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Topical Questions

Volume 513: debated on Thursday 15 July 2010

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.