department, and we certainly want to listen to their advice. It is worth remembering that that direction not only ignored value-for-money considerations, but contradicted stances taken by the previous Government. We will seek value for money, and we will also seek to be consistent.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. Can we debate Exeter and Norwich when the Local Government Bill comes to this House, although as these somewhat arrogant, high-handed and incompetent new Ministers have already lost a vote on it in the Lords before it even reached its Second Reading, we may never see it?

Does the Minister not understand that public investment through regional development agencies in towns such as Blackpool has been vital for business and jobs and should be in the future? Securing Blackpool tower and the Winter gardens for Blackpool and its millions of visitors was the right thing to do. What the House, the people of Blackpool and its Conservative council want to hear today is a promise from the Minister that he will not allow his colleagues in the coalition to undo the crucial deal that has been done. Will he give that assurance?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the new regulations to stop having to build on gardens will also apply to local authority-owned gardens, not just to privately owned gardens—

Order. I must very gently tell the hon. Gentleman that that was the subject of Question 1, but we have moved on to Question 2, and we will now move on to Question 3.

Private Rented Housing

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is important that we strike the right balance between tenants and landlords. The current legislative framework, which I have been looking at closely, does exactly that. We therefore have no plans to take forward the previous Government’s ideas about further regulatory measures on this subject.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In light of the massive budget cuts announced in the Department, can he assure me that there will be no threat to the measures that the then Government introduced and, indeed, confirm that the Government have no plans to reverse the further powers that Labour has given to councils to introduce local licensing schemes, because in my experience, in my constituency, people want more regulation, not less?

In my experience, in my constituency and across the country, people also want a good supply of private rented sector property. Of course, getting that balance right is important. I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the extent to which homes in multiple occupation sometimes become a blight on an area. I confirm that we do not plan to overturn the rules that the previous Government introduced, but we will look at them in more detail.

We already face new planning applications for large-scale and inappropriate housing development in and immediately around my constituency. The Secretary of State’s letter to local authorities has been helpful, but what further steps should local authorities such as mine take to revise their housing growth figures, which now seem utterly outdated?

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that many communities feel put upon due to the regional spatial strategies and many other centrally imposed items. We will ensure—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is seeking to respond to the question, but it is outwith the terms of that on the Order Paper.

What discussions has the Minister held with landlord organisations about possible changes to the capital gains tax regime as it relates to private landlords?

That is a matter for the Treasury, but the hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long because the emergency Budget, which has been made necessary by the previous Government’s profligacy, will be on 22 June.

Regional Spatial Strategies

We committed in the Queen's Speech to abolishing regional strategies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to all council leaders saying that he expects them to have regard to that as a material planning consideration in any decisions they are currently taking.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and welcome him to his new position. Will he outline how the Government’s abolition of regional strategies will impact on the provision of Traveller sites of the kind that we already have in Dudley South?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome, and I welcome him to the House. I know that he has always been a vigorous local campaigner.

The point behind abolishing the regional spatial strategies is that we believe that local communities should make decisions locally and should have the ability to put them into effect. It is, of course, important to make provision for Travellers, but such decisions should be taken locally.

I welcome the Minister to his post. Will he confirm that, as I set out in our radical planning paper “Open Source Planning”, the expectation is that abolishing regional spatial strategies will reinvigorate our planning system and move us away from the historically low level of house building that we have seen, which has so badly failed us?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I half expected to find a note on my desk from the previous Housing Minister apologising for the fact that there were no houses, but he did not get round to writing it.

I am glad that my hon. Friend draws attention to his role in what I think will be an important paper. He wrote in that paper that the present system

“imposes too many one-size-fits-all rules…Tragically, the very idea that development can benefit a community has…become a casualty.”

That is the reality of the system that we have been labouring under—literally “Labouring” under. The system does not work in practice or in theory; what kind of bankrupt system is that?

May I welcome the abolition of the regional spatial strategies? I referred in the previous Parliament to the system being akin to Soviet-style planning, and it certainly put constraints on the development of housing in my North Durham constituency. However, what will the Minister be doing on guidance and, more importantly, funding to ensure that the housing that is desperately needed in former mining villages in County Durham will be forthcoming?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for our policy, which enjoys a degree of consensus throughout the country, if not among some of his colleagues. It is important to recognise that when things are imposed from the centre, people tend to react against it. We need to provide incentives, including funding, so that the communities that host more housing get some of the funding that they need to provide infrastructure and other things associated with it.

With regional spatial strategies, did not local authorities at least have the chance to have some say about coming together on big strategic issues? Now, however, we presume that the hefty hand of the central controller at his expansive desk in Whitehall will be making all the decisions centrally.

I will forgive the hon. Gentleman for that remark, because he has been absent from the House for the past five years, but if a central controller had been operating, they had been doing so from Whitehall under the previous Government. The fact is that we want to allow local communities to co-operate. Co-operation is something that people should do co-operatively, rather than by imposition. Although we will encourage co-operation, we will not tell communities what to do from the centre.

Local Authority Funding

5. If he will review the extent to which the local authority funding formula accurately measures the funding requirements of local communities. (1539)

As my hon. Friend is aware, this is the last year of a three-year settlement. We will consult on our proposals for 2011-12 in due course. We are of course prepared to keep an open mind about options for change in the distribution of formula grant to local authorities.

I thank the Minister for his response. One ward in Elmbridge has double the national average of child poverty, yet we get back just one third of the national average of funding for local services. Will he consider the local funding formula as part of the local government finance review to ensure that it is based on a truly objective assessment of local needs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. I know that, very swiftly after his election to this House, he was in contact on behalf of his constituents regarding a number of related issues. I assure him that, yes, the Government are committed to a review of the local government finance formula and that, within its scope, we will of course consider the points that he and others have made.

The Conservative party was elected on a promise to slash public services this year—the Liberal Democrats must answer for themselves—and huge cuts affecting local government have been announced today. May I ask the Minister why what he has proposed today is so unfair? Why is it that the impoverished northern mill towns, the ex-coalfields and the struggling seaside towns will take the largest share of the cuts? Why is it that the big cities—Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham—will take the largest cuts? Why is impoverished Newham to have a cut of £4.6 million and wealthy Richmond one of just £900,000?

I have no intention of taking lectures from a member of a Cabinet that left this country record levels of debt. Unless there are cuts, by 2014 we will be paying more in interest on the debt than we will in council tax, business rates, inheritance tax and stamp duty combined.

Regarding today’s written statement, does the Minister not accept that local authorities have been at the forefront of making efficiency savings—2% year on year—so to ask for a further 1% part way through the year, on top of the 2% to which they are already committed, will effectively mean cuts in local authority spending part way through the year of about 4% to 5%? Rather than being about efficiency savings, this is surely the first round of the savage cuts for local authorities that Ministers promised us.

The hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in these matters, well knows the dire financial straits the country is in and the need for all sectors to save money. However, he ought to put that in the context of what we have had to do because of the legacy of his party’s Government. We have taken steps to protect formula grant, to un-ring-fence a good deal of grant to give local authorities more financial flexibility and to remove burdens such as the expensive comprehensive area assessment inspection regime.

If the Government cut external funding based specifically on local authorities’ levels of deprivation—external funding available to Witney in Oxfordshire at 1.7% but to the city of Sheffield at 18.5%, for example—is it not inevitable that those in greatest need will take the biggest cuts?

Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt which this country has been left—[Interruption.]

Order. I know that these are high-octane exchanges, but the House must calm down, because people lower down the Order Paper deserve a chance to get in.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that, if we are to have sustainable, quality local government services, the first thing we have to do is get this country’s economic mess sorted out.

Standards Board for England

I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his position. He brings enormous experience of local government to the post.

We all agree that £10 million could be better spent to better effect, but what rights of appeal will there be if the local process goes wrong or goes amiss, as it sometimes does?

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. He is right that a safety net is needed, and we are in discussion with our local government colleagues about the most appropriate way of moving forward.

Is the Minister aware that he is going to become the pin-up boy for every councillor in the country, and receive an enormous amount of fan mail? Will he ensure that the abolition takes place as soon as possible?

I would like to claim that, for my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I already was, but I am happy to be so for others as well.

Around the country, there are councillors of every political persuasion deeply frustrated by the fact that the Standards Board remains a burden and a threat to them. It costs £7.8 million, but it dealt with only 1,000 real complaints last year, which is £7,800 per complaint. The sooner we get rid of it, the better. That will be done on a statutory basis through the decentralisation and localism Bill.

Shorthold Tenancies

7. What his policy is on the provision of shorthold tenancies by local authorities and housing associations. (1541)

As our draft manifesto makes clear, we will respect the tenures of social tenants. The vast majority of social tenants have a very secure degree of tenancy.

Why did the Conservative manifesto commit only to “respect” the rights of social tenants, not to protect them, as the Minister has previously stated?

I made it pretty clear that we intend to protect the rights of social tenants. [Interruption.] They are already protected, as Members well know. It is important to say that there are a record 1.8 million families languishing on the waiting list—a number that nearly doubled during the 13 years in which Labour was in power. It is important that we respect those rights to tenure as well.

Interviewed in Roof magazine last year, the Minister made it clear that he was open to change in security of tenure for new tenants. Will he confirm that new tenants—people in housing need coming off the housing waiting list, as he described—will enjoy the security enjoyed by existing tenants?

As I have said, security of tenure is incredibly important, particularly for people in social housing, and we are keen to protect that. There are 1.8 million families languishing on that social housing waiting list, and it is right and proper that we look at the way in which we can reduce that list. It may include looking at tenure for the future.


That will be me then.

The most important thing is that there is an honest street count, but there has not been such a count up to now. We will introduce measures to take street counts into account. The last street count said that there were just 468 people sleeping rough in the entire country: it is nonsense, and we are going to get it sorted.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend eventually to the Dispatch Box? We have a fine record in Blackpool of inter-agency working to tackle systemic structural homelessness involving both the council and NHS Blackpool. Will he tell me, as part of his collaborative efforts in government, which Departments he will target and which thematic issues are important in tackling the rough sleeping that he has just described?

I will make sure that I am quick in reaching the Dispatch Box, to announce that Ministers across Government will be involved in helping with homelessness: there will be a named Minister in each of the key Departments to ensure that, at long last, there is some form of joined-up government to help to reduce the number of rough sleepers.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to one of the best jobs in government. All of us who are passionate about housing are disappointed that the new Government have downgraded housing and that the Housing Minister no longer attends Cabinet. On homelessness, does he accept that co-ordination is fine, but we need to build more new affordable housing to tackle the problem? Some £230 million of cuts this year is a bad start. When the £6 billion of cuts were first announced, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told the House that the Government were

“putting more money than the previous Government did into social housing.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 160.]

Is that true or false?

I welcome my opposite number to my former position. I feel a little bit bad: I have taken both his offices and his car, and I have even got his red tie on today. But I can reassure him that we will do all that we can to undo the mess of the lowest level of house building since 1946, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned. Indeed, if one takes out the war years, it is the lowest since 1924. That is the heart of the problem with house building in this country. Leaving us with a bill—it is highly dubious whether £780 million of it is available to the Government—was not the smartest thing to do, and it means that we are in the position of trying to rescue house building in this country, and, in particular, affordable house building.

As a significant proportion of those who are long-term homeless are ex-servicemen and women, will the ministerial team also liaise with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that these people are properly supported as they make the transition from service to civilian life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. It is incredibly important, right across Government, from the MOD to the Department of Health and the Department for Education and many other Departments, that there is proper co-ordination between Ministers. It has never been done before at ministerial level; it has always been left to the officials. We will have Ministers in charge of homelessness across the Government, including in the MOD.

Housing Revenue Account

The Government are committed to reviewing the unfair housing revenue account in England, and want a funding system that gives local communities more power and responsibility. I can therefore announce that I intend to continue with the review that was undertaken by my predecessor, which reports back to me on 6 July.

Is the Minister aware that Welsh local authorities returned more than £80 million to the Treasury as a consequence of the scheme last year, and that my home local authority, Carmarthenshire county council, which has retained its stock, returned £5.5 million in 2008-09? Does he agree therefore that the scheme does not provide a level playing field between local authorities and housing associations, and that it would be far fairer for moneys to be retained locally to increase investment in public housing, help Welsh local authorities to achieve the Welsh housing quality standards and help to create jobs in the local economy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there are numerous problems with how the housing revenue account operates at the moment, in England as well as in Wales. The simplest answer that I can give him is that I agree, and we will continue the review.

Kettering council, on which I serve, collects £12 million a year from its council tenants, £3 million of which is handed straight over to Her Majesty’s Treasury. How is that fair, and will the Minister receive a representation from the council on this issue?

I would be happy to receive a delegation from the council on the issue. It is absolutely the case that it is not fair. I think that there is cross-party agreement that the housing revenue account has become increasingly unfair over the years. That must be fixed, in the interests not only of transparency and of the tenants within those authorities that are paying in, but of efficiency. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues.

Social Housing

12. What steps he plans to take to improve the standard of social housing; and if he will make a statement. (1546)

It is an astonishing but sad fact that after 13 years of a Labour Government there is a backlog of £3.2 billion to bring decent homes to all social housing, and that is in the context of the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury leaving a note saying that he was afraid that there was no money—or, as my brief says, future funding for the decent homes programme will be decided in the context of the Government's spending review.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his inept answer. Could he possibly tell me how he intends to find the money to help social housing? His party stood on a manifesto to try to help people who needed help, unlike the party that he joined in coalition, which did not give a toss about the poor people.

The coalition Government and the agreement make it clear that we have a firm commitment to dealing with social and affordable housing to bring housing up to standard. We have the job of making sure that we can do that in an affordable way while getting Britain back on its feet. The hon. Gentleman’s Government caused the problem; we are giving the solutions.

It is a question not just of the standards of housing but of the legacy. After the last couple of decades of development in social housing, there is a desperate shortage of three and four-bedroomed family houses. There are a lot of families in my constituency and throughout the country who are crammed into one and two-bedroomed houses. It is simply unacceptable. It has an enormous impact on their lives and children’s life chances. Will the Government be addressing that as well?

The question is about social housing, and of course my hon. Friend is right that we must have the right mix of accommodation in each local area. One thing that we are making clear is that local areas should take the decision, and that local bids should be made.

May I start by congratulating the new Minister on being appointed to work in my old office? He has a great team of civil servants, and it was a privilege to work with them. I congratulate also the new Housing Minister on his promotion, but it is a real shame that he, along with the Prime Minister and, this week, the Chancellor, should choose to use their first appearances at the Dispatch Box to give such inaccurate information about the housing pledge that the previous Government announced two years ago. The Housing Minister knows full well that the costs were agreed with the Treasury and would have been met with £340 million from capital under-spends in other Departments and £540 million in greater departmental flexibilities. If that had not been the case, the Government’s accounting officer would have prevented us from making the announcement. If that pledge—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman should resume his seat. I think that we have got the thrust of it. We are pretty clear.

Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and, as it will become clear when statements are made in the emergency Budget and elsewhere, we are putting the financial package back together again.

Affordable Housing

13. What steps he plans to take to increase the supply of affordable housing in areas of high demand. (1547)

We recognise that there is a continued need for affordable housing, and we remain committed to its provision. When we announced on 24 May the £6.2 billion of savings to tackle the deficit, we made available £170 million to safeguard the delivery of about 4,000 otherwise unfunded social rented homes, starting on site this year and prioritising provision for the most vulnerable. Decisions on future levels of funding for affordable housing will be made in the spending review.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Given his professed support for social housing, will he explain why the Homes and Communities Agency has put a moratorium on all spending on new council housing, including the site in central Bristol on which work was planned to go ahead?

As the hon. Lady will know, the moratorium is in existence until the emergency Budget is announced, and I cannot go much further than that at this point. However, the reason why there will be an emergency Budget, and the reason why there is a moratorium, is that there is not enough money to complete the programme that was put in train by the Opposition’s Front Benchers when they were in government.

Does the Minister agree that, although the previous Government made lots of pledges, the problem is that they never lived up to them?

Why did Ministers not make an announcement about the first £230 million of cuts to the affordable housing investment programme instead of sneaking them out on the Homes and Communities Agency website? Do they not accept that the hardest-hit areas are the poorest, and that the poorest families will be hit first? Given that the Prime Minister said this week that the Government’s cuts will be open, responsible and fair, can the Minister not see that that fails each one of those three tests?

I shall not be quite so quick to do so this time. The fact is that we have tried to do our work in a measured and careful way to protect the vulnerable, as the coalition agreement set out. That is what we are about. That is what we are doing.

Regional Spatial Strategies

As I said in my answer a few moments ago, we and, I think, many people in the country regard regional spatial strategies as undemocratic, bypassing local authorities. They are based on artificial regional boundaries and, by imposing on local people, have increased antagonism towards development. In other words, they have not worked.

Regional spatial strategies were a stick that was used to beat local authorities, but what will my right hon. and hon. Friends do on incentives? Do Ministers on the Treasury Bench still intend to allow those local authorities that encourage housing applications and grant planning applications for housing to retain the council tax receipts in respect of that new housing for a period, thus giving local councillors and authorities an incentive to bring forward housing schemes and new housing?

I could not put it any better myself. That is exactly our intention. This shows that if one works with the grain of human nature by, instead of bullying people and telling them what to do, allowing them to share in the success, then—miracle of miracles—we might have people who support development of all kinds in this country.

Affordable Housing

19. What estimate he has made of the effect on the number of affordable homes of planned reductions in spending under the Kickstart and national affordable housing programmes. (1554)

The national fiscal position is severe, and we have had to make some very difficult decisions on savings. That is why on 24 May we announced that the Government would be making £6.2 billion of savings this year. We have estimated that planned savings in the housing programme will reduce the number of affordable houses. That is why we brought forward another £170 million to ensure that 4,000 could be completed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; it is an honour finally to be called by you. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”]

Order. People should not be so unkind. I know that the hon. Lady was not criticising the Chair—she would not do that.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would never dare to criticise you, as you well know.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new role. The residents of the Lupset estate in Wakefield are anxiously scanning the horizon for the sounds of his private plane jetting in to tell them which of their homes are going to survive the cuts to the decent homes standard. We are also very concerned about what calculation is made as regards the impact on the construction sector of the net cut of £60 million in the affordable housing programme. How will that cut affect the 1.8 million families he is so concerned about who are languishing nationally on the council lists?

Those of us on the Government Benches who care about things such as homelessness and affordable housing provision do not need to take lectures from a Government who, during their 13 years in office, produced less affordable housing than the Thatcher and Major Governments. The simple fact is that we want this stuff to go ahead, and that is why the £170 million has been brought forward. The reality is that if one runs the country like the money is never going to run out, one ends up in exactly this position. Rather than blaming us for it, it would be good to look closer to home.

Sunderland Point

20. What recent discussions his Department has had with Lancashire county council on levels of funding for community services in Sunderland Point, Morecambe. (1555)

Thank you for that answer. [Interruption.] Behave yourselves across the Floor there.

Sunderland Point is a community that must be protected at all costs. It is a very historic area of this country, and Lancashire county council should help in any way it possibly can. I hope that the Minister’s Department can help accordingly.

I am conscious of the sensitivities involved in Sunderland Point and the areas to which my hon. Friend refers. Predominantly, the works there are dealt with by the Environment Agency, but Lancashire county council would stand ready to assist as far as it can.

Local Authority Funding

As my hon. Friend will know, and as I said in relation to an earlier question, this is the third and final year of a settlement. Yes, we will be consulting in relation to future funding arrangements, and that certainly includes a willingness to consider any options that may be put forward.

Will the Minister confirm that the plans we set out in our manifesto to make the funding formula more transparent—[Interruption.] Excuse me—I would like Opposition Members to listen. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will start again.

Will the Minister confirm that the plans to make the funding formula more transparent and independently audited are still intact? That is a matter of great concern in my constituency of Devizes and all the Wiltshire constituencies, because we receive the lowest amount of funding from central Government of any unitary authority.

I can confirm that the Government remain committed to a review, and we are more than happy to examine the points that are raised.

The Minister seemed to suggest earlier that the poorest communities would bear the brunt of the cuts. What is he doing to protect the poorest communities, such as those in Halton, from the cuts?

The important thing that we have done is to protect formula grant, which is the largest single grant paid to local authorities. As I said, we have given local authorities considerably more leeway in how they use those moneys by ring-fencing a significant number of grants and removing significant burdens such as the inspection regime, which is estimated to cost local authorities something in the order of £2 billion a year.

Topical Questions

I and my ministerial colleagues have already announced new powers for councils to resist unwanted garden grabbing; the abolition of Labour’s cumbersome comprehensive area assessments; the vetoing of a proposed salary package of nearly £250,000 for the chief executive of the Audit Commission; a new era of town hall transparency for councils to be able to show the people of this country the money; the burying of John Prescott’s regional spatial strategies and the unwanted regional assemblies; the abolition of the red tape of Labour’s home information packs; and the end of Labour’s hated bin taxes.

I am shocked that in that list, the Secretary of State did not refer to the cuts announcement that he has just made in his written statement. I have just calculated that in his plans, 90% of cuts in the diverse and deprived town of Slough, which I represent, will land on education and children’s services and community safety initiatives. If someone is not protected or dies as a result, whose fault will it be, Slough council’s or his?

If the hon. Lady is complaining about a 0.91% cut, goodness knows what she must have said about Labour, which allocated cuts of £50 billion, and the effect that that would have had on communities. If the hon. Lady wants to make complaints about anybody, she should look to herself.

T3. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Government intend soon to go ahead with their policy of giving the power of general competence to local councils, which my colleagues and many councils will warmly welcome? (1563)

I am very pleased to confirm to my hon. Friend that that is exactly what the Government intend to do, and the matter will be included in the new localism Bill.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. He and I have known each other since we worked together at the British Youth Council, which will give the House some idea of how long ago it was. I wish him well in his new role and hope that he does a great deal better in the months ahead than he has in his first month, because has he not failed to defend his Department, meaning that local communities and local services will bear the biggest share of the cuts, and introduced a package of cuts to services and housing that will fall unfairly on the communities with the greatest need? He needs to do better than that. He has failed in his job so far, and he will have to be a great deal more careful in what he does in the future.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. We have indeed known each other for a very long time, but at least he is still recognisable from his photographs from those days, unlike myself. I wish him well in the forthcoming elections to the shadow Cabinet.

The right hon. Gentleman operated an extremely effective burnt earth policy within the Department. He left a legacy in which the cupboard was bare. All that was missing was a note of apology. The cuts that we have had to make have been imposed on us by him. We have managed to ensure that formula grant has not been touched and that no authority will face a revenue cut greater than 2%. That is much better than the £50 billion of unallocated cuts that was the legacy left to our Department.

T4. I understand that, notwithstanding the announcement that the Standards Board will be abolished, the big cheeses of that organisation have written to chief executives of local authorities asking them to supply more business in the form of complaints against accountable and elected representatives. Has the Treasury Bench considered making an example of this quango for its impertinence? (1564)

I have already told the House that the cost of dealing with every successful complaint is approaching £8,000. The hon. Gentleman is right that something needs to be done about that quickly. We have indeed, in the proposals that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) was criticising a few moments ago, drawn back on spending by that quango. As soon as legislation permits, we will get rid of it completely.

T2. Can the Secretary of State explain to people in Chesterfield, who suffered so badly from unemployment under the last Conservative Government, why one of the first measures that he has taken is to move £160,000 out of the working neighbourhoods fund? That money was being well spent by our council helping unemployed people back into work. Was not the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), right when he said that the poorest people will bear the cost of the cuts under this Conservative Government? (1562)

The hon. Gentleman’s council faces cuts of 1.36%. If his council cannot cope with that, it should ask him why the Labour party spent the country’s money without making adequate allocations and why the then Government planned cuts of £50 billion, of which local government’s share would have been about £13 billion.

T5. The coalition programme for government pledges to incentivise local business growth. Will that involve giving local authorities back a greater share of the tax revenue raised locally from business rates? (1565)

It is our intention that areas that promote business within their communities should benefit in some way from doing so. The manifesto and coalition agreement make it clear that that is our intention.

T6. Because this Government have deliberately chosen to cut the budget for housing, and that will have an inevitable effect on jobs and training in construction, does the Housing Minister now regret his words in opposition that it would be ridiculous and counter-productive to insist on apprenticeship training in publicly funded housing schemes? (1567)

The hon. Gentleman knows about the huge deficit—£780 million was promised from other budgets but never existed—and building homes with imaginary money is not possible, so compromises need to be made. We have said that £170 million will go to support 4,000 homes—as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said—and 3,500 jobs.

T7. I very much welcome the ending of the regional spatial strategy. My constituents, who are fighting inappropriate proposed developments in Micklethwaite and Menston, would like to know more detail about how the Government’s new planning policy may enable them to fight off those developments. Will the Minister visit Shipley and meet local residents to discuss with them how the Government’s new planning policy may help them in those particular cases? (1568)

My hon. Friend extends an enticing invitation that I will be delighted to take up, so that I can meet his local community and tell them that they are now free to set community plans in accordance with their interests without any fear that those plans will be revoked by national, unelected officials.

The mantra that it is all down to the last horrible Labour Government that there is no money will not wash if this Government make the poorest people in our country pay. When the Secretary of State took office, he inherited one of the biggest council housing building programmes for 20 years. Will he guarantee that council housing will form part of his future affordable housing strategy?

First, after one month, frankly it will still wash; and, secondly, over 13 years, while in government, the Opposition built on average half the level of affordable housing per year of the previous two Conservative Governments, so we will be proud to put the situation right again.

T8. I apologise for asking this question earlier. On regional spatial strategies, what advice can the Secretary of State give to local authorities such as mine in Swindon about revising housing growth figures that now seem utterly outdated? (1569)

My understanding is that, in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world, the plan has not yet been submitted to the inspectors, so he should be able to go back and tell his councillors that they now have the opportunity to put forward plans that are in keeping with the needs of his area.

Can the Minister give Bolsover council an assurance that the plans concerning the 108 prefabricated Tarran bungalows occupied mainly by elderly people will receive the go-ahead? We already have the plans. There were plans to get rid of 20 in the first tranche, and to get rid of the lot in the future. We received a nice letter from the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). Surely, in a deprived area, this Government will not cut those plans to replace the prefabricated bungalows for elderly people in Bolsover.

I am sorry that, after 13 years of a Labour Government, people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are still living in prefabs—I can recall them from my youth. I do not know about the particular scheme, but I will ensure that he is written to.

I welcome the answers given to questions 1 and 4 earlier. What advice and guidance will be given to local authorities, and particularly the Planning Inspectorate, when dealing with applications prior to the new legislation going through?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Planning Inspectorate to inform it that the Government’s stated policy on such matters is now a material consideration when it reviews applications that have been made and gone to appeal.

This morning, the Minister for Housing stated that he did not wish to overturn the use classes order changes concerning houses in multiple occupation, but that he would look at them in detail. During the election, he stated that Southampton city council should have all the powers it needed to deal with homes in multiple occupation. It has all the powers it needs as a result of those changes. Is it therefore his intention to water down those changes as a result of looking at them in detail?

As I said, I recognise the scale of the problem, and we will ensure that councils in areas such as Southampton maintain those powers. My only concern is to ensure that we do not have a system in place for homes in multiple occupation that is so overarching that it applies to areas where HMO students are not a problem.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to estimate the change in the number of unauthorised Traveller sites since Labour came to power in 1997?

By a weird coincidence, I happen to have with me the figures for unauthorised sites—because my hon. Friend’s question was on the Order Paper. The number of caravans on unauthorised developments has increased from 887 in 1997 to 2,395 in 2010, which is an increase of 170%.

How can the Secretary of State reconcile his pre-election commitment to localism with his subsequent ministerial diktats, and why did he snub the Conservative-dominated Local Government Association over his Government’s cuts programme?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The first person who came to see me was Dame Margaret Eaton from the LGA. It has been informed throughout the process, and we have a very constructive relationship, not surprisingly because the Government intend to pass substantial powers down to local authorities. That represents a new constitutional settlement in which local people have power.

Is the Minister aware of how many messages of support I have received today for the plans to allow council buildings to fly the England flag during England games, and will he tell us more about what he intends to do to allow that to happen?

In line with the localism that we have just discussed, this is, of course, a local matter. However, I hope that local authorities throughout England will take the logical and sensible approach, and be proud of the nation’s being able to come together to celebrate England’s—we hope—great success, and we encourage them to do so.

The recently announced cuts of £230 million to the Homes and Communities Agency include £50 million of cuts to housing market renewal, of which Liverpool has to take the burden of £4 million. Will the Secretary of State give his assurance that there will be no further cuts to vital housing market renewal projects, including those in Liverpool, Wavertree?

I have visited many of the housing market renewal areas, and we are passionate about ensuring that they can go ahead. In all the cuts that have been made, those in areas such as housing market renewal are the most concerning of all. Again, we have to get the budget deficit under control, but we will consult the areas involved to try to ensure that the impact is minimised. I look forward to a time when the economy is back on its feet again and we can really help the most needy communities in this country.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the great failures of the previous Government was to wrap local authorities up in a bureaucratic top-down performance-management regime from which local government needs to be liberated?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we have indicated our intention to get rid of the CAA regime, which has been estimated to cost the sector in the region of £2 billion. That is why we are committed to abolishing the Standards Board and why we want to give genuine power back to local authorities.

There is a need for a more strategic view of how we can have Gypsy and Traveller encampments around the country, as well as in specific regions, but how can we do that when the Government have just cut the budget for the Gypsies and Travellers programme by £30 million?

It is certainly our intention to encourage local authorities to have Gypsy and Traveller sites, and we will be announcing an incentive scheme. This is an important issue, and I want to ensure that we treat Gypsies and Travellers with respect. However, the hon. Gentleman must understand that we are in this position only because of the inheritance that we received. We had to take that money out, and if we had not done so, the prospect of our being able to provide sensible accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers would have been diminished, because of the profligacy of the Labour party.