Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 25 November 2010

This week my Government will be co-operating with interfaith week, celebrating how faith communities are adding to the well-being of our society. We have published details of our plans to build 150,000 more affordable houses over the next four years. We have welcomed the decision of the Local Government Association’s chief executive to take a cut of £200,000 a year, and we hope that more town hall chiefs will follow his example in these austere times.

At the 2010 British curry awards, the Government paid tribute to the spice industry’s £4 billion turnaround—a real bhuna for the British economy. From bin collections to small business tax relief, we will do our utmost to ensure that Britain’s curry industry is second to naan.

Sorry, Mr Speaker, I can hardly follow that.

The proposal to refund 2.5% of income to councils freezing their council tax next year, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), will have the perverse outcome, will it not, of top-slicing the money from all councils and then rewarding the wealthiest, high rateable value authorities such as Surrey twice as much as the poorer low rateable value authorities such as Hull, Newcastle or Sheffield? Given that those three councils are Liberal Democrat-controlled, will the Secretary of State tell me which conjuring trick he managed to do in persuading the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues that this was fair or even acceptable?

I am sorry to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he is wrong about the top-slicing. It is in fact new money, and we will not be top-slicing the authorities. I face a great dilemma. As the money that each local authority has varies, the grant differs considerably; he alluded to that. The particular problem I face is the decision taken by the Labour Chancellor to remove £300 million from the working neighbourhoods fund, which will hit Sheffield particularly hard. At the moment, I am trying to ensure that Sheffield and all those authorities are cushioned against Labour cuts.

T3. Mindful of the recent floods in Cornwall and the fact that from April next year, upper-tier and unitary authorities will have responsibility for flood risk management strategies, will the Secretary of State confirm that money for that purpose will be guaranteed in the comprehensive spending review? Will he please apply planning policy guidance note 23 to inappropriate developments on floodplains? (26226)

Our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs remain committed to funding fully local authorities’ new burdens under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Up to £36 million a year in total will be provided directly to lead local flood authorities for all those new burdens, and in addition local authorities will spend money supported by formula grant from our Department. I will certainly consult my colleagues on the PPG to which my hon. Friend refers.

It is not really turning out to be a very good day for the Secretary of State, but you know what, it has not actually been a very good fortnight since he told council leaders on 6 November that talk of front-loaded cuts was “fiction”. Now it seems that reality is beginning to dawn on him. According to a report in the Local Government Chronicle, he has been attending emergency meetings with the Treasury to plead for more money to mitigate the effect of those cuts, which could mean some councils losing up to 20% of their funding by April 2011. Whether or not it is true that the Secretary of State has been lobbying the Treasury to come up with more cash, may I urge him to start listening to the concerns of local government and ensure that councils get a fair deal that stops the damage caused by the heaviest cuts falling in the first year?

I am sorry to say to the right hon. Lady that I have not necessarily found the Local Government Chronicle a very accurate reflection of what is going on in my Department, ripping read though it undoubtedly is. I must also admonish her in the mildest possible terms for using a partial quote. What I said was ridiculous was the idea that councils would face a 20% cut in their total spending ability in the first year.

The right hon. Lady has to recognise that she needs a policy. She knows, I know and the House knows that the Labour party Government were going to impose £5 billion-worth of cuts on local government, which would have been front-loaded.

T4. Analysis of the impact of reforming the formula grant on concessionary travel support suggests that most of the options currently being considered have urban-centric criteria and therefore could lead to more money going to urban areas and less to rural areas. What assurance can my hon. Friend the Minister give to places such as Cornwall, which rely on concessionary fare support, that they will not be disadvantaged by the changes? (26227)

I understand very well the concern that my hon. Friend raises and the importance of the issue, particularly for shire districts. He is right that we have consulted on that, and we are considering the results of that consultation. I have to ask him to be patient, because we will announce our proposals for the local government finance settlement in the usual manner in due course.

T2. What incentive does the Minister think cities such as Southampton will have, under the terms of the new homes bonus, to avoid losing millions of pounds of housing funding by having to build more homes each year than have been built in the city since the aftermath of the second world war, and on land that, because of the urban nature of such cities, does not actually exist? (26225)

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, because people often say that more homes cannot be built in a city, so perhaps the new homes bonus will not operate there. Interestingly, however, when I go to some of the most crowded places, such as Kensington and Chelsea or Westminster, I am told that even those areas have space to build and will benefit greatly from the bonus. I recommend that his local authority looks for some of the space it has and gets building.

T5. Will the Secretary of State inform the House what guidance there will be following the proposed revocation of planning circular 04/07 to inform local authorities such as mine in Selby about planning permission for travelling show people or others wishing to develop land for use as a permanent site for travelling show people? (26228)

I have had a meeting with the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, kindly organised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley). We talked about what would replace those planning guidelines, and we will do our best to meet what the guild is looking for—sensible co-operation with local authorities.

T6. Many small voluntary organisations in my constituency that provide services to the most vulnerable, such as Durham Action on Single Housing, are extremely concerned about their futures following local government cuts. What will the Minister do to ensure that homelessness does not increase in my constituency and elsewhere as a result of the cuts to local government spending? (26229)

It is very important that every local authority reflects on the contribution that the voluntary sector can make. We are decentralising funds from central Government to local government, and I expect local government not to draw up the drawbridge, but to treat voluntary organisations fairly and, indeed, to allow them greater access so that they can provide more services than they currently do.

T8. The Secretary of State recently visited the Nine Elms development area, which includes Battersea power station in my constituency. We talked about the importance of tax increment financing being available to councils involved in major regeneration projects. Will he press for TIFs to be brought in as soon as possible? (26231)

I thought the development was very interesting. It will transform the south of the river; indeed, Members of the House will be able to look across to one of the more exciting developments in our capital. I very much recall my visit, which was just before my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced our intention to move forward on TIFs at the Liberal party conference. We will be including this in the localism Bill, which will be introduced in this House very soon.

T7. On Monday, the Government set out plans to reform social housing, including the scrapping of guaranteed long-term tenancies. These reforms have been described by leading charities as “a deliberate attack on the poorest in society”.Does the Housing Minister agree with the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who said of the Government’s proposal:“it is not a Liberal Democrat policy, it is not a coalition policy, it was not in the election manifesto of either party, it was not in the coalition agreement…our party would need a lot of persuading that it has merit”? (26230)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that, because a lot of misinformation has been put about on these reforms. For one thing, on the flexible tenure—the idea that a tenure from two years could be provided—we are thinking about special cases, such as that of my constituent Matthew Hignett, who was paralysed from the neck down after a motorcycle accident. He cannot apply under any of the current rules for social housing, but thanks to flexible tenure—because we are making the system more flexible—he will now actually get the help and assistance that he requires. Some of the charities have made comments on that, but some, such as the YMCA, have said that they appreciate and welcome flexible tenure, so, no, I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s comments.

My constituents welcome the fact that Milton Keynes council will become the sole planning authority for the city, but they are concerned that some of the assets currently controlled by Milton Keynes Partnership may not be used for community purposes. Will the Minister meet a delegation from the city to discuss some innovative ideas about how those assets could be used?

It is always a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend, and I look forward to meeting him and representatives from Milton Keynes in due course.

T9. What support will the Secretary of State give the campaign that I am launching to ensure the retention in Retford of the full-time fire station and service, which has been there ever since the inception of local government? (26232)

It is for individual fire authorities to decide the manning levels and the nature of the duty systems at fire stations, consistent with their obligations under fire services legislation and their integrated risk management programmes. It is not for the Government to interfere, because those authorities are best placed to assess the needs, priorities and risks in their areas.

Will the Minister confirm whether the requirement on local authorities to front-load the budget reductions is in any way connected to the protection of the Olympics budget?

What steps did the Secretary of State take within the Government to protect communities in London and the south-east that have not been able to take advantage of the national insurance holiday that other areas have enjoyed, precisely because they were more, rather than less, reliant on public sector workers? Surely, that must have stuck in the Secretary of State’s craw just as much as it did in mine.

There needs to be consistency from Opposition Members. They cry, “What are the Government doing to help the north of England?” but the national insurance holiday is a tangible measure that the previous Government were unable to take. The hon. Gentleman should congratulate this Government. After all, only when we get through the reduction in public expenditure and get our economy back on to an even keel can we look forward to—

The Government inherited the FiReControl contract from the previous Government. As I have indicated to the House already, we have concerns about the contractor’s persistent delays in delivery. In consequence, on 8 November, we placed the contractor in material breach, which requires a response within 20 working days.

In October, the Secretary of State told the House that it was outrageous for me to suggest that the money announced in the comprehensive spending review for elderly care would be wiped out by overall cuts to local government. Will he tell me what he disagrees with in the London Councils’ estimate that overall funding, in relation to the personal social services budget, will decrease by £885 million, or including inflation, £1.8 billion?

I think that the London Councils’ analysis is overblown, and that it errs a little on the side of hysteria. Let us be clear. What we know is that the local government settlement is £6.5 billion for Supporting People, and, for care for the elderly, for an extra £2.2 billion will come directly from the NHS.

Further to my questions in the House, the Secretary of State has challenged local government to get its house in order on executive pay-offs. Will he therefore commend the approach taken by Bristol city council, which has applied a cap of £700 per week in redundancy payments for each week’s pay in the settlement? That has cut redundancy costs by 30%, and it affects only the highest paid 10% of the work force.

It is absolutely right that Bristol council has used existing flexibilities to reflect the circumstances that apply to it. That is the right approach, and why, as I indicated in relation to a previous question, it would be inappropriate for the Government to restrict the ability of local authorities to respond to their own circumstances in such matters.