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Topical Questions

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 21 October 2010

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.