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Topical Questions

Volume 511: debated on Thursday 10 June 2010

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.