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Communities and Local Government

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 21 October 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Government (Equal Opportunities)

1. If he will take steps to increase access to senior positions in local government for women and people from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds. (18460)

This Government’s guiding principles are freedom, fairness and responsibility. We want to remove barriers to equal opportunities and to build a fairer society. The new public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010 will require councils to have regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity between different groups, including between men and women and people from different ethnic backgrounds.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. However, my figures show that there are 248 local authorities where women are not chief executives or leaders. In London, there is a black and minority ethnic population of 31% but only one chief executive officer from that community. Could he therefore confirm that he will encourage local authorities to use sections 158 and 159 of the Equality Act, now in force, to redress that imbalance?

I am very happy to give that assurance and to say, first, that her own local authority of Walsall has a good record in relation to the employment of BME staff. We need to recognise that local government has worked hard on this. The Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government has been working on it strongly. We had a conference in March—the Yes We Can conference—and are working towards a December follow-up. We need to remind local authorities that they have a duty under the Equality Act, but they also have a power to take positive action. I am certainly happy to work with the hon. Lady to achieve that.

Will my hon. Friend please confirm that offering salary packages to local government bureaucrats in excess of that earned by the Prime Minister will not form part of the strategy to recruit such people?

Absolutely. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had some stern words to say about local authorities that do not take the hint and has called on those earning high salaries in the public sector to take a voluntary pay cut.

Housing (Local Authorities)

2. What recent discussions his Department has had with representatives of voluntary organisations providing housing services for local authorities on the potential effects on that sector of future local government funding plans. (18461)

My Department has consulted widely with the voluntary sector in relation to the provision of housing services for local authorities, and we have listened carefully to the points they have raised. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have, for example, protected the homelessness grant, providing £400 million; protected the funding for disabled facilities grant; and minimised reductions to the Supporting People programme over the spending review.

The voluntary groups in my constituency, such as Manor residents association, together in partnership with Housing Hartlepool and Hartlepool borough council, provide much-needed services such as handyman services, financial advice to tenants and tackling antisocial behaviour. Given that they derive their income from local authorities and the registered social landlord, and given yesterday’s announcement of a real-terms cut of 26% in local authority budgets and the cutting by half of the social housing budget, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the voluntary groups where they will get their money from and how these services can be maintained?

The hon. Gentleman will know the backdrop to this, which is that when he was a Minister the Government literally ran out of money, and not just money from then taxpayers but money from the future, so some steps had to be taken. Despite that, however, we have still managed to protect all those different budgets, particularly that for Supporting People, which will be very important to his local authority: it is almost certainly where those voluntary services are getting quite a lot of their funding. We also heard the Chancellor announce yesterday a £100 million transition fund. I can further tell the hon. Gentleman that I am today announcing £12.25 million for local authorities and the voluntary sector to help households affected by changes in housing benefits. There is a whole package of services there. We absolutely recognise the need to protect the most vulnerable; it is a shame that his Government did not do the same as they spent all the money.

That was very interesting from the Minister, but it is clear that yesterday the Chancellor announced devastating cuts to house building and local government funding. Is it not the case that while across Whitehall Departments average cuts are 19%, town halls up and down the country will lose 28% of their funding?

I start by welcoming the right hon. Lady to her new position and to our exchanges across the Dispatch Box.

We have already covered the backdrop. We know that the financial crisis was incredibly sharp and, as has been said, if the Opposition do not have a plan they cannot criticise the plans that have been put in place. Everybody in the country will want to know what the right hon. Lady’s plans would have been. However, as it happens, and as she mentions house building as part of her critique, let me tell her that in the 13 Labour years, there was a net gain of just 14,000 affordable homes. We will build more affordable homes in every single year of our Government than Labour did in all its 13 years put together.

I thank the Minister for his words of welcome. There may come a time when we agree across the Dispatch Box, but today is not that day. The Chancellor was right about one thing yesterday: the cuts are the Government’s choice, and their choice is to dump the cuts on local communities. I am afraid the Secretary of State and his team have failed to stand up for local councils. Can the Minister tell me how many jobs in the public, private and voluntary sectors will be lost as a result of the Secretary of State’s failure?

It is really no good not having a plan and then criticising the Government when they come up with a serious plan to rescue this country and this economy from the rocks that we were surely headed towards when the right hon. Lady was on the Government Benches. We have set out our plans in great detail, and we look forward to Her Majesty’s Opposition getting round to setting out some of theirs.

New Homes

I am pleased to announce that the new homes bonus will commence in April 2011, which means that local authorities that grant planning permission now will benefit from it next year. I can also announce that the bonus will last a total of six years, facilitating the building of many more homes in every area of the country.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he also explain how the new affordable rent scheme will encourage development?

Absolutely. Until now there has been only one way to get into social housing, and for most people that way has not led to their getting a social home. That is why housing waiting lists doubled under the last Government from 1 million to nearly 2 million. There was only a single offer, and not enough homes were being built. We have introduced affordable rent, which means that rents can be up to 80% of the market rent. That is a more viable option, and it means that less money can produce more homes and that new investment will go into providing homes for the most needy in society, who were so badly let down by a Government who produced only a 14,000 net gain in affordable homes during a 13-year period in office.[Official Report, 27 October 2010, Vol. 517, c. 5MC.]

Will the Minister not accept that the new homes bonus scheme is in chaos? Can he explain what the incentive will be for local planning authorities, which according to the policy that the Government have set out will receive only 15% of the receipts, with 85% being returned to the shire authorities outside unitary areas, which are not involved in the planning process? Will the incentive be 15%, or will it be greater?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so confused about this. It is actually a very simple scheme, unlike ones such as the local housing delivery planning grant, which his Government used. That was so complex that literally nobody understood it or had any idea how much money would come in. Our scheme is simple. For every home built, there will be match funding for six years at the actual band price at which it is built. By the way, if it is affordable housing, 125% of receipts will be provided. We will consult on the split between district and upper-tier authorities, but something like 80% is likely to go to the planning authority. That will be a massive incentive for this country to get out and build the homes that Labour failed to build during its 13 years.

Can the Minister confirm that housing market renewal pathfinder funding will continue in the short or medium term, to enable the removal of all unwanted and uninhabited properties in the pathfinder areas? The acquisition and removal of those properties will clear inner areas of our towns and cities to enable the new affordable homes that we desperately need.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have visited pathfinder schemes on many occasions, and some were very good and some had some problems. We will complete all the committed HMR schemes, and we will then roll the funding up into the regional development fund to continue the good work.

The Minister can try, but he really should not duck responsibility for his own policies. When he announced this particular scheme in the summer, he told councils, “Build now, develop now, and you’ll get substantial benefits in the future.” Can he confirm that 70 local authorities have cancelled developments, 160,000 homes have not been built, the house builders are taking the Government to court and his scheme has been kicked into the long grass of 2011? Just how many homes will be built in the next 12 months?

May I start by welcoming the new shadow Housing Minister to her post? I hope that she does it for as long as I did—I shadowed many different Front Benchers. In the autumn, she made an interesting statement. She said that too many people thought her Government had not listened to them about housing. The difference is that we will certainly listen, and the new homes bonus will reward all the planning applications that have already been made where homes have yet to be built, so it will include all those homes. It will provide a far more compelling incentive than the local planning housing delivery grant ever did. The Conservative party has a proud record of house building. We have already heard that the previous Government managed a net addition of just 14,000 affordable homes in 13 years.

Non-departmental Bodies (Staff Costs)

4. What progress has been made in publishing the pay and expenses of staff of non-departmental public bodies sponsored by his Department. (18463)

My Department has been at the forefront of transparency, and the Department’s public bodies will publish their senior salaries and expenses data on Friday 29 October.

We know from information that has already been published that the heads of the Audit Commission spent thousands of pounds wining and dining people in a gentleman’s club. We also know that the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is chauffeur-driven in his own personal car. May I therefore congratulate the Secretary of State on his actions to ensure that those quango bosses publicise their expenses and salaries, and urge him to do more so that they are held to the same standards of transparency and scrutiny as Members of Parliament, who represent the people?

In fairness to the Audit Commission, my hon. Friend will want me to point out that the gentlemen’s clubs are those in the west end, not Soho. I have been concerned for some time about some of the Audit Commission’s excesses. One of my first decisions was to veto a suggested £240,000 salary for a chief executive. I was not particularly impressed by the chairman’s suggestion of a whip-round among members of the private sector that audit to top up his salary. I thought that that suggestion might well have been misinterpreted.

Regional Spatial Strategies

The previous Government’s regional spatial strategies were revoked on 6 July, and the remaining provisions will be repealed through the localism Bill, which will be introduced later this year. Along with the new homes bonus, which my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government described, it is a key element of our plans to return decisions on housing and planning to local communities, allowing them to shape their neighbourhoods.

Green belt land in my constituency and elsewhere remains under threat as a direct result of the previous Government’s regional spatial strategies. What steps will the Government take to ensure greater green belt protection in future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One of the problems of the previous regional spatial strategies was the imposition on local communities. In my hon. Friend’s area, the region forced green belt reviews on his community. The same applies to Manchester, Liverpool, West Yorkshire, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead, Woking, Guildford, Harlow and Oxford. That is not the way to proceed. If one wants consent for development, one must involve local people and allow them to determine the character of their area.

Yesterday the Prime Minister said it was important to protect economic growth, but actions speak louder than words. Since the Government came to power, local authorities have already ditched plans for 160,000 homes—1,300 every day. Is it not the case that abolishing the regional spatial strategy has paralysed the planning system, forced building workers on to the dole and contributed to slower economic growth?

The answer is no.

May I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench? He is an ambitious sort. I do not know whether it reflects on the current performance of the Leader of the Opposition, but I note that the hon. Gentleman has registered the website I do not know whether that is the start of a glorious career here.

Order. I have to tell the Minister that although that is a fascinating nugget of information, it has nothing to do with regional spatial strategies, on which I know that he will now focus.

I am glad that you are as fascinated by that as I am, Mr Speaker. If we want a serious discussion, it is important that we change the situation in which all planning applications in this country are seen to destroy quality of life and are fiercely resisted. That is the sad state of things, and we must understand that we need to unblock that. One way to do so is to ensure that communities benefit financially through incentives. The other is to allow local communities to help to specify and design the characters of their local neighbourhoods. If we do that, we can take some of the poison out of the system and have more new homes.

Local Councillors

6. If he will take steps to reduce the number of councillors in local authorities headed by an elected mayor. (18465)

I appreciate that my hon. Friend has a distinct personal interest in the welfare of elected mayors. Decisions on the number of councillors in any local authority are handled by the independent Local Government Boundary Commission, in which process I have no role.

As the Secretary of State indicated, I should declare that my father is the elected mayor of Doncaster—quite how, nobody knows. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be bizarre if his introduction of elected mayors around the country led to an increase in costs and an increased layer of bureaucracy in local government? Therefore, when introducing elected mayors, should he not take the opportunity to reduce the number of councillors in those areas at the same time?

It is within the purview of a local authority to ask the Local Government Boundary Commission at any time to review its boundaries and the number of members. Mansfield district council has done that, and is moving from multi-member wards to single- member wards. When the commission publishes its recommendations, they will be laid in the House under the usual 40-day rule.

How does the Secretary of State square the imposition of elected mayors in the 12 largest cities in this country with his commitment to localism? How does that work if people will not be asked whether they would like a mayor or whether they wish to continue with local councillors?

The hon. Lady is mistaking this Government’s position with that of the previous one, who would often impose things on local people. She seems to be suggesting that we would somehow impose mayors on those 12 cities, but of course we will not—that is completely out of the question. The proposals will be subject to referendums. Once we know the views of the people in those 12 cities, we will move on to the election of a mayor if people vote for that.

Standards Board for England

What will replace the board and how will members of the public be able to hold their councils and councillors to account?

We have been in discussions with the Local Government Association and we will have a code of conduct, which seems to me to be a sensible way of doing that—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) seems to think that the boards have achieved something, but their only achievement has been to be petty, silly and pointless.

The latest example of that concerns a Green party councillor, Jason Kitcat, who placed unofficial video footage of a council meeting on his website. He has been referred to the board for not showing his council respect. With the joyous news of the Lady Thatcher’s improving health, perhaps I could say to Councillor Kitcat: “YouTube if you want to.”

Housing Development (Consultation)

8. What guidance his Department provides to local authorities planning large housing developments in their area on consultation with residents of neighbouring local authority areas likely to be affected. (18467)

Local authorities must follow the regulations on preparing their local plans and consult widely with local people affected by proposals. They must also ensure that that public consultation has real meaning and that it is taken into account when putting local plans together.

I am grateful for that answer and I should like to push the issue of cross-border co-operation a little further. Under the Government’s new homes bonus scheme, it is reasonable to suppose that some local authorities will be tempted to build large settlements at their boundaries, where the disbenefit accrues to local authorities across the boundary. Does the Minister have any plans to ensure that the income flowing from the new homes bonus will flow across local authority boundaries where appropriate?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. First, we are introducing a duty to co-operate, so that one authority has to be talking to its neighbour in order to get its local plan signed off. Secondly, I can confirm today that the flow of new money from the new homes bonus will be some £900 million, even before top-slicing in the later years, so it will be a significant amount. In that context, there is nothing to prevent one local authority from speaking to its neighbour and saying, “Look, we’d like to build these homes here, but we recognise that this would have some impact on you there. We will come to a deal with you, and if we’re both happy it will go into our local plan.”

When a local authority has decided to take the money from the homes bonus, little though it is, at the expense of a neighbouring local authority or in the face of local opposition, whose views will take precedence—the local authority taking the money, local people, or the neighbouring local authority?

I am amused that the hon. Gentleman thinks that billions of pounds is little money: it shows how the Opposition thought about taxpayers’ money when they were in power. It is a large amount of money and it will make a significant difference. The answer—although I know this is a strange concept to Opposition Members—is something called democracy. It is called asking voters what they want and putting a local plan in place that reflects the local population’s wishes, not what the Minister wants here in Whitehall, as happened under the old regional spatial strategies.

Is my hon. Friend aware that his guidance seems to be being ignored by the Planning Inspectorate, which is insisting on making the five-year housing supply paramount in its decisions, causing great concern in Burbage and Groby in my constituency as representations are made and ignored?

It is enormously important that the Planning Inspectorate notices that there has been a change of Government and therefore changes in policy. If it is not entirely certain, we will have the localism Bill next month and I hope that that will clarify the matter once and for all.

Small Businesses

9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the effect on levels of employment in small businesses of reductions in his Department’s funding to local government. (18468)

The Secretary of State has had discussions on a number of topics with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. We are aware of the need to offer continued support to small businesses in this difficult economic climate. That is why we are committed to providing local authorities with the freedom to determine how best to allocate their resources to meet local priorities.

In many areas, the local authority is far and away the largest employer and as a result many small and medium enterprises depend heavily on it for contracts and to keep their businesses going. The tightening up that we will see will therefore inevitably lead to small businesses suffering as a result of what has happened in the last 24 hours.

I certainly agree with the first two thirds of what the hon. Gentleman says, but his conclusion is wrong. In the Secretary of State’s conversations with colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, they drew our attention—as did the Chancellor—to the small business rate relief, which gives 100% relief for properties, up to £6,000. There is also the holiday on national insurance contributions for the first three years of start-up companies, and this Department is responsible for the local enterprise partnerships, on which we are working closely with the Federation of Small Businesses to ensure that they can play an effective part.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that a large proportion of our housing programme, which will spend £6.5 billion, will of course involve the small construction sector. Our regional growth fund of £1.4 billion will also contribute. We are working hard to ensure that councils understand their role in procurement and delivery of services to ensure that small companies and the voluntary and community sector can be involved. If he asks the question—

Order. The comprehensiveness of the Minister’s answer is equalled only by its length. We need snappier answers from now on.

Does the reduction of 7% for four years in local government funding include the 3% efficiency target proposed by the previous Government, or does it exclude it?

The figures announced yesterday were in relation to a base that was set by the outgoing Labour Government. I do not know whether that is the complete answer my hon. Friend wants, but I am happy to write to him further if he needs me to.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that on the back of the cuts announced yesterday, 82,000 jobs will go in Yorkshire. Could the Minister describe the mechanism to avoid a further double whammy for the city of Sheffield—its individuals, businesses and communities—from the 26% reduction in the overall grant to the city over the next four years and the 18% reduction in the area-based grant, which is theoretically being un-ring-fenced, but which will actually not exist at all unless there is a mechanism to retain it in the communities that were receiving it?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, but would remind him that the economy has shrunk by 6%, and that was before the general election. Many, many people in the private and public sectors have already faced the devastating consequences of that. We are setting that right.

Will the Minister confirm that there will be many opportunities for economic development in York and North Yorkshire, which have suffered owing to the mass investment in places such as Boeing in Sheffield, under the local economic partnerships?

I hope that each local economic partnership will be a focus for growth, jobs and development. Obviously there is competition, but we need every part of the country to grow quickly, to get back to the level of prosperity that we should have.

Small businesses all over Britain depend on £20 billion of local government procurement. PWC has predicted 500,000 job losses in the private sector, with 100,000 in the construction industry and 180,000 job losses in business services. Does the Minister therefore not agree that it is an abrogation of the Government’s responsibility to have failed to conduct an impact assessment study of the effect of their actions in the public sector on the private sector, thereby avoiding coming clean? Does he also agree that the evidence is clear: for every job that goes in local government, at least one will go in Britain’s small businesses?

Let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to his role, and say that I would have thought that, with his background, he would be the last person to put a lot of dependence on a private consultant’s report about what was going to happen next. From our point of view, we think that we have got the right remedy for Britain’s ills, and I believe that in a year’s time he will agree with us.

Big Society Vanguard Communities

Good progress is being made on removing barriers to local action in the vanguard areas. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, we are working with the local community in the Eden valley on the roll-out of next-generation broadband, on advancing neighbourhood planning and on devolving budgets to communities. Similar progress is being made in the other areas, as part of my commitment to put my civil servants, in my Department, at the service of communities across Britain.

I thank the Minister for the work that his team is doing to support the Eden communities and the councils, and for the real progress on broadband. What lessons and experience can we take from Eden and apply to other parts of the country?

Let me pay tribute to the leadership that my hon. Friend has given during his six months in this House, and extend an invitation to other hon. Members across the House, who are leaders in their communities. I have made an offer: if we believe, as I do, that the best ideas come from people in communities, rather than just from senior officials in Whitehall, then we need to make the resources of the Department available to people in communities. I extend this invitation to all hon. Members: if they have good ideas that are facing barriers that need busting, let us know and we will help.

Given that one of the building blocks of the big society, which I believe in, is the voluntary sector, will the Minister comment on the decision by Croydon council to axe the grants to more than 20 voluntary organisations? Those organisations form the great majority of those that the council has been funding, and they include the Croydon rape and sexual abuse support centre. Does he agree that if the same thing happens nationwide, that will not be about building the good society—or, if he prefers, the big society—but will put us on a slippery slope towards a painful and bad society?

The right hon. Gentleman and I agree, I think, that it is highly desirable that we should transfer power from the centre to local communities, and that involves councils, too. I do not expect them to pull up the drawbridge in the town hall when we decentralise power and resources to them. I look to councils to increase their contacts with the voluntary sector as part of the decentralisation initiative, which affects everyone.

There are

“real fears that spending cuts will impact adversely on the capacity of the charitable and not-for-profit sector. Far from taking on more… it may be able to do rather less.”

That comment on the big society was from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. Can the Minister tell the House just how he expects expansion in a sector that will suffer loss of grants and support—as we have heard, it is already happening—due to the 28% budget cuts over the next four years that this Government have forced on to local councils?

May I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box? She has long experience in local government, which I know takes these issues very seriously. One thing that councils and central Government have had the chance to do in the past is to hold on to power and to avoid bringing in the voluntary sector as of right. I think we need to change that. The hon. Lady will see that, in the localism Bill, we are going to entrench rights for community groups to take over some of the services of local authorities if they can demonstrate that they can have a more effective outcome. Rights, I think, rather than discretion, is the best source of guarantees for the sector.

Planning System

Reducing and minimising burdens in the planning system is essential if the system is to work effectively and if we are to remove a financial burden on the economy, which has been estimated in figures quoted in the Killian Pretty report as being up to £2.7 billion a year. That therefore forms a central part of the Government’s reform proposals in the localism and decentralisation Bill and the national planning framework. We have already taken specific steps, with which I would be happy to acquaint the House in more detail if time permitted—for example, by consolidating 17 regulations into one and three preservation orders into one, saving £1.5 million already.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The £400 million redevelopment project in the Gloucester Quays in my constituency was unnecessarily delayed for more than a year as a result of being called in by the previous Government. Does the Minister agree that local planning decisions are now precisely that, that they will no longer be subject to frequent interference by the Government and that today we can send a clear message to developers and investors—in Gloucester and elsewhere—that we are open for business without delay?

Localising decision making and planning is central to the Government’s policy. Ministers have made it clear that they will exercise the power to call in only very sparingly where matters of significant national interest and policy are concerned.

Is the Minister aware that in looking at the abolition of the regional spatial strategies, the Select Committee is receiving evidence that because those strategies had an evidential base—not merely in respect of house building numbers, but in many other matters on which local development frameworks were based—many local authorities are now having to go back and redo that evidential base at a local level, causing an enormous amount of work and inconvenience to them? Did the Minister take account of those extra burdens when he decided to abolish the regional spatial strategies?

The vast majority of local authorities I have spoken to greatly welcome the abolition of those strategies, which imposed undemocratic targets on them. There is no need to rework the evidence base—it is already there. We have given local authorities the power to revise the figures that were arbitrarily imposed on them from above.

Sustainable Development

12. What steps his Department is taking to encourage locally supported sustainable development through the planning system. (18471)

The coalition programme for government included a commitment to a radical reform of the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their residents live. Our proposals to decentralise planning back to neighbourhoods will be set out in the localism Bill, which will be published shortly.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Following recent discussions in my Salisbury constituency, particularly with individuals in Winterslow who have created parish plans, will the Minister comment on the role parish plans will play in influencing sustainable development in the planning process?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question. I think neighbourhoods, parish councils and town councils, which intimately understand their areas, have been cut out of the planning process for too long. We will introduce rights in the localism Bill for neighbourhood plans to have statutory force so that people can actually have a say in how their communities develop.

Bromborough Dock landfill site in my constituency desperately needs sustainable development. The Forestry Commission had a plan to turn it into a publicly accessible park, but that plan has now been withdrawn, following the abolition of the Northwest Regional Development Agency. What advice can the Minister give me about how to turn this former industrial site into a beautiful green riverside park, given the actions of his Government?

I am very happy to take forward the hon. Lady’s suggestion, and I will follow it up after this. I will make my team of civil servants available to her, to see whether we can help her with any barriers that might be preventing that from happening.

Small Business Rate Relief

13. What progress he has made on his proposals for the future of small business rate relief; and if he will make a statement. (18472)

The coalition agreement contained a commitment to find a practical way to make small business rate relief automatic. We have had discussions with interested parties, and we are now assessing the options.

Milton Keynes is a dynamic and entrepreneurial city, and the Government’s moves on small business rate relief are most welcome, but will the Minister tell the House what more the Government could do to encourage local councils to be more flexible in offering different incentives to new businesses?

We are considering the possibility of giving local authorities wide-ranging discretionary powers to grant business rate discounts, so that they can respond to local circumstances by reducing local businesses’ bills. We are also taking steps to ensure that no new supplementary business rate can be imposed without the backing of local firms in a referendum.

Community Assets

14. What plans he has for future funding to facilitate community management and ownership of local community assets; and if he will make a statement. (18473)

The Government will be making it much easier for communities to take on community assets, through the community right-to-buy provisions in the localism Bill. Following the spending review statement yesterday, we will shortly be announcing our plans to provide further funding to support communities in exercising that right. Communities can now get advice and practical help from the Government-funded asset transfer unit, and money is available this year through Communitybuilders for business development support and investment capital.

Residents living near the former St James street library in Walthamstow want to be part of the big society by buying the building and turning it into a community centre. The previous Government committed £20 million to an empowerment fund to help local people to make these things happen. Rights and announcements are all very well, but what actual funding can residents in my area expect to be able to bid for, to help to turn the rhetoric surrounding asset management into a reality?

I know that the hon. Lady is a great champion for community facilities. She has had correspondence with me on this matter, and as a Co-operative party MP, she shares our belief that co-operatives have a great deal to offer. Perhaps I should refer to her as my hon. Friend in this context. The big society bank, which was announced by the Chancellor yesterday, will be expressly designed so that part of its purpose will be to make capital available, and I hope that her project will make one of the early applications to it.

Directly Elected Mayors

15. What representations he has received on his proposals to establish directly elected mayors in 12 cities in England. (18474)

We have received many communications from various people who are interested in mayors, and it is our intention to introduce 12 mayors. We will also be introducing additional powers. I think the problem with mayors in the past is that they have been just another politician—[Hon. Members: “Boris!”] But as Boris Johnson has demonstrated in London, with passion and with power one can transform the post.

We have had elected mayors in North Tyneside for more than eight years, and our most effective one was Mr John Harrison, who was the Labour mayor for four years. He did much to progress the area, but, unfortunately, we now have a Conservative mayor. Regarding the proposal for 12 elected mayors, one of the Local Government Ministers has said that they will be chosen from among council leaders, with a referendum to follow afterwards. Should they not be chosen in an election, as the coalition agreement states?

I have to say that Linda Arkley is doing a fantastic job as the Conservative mayor, and a very effective one, too. Perhaps the hon. Lady should have paid a little more attention to the earlier question, when I ruled out the possibility that we would be imposing mayors. This will be subject to a referendum. It was the Labour party that imposed forms of government on local government without consultation and without listening. This Government have learned the lesson; we will follow the will of the people.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in regard to the localism agenda, there might be a case for arguing that the imposition of a referendum on elected mayors is as bad as the imposition of elected mayors themselves?

My hon. Friend, whom I have known for the best part of 30 years, is sometimes a stranger to democracy. I know that democracy is an inconvenience, but I do not think it that it will do any harm to consult the people of Bradford.

Local Community Groups

16. What steps he is taking to reduce the regulatory requirements his Department places on local community groups. (18475)

I am determined to make it easier for local community groups to thrive. There are three ways in which we can help. First, there is a determination across Government to remove unnecessary burdens. Lord Young of Graffham is reducing the burden of health and safety legislation, while Lord Hodgson is tasked with reducing burdens on voluntary groups and will report in 2011. Secondly, as I said earlier, I have established a team in my Department to help local communities directly to get rid of barriers that stand in their way. Thirdly, I look to local government to avoid being over-prescriptive when issuing contracts to voluntary organisations.

My constituency contains many dedicated volunteers, but many others are put off by the intrusive system of multiple Criminal Records Bureau checks. One deputy head, who had been checked for his school, was unable to accompany his own students in a cub activity unless he obtained another CRB check from the scouting organisation. While I share the House’s commitment to child protection, as deputy chairman of the all-party parliamentary scout group I also feel deeply frustrated by bureaucratic barriers of that sort. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that we support volunteerism rather than stifle it?

That is a brilliant question, and my hon. Friend has a fantastic track record of social action.

Although scouting is more popular than ever before and more teenagers are joining the movement than ever before, the waiting list is at a record level because there are not enough volunteers to catch up with it. CRB checks are an important aspect of that, and the Home Office is reviewing the vetting and barring arrangements. In response to a suggestion made by a member of the public through the “spending challenge” process, we will make it possible for relevant organisations to share CRB checks.

Topical Questions

The Department has been concerned with the spending review. It is essential for us to bring down the budget deficit, drive economic growth, and pull Britain together.

The Department has also had an opportunity to decentralise power and promote fairness in our society. We are committed to a £6.5 billion affordable housing and decent housing regime; we are tackling the pressure on social services by providing an additional £2 billion in support for adult social care; we are helping the vulnerable with the £6.5 billion Supporting People programme; we are giving councils unprecedented flexibility by ending ring-fencing; and we are folding £7 billion into formula grant.

Can the Minister outline the powers invested in local authorities to restrict the spread of houses in multiple occupation in areas where large numbers of such houses are causing concern to local communities?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that there are instances in which HMOs cause problems for local communities. Indeed, it happens in my own constituency.

On their last day in office, the last Government introduced a blanket authority requiring HMO planning permission to be obtained everywhere in the country before the use of a property could be changed. On 1 October, we altered the arrangement to ensure that it could be zoned as and where a local authority needed it to be.

T3. In the light of the 60% cuts in the social housing budget that were announced yesterday, will one of the Ministers tell me whether the private finance initiative scheme in Orchard Park and the stock transfer in Bransholme will go ahead? (18487)

Now that the spending review is out of the way, we shall be able to announce which PFI projects will be able to continue.

T2. Council tax payers in my constituency have been dismayed by golden goodbyes for council bosses since the move to one council for Wiltshire. Just four staff shared nearly £2 million in remuneration in their final 12 months in post. Will the Secretary of State bring into line the Local Government (Early Termination of Employment) (Discretionary Compensation) Regulations 2006, which have made that scandal possible? (18486)

This has been a more than unfortunate feature of local government for a long time. We have seen chief executives move from one authority and receive a very generous farewell, only to join another authority. It is completely unacceptable. If local authorities do not deal with the position themselves, the Government will be left with no alternative but to take the necessary action. However, I believe that allowing an entire council, rather than a tiny, cosy elite, to decide such matters on the floor of the chamber will make a difference.

T6. Last week, the Government announced that in London the responsibilities of the Homes and Communities Agency would be passed to the Mayor. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that this decision is not being used as a ruse to deprive London of much-needed investment in affordable housing? What extra funding will the Mayor of London get to enable him to fulfil these new responsibilities? (18490)

We think that, in line with localism, it is very important that money goes directly to the place where it is required. The way in which the Homes and Communities Agency operated in London was a great example of how not to do it, because we ended up with the chief executive of the national HCA, a London chief executive for the HCA and the elected Mayor having to work almost against each other. There is no point in that, because we can simplify things by having the money go direct. The amount of funding will now be resolved, with the spending review out of the way.

T4. The abolition of the Standards Board for England is greatly welcomed across the country, but it will have to be in the local government Bill. At the moment, there is a rush of new complaints, many of which are frivolous and malicious. Is there any way in which those can be stopped now, by stopping referrals to the Standards Board for England? (18488)

In fairness to the standards boards, they are trying to take away some of the more frivolous and silly complaints, the lowest level of which was the complaint that Ken Livingstone had been rude to a journalist—the very thought sends shivers down my spine, of course. Even if Ken had been a little emotional that night, the right thing is for the people to decide; it is for the electors to decide, not a quango. That entire investigation cost £200,000 and it was utterly pointless. I am doing my bit by taking substantial sums away from the standards boards.

T7. Has the Minister assessed how the 28% cut in local authority funding over four years will affect women, who are more likely to use and work for local authority services? (18491)

We will of course be making a full assessment. I say to the hon. Lady that the correct figure is 26% and that if we had not taken this decision, we would be facing savage and uncontrolled cuts in local authorities, because of the Labour party’s failure. We have a plan—the Labour party does not.

T5. As we all know, the previous Labour Government managed to build only 14,000 new social houses during their entire period. [Interruption.] Oh yes it is true. (18489)

My question is: how will the measures that we announced yesterday help to ensure more supply and enable people to get on a waiting list that has some meaning and where there is some chance of their getting a house?

The reaction of those on the Labour Benches clearly demonstrates that the previous policy was indeed a pantomime. We are determined to break through the hypocrisy that exists on social housing. In order to halve the existing waiting list, we would have had to spend about £50 billion. The Labour party produced a scheme that did not work. Ours goes with the natural flow of the housing market, and I am pleased to see chief officers of housing associations welcoming it and welcoming the flexibility. We will be able to implement many of the plans that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) so gallantly pioneered, only to be stopped by the previous Prime Minister.

T9. According to Allister Hayman of the Local Government Chronicle, regional development agency network liabilities have reached £1.5 billion and could rise as high as £2.5 billion. The Government plan a freeze on RDA spending beyond March 2011, which includes match funding, so how will this funding gap on Department for Communities and Local Government programmes partnered by the eight RDAs be met? Will the Government’s new local enterprise partnerships be adequately funded when they begin? (18493)

We are clearly examining the commitments made by RDAs. I express a high degree of disappointment that in the purdah period between the change of Government a number of contracts were entered into inappropriately. We will be doing our best to sort out that mess and see that the assets are returned to the new local enterprise partnerships. I must say that I am very disappointed at the irresponsible attitude that some RDAs displayed during that period.

T8. We have just heard about RDAs, and it is great news to me that we are moving towards local enterprise partnerships. People across Norfolk have come together—businesses, small businesses, the Federation of Small Businesses, the chamber of commerce, some big organisations, local authorities and the university—to put together a bid just for Norfolk. Does the Minister agree that this is a much better way to true localism, which enables us to see local economies grow, and will he look sympathetically at the Norfolk bid for a LEP? (18492)

I will certainly look sympathetically at it, although I cannot pre-empt the conclusions of the review. I think the process of inviting bids between business, local authorities, universities and the voluntary sector for LEPs has resulted, as Members will see shortly, in a fantastic set of proposals that will give energy and dynamism to the regeneration of some of the communities that need it most.

Last year, the Minister for Housing in the Labour Government allocated money to replace more than 100 council pre-fabs because the foundations were collapsing. Earlier this year, this Government decided to stop that money even though it had been allocated. All those pensioners and disabled people are waiting for those new homes. In this brave new world of £6.5 billion, can I get on the phone to Bolsover district council now and tell them that the Tarran bungalows are to be replaced?

The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that out of the £6.5 billion of money going to social housing, £2.1 billion is going to continue with the decent homes programme. I can also give him a further undertaking: we will ensure that, unlike my immediate predecessor, I do not raid that budget—as he did last July—to take some of the money and put it into a re-announced announcement elsewhere in the budget.

T10. How will the Department impress on local authorities the need to commission as many of their services as possible from the voluntary sector, small business and community groups seriously to deliver more cost-effective, creative and innovative services at the front line? (18494)

That is a very good question from my hon. Friend. It is important, as I said earlier, that we do not centralise in the town hall at a time when we are decentralising from the Government. In fact, the chief executive of the voluntary organisations’ umbrella body said that he was highly encouraged by our proposals to entrench these rights for community groups to receive funding from local authorities.

May I ask the Secretary of State, on the invitation of Haringey council, whether he would come to Tottenham and spend an evening in one of my estates? There is now real concern about homelessness in Haringey with the cut to housing benefit, the desire to take social housing rents to the same level as those in the private sector and the cut of 28% to local authority grants. Will he come to Tottenham and spend an evening with the community?

The question relates to the problem of homelessness, which is close to my heart. I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is £12.25 million, much of which will go to London authorities, to help with transition. I know that he has 4,500 non-decent homes left within his arm’s length management organisation stock that the new £2.1 billion will assist. On behalf of the Secretary of State, I shall be happy personally to accept his invitation and come and spend an evening in the estates with him. I look forward to it.

Order. If I am to accommodate a few more questions, they must be very brief, and so must the answers.

Because it is both topical and urgent, I ask the Minister to refer back to question 5. Local authorities are not necessarily taking any notice of what the coalition Government Ministers are saying in their pronouncements, particularly in the case of officers at Colchester borough council. Will he therefore visit Myland parish council in Colchester to see the absurd proposals that are going forward there?

If we are organising trips around the country, the least I can do is come and see my hon. Friend in Colchester.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he believes that house prices will rise or fall over the next six months? If they fall, would he see that as a good thing or a bad thing?

House prices will fluctuate. [Interruption.] It is obvious. We do not want to see house prices doubling in a period of just 10 years as happened under the last Labour Government, locking generations out of being able to get a foot on the housing ladder. This Government want to help people on to the housing ladder, not exclude them.

Last Friday, local volunteer groups in conjunction with Tamworth borough council launched the Tamworth community action network, which enables local volunteers to use council office space to provide volunteer services and recruit more volunteers. Will Ministers commend this local initiative, and will they consider visiting when time allows?

I think that is the third invitation to Ministers to visit Members’ constituencies in this set of topical questions. The hon. Gentleman has referred to an excellent project. It is an exemplar that we are keen to see replicated elsewhere, and I look forward to visiting it.

Yesterday we heard about the supposedly extra money that councils will get to meet the care needs of the elderly and disabled. How much is that sum of money compared with the total overall cuts faced by local government? I am concerned that what is being given with one hand is being taken away with the other.

That is an outrageous suggestion. For years upon years I stood at the Opposition Dispatch Box demanding that the money be released from the health authority to local authorities to deal with this. We have done that; the hon. Lady should be saying thank you.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the plan set out by Wirral council under its leader Jeff Green to tackle the debt left in the council by the previous, Labour, administration, first through introducing transparency by publishing all expenditure over £500 and, secondly, through a wide consultation with all the Wirral public?

I recently visited Wirral and met Councillor Green, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that the council is using a number of innovative measures not only in the transparency agenda, but in the imaginative use of community facilities such as fire stations working conjointly with youth groups in the big society.

Will the Liberal Minister now answer the question that has already been asked twice during this Question Time? What is his assessment of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report about extensive job losses in the private sector?

My assessment is that, like a lot of reporting of what the coalition agreement and the comprehensive spending review are about, it is purely speculative. What we have actually got is a programme for growth in the private sector and in small businesses, and we are putting the British economy back on its feet.

Is the Secretary of State aware that hard-pressed taxpayers in Harlow and elsewhere are paying the East of England Development Agency chief executive a higher salary than the Prime Minister? When the Secretary of State gets rid of this unnecessary and wasteful bureaucracy, will he ensure that the new local enterprise partnerships no longer waste taxpayers’ money in this way?

Does the Minister agree that changes to housing benefit, secure tenancies and the raising of rents will take us back to the “Cathy Come Home” era?

No, I do not agree with the hon. Lady and I will tell her this. The last Government used to claim there were just 440 people sleeping on our streets. That is not true. When we came into office we conducted a proper count, and the right figure is 1,247. Hiding the problem is not solving it; this Government are protecting the most vulnerable in society, and that includes the homeless.