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Topical Questions

Volume 521: debated on Monday 17 January 2011

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.