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Communities and Local Government

Volume 521: debated on Monday 17 January 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Regulatory Burden

The Government are committed to reducing radically the burden of regulation on local government. We have already freed councils from the top-down controls of the comprehensive area assessment and local area agreement targets. The Localism Bill will go further, scrapping regional strategies and housing targets, the Standards Board regime and the duty to promote local democracy.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s reduction of local government paperwork. Not long ago, in order to meet Official Journal of the European Community requirements, Gloucester city council had to spend more than £300,000 on a tendering document for the redevelopment of King’s quarter. In this time of financial difficulty, does he agree that it is time for the European Commission to reduce the number of local government tenders that must follow OJEC rules, and so save taxpayers’ money in Gloucester and elsewhere?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. In fairness to the European Commission, it also recognises the problem and is undertaking a comprehensive evaluation of public procurement legislation. I also know that the Local Government Association feels strongly on that; its snappily titled, “The impact of EU procurement legislation on councils”, highlights the specific difficulties faced by local councils. I agree with the LGA and the EU. I met Commissioner Hahn last summer and urged him to ensure that a similar light-touch approach is taken to the administration of the European regional development fund.

The Localism Bill, which we will discuss later, has more than 140 new order-making powers for the Secretary of State. Is not that the Government saying that there will be new freedoms and powers for local communities and then being very prescriptive about how they should operate? Why is it necessary to have among those new orders and powers a raft of regulations imposing non-elected mayors on places such as Sheffield, where there is no demand for them from either the council or the public?

I do not recall the hon. Gentleman making those points about the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which contained a much smaller number of clauses and yet had 87 pieces of regulation. What we are doing is entirely necessary to liberate local government from the hand of central Government and is deregulatory by nature. As a friend of local government, he should be congratulating us and perhaps showing some contrition for his failure over the 2007 Act.

Local Authority Spending (Online Publication)

14. How many local authorities have published online details of their spending over £500 to date. (33558)

Our latest assessment is that at least 193 local authorities have published their spending data online to date. Another 10 are about to publish those data on their websites, but that figure is changing daily—pleasingly, upwards.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on that initiative. As Parliament knows to its cost, transparency is the best way to restore confidence in Government, and for that matter in local government, but any policy must be judged by its outcomes. Is there any sign that that initiative has changed behaviour in any way in local government?

As my hon. Friend will know, my Department has published those figures, and that has certainly changed our attitude. There is no possibility that, as under our predecessors, we will order lots of expensive Parisian sofas, a peace pod or special, high-quality chocolates for the Secretary of State—Mrs Pickles is probably pleased about that. We recognise that we must account for every single penny.

When councils publish details of any spending over £500, will they also publish the date on which the decision to initiate that spending was taken, so that the public can see clearly when it was taken so that accountability is not misplaced when administrations change?

We will fairly soon be publishing guidance on what is expected. We were clear that we were keen to see the raw data out there. My hon. Friend should easily be able to obtain such information through freedom of information or by writing directly to the authorities. It is important that local authorities are accountable, as we are, for the money that they spend. I look forward to seeing more local authorities publishing their spending online.

I congratulate King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council and Breckland council on being in the vanguard of councils publishing their expenditure online. Will the Secretary of State confirm how important this initiative is for transparency and for taxpayers to know how their money is spent?

I agree. The councils that my hon. Friend mentions should receive our congratulations and should be a spur to Norfolk county council to follow their lead.

May I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to an editorial in that august newspaper, the Burton Mail, which said:

“Eric Pickles deserves credit for requiring councils to publish every item of spending above £500. Mr Pickles’ requirement is about strengthening democracy.”?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a similar approach should be taken to councillors paying expenses? Will he join me in condemning those Opposition Members who are calling for more pay for councillors at this difficult time?

I am glad to know that I am going down well in Burton. Information about councillors’ expenses has for some time been available from councils, but I hope the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) will take the opportunity some time to say that Lord Beecham’s request for extra remuneration for councillors at a time of crisis is singularly inappropriate.

In that case, should not all Departments, not just councils and the Department for Communities and Local Government, also have to publish every £500 item of spend?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a number of other Departments have taken that initiative. I look forward to seeing the whole Government follow where councils lead—[Interruption.] I am relaxed about that. It is up to individual Departments, but there are already a number that publish expenditure above £500.

Does not the Secretary of State realise that that is an absurd bureaucratic regulation? Durham county council has calculated that it will take two full-time officers to fulfil that requirement, at the same time as the Secretary of State is cutting £100 million from the budget. [Interruption.] What is the purpose of such pointless posturing?

I confess that I had difficulty hearing the hon. Lady for all the gasps of disbelief. Only if Durham is using an abacus for calculation or providing the information on vellum is that likely to happen. In most councils and in my Department it happens automatically. With a simple spreadsheet, it is very easy to do.

I had the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) down for question 2 but, if there has been a change of plan or if I have been misinformed, that is fine.

Council Tax

8. What support his Department is giving to local authorities to minimise increases in council tax. (33552)

The Government are making an extra £650 million per annum available over the next four years to help principal local authorities in England to freeze their council tax in 2011-12, and will take action against excessive increases. The Localism Bill provides for local referendums on excessive council tax rises in future years.

At a time when so many household bills are rising, will the Minister join me in sending congratulations to Wychavon district council and Malvern Hills district council, which have worked so hard to share services and to keep council tax rises down for local residents?

My hon. Friend is right. In the past week or so since the finance settlement, I have had a procession of council leaders coming to see me, usually with their chief executives, to plead that they have no money left. One came this morning, and notably brought the chief executive who is being paid £180,000. I pay tribute to those local authorities that have taken the necessary steps and are therefore able to take advantage of the council tax freeze.

The elderly, vulnerable and least well-off constituents of mine in Dover and Deal and I am sure across the country will welcome the Government’s efforts to freeze council tax. May we have an assurance from Ministers that we will never again return to the dark days of the past, when council tax doubled under the previous Labour Administration?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that between 1997 and last year council tax rose by 109%, so the elderly, the frail, the most vulnerable and those with fixed incomes had absolutely no defence against what was happening when the current Opposition were in government. I am very proud to say that £650 million is being made available for this important priority: a 0% rise.

What can be done to stop local authorities withdrawing services, such as libraries and lavatories, and expecting town and parish councils to take them over, thereby increasing the local precept? People will not benefit from the Government’s support to protect them from council tax bills rising if the local precept rises instead.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Unless an authority has already merged its human resources, legal services and planning departments and cut the chief executive pay that Opposition Members are so keen to defend, there is no excuse for trying to charge more for those services, or indeed, as my hon. Friend points out, for trying to shove them off on to, perhaps, parish councils.

Since Bolsover district council has managed to hold its council tax steady for a few years, and since none of its executives get the kind of sums that have been referred to, will the Minister repay the compliment by allowing it to deal with the 108 prefabricated buildings that have been there since the end of the second world war? The council needs to replace them and pensioners need new accommodation, so will he get the show on the road?

The hon. Gentleman knows, because he has raised this issue with me before in the House, that the decent homes programme continues, and last week’s settlement, on top of the spending review, makes it very clear that £2.2 billion is available for decent homes—which, I understand, subsequent to our previous exchange in the House, his council is in line for.[Official Report, 27 January 2011, Vol. 522, c. 4MC.]

In a flight of fantasy and a moment of mental dysfunctionality, the Secretary of State and the Minister have proclaimed again and again that there is no need for front-line services to be cut if salaries are reduced, services are shared and there is greater efficiency. What will the Minister say to the Liberal Democrat-controlled Sheffield city council when, in cutting £70 million, it devastates services and decimates jobs in my city?

It is very important to get out to all local authorities across the country the message that the most vulnerable people should be protected in this spending settlement. That is an important point, because one of the principal ways in which vulnerable people are protected is through the Supporting People programme. Its budget has been pretty much kept intact. I will send out the message from the Dispatch Box now that the reduction in Supporting People is just 2.7% per annum, so there is no reason for local authorities to use that as an excuse to cut services to vulnerable people.

The Minister must accept that, far from supporting local authorities, the unprecedented cuts that his Government are inflicting will lead to diminished services, massive job losses and lower economic growth in the private sector. Will he at least concede that in the context of these massive cuts and the abolition of area-based grants, the £650 million that he is offering to freeze council tax is nothing more than a gimmick? Can he tell the House how he justifies sacrificing the country’s most deprived communities to indulge the Secretary of State’s penchant for attention-grabbing publicity stunts?

That was an interesting pre-written question, which seems to have ignored what we have established from the Dispatch Box today: that £650 million will lead to a 0% council tax rise in virtually every authority in the country. Although the hon. Gentleman says that that is of no consequence at all, I can tell him that for the pensioners in my constituency, his constituency and in those of my hon. Friends it will matter a great deal.

Local Authority Employment (Halifax)

6. If he will assess the effect on the economy of Halifax of reductions in levels of local authority employment. (33550)

The Government monitor public sector job losses at the local level. The £1.4 billion regional growth fund has been set up to help generate private sector job growth, particularly in places that have been over-reliant upon public sector employment.

The majority of public sector workers in Halifax are middle and low-income earners who have worked loyally for the council for many years. Will the Minister put on record exactly from where he sees new jobs coming to my constituency, which needs and relies on a strong public sector?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will therefore welcome the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecast, which predicts a total employment rise in 2011 and 1.5 million new private sector jobs being created. I hope that her council will work with the local enterprise partnership and the regional growth fund to achieve those jobs in her area.

Halifax will be hard hit by council cutbacks. Halifax council believes that for every job that goes in local government, one will go in the private sector, and that the voluntary sector will also be hard hit. Does the Minister accept, therefore, that this Government are cutting too far, too fast, with no plan for growth and rapidly rising unemployment, and that once again, for this Conservative-led Government, as in the 1980s, unemployment is a price worth paying?

Formula Grant Funding (Deprived Areas)

7. What assessment has been made of the likely effects on local authorities in areas of deprivation of reductions in formula grant funding. (33551)

We have delivered a fair funding settlement for local authorities that takes into account the particular circumstances of each area. Our proposals ensure that no authority sees a reduction in revenue spending power greater than 8.9% in each of the next two financial years.

The Minister apparently does not understand, or does not care about, the scale of the challenge facing constituents in deprived areas such as Sunderland. Does he seriously expect my constituents to be grateful for the hammering that they are taking in order to protect affluent areas such as Surrey?

I share the hon. Lady’s disappointment that the financial situation we face means that every part of the public sector has to take pain in order to put things right. The formula grant for Sunderland is £562 per head, and that means that for every £1 going to the less dependent authorities, Sunderland is getting £4.50. Her reduction of 8.9%, and of 4% next year, will in fact be an improvement because of the new homes bonus amounting to more than £500,000 this year.

I welcome the Department’s review of formula grant damping in time for 2013. Will the Minister consider the impact of damping on Norfolk county council, which next year will receive more than £20 million less than if the formula grant were given out on the basis of assessed need only? Will he ensure that from 2013 Norfolk gets a fairer funding deal as a result of this review?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The local government finance review will start later this month and will indeed produce a new determination of funding for local authorities that gives them much more freedom to spend and raise their revenue, starting from 2013.

In his appearance before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, the Secretary of State said that there was no need for local authorities to make cuts to front-line services, yet only last week the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association said that

“the level of spending reduction that councils are going to have to make goes way beyond anything that conventional efficiency drives, such as shared services, can achieve.”

If the Secretary of State and his team disagree, will the Minister tell us how many local authorities will be able to meet their budget cuts without cutting either jobs or front-line services?

It is obviously for every local authority to take its decisions on what services it supports with the money it has available. Councils will have much more freedom and flexibility, with the money that they do have, in making choices in future. It is for them to decide on their priorities.

I will take that as meaning none. As the Minister knows, in the real world, these huge front-loaded cuts cannot be made by efficiency savings alone. The Secretary of State and his team have said on many occasions that the settlement is fair. He said that it is progressive and that it protects the most vulnerable. The House of Commons Library has confirmed that the top 10% of most deprived areas are being hit with cuts four times worse than those in the best-off areas. To put it another way, while people in Hartlepool will lose £113 per head, residents in Wokingham will lose only £4 per head. Does the Minister still think that that is fair?

I say to the right hon. Lady that we have adjusted her formula grants to put a greater emphasis on the importance of deprivation—from 73% to 83%. Our banded floors mean that the percentage loss of formula grant for Hartlepool is lower than for Wokingham.

Green Spaces

The coalition Government have taken immediate action to help communities to protect green spaces. Three measures stand out: the decision to take gardens out of the definition of brownfield sites; the abolition of the density targets that prevented family homes with gardens from being built; and the measures in the Localism Bill, which will be debated this afternoon, that give communities the right to have neighbourhood plans that protect valuable green spaces.

In 2001, the then Secretary of State for Transport imposed planning restrictions that required councils to limit the number of parking spaces allowed in new residential developments, and set high parking charges that kept shoppers from the high street. What is the Secretary of State doing to end the war on motorists waged by Labour?

I think it was the same Secretary of State for Transport who set a target to reduce the number of journeys made by car, but, of course, the numbers went in the opposite direction. Everyone knows that if people are banned from having garages and driveways, as under those planning changes, it means not that people will not have a car, but that they will drive around looking for a precious parking space, annoying their neighbours and making people oppose development. We have therefore scrapped those maximum parking standards.

What impact will selling off the treasure of our national forests, which has been built up over generations, have on access to green spaces for children and families?

Of course, the policy to which the hon. Gentleman refers started under the previous Government. He knows that the intention is to increase and safeguard access to natural assets, such as our forests, for all generations.

New Homes Bonus

The new homes bonus commences in April 2011 and will match fund the additional council tax raised for every new home that is built or brought back into use. It will continue for six years.

I thank the Minister for that reply. We all want new homes. However, Labour-run Kirklees council has just launched a local development framework-style consultation process for 28,000 new homes. Many constituents are worried that it will mean the bulldozing of beautiful countryside in the Colne and Holme valleys. How can he reassure my constituents that local people will have a democratic say in developments in their area?

The good news is that local people will, at last, be in charge of development in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Rather than targets being dictated from Westminster and our telling his constituents what should be going on, the balance will be in local hands. From April, his local authority stands to gain about £1.3 million through the new homes bonus. Local people will decide the pace and scale of growth, and the benefits that they want to derive. I trust them to do that more than I trust Ministers to do it from here.

What plans does the Minister have for neighbourhoods such as Picton and Kensington in my constituency, where housing stock had been planned under housing market renewal, the existing stock demolished or vacated, and then the funding taken away?

The housing market renewal programme was responsible for demolishing a large number of homes—so many that there are fewer affordable homes after the 13 years of the previous Government than there were when they got into power in 1997. There was something wrong with that programme and there is now an enormous funding problem. It will be for the local community and local authority to get together with the local enterprise partnership and pull together the various funding streams, which will include the new homes bonus because those homes are no longer there. When they are rebuilt, the local authority can benefit. I extend an offer to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the circumstances of the housing market renewal.

Rural villages in my constituency and across Britain have seen a policy of decline by neglect over the past 13 years, and people there are excited by the proposals for local housing in the Localism Bill. Can the Minister provide some reassurance that when small pockets of housing around a village are approved, some of the bonus will come back into the local community?

My hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that under the community right to build, which is one of the proposals in the Bill, local communities will be able to vote for additional homes, for example in a village that is trying to keep the post office and the local school alive. They will be able to do so without so much of the bureaucracy that there has been, and without the regional development agency telling them that their village is not where it wants homes to be built. It will happen on a local neighbourhood scale, so communities will be very much in control. They will own the housing trust that builds the homes and will be able to ensure that those homes stay in local use for as long as they like.

I need to draw the House’s attention to an entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). To avoid any misunderstanding, I add that he is my partner.

It is eight months since the Minister entered office and asked us to judge him on his record of delivering housing. What has happened since then? Planning permissions have fallen off a cliff, we have the worst record of house building since 1923 and now 21 Tory council leaders in the south-east say that the new homes bonus will not deliver the homes that are needed. Does he agree with them, and what is his time scale for reconsidering the level of the bonus if it does not work, as they fear?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for pointing out that I have now been in the post for eight months, because that happens to be exactly the time for which my four predecessors, including the current shadow Secretary of State, stayed in office.

House building had fallen to 1923 levels under the previous Government, with their top-down planning and regional spatial strategies. I am confident that the fact that we have scrapped that structure and introduced the new homes bonus, which, as we have heard today, is about to start paying out significant sums, will reverse the fall in house building and affordable house building that we so tragically saw under the previous Government.

Planning Policy

13. What assessment he has made of the potential implications of the provisions of the Localism Bill for planning policy guidance and statements. (33557)

The Localism Bill does have implications for the national planning framework, which will be developed in conjunction with the Bill. Currently, national planning guidance runs to 900,000 words, which is the equivalent of two copies of “War and Peace”, and it is completely inaccessible to people in local communities up and down the country. We will replace it with a slimline, powerful version that people can use.

I thank the Minister for that very clear answer, but may I take the matter a little further? Obviously the new homes bonus is being introduced, as we have heard, along with the right for local people to decide on housing levels. In my experience, understandably, very few people want many homes built close to them. How can the Government ensure that there is not a conflict between those two policies?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question that goes to the heart of the purpose of the Bill, which is to deal with the problem that the number of homes being built has fallen to a low last seen in the 1920s. The reason for that is twofold. First, communities do not get to share in the benefits of new building, and specifically do not get the infrastructure that is required. Secondly, if people are excluded from having a say in the look and feel of development in their area, no wonder they are opposed to it. If we allow people to have a say and have a stake, we can start to turn around the planning system.

Local neighbourhood partnerships provide local community groups and people with a feedback mechanism to influence planning and other local government decisions. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s decision to scrap those partnerships flies in the face of the stated aim behind the Localism Bill of pushing power down to local people?

No, I do not accept that. The hon. Lady will find that we are encouraging, and indeed empowering, neighbourhoods to come together to develop a vision for their future. Funds will be provided to help them to do that.


15. If he will make it his policy to introduce a third party right of appeal in the planning system. (33559)

The Localism Bill lays out our proposals for the radical reform of the planning system, making it more effective at the local level, reducing the need for appeal, and supporting economic recovery. It does not include a third party right of appeal because the coalition considered it, but believed that the better route, as the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) just said, is to give communities greater control over what is considered to be appropriate development for their areas at the very beginning, through our neighbourhood planning system.

It would not be so bad if life in the real world were like that. Developers always have the advantage. They have to win only once, but objectors must win every time. A developer can go to appeal; opponents cannot. When a local authority and a developer sing from the same song sheet—in Colchester, the local authority and Mersea Homes jointly wrote the song sheet—there is a serious problem for the local parish council and local residents. I urge the Minister to take that on board and to think again.

I would understand my hon. Friend’s point if no other changes were being made to the system, but we are addressing precisely the point that he makes. In some areas, people currently feel disfranchised by the system. We are enfranchising them by enabling them, through the neighbourhood plan—if approved by a referendum—to prevent unwanted development in their area.

The Conservative party and its coalition partners pledged in their pre-election material to introduce a third party right of appeal, so may I congratulate the Minister and his partners on accepting the fact that that was one of the more barmy proposals among many others? Can I look forward to a series of further U-turns on other unrealistic propositions in the Localism Bill?

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that both coalition parties thought that a third party right of appeal was well worth looking at, and we did so carefully—it was not lightly dismissed. The system that the previous Government left in place resulted in people feeling aggrieved. We have concluded, however, that the best means of reducing that grievance is not through the third party right of appeal, but by front-loading the system and giving residents and communities far greater control over development at the beginning, which is swifter and more cost effective.

Role of Central Government

16. What steps he plans to take to reduce the dependency of local authorities on central Government; and if he will make a statement. (33560)

The Government’s localism and decentralisation agendas are focused on passing powers to the most local level possible. The local growth White Paper set out our plans to enable authorities to retain locally raised business rates and to give councils a real incentive to go for growth. The Localism Bill, which is before Parliament, includes a number of measures that are designed to reduce the dependency of local authorities on central Government, including in particular a general power of competence for local government.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that my constituency includes the retail and commercial hub of Croydon town centre. Achieving the full localisation of business rates would give the council a very strong stake in the health of the local economy and massively reduce dependency on central Government. Will he look at that idea as part of his long-term review?

The Government are clearly looking to ensure that local authorities get the benefit of the economic decisions that they take. The key to that is the localisation of business rates. Clearly, were we to apply that to the City of London, it could pave the pavements with gold, so there must be some way of applying that measure to areas that are not as fortunate as, for example, Croydon, but I look forward to my hon. Friend’s submissions to the review.

Good local councils in areas of greatest need use their grant funding effectively to support people with disabilities, people who need care or housing, and children with special educational needs. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell the House what he is doing to help such councils beyond imposing the heaviest cuts on them and trying to stigmatise their work with the language of dependency?

As the hon. Lady knows, this was to be the year of the big cuts. Had the Labour party won the election, they would have imposed such cuts, and my job as Secretary of State was made considerably easier because I inherited a lot of the plans that Labour had prepared. She will also know that this Government have ensured that the most dependent councils face the smallest cuts, and that we have put in £6.5 million for Supporting People and transferred nearly £1.5 billion from the health service to help to support people. We have protected the vulnerable, and we expect sensible and responsible local authorities to do the same.

One council radically reducing its dependence on central Government is my council of Hammersmith and Fulham. Thanks to four years of successive council tax reductions, there has been an accumulated saving to the average council tax payer of £1,799. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council on reducing its dependence on central Government and delivering exemplary value for money for its local residents?

Hammersmith and Fulham council is indeed the apple of my eye. I recall visiting it in opposition and watching that first budget go through. First, the Labour party said that those were ridiculous cuts that would destroy services. Then it said that it would reduce council tax even further, but it ended up abstaining.

Social Home Builds

17. How many new social home builds he expects to be started in each year of the comprehensive spending review period. (33561)

In the spending review we announced almost £4.5 billion investment in new affordable housing to deliver up to 150,000 affordable homes. We are giving housing associations more flexibility on rents and use of assets, thus increasing their financial capacity, and our aim is to deliver as many homes as possible through our investment and reforms. The actual number of homes started and delivered in each year is dependent on agreements between housing associations and the Homes and Communities Agency in consultation with local authorities.

I congratulate the Minister on his optimism, but I am afraid that I do not share it. In my constituency, the former Catford dog track has lain derelict for the past seven years. It is a site owned by the Homes and Communities Agency and has planning permission for a scheme that includes 313 affordable homes. Given the Minister’s stated commitment to affordable housing, will he agree to meet me to discuss options for how we can get appropriate development on this site?

I am certainly happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the situation she described. I hope that she will bring the answer to what happened in those seven years.

Our experience in rural Broughton Gifford in my constituency is that a parish council can promote an exception site to use land efficiently to meet local housing need. This was possible under existing legislation, but took several years. How will the Minister’s proposals for a community right to build help such enlightened rural parishes?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. As he will see when he studies the Localism Bill, local communities will have a right to build that will allow them to overstep their local planning system to deliver what they need.

In spring 2008, the Homes and Communities Agency gave the flagship Conservative council of Westminster grants to build 500 new homes. Three years later, significantly fewer than 50 such homes have been built. Will the Minister tell me why?

Clearly, those five years were a time when a Labour Secretary of State was standing at this Dispatch Box.

Unauthorised Developments

18. What steps he is taking to strengthen the enforcement of planning decisions in respect of unauthorised developments. (33562)

The Localism Bill gives enforcement powers to local councils specifically to prevent people from preventing enforcement against them by applying for retrospective planning applications.

I thank the Minister for his response. Unfortunately, in my constituency the council has become well known for failing to enforce planning conditions. Given that we are encouraging local people to take a greater interest in local matters, does he not agree that local authorities must commit to strict enforcement of planning controls?

One of the great advantages of localism and the Localism Bill is that it will be crystal clear that local authorities are responsible for these decisions, and I hope that in every part of the country local people, through the ballot box, will bring pressure to bear on councils that fall behind others.

Fire Services (Bassetlaw)

19. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of fire services in Misterton, Retford, Harworth and Worksop. (33563)

Decisions on the provision of fire services are taken by individual fire and rescue authorities, as part of their integrated risk-management planning process, which assesses and mitigates risks to local communities. No formal assessment of Nottinghamshire fire and rescue authority’s local decisions has been made by central Government.

The fire service in my area is not adequate; it is excellent. I would therefore like to know why the Minister is cutting the Nottinghamshire fire service budget by so much, thereby endangering those standards of excellence and possibly leaving the people of Retford in my constituency without proper fire cover—cover that they have had for 100 years and that they deserve in the next 100 years.

Spending for fire and rescue authorities has, in fact, been protected and back-loaded because they are front-line services. Nottinghamshire is making proposals that it intends formally to consult on, I understand, at the end of February. The proper course is for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to enter that consultation then.

Working Neighbourhoods Fund

20. If he will assess the likely effect on vulnerable people in Newcastle upon Tyne Central constituency of the end of the working neighbourhoods fund. (33564)

The Minister’s answer gives me no assurance whatsoever. The working neighbourhoods fund funds a project in my constituency called Newcastle Futures, which has supported more than 6,000 people into work and training since it was set up in 2007. That is 6,000 lives changed for the better. Now Newcastle Futures fears for its future. What assurance can the Minister give that such important projects will continue to support people into work and training?

For every pound going to the richest authority, £4.80 goes to Newcastle. It is for Newcastle to take those decisions. However, I also want to draw the hon. Lady’s attention to last week’s announcement about the formation of the local enterprise partnership, which covers Newcastle and provides the authority with a chance of accessing regeneration funding.

Topical Questions

Since we last met for oral questions, my Department has introduced new powers to protect community pubs, supported local high streets by scrapping Labour’s petty Whitehall parking rules, championed human rights by reining back on draconian powers to seize private property, and given councils an incentive to put empty homes back into productive use. Today we move forward with the Localism Bill, which will scale back England’s over-centralised state and deliver devolution for the people, giving power to local councils, communities and local people. Other items were contained in a written statement that was laid before the House last week.

My local authority, Dudley council, received notification last week that existing projects financed by private finance initiative credits will no longer be allowed to access that funding stream. In our case, that amounts to a sudden cut in funding— £10 million over the next decade—for an important information and communications technology programme in 120 schools. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of my local authority urgently to discuss the matter?

I can confirm the message that I left with my hon. Friend’s office at the end of last week: I am very happy to meet her as a matter of urgency to discuss the matter.

T3. On his recent visit to the north-east, the Prime Minister claimed that his West Oxfordshire council was facing much higher cuts—23% over two years—than anywhere in the north-east. However, that cut of 23% amounts to £775,000. In comparison, Durham county council, which covers my area, is facing cuts of more than £60 million—that is, £28 million in formula grant, plus £32 million in area-based grant. Will the Secretary of State accept that my constituents will struggle to understand this particular concept of fairness, and that, regardless of percentages— (33572)

Order. Let me gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I think we have got the thrust of it, and topicals need to be brief.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman gets out much, but West Oxfordshire is a very small place, and Durham is a lot bigger. Durham has reserves of just short of £93 million, and it receives formula grant at £459 per head, a sum that the people of West Oxfordshire can only dream of.

T2. Last year, London Councils spoke for many when it said that Labour’s local funding formula“lacks transparency and is inherently unstable and unpredictable, generating fluctuations…that defy logic.”Will my right hon. Friend review that formula and base it on real need, so that more taxpayers get what they pay for? (33571)

It is certainly our intention to review the formula and to try to place it on a fair basis. When I had the opportunity of dealing with it, one of the relatively small things I was able to do was to move the relative needs component up to 83% from 73%. That is why the settlement has been so progressive this time.

T4. The Save Spodden Valley campaign in Rochdale has spent the past six years fighting a planning application to build 600 homes on the former site of the world’s largest asbestos factory. Last week, the council rejected the application, not least because of Save Spodden Valley’s excellent campaigning, to which I pay tribute. Given that planning aid is to lose Government grant, is the Minister confident that local groups will be able to stand up to multi-million pound planning applications on their own? (33573)

I have good news for the hon. Gentleman. The Localism Bill, which we will debate this afternoon, will give the power to local communities such as his own not to have to be dragged through the appeals system in the way that he has described, but to say once and for all how they want their communities to look and feel. I look forward to welcoming him into the Lobby this evening.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that the final decision on major infrastructure projects should be a political one, and not one made by an unelected quango? Given that Britain is 33rd in the world in terms of infrastructure, according to the World Economic Forum, does he agree that he should make it a priority to discuss this matter with other Cabinet members? (33575)

We will do more than discuss it; we are going to act on this. It is important that we have a fast-track process for infrastructure investment, but it is also crucial that it is democratic. If people do not have confidence that those who take the decisions can be held to account, there will be no faith in the system. The Localism Bill will deliver the reforms that my hon. Friend seeks.

T5. In defining localism, if the Secretary of State were to get a planning application appeal on his desk regarding a development that 12,000 local people were in favour of and that would create lots of jobs, and that only two people, and the Tory council, were against, which side would he be on? (33574)

When we judge these matters, we judge them in a quasi-judicial way. We will always be blind to political advantage, and we will do what the evidence suggests.

T8. The interim report of the Zero Carbon Hub suggests that achieving zero-carbon homes by 2016 will depend on what it calls “allowable solutions”, potentially off-site. How will the Minister ensure that such measures are local and tangible, and therefore more credible than existing offers for carbon offsetting? (33577)

Ensuring that our homes are zero carbon is a fundamental part of what the coalition agreement asks us to do, and this Department is strongly committed to that. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Housing Minister has made it clear that we are going to make detailed proposals shortly.

T7. The chief executive of Barnardo’s has warned about young people being groomed in every town and city. Given the cutbacks in policing services and the cuts in local government that will impact on children and young people’s services, can any Minister stand at the Dispatch Box with his hand on his heart and say that that apprehension will now be eased? (33576)

I certainly hope that that will be the case, because that kind of behaviour is wholly unacceptable, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House have been shocked to hear of that process. However, given that the hon. Gentleman’s local authority has £108 million in reserve and receives £714 per head, while areas such as Surrey receive £170, it should be in a very good position to prioritise such matters.

T9. The Department for Transport has established that where lower tier authorities provide additional funds for concessionary travel, this amounts on average to 12%, yet the Department for Communities and Local Government budget proposals seize all that money and redistribute it to upper tier authorities. Will the Minister agree to meet Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, to discuss how this serious mistake can be corrected? (33578)

Of course we will meet Kettering borough council. The closing date for consideration of evidence is today, but I believe that Kettering has submitted evidence. We, of course, will look very carefully at any evidence of statistical mistakes that might have been made.

Given that the Secretary of State faces a massive cut in his budget and is devolving issues down through his Localism Bill, how many of his six Ministers does he expect to make redundant?

We are in the process of making the Department smaller by reducing the number of director-generals, directors and assistant directors. As time goes on, it is certainly our intention to get smaller.

T10. We heard earlier that the levels of house building in the last year of the last Labour Government were the lowest since 1924, which is a disgrace. How will the Minister reverse that trend and ensure that house building increases adequately to meet the demand, particularly for social and affordable housing? (33579)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: that low record of house building was a disgrace. We need to do a range of different things, starting with the new homes bonus, followed by ensuring that there is affordable rent, that affordable homes are built, and that the planning system is liberated. There are also many measures in the Localism Bill, which we are debating later today. A whole raft of things needs to be done to get the situation fully under control. We look forward to the Opposition’s support for making that happen.

A theme of Ministers’ answers has been the differential between the grants of different local authorities, with poorer authorities getting more than prosperous authorities. Is it a higher priority for Ministers to equalise those grants or to get rid of the inequality that has given rise to higher grants going to poorer areas?

We have increased equalisation. We have done three things. We changed the relative needs component from 73% to 83%; we introduced banded floors so that wealthier authorities have a greater percentage cut; and for those falling outside that, we introduced transitional relief. A new form of local government finance should, I think, start to concentrate on those areas of higher dependency, as far as the central grant is concerned, so that we can get them out of that dependency, increase growth and increase prosperity.

It remains a scandal that a loophole in planning law allows a freestanding pub or other community facility to be demolished without planning permission, thereby denying the community any say whatsoever. May I ask my hon. Friend the new community and pubs Minister if the Government are minded to support the Protection of Local Services (Planning) Bill on Friday or will they incorporate it into the Localism Bill instead?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his congratulations on this interesting addition to my responsibilities. I am discussing with the Bill’s sponsor the best means by which to collaborate sensibly to achieve the objectives of protecting important local services such as community pubs.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would acknowledge that under successive Governments Manchester has proved to be a resilient and successful city. Even so, it faces higher than average levels of unemployment. What possible justification does he have or can he offer for axing the £7.7 million working neighbourhoods fund and giving that money to parts of the country that already have relatively high levels of employment?

We did not axe it; the previous Labour Government axed it, and I do not recall the right hon. Gentleman raising a single objection to it.

Staffordshire Moorlands district council has entered into an arrangement with neighbouring High Peak borough council to share management services. Does the Secretary of State agree that innovations like these can help save taxpayers money while protecting front-line services?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority. Sharing services is surely the way forward. Nowadays there is no real excuse for having separate management teams, separate chief executives and expensive, well-paid officers to fill every position. Sharing can prevent the cuts from falling on the most vulnerable and needy members of society, and I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on doing exactly that.

Given that today is the last day for representations to be made in the formal consultation on the grant settlement for local authorities, will the Minister assure me that he will take seriously the representations from Stoke-on-Trent and its Members of Parliament during our welcome meeting with him last week? We cannot afford these cuts.

I thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues from Stoke-on-Trent who came to see me last week. I assure her that her words and theirs were clearly heard, and that they will be taken into account along with all the other representations that we have received.

Authorities such as Manchester city council, run by Labour, are publicising front-line job cuts while retaining their Twitter tsars. Meanwhile, other local authorities, such as Leicestershire county council and North West Leicestershire district council, are being diligent. They have cut their management, protected front-line services, and kept council tax low. Is it right for such diligent local authorities to be punished in the next spending round because of the profligacy of councils run by the Labour party?

My hon. Friend is right. It is for local authorities to work out where to make their savings. I should add for the record that it is not clear whether the Twitter tsar was eventually employed, although the post was certainly advertised. I should also point out that when authorities talk of job reductions, we do not know whether they are including positions that were already vacant.

Last year the Prime Minister asked local authorities not to do the easy thing by cutting the budgets of voluntary bodies, but week after week representatives of such organisations come to my surgery and tell me that their budgets have been slashed and that they cannot continue to do their work. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about Nottinghamshire county council’s failure to heed the Prime Minister’s advice?

The average cut in the spending power of councils is 4.4%, so there is no excuse for any council to target the voluntary sector disproportionately. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers will be as clear as Ministers in condemning such behaviour.

When Ministers consider representations about varying the provisional spending formula for councils, will they take seriously three issues above all: the effect of front-loading the settlement, the effect of any staff costs resulting from the settlement on councils without many reserves, and the need to ensure that the population figures are accurate and up to date?

We will use the most up-to-date information we have. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about front-loading; we did much to mitigate its main impacts in the settlement. We are continuing to examine all aspects of the settlement, and we will of course ensure that the most vulnerable are protected in the process.

In answer to an earlier question, the Secretary of State said that he looked forward to a time when local authorities would be able to retain business rates raised in their areas. With that in mind, can he tell us what proportion of the money distributed to authorities through formula grant is raised through business rates?

Virtually all equalisation comes from business rates. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and we will consider it carefully, but before we can move to a system of that kind we must be able to offer a degree of stability. Business rates are notorious for their movements during the economic cycle.

Given that three London councils are coming together to share some of their services, what advice would the Secretary of State give the London borough of Hounslow to stop it cutting front-line services?

It should seek to emulate those fine councils Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea. It should join others in protecting the front line, and stop using the poor as a battering ram against the Government.

Order. As ever, the Secretary of State is heavily in demand, but I am afraid that time is our enemy. We must move on.