I would like to update hon. Members, at the earliest opportunity, on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on the 27 July 2010.
As part of the coalition Government’s drive to increase democratic accountability, we have asked all local authorities to publish performance and spending data over £500 online by January 2011. How taxpayers’ money is spent should be available for public scrutiny. The public should be able to decide whether services have been delivered well and if they have achieved value for money. Already 45 councils have put their information online.
There should not be one rule for councils and another for the Whitehall Department overseeing local government. My Department has therefore now taken the step of being the first to publish all its expenditure over £500 for 2009-10 online, and I instructed the Department’s main arm’s length bodies to do likewise. We will publish our 2010 first-quarter spending at the end of this month and, in line with the rest of Whitehall, will publish all monthly spending from November onwards.
We also confirmed plans to review and tighten the “Code of recommended practice on local authority publicity”, subject to consultation as required by statute, including stronger guidance to prevent taxpayers’ money being spent on lobbyists who operate outside the freedom of information regime.
The Department also reached an agreement last month with the Ordnance Survey to provide free access for public sector bodies to all its core datasets from April 2011. This will replace costly and inefficient contracts and triple the number of bodies with access to the data.
We have continued to demonstrate our belief in the capability of councils to get the job done without Whitehall interference by further decentralising, devolving and reducing the bureaucratic burden faced by local authorities from Government regulation.
On 13 August, I announced plans to disband the Audit Commission. This decision was taken in line with the coalition Government’s commitment to radically scale back centrally imposed, bureaucratic and costly inspection and auditing, saving council tax payers’ money. The Audit Commission’s responsibilities for overseeing and delivering local audit and inspections will stop; the Commission’s research activities will end; audit functions will be moved to the private sector; councils will be free to appoint their own independent external auditors from a more competitive and open market; and there will be a new audit framework for local health bodies. This will save council tax payers £50 million. The National Audit Office will oversee the new audit arrangements, helping ensure probity, robust scrutiny and healthy competition.
I have also announced changes that will mean councils no longer have to administer endless guidance on food licences, road closures and insurance in order to allow communities to hold local fêtes and street parties. From now on councils will be able to request that organisers instead complete one simple form.
In addition, my Ministerial colleagues have over the past five weeks set out plans to:
replace the various environmental impact assessments with one clear and streamlined set of regulations, making it easier for councils and developers to green-proof building projects;
end the intrusive and bureaucratic Place Survey saving £4 million a year;
give local authorities new powers to review and revoke byelaws without needing to seek permission from this Department. It should not take a rubber stamp from central Government to scrap outdated local laws, such as on the use of dickey straps, the beating of carpets or the transport of dead horse carcasses; and
allow the Local Government Association to take over control of the Revenue Support Grant “top-slice” funding that goes to local service and leadership improvement bodies, combined with the LG Group adopting the same transparency standards that councils are obliged to follow, including being subject for the first time to freedom of information requests.
Following the revocation of regional spatial strategies that created top-down targets for councils, Ministers in my Department have announced that the New Homes Bonus scheme will be introduced early in the spending review period so that councils and communities which go for growth now by supporting the construction of new homes where they are needed will receive direct and substantial extra incentive funding to spend as they wish.
We were further able to confirm last week that the New Homes Bonus scheme will also apply to the provision of authorised traveller sites. This was part of a balanced package of proposals to ensure fair play in the planning system. The tenure rights of travellers on authorised local authority sites will be strengthened, and subject to necessary impact assessments, we announced our intention to revoke the controversial top-down planning circulars with short, light-touch guidance that will give local authorities greater discretion. These reforms will help strengthen community cohesion which has been undermined by the perception that different planning rules apply for different groups. Further announcements on this issue will be made in due course.
As a Department we are committed to devolving real power to people.
On 30 July I set out proposals to give the public the power to veto excessive council tax rises. This will replace top-down council tax capping by this Department. And under separate plans, students studying under European institutions will receive the same council tax exemptions as students studying in England.
We also announced plans to put the 8 million tenants in social housing in control of where they live through a national affordable home-swap scheme. For the first time this will give tenants the chance to see details of every council and housing association tenant looking to exchange homes—not just in their area but across the country. This will strengthen the rights of tenure for tenants—allowing them to move home without losing their place on the social housing ladder.
In conjunction with the Secretary of State for Transport, I have written a joint letter to local authorities to encourage them to avoid a proliferation of unnecessary signs, railings and advertising hoardings in order to make streets tidier and less confusing for drivers and pedestrians. We took the opportunity to remind them that Government advice in this area clearly states that for signs to be most effective, they should be kept to a minimum. As part of the big society, we are also urging community groups to inform their local council of particularly bad examples of excessive street clutter.
Finally, a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen has been unveiled in the reception of the Department for Communities and Local Government. The small capital cost of the new official portrait in Eland House, Victoria, was funded through savings made in ministerial budgets. The Queen has an extremely important role to play in unifying people, no matter what their social background, race or religion.
Copies of the press notices containing more details of each item of business listed above have been placed in the Library of the House.