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Communities and Local Government

Volume 513: debated on Thursday 15 July 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Home Information Packs

1. What assessment has been made of the effect on providers of home information packs of the suspension of the requirement for such packs to be produced. (8500)

3. What assessment he has made of the effect on the housing market of the suspension of the requirement to provide home information packs. (8502)

The suspension of HIPs has given a much needed boost to the housing market. Reports from the industry suggest that the number of new homes coming on to the market has increased by more than one third since HIPs were suspended. We have also estimated that abolishing HIPs could save consumers just short of £900 million over the next 10 years.

Estate agents in Erewash have conveyed to me their relief at the home information pack scheme being abolished. Indeed, one estate agent has just described the scheme to me as being a complete barrier to people selling their homes. Can the Secretary of State inform the House whether that sentiment is shared by other people working in the housing sector across the country?

I am delighted to inform my hon. Friend that joy and happiness among estate agents is not confined to Erewash. Throughout the land, there is a general understanding that the drag anchor that HIPs were is no longer a constraint on the housing market.

What further plans does the Secretary of State have to roll out that happiness and smooth the conveyancing process?

I am all for spreading as much joy and happiness, and indeed love, as I can, where’er I go. It was clear even from the trials that HIPs were going to be a real mess. We now need to look to the future and at what can be done to speed up transactions. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is looking at ways to speed up the introduction of e-conveyancing.

Why has the Secretary of State decided, alongside the abolition of HIPs, that energy performance certificates should no longer be required at the point when a house is initially viewed for purchase? Does he intend to downgrade the importance of those as well?

Gracious, no—indeed, under our green deal, energy certificates will perform a much more important role. They will be about bringing the price of energy down and ensuring that somebody with a house that has a good energy certificate does well, because we want to get houses on to the market. We will insist that the energy certificate be commissioned and in place before the sale takes place. It is about speeding things up—the hon. Gentleman is not familiar with that idea. We are in favour of house sales, not bureaucracy.

I am glad to hear that the right hon. Gentleman thought deeply about the consequences of removing the home information pack arrangement, but in his careful and calculated assessment, did he work out the number of people whose jobs might be affected? Clearly a number of people across the housing market professions have been gearing up to work in that area and will now no longer have that employment. How many people?

When the hon. Gentleman was in another job, during his brief interregnum between spells in this place, he used to advise me solidly to cut away waste and speed things up, and I have followed that advice. HIPs were just part of a service that was provided. We have just heard from the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) about energy certificates, and a number of such services are available.

It has to be said that it is not as though the removal of HIPs came as a shock. It appeared clearly in the manifestos of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, and in the coalition document.

Landlords/Agents (Regulation)

The current legislative framework delivers the right balance of rights and responsibilities between landlords and tenants, so, as I announced to the House on 10 June, we have no plans to add to it, whether through a national register for landlords or the regulation of managing and letting agents.

Why is the Minister so indifferent to the rights of private tenants? Is not he worried that weakening local authorities’ powers will give a green light to rogue landlords and lead to a surge in the number of houses in multiple occupation? I ask him in all sincerity to think again about ditching the plans to give private tenants greater protection—or is he happy to usher in a new era of Rachmanism?

The hon. Gentleman may not have been here when I last addressed this subject, but I am keen to protect tenants’ rights and to ensure that sufficient landlords can operate in the market and are not regulated out of it, thereby making rents more expensive for the very people who want to go into the private rented sector. I looked long and hard for and asked in the Department about the supposed landlords register that the previous Government announced. I could not find a scrap of paper about it, leading me to conclude that it was more a case of a press release than a policy on a landlords register.

There are almost 11,000 private tenants in my constituency, many of whom are students, including overseas students, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by rogue landlords—there are numerous examples of that. Does the Minister agree with the Association of Residential Letting Agents that tenants deserve protection, and that regulation is required to drive up standards?

I agree absolutely that tenants deserve protection and that regulations are, of course, required. However, perhaps the hon. Lady would like to reflect on the fact that we have been in government for two months whereas her party were in government for 13 years. There must be a good reason why the previous Government did not regulate the industry further in that time, and there is: many different powers are available to local authorities to ensure that they look after residents. Those powers now include HMO-ing, and we will ensure that they apply in areas where local authorities want them, but we no longer need the bureaucracy of their applying nationwide.

Business Rates (Small Businesses)

We are doubling the level of small business rate relief in England for one year, from 1 October 2010. More than 500,000 businesses in England are expected to benefit, with approximately 345,000 businesses paying no rates. That will be a valuable reduction in fixed costs for new and existing small businesses.

In Enfield North, we have been campaigning hard to bring in new businesses and start-ups and to encourage people to relocate to the area. What practical steps will the Under-Secretary take to allow my local authority to get behind that campaign?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s campaign and I pay tribute to his work for small businesses in his area. The Government propose to introduce a business growth bonus, which will reward local authorities for giving planning permission for new business premises. We are also examining ways to enable local authorities to discount the business rate, and we will ensure that in areas where business rate supplement is considered, businesses have a proper opportunity to vote on it in a ballot.

Local councils’ powers to help small businesses in their areas and to help areas in need of economic regeneration, such as the town of Bedworth in my constituency, are limited. Does the Under-Secretary agree that local councils need more powers, such as the ability to vary business rates within a borough or district to create local economic regeneration zones, to help new and existing businesses invest in struggling towns and villages?

That is precisely why the Government propose to introduce the opportunity to discount the rate, to consider the way in which business rate supplement operates in an area and, above all, to ensure that, at the same time as we create the ability to attract housing into an area through our council tax incentive, we give an equal incentive—the business rate growth incentive—to provide jobs and business in an area.

Given that, regrettably, the Government are downgrading benefits to the consumer prices index rather than linking them to the retail prices index, will they be helping small businesses by linking business rates to CPI rather than RPI?

The most valuable assistance that we have given is ensuring an extension of the business rate relief. Moreover, we are assisting small businesses in particular and we have increased the threshold for empty property relief this year to £18,000—all of which the previous Government signally failed to do.

The Government often tell us that hard choices must be made in these difficult economic times. May I ask the Minister about port rates? The Labour Government recognised the difficult position of ports businesses that were faced with backdated rates by giving them eight years to pay. In those circumstances, how does the Minister justify spending hundreds of millions of pounds entirely wiping out the legal rates of those businesses, when other public services for which he is responsible are suffering? Is not that a pretty disgraceful piece of pork-barrelling, given that the measure is aimed at what were Tory target seats in the last general election? People up and down the country who face their services being cut will ask why that is a priority in these difficult times.

I think it is a better use of money than £2 million for the furniture in Eland House, if I might say so. With respect, the right hon. Gentleman neglects the fact that his Government’s policy was roundly condemned by the cross-party Select Committee on Communities and Local Government as being wholly inadequate, and condemned by a number of his hon. Friends who represented port constituencies.

The right hon. Gentleman’s policy neglected to reflect the reality that a discount for eight years did not remove the book liability that fell on ports businesses. That drove a number of them into balance-sheet insolvency, which in turn created cash-flow difficulties with their banks and actually put some out of business. The Government are keeping jobs in port constituencies and communities, and I am very proud that we are doing so.

Regional Spatial Strategies

5. What guidance he has issued to local authorities on the procedure for re-examination of the allocation of strategic development areas and major development areas under former regional spatial strategies. (8504)

The Government issued advice to local authorities on 6 July. Following the revocation of the regional spatial strategies, planning for major development areas is for local communities to determine, free from interference from unaccountable regional quangos. If local authorities wish to retain policies on strategic development areas, they are free to do so in their local plans.

I thank the Minister for his answer. As well as freeing local communities to make real decisions for themselves about where they live, will he also ensure that the time-wasting, box-ticking, intrusive and expensive, inspector-led and Government office-led compliance process that went with those central diktats, is also consigned to the dustbin?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and for the benefit of Members, I am today placing in the Library of the House two items. The first is the documents associated with the south-east regional plan, which consists of 3,000 pages and weighs 2 stone. That has been replaced by the second item, which consists of six pages of guidance weighing 1 oz. If anything encapsulates the difference between this Government’s approach and the previous Government’s approach, it is that we are freeing local authorities from that burden.

Does the Minister recognise that under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, the local development plan, by which all planning decisions in an area should be determined, is defined as comprising two elements: the local development framework and the regional spatial strategy, which have equal status. Removing one at a stroke, as the Government propose, leaves most people who think about this subject very fearful that the Government are creating a situation in which the local development plans will be unfit for purpose and there will be litigation and protracted delay, all of which will lead to the halting of necessary development. How do the Government justify that?

The right hon. Gentleman is behind the times. The regional spatial strategies have been revoked: they are not about to be revoked, they are no more, they are dead, they no longer exist, they are ex-strategies. When it comes to spatial planning—[Interruption.] The strategies have been revoked under current legislation. It is entirely possible for progressive local authorities to co-operate, as they are, for example, in Essex, Manchester and Worcestershire, to ensure that cross-border issues are properly dealt with. That is exactly what they are doing.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he extend his guidance to planning inspectorates, so that emerging regional spatial strategies that have not yet been adopted, and indeed emerging core strategies that existed merely to comply with RSSs, are considered immaterial by inspectors?

I am pleased to confirm to my hon. Friend that we have indeed done that. It is worth pointing out that because of that great panoply of regulation and imposition, only 18% of authorities had actually adopted a regional strategy, years after they were first required.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware of or concerned about the damage that his changes to planning policies are already causing, but has he had the chance to read a well researched article in the Financial Times at the weekend, which showed that 7,500 houses in various schemes have already been cancelled as a result of those changes? Is it not the case that the Government’s policies are already proving damaging to the house building industry and bad for everyone in desperate need of a home?

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee, but I do not know where he has been for the past few years. He should know that the number of house completions has been at an historic low—the lowest since the second world war. Our intention is to increase house building by removing the imposition that sets people against development. It is a disastrous situation when people are against developments. By allowing people to create communities in the way that they want and to share in the economic benefits of that, we can take the poison out of the planning system.

Non-departmental Public Bodies

6. If he will take steps to reduce the functions of the non-departmental public bodies for which his Department is responsible. (8505)

16. What steps he is taking to reduce the functions of non-departmental public bodies for which his Department is responsible. (8516)

We will definitely take steps to reduce the functions and cost of the Department’s quangos. We are reviewing each of our 27 quangos—a number that astonished me—in the context of the Public Bodies Bill. We are committed to increasing accountability and to reducing their number and costs and the overlap of their functions with local authorities. Announcements have been made on the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the Homes and Communities Agency, the Standards Board and the National Housing Planning and Advice Unit. A review of the Tenant Services Authority is also under way.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. When I am talking to the leader of my local council—Wandsworth, a top-rated council—one of the great frustrations expressed is about the number of plans and strategies that senior officers are compelled to write in areas such as youth offending and adult social services, when their time would be better spent delivering those local services. May I have some assurance that we will determine what strategies are needed locally rather than centrally?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was looking at some of the figures for the Homes and Communities Agency, which delivered—or at least assisted in delivering—55,000 houses at a cost of £80 million, which is £1,500 on the price of every house built. Local authorities have building inspectors, planning officers and auditors, and much of the activity is clearly duplicated and wasted. We have cut the comprehensive area assessment and the regional spatial strategies, and we are giving local authorities the opportunity to take the decisions themselves, with the experts that, in most cases, they already employ. We must cut out the duplication and nonsense that flows from the system set up by the previous Government.

Can my hon. Friend outline briefly how he plans to democratise the decisions and functions currently undertaken by quangos that will shortly cease to exist?

The whole point—or at least a significant part—of what we are doing is based on restoring accountability for the decisions that these bodies have been taking. In some cases, we are ensuring that functions return to the local authorities, where they should have been. If we take, for example, the Standards Board, it cost £8,000 per complaint upheld. We are saying that we can sweep that away completely and restore the monitoring of standards to local councils; in addition, we are getting support from our colleagues in local government to provide a peer review process at a much reduced cost.

The Department’s biggest agency is the Homes and Communities Agency. That has had not one, but two cuts to its budget this year in just two months—more than 10% of the money agreed and set aside to build new, affordable housing. Why was it that no Minister made a statement in public or to this House about those cuts? The details were snuck out on the HCA website. Will the Minister confirm now to the House that the £450 million cut in the HCA’s budget this year will mean that nearly 6,000 new affordable homes will not be built and 5,000 house building jobs will go?

I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but when it comes to counting, he is not quite so good. We need to understand the dire situation this country was in. Emergency action was essential. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will shortly be able to give details of all the developments that will go ahead, now that we have had a chance to assess the financial situation fully.

I shall give the Minister the chance to put the record straight. There was no black hole and no house building commitments were made without the money having been agreed and set aside, as he and other colleagues have claimed. If there had been, I would have received an accounting officer’s letter, but I did not. Will he confirm, therefore, that there was £540 million in the Department’s budget last year that we planned and agreed with the Treasury to spend this year on affordable housing, and that it has been cut back by a further £220 million? Will he now admit that his Ministers and team have not had the strength to stand up to the Treasury and have not had the courage to come to the House to tell us about the cuts they are making?

I read in the newspapers that it was the previous Chancellor who could not persuade the Prime Minister of the day that he needed to stop borrowing and start tackling the deficit—but of course, that might have just been a press report. As I understand it, the housing pledge that the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) brought to the House was for £1.5 billion. We have now authorised the release of £1.25 billion of that pledge. There will be housing built on a scale that the Labour party never achieved while in power.

Government Office for the North West

The coalition Government’s programme for government, published on 20 May, stated that

“we will abolish the Government Office for London and consider the case for abolishing the remaining Government Offices”.

We are currently discussing this with interested parties, including the trade unions.

The north-west employs more public sector employees than any other region in the country apart from London. Although I welcome the Government’s plans to expand private enterprise in our local economy, assisted by the regional growth fund and local enterprise partnerships, will the Secretary of State explain how his Department plans to cushion that transition towards private sector enterprise, so that the people of the north-west and Merseyside can keep their jobs and continue to contribute to economic growth?

The north-west of England is, of course, a vibrant area full of people of enterprise. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the regional growth fund will provide targeted support to areas of deprivation, unlike the regional development agencies, which simply move one form of public money around to another public body. We will ensure that private investment is brought in and, in addition, we will have the local enterprise partnerships. She will also be aware that we will give national insurance incentives for firms in the north to create jobs, and extend small business rate relief to them. There will be diverse other measures.

Order. Today, questions and, in particular, answers are rather long, and need to get shorter.

With the scrapping of the regional development agency and now—so we understand—the Government office for the north-west under threat, what voice will there be for the north-west to secure co-ordinated investment for the region, in both towns and the rural areas?

The Government offices for the regions are about the Government imposing their will on the regions. We will be giving power back to local councils, local community groups and local entrepreneurs.

Would not scrapping the Government office for the north-west mean north-west local authorities having to go cap in hand to each Whitehall Department? Would not such a diktat be of a piece with the Secretary of State bludgeoning the Business Secretary over scrapping regional development agencies? What has he to say to the former Tory leader from Trafford, Councillor Susan Williams, who asked:

“Where is the voice of the NW to government?”

and then said that it was in “a void”? Would he not leave north-west local authorities swinging in limbo, with their economies disrupted by his cuts and no north-west body promoting major regenerational transport projects? Is not his localism just a fraudulent—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. That is now five questions. It is an abuse of the procedures of the House when Members, on both sides, ask questions that are simply too long. I want a short answer from the Secretary of State please.


8. If he will bring forward proposals to ensure that people are able to prevent major planning proposals proceeding in their areas. (8507)

All planning decisions should be democratically legitimate. Following the revocation of the regional spatial strategies, local communities will determine most planning applications. For major infrastructure projects, decisions will be taken on the basis of national planning statements, ratified by this House, by Ministers accountable to this House.

One of the things that have brought together communities in Daventry is their campaigns against wind farm developments. Does the Minister accept that disempowering local communities is profoundly counter-productive and actually deepens planning disputes, rather than helps to resolve them?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. If we want to increase the contribution from renewable energy in this country—as we do—we should look at what happens on the continent, where they do not have the poison in the planning system I mentioned. Those countries have community-owned renewable energy developments and they allow people to share in the proceeds. That is exactly what we will do.

Anyone reading Question 8 on the Order Paper could be forgiven for thinking that what many Tories and Liberal Democrats would like is a never-build-anything-anywhere policy. What assurance can the Minister give me that the natural nimby inclinations of so many on his Benches will not result in fewer affordable homes and fewer jobs being provided in Lewisham East, where they are so desperately needed by my constituents?

The hon. Lady may not have noticed, but the effect of the previous Government’s policy was to reduce housing development, so that virtually none happened. The strategies that we have talked about—the targets imposed—have deluded her into thinking that targets are the same thing as building. However, things have not happened that way and she should wake up to that.

Housing Market Renewal

9. If he will take steps to reduce expenditure by his Department’s non-departmental public bodies on the housing market renewal pathfinder programme. (8508)

The housing market renewal programme was included in the £6.2 billion of savings from Government spending in this year, as announced on 24 May. The Regenerate Pennine Lancashire pathfinder has been consulted on the reductions in my hon. Friend’s area.

Although I welcome the HMR pathfinder programme, which has delivered massive housing regeneration in many areas across the UK, including my constituency, will the Minister look into both the system of passporting proposals for regeneration and the funding stream, following Government approval, from the HCA to the local authorities? The present delivery quango, which sits between the HCA and the local authorities, top-slices an average of 10% of the funds available, which equates to approximately £40 million for 2008-09, while delivering little benefit on the ground—

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know has done a lot of work in looking at the administrative costs of the process. One of the things that we will be examining closely is how those costs can be reduced and how local authorities can have more control over the process.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) raises an important question, but what is the Minister’s answer to the current Lib Dem leader of Burnley council, who has said of this Government’s financial settlement:

“We are a deprived borough but once again we are suffering. I am disappointed and sick of us being kicked by budget cuts in Burnley”?

Is it not the case that the Minister has ensured that it is the poorest and most deprived councils in this country that are suffering the most?

I am disappointed with that. What the Opposition have not appreciated is that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley made the very fair point that far too much of the money is top-sliced and siphoned off, and does not produce the renewal that it is supposed to. That is what we are committed to putting right.

Travellers (Local Authority Powers)

10. Whether he plans to bring forward proposals to facilitate local authorities in moving Travellers on from private and public property. (8509)

15. If he will take steps to accelerate the process for local authorities to gain possession of public land upon which there are unauthorised Traveller encampments. (8514)

The Government will ensure that, where local authorities have made appropriate provision for authorised sites in their area, reflecting genuine local need and historic demand, they will have stronger enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised encampments. We are reviewing how this can be achieved.

Under the last Government, illegal sites and caravans were increasingly tolerated, with councils deciding not to seek their removal. Will the Secretary of State please reassure me that Travellers will no longer be allowed to breach the planning rules that law-abiding home owners have to abide by?

We have to remember that a significant number of Gypsies and Travellers are themselves law-abiding citizens. What we want to see is fair play within our planning system. The overwhelming majority of Travellers abide by the rules, but we will ensure that those small minorities that do not are no longer encouraged to do so by the law.

Twice in the last year, Travellers have smashed through gates to invade Plock court—an important green space on the edge of my Gloucester constituency. The process for moving Travellers on from public land is much longer than for moving them on from private land. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this disruption could be significantly reduced if the law for both were aligned?

We shall look towards speeding up the process, but it is important to understand that the operation of the law at the moment is predicated not on seeking easy resolution, but on conflict. What we are threatened with as a result of the planning laws having been allowed to slip is a genuine attack on social cohesion. Doing something about that is a priority for this Government; that is why we seek to ensure fairness for all.

Where are these families to move to, given that the Government are cutting funding for public travelling community sites by £30 million?

It was never intended under the previous Government and nor is it intended under this Government that all provision for Travellers should come out of public funds. I am more concerned, I have to say, about health and education issues relating to Gypsies and Travellers, which have been allowed to lapse so woefully under the previous Government.

The Secretary of State said that many of these Travellers are law-abiding people. That may well be true, but many of them are not. I am not worried only about Travellers on illegal sites. What about the so-called Travellers—even though they stay in the same place all the time—on legal sites who still create a huge menace to the local community? What can my right hon. Friend do to make sure that local authorities have the power to deal with these people, rather than pussyfooting around with them as they tend to do?

It is certainly our intention to ensure that planning regulations are properly enforced, but we are also seeking to increase social cohesion so that people, no matter what their background, are welcome in all communities. A deal has to be struck whereby we can assure the public that everyone is going to be treated fairly, in return for which we expect people to be treated fairly.

Housing Benefit

13. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect on housing and levels of homelessness of the proposed reduction in housing benefit levels. (8512)

Ministers from this Department regularly meet their colleagues from other Departments. We are looking closely with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions at how to support implementation of the recently announced changes to housing benefit.

Given the enormous upheaval that is likely to accrue from the cuts in housing benefit, will the Minister give a guarantee to the House today that he will not weaken the safety net of homelessness legislation?

I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s considerable knowledge and interest in housing and matters of homelessness, which we have regularly debated. I can provide the assurance that this Government will take issues of homelessness and protection very seriously. I have recently set up a cross-ministerial working group for the first time to bring Ministers together, and we also have a discretionary fund, which we are expanding to £40 million to assist in this way.

Does the Minister accept that while we of course want to stop rip-off landlords from exploiting the state and tenants and to stop preventing people from getting back to work because their rents are too high making it impossible for them to come off benefits, we also need to ensure that no vulnerable person becomes homeless as a result of the changes? Will he and his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions meet a cross-party group of London MPs to ensure that the policy has the right objective and not an unfair one?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the policy needs to protect the most vulnerable and to introduce fairness into the system. The expansion of housing benefit to £21 billion—a 50% expansion in the bill—over just a 10-year period is unsustainable; it is more than the police and universities budgets put together and it simply has to be brought into line. It is not fair that people can be in receipt of £2,000 a week to live in areas of London that other people are unable to live in when they work. I am quite certain that Ministers will be very happy to meet such a group.

Third Sector (Funding)

19. What assessment he has made of the effect on third sector organisations of the reduction in local authority funding announced on 10 June 2010. (8519)

Councils have complete flexibility in where they find savings to ensure that costs are reduced while they continue to support key front-line services. The voluntary sector is an important part of that.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but is not the reality that, as in Chesterfield, many of our voluntary sector organisations rely on core funding from the local government sector, and that the cuts in the local government sector will inevitably lead to a reduction in that core funding that will fundamentally undermine any possibility that the voluntary sector can play a part in this big society?

Well, it is not inevitable. I have just said that councils have complete flexibility in how they set priorities, and local authorities will need to prioritise. I say to the hon. Gentleman and the whole House that just as Ministers here have made sure that the £6.2 billion reductions hit just as hard at the centre as on local authorities, so local authorities need to have the same regard for the voluntary sector.

The voluntary sector in my constituency is, as I imagine is the case everywhere, extremely anxious about the impact that reductions in local government funding will have on the service they can provide, and nowhere more so than in relation to infrastructure. What is the Minister’s attitude to infrastructure bodies and how does he believe they should be funded?

I certainly understand that anxiety. The whole country is anxious about the financial circumstances we face, both in the public finances and in the voluntary sector, and it will be extremely important for partners to work together, including local authorities and the voluntary sector, to overcome those difficulties in the very difficult circumstances we face.

Local Authorities (Administrative Burden)

20. What steps he is taking to reduce the administrative burden placed on local authorities by central Government. (8520)

We have already scrapped the comprehensive area assessment and regional spatial strategies, as well as removing ring-fencing from more than £1 billion of local government spending. We are currently inviting local government to identify the statutory guidance, legislation and regulations that it thinks should be removed, and we will go much further by introducing a decentralisation and localism Bill later in the year.

One consequence of reducing the administrative burden on local councils and freeing them to take more decisions locally will be to allow them to offer different levels of services from their neighbours. Does my hon. Friend agree that far from being a bad thing, that will allow good councils to differentiate themselves from bad councils and allow local council tax payers the ultimate decision on the type of council they desire?

Freedom for local authorities to respond to the priorities and needs of their residents is absolutely a good thing and is a top priority of this Government.

But what does the Minister say to local authorities such as mine that face a larger burden of in-year cutbacks than neighbouring authorities? What does he say about the additional burdens that he has put on to them by forcing them to cut previously agreed budgets with voluntary sector organisations and local services, meaning more expensive ways of managing their budgets?

First, the hon. Lady forgets the financial situation that we inherited—that is fundamental. Secondly, because we have removed ring-fencing and reduced the percentage of ring-fenced funding, we have made sure that local authorities have more flexibility in how they save money. Thirdly, despite our dire financial inheritance, we have ensured that no local authority would have to make a reduction of more than 2%.

Order. We cannot have these sudden interventions when not expected and not in order, however frustrated people feel—and they do.

Regional Spatial Strategies

22. What recent representations he has received on the effects on local authorities of the abolition of regional spatial strategies. (8522)

I have received a large number of letters and e-mails, the vast majority of which have welcomed the end of top-down targets and the return of planning decisions to local communities so that they can shape their own areas.

I thank the Minister on behalf of residents in West Worcestershire. I can assure him that councillors in my local area feel the same way. What advice would he give to them about developers who are now taking things that were rejected on the basis of the Pickles letter to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate?

The Planning Inspectorate has received guidance that the policy of the Government is clear and needs to be taken into account in planning appeals.

Order. It is best on the whole to refer not to the Pickles letter but to the Secretary of State’s letter, and that is I think how we will do it.

Topical Questions

I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that Mrs Pickles’ letters have far more impact.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to pay tribute to the two firefighters, Alan Bannon and James Shears, who gave their lives in April in the line of duty and whose memorial service was yesterday.

Since last month’s oral questions, I have waged war on the TLA—the Whitehall menace of the three-letter abbreviation. We have abolished the CAA, the IPC, the RDAs and the RSSs. We are giving powers back to local people, replacing bureaucracy with democratic accountability. We will be working with councils to deliver an era of town hall transparency. My Department will practise what it preaches and we will be publishing online our spending over £500. I am sure that the shadow Secretary of State will be pleased to know that we will be opening the books from April 2009.

When the RDAs are scrapped, will some of the money saved be available to help fund local enterprise partnerships? For far too long, Banbury has been at the edge of three RDAs. We want a local enterprise partnership which puts Banbury where it rightly belongs—at the heart of England.

I have always felt that Banbury was indeed at the heart of England. Of course, the local enterprise partnerships will give an opportunity for local authorities, business and academic institutions to coalesce around a genuine economic area. We will ensure that they have an opportunity to bring prosperity to that very fine town.

I start by thanking the Secretary of State for his recognition of the two firefighters, Alan Bannon and James Shears, who died fighting the fire in Shirley Towers. Alan Bannon was a constituent of mine, as the Secretary of State knows, and I am grateful to the fire Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), for attending the memorial service yesterday. It was appreciated by everybody connected with the Hampshire fire and rescue service.

On Tuesday this week, the Local Government Association showed that the arbitrary and incompetent decision to suspend the Building Schools for the Future programme has cost local council tax payers in England £162 million in spending on much-needed school projects which will not now go ahead. What efforts did the Secretary of State make to persuade the Secretary of State for Education not to cut that programme? How does he intend to stand up for local councils and prevent his Department becoming the ministry of waste—wasted council tax payers’ money on suspended schools projects, wasted council tax payers’ money as a result of the cuts that he has brought in this year, and wasted money on the opportunity to build new homes?

I hardly think that the former Secretary of State is in a position to talk about waste. We have already understood that he has virtually become the patron saint of internal decorators within the Department; £2 million was spent on furnishing at a time when councils were crying out for help. I did indeed speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, and I was shocked to discover the amount of waste that was within that programme. I was shocked to discover that the achievement of that programme seemed to have made a single consultant a millionaire. Labour Members seemed quite happy to waste other people’s money, but I assure them that this coalition Government are about saving money and are on the side of local councils.

T2. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the planning process not only responds to the demands of local communities, but provides an efficient supply of housing and employment land? (8527)

We are getting rid of the Soviet-style planning system—repealing Gosplan—precisely so that local communities such as my hon. Friend’s can get together in the right way. For example, there is no sense in linking his area with Hertford because that is not a natural economic area and it is difficult to plan employment in such a way. His community is now free to liaise with neighbouring authorities, as it always should have been.

The Government are already hitting hard new deal programmes that were designed to help some of our most deprived communities in areas such as Aston, which is in my constituency. Is it true that the plan is now to cut off funding from the middle of the financial year—from this October—thereby sacking staff and damaging some of our most deprived communities?

Order. That was very unsatisfactory; I think that I will have to add injury time. Let us hear it from the Minister.

I wanted to answer it all the time.

This is about ensuring that local government finance is delivered fairly and straightforwardly. Given that we have been a bit slow in answering the hon. Lady, it is incumbent on me to say that if she wants to come and see me—or I can come and see her—I will give her a full answer.

T3. My constituency is home to Transition Town Totnes, which has a great interest in sustainable development. If the planning process for community land trusts is to be streamlined, provided that 90% of residents are in favour of a proposal, will the Department clarify how that 90% figure will be ascertained and how the low-carbon building agenda will be upheld so that we meet our commitments to cut emissions? (8528)

I will gladly answer my hon. Friend, Mr Speaker.

The 90% threshold is subject to a simple referendum of the people in the local community, parish or village. The idea is that the judgment should be made through the ballot box by those who go to vote. The buildings themselves will be judged against the criteria of sustainability codes 1 to 6, and the sustainability levels that will be required will be exactly the same as those for all buildings by 2016.

Will Ministers tell me what steps they are taking to ensure that local government regeneration projects in Halifax will still go ahead now that Yorkshire Forward has been abolished? How will the Department address that shortfall?

Of course, we will be bringing those regeneration projects closer to the decisions, so I hope that the hon. Lady will have a big say on them. We are kind of hoping that we will be able to involve the private sector so that we are not just moving one amount of public money across to another receiver of such money.

T4. Many of my constituents continue to be concerned that despite the exciting moves to localise planning decisions, developers and councils still will not listen to them. What reassurance can Ministers give to local communities that they are really back in the driving seat? (8529)

They are back in the driving seat. Everything that is needed to make plans that respond to local communities is in place. The process will be buttressed by strong financial incentives. I would expect that councils such as those in my hon. Friend’s area will want to take up these powers in the interests of his constituents.

Some 50% of the housing stock in several parts of my constituency is in the hands of private landlords. The previous Government introduced selective licensing and other regulations to try to clamp down on private landlords. Surely the next step is a national register for private landlords, so why will the Government not go ahead with that?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, if the next step was the registration of private landlords, why was that not done in the past 13 years? The simple answer is that many landlords in this country are just individuals who have literally one or two rooms to let. Introducing yet another database to try to regulate that would not have been the answer. HMO-ing is part of the answer. That need not be blanket HMO-ing across the whole country, as introduced by the outgoing Government on 6 April; we will make sure that HMO-ing is effective and used only where required.

T5. Today, ECPAT—End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes—has, in association with The Body Shop, launched a nationwide petition calling for guardianship for children who have been trafficked. Does the Secretary of State agree that that would help stop the scandal of child sex slaves who have been put into local government care being re-trafficked? (8530)

My hon. Friend draws attention to a new and important responsibility that the Department is assuming. I am keen to work with Members across the House on developing appropriate policies. I look forward to discussing that with him.

It is always popular for any Government to say that they will have a bonfire of quangos, but does the Secretary of State realise that removing the Government office for the north-west removes support for the voluntary and community sector and centralises power in Westminster? That is hardly “big society”; it is much more “very big Westminster.”

I readily understand that the hon. Lady has the disadvantage of being a Labour MP and is therefore incapable of understanding that this Government will give away power, or of understanding that localism will involve a constitutional shift in this country. We aim to give the people in towns and villages in the north-west more power. We will not repeat the mistakes of the Labour party by taking more power into Westminster.

T6. In my conversations with planners and others over the past week, there seemed to be some question as to whether the recently announced changes to the definitions of brownfield land and densities in planning policy statement 3 prevent so-called garden-grabbing. Will the Minister please confirm that local councillors in Meon Valley and elsewhere are now free to amend their planning policies on garden-grabbing in any way that they want, in whatever time frame they choose? (8531)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. PPS3 has been revised with immediate effect, so those powers are now available to his authority and every other authority in the country; they can decide the status of gardens as they see fit.

The Housing Minister has just put forward a written ministerial statement that allows the hundreds of park home residents in my constituency access to the Residential Property Tribunal Service, and that is very welcome. Will he meet me to discuss how he plans to implement the consultation outcomes, which specify that there should be a strict personal specification of “fit and proper person”, with regard to park home site owners? Will he meet me before the recess?

I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady before the recess. She is right to say that the issue of park home regulation is complex. I did indeed put forward a written ministerial statement yesterday, which clearly outlined that we should be able to move to the tribunal service to prevent park home owners from having to refer to the courts, with all the cost and time that that entails. I share her concern and will be happy to meet her.

T8. May I take my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State back to the issue of illegal Traveller sites? I face a real problem with such sites in my constituency of Stratford-on-Avon. I was pleased to hear him confirm that he will consider legislation to give councils more power to deal with that blight. May I push him a little further, and ask when the people of Stratford-on-Avon can expect that legislation? (8533)

Of course, the main proposals will be in the localism Bill, which we hope to bring before the House this calendar year. We will, of course, also look carefully at planning guidance, but as I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, I want to try to tackle the issues together in one go, rather than in a piecemeal way.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his counterpart at the Department of Energy and Climate Change on who would trump whom when we fail to meet our renewables target over the reintroduction of fast-track planning?

We constantly have discussions with our colleagues in DECC, and we are absolutely determined to meet those renewables targets. Unless we bring in a system whereby communities can share in the benefits, we are unlikely to meet those targets, so we are urgently changing the system in order to get communities behind these things.

The coalition’s policy of letting local authorities plan for local housing need is very welcome, but the previous Government’s requirement of them to display five years’ supply of land for housing need before they could fight off overdevelopment on green spaces was lopsided, unfair and unsustainable. Will Ministers meet councillors and campaigners from Gloucestershire to hear the case for abolishing it?

Can one of the Ministers explain to me why requiring local authorities to publish expenditure of £500 or more will help to ease the administrative burden on them?

We have decided to do so in the Department and, having gone through the process, I can say that it is easy to do and easy for local authorities. After all, Government Members are not frightened of the public, and it is the public who have a right to know.

Is it not extraordinary that, although hon. Members started today’s proceedings with Prayers, as they have done for 450 years, the Labour council in Enfield has followed the Labour council in Leicester by banning council prayers? Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that, under this Government, we will not marginalise faith in general and Christianity in particular from the public sphere and the big society?

There is a place for faith in our society, and if one looks throughout the United Kingdom one finds that people of faith have played a huge part in our society. As it happens, immediately after this Question Time I am going across to Lambeth palace to meet the Archbishop.

One estimate is that 200,000 people will be made homeless as a result of the changes to housing benefit, and at the same time funding for social housing is being pulled from areas such as Sunderland. Will the Minister provide additional funding to local authority housing departments to deal with the significant increase in people who will be going to see them to register as homeless?

I thank the hon. Lady for that. She is absolutely right to point out that there are pressures in the system, which have been created by a £155 billion deficit and a housing benefit bill that has spiralled to £21 billion. Unlike the previous Government, however, we are taking steps to change that situation and, in particular, introducing a £40 million fund that local authorities will be able to use to ameliorate the effects of some of the changes that are now coming in.

Order. Because there was a little delay a few moments ago, I did allow a bit of injury time, but I am afraid that all good things must come to an end.