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Communities and Local Government

Volume 524: debated on Monday 28 February 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Voluntary Sector

1. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the community and voluntary sector of reductions in levels of Government funding for local authorities. (42485)

8. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the community and voluntary sector of reductions in levels of Government funding for local authorities. (42492)

18. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the community and voluntary sector of reductions in levels of Government funding for local authorities. (42503)

Spending decisions are a matter for local councils, but no council will see its spending power fall by more than 8.8% next year. Councils face difficult decisions owing to a fiscal crisis that was not of their making or of ours. The best councils are expanding the opportunities for the voluntary sector to help them to make savings. The worst-run councils are targeting the sector for disproportionate cuts. We are requiring all councils to be transparent in their actions.

Next year, my local authority is cutting more than 20% of its running grants for voluntary and community organisations, which means that organisations such as the citizens advice bureau, the council for voluntary service and advice services generally will find it almost impossible to continue to support the volunteers they have supported over the past year. Does the Minister think that authorities such as Southampton will rue the day they did that, or is he rueing the day that he enabled his Department to acquiesce so readily in the cuts to local government funding that he has endorsed?

I have made it very clear that councils should not cut disproportionately. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to meet his local council. I understand that the leader of the council has invited every voluntary organisation to come to see what other opportunities there are for them within the council. I also hope that if he does go to the council, he will reflect on the fact that every Conservative and Liberal member has taken a 5% cut in their allowances, but Labour members have refused. When he is in city hall, I hope that he will get his friends there to make their contribution to the voluntary sector.

The Government have completely cut the grant to vinolved—a youth volunteering project—cut the grant settlement to Bolton council by £60 million, which will amount to 25%, and last year cut £1.3 million from Bolton’s grant to the voluntary and community sector. Bolton council is prioritising funding to the voluntary and community sector, but cannot work miracles with no money. Why is the Minister not listening to and supporting the voluntary and community sector?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady listened to the debate in the Bolton council chamber on Wednesday—it was its budget meeting—but I did. I listened to it live on the internet, and it was fascinating. Two things emerged: first, the director of finance warned two years ago that the council should get its house in order, but was overruled by Labour members; and secondly—and disgracefully—a motion by the Conservative group to provide a fund to protect voluntary organisations was voted down by her Labour colleagues. She pipes up in this House, but can she pluck up the courage to talk to her colleagues in Bolton?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now more important than ever that local councils maintain and strengthen their links to community and voluntary groups, because these very groups can lead to innovative ways of delivering very high quality public services?

They can indeed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Reading council, for example, has taken the opportunity to increase funding to the voluntary sector, knowing that actually it helps it to change its services and make some of the savings it is required to make.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the need to bring forward legislation to strengthen the ability of charities to come together to get the expertise to procure and gain contracts from local authorities that all too often set the rules in ways that do not enable charities to provide the services in their local communities that they really want to provide?

My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that is why he will know that in the Localism Bill we are establishing rights for every voluntary organisation in the country not to be rebuffed by local authorities but to make a challenge to provide services, if they can demonstrate that they can do it better. That is the right approach, but it did not happen during the 13 years of Labour party rule.

We all know that local councils are the largest providers of public funding to the voluntary sector, which has grown over the past 10 years, particularly through the partnerships that operate so successfully up and down the country. What was the Department’s estimate of the number of jobs that would be lost in the voluntary sector as a result of the front-loaded cuts the Government have imposed on councils, and will the Minister confirm that the Government’s transition fund, which was meant to help charities that have lost funding, was closed to bids on 21 January, before most councils had even finalised their budgets?

I welcome the right hon. Lady to the debate; I had thought that her silence on matters concerning the voluntary sector might be terminal. We have made it very clear that councils should not cut disproportionately, but she has been absolutely silent, as have her Front-Bench colleagues, about Labour councils that are taking their cuts out on the voluntary sector. We have provided £100 million of transition funding, which is now being taken up. The first grants have been paid this week. I look forward to the right hon. Lady writing to members of Labour councils up and down the country and joining us in making it clear that they should not cut services.

Labour has always celebrated the partnership between local government and the voluntary sector, and under a Labour Administration we saw those partnerships grow. We saw local voluntary groups taking over some of the services that councils had traditionally run. The fact is that it is not only we who are raising concerns about the threat to the voluntary sector: 88 Liberal Democrat council leaders have made a public statement about their concern, and we know from a freedom of information request that Tory council leaders have also raised concerns about the front-loading of the cuts that they are facing, so the Minister should not make any party political points on this. However much he might pretend otherwise, is it not the truth that every Home-Start that goes to the wall, every over-60s club that closes and every domestic violence shelter that shuts—

Order. I think we have got the thrust of the right hon. Lady’s question, and we are grateful to her.

I wish the right hon. Lady was more vocal when she talked to the Labour councils that are making disproportionate cuts up and down the country. The fact is that they are having to make those cuts as a result of the policies of the previous Government, who left a completely unsustainable legacy. Our spending on debt interest is almost twice the amount that the council tax raises. Labour politicians got local authorities into this mess, and they are not playing their part in helping the voluntary sector. They should be saying very clearly, as we are doing, that councils should not make disproportionate cuts.

Sustainable Rural Development

2. What steps the Government are taking to encourage local authorities to promote sustainable rural development through an integrated approach to employment and housing in rural communities. (42486)

The Government are committed to integrating national planning policy on the rural economy and housing in the streamlined national planning policy framework, which will include a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Through neighbourhood planning, we will also enable local authorities to have greater control over the delivery of the services, jobs and homes that their areas need.

After a decade of neglect under the previous Government, large swathes of rural Britain have suffered as post offices, pubs and small businesses have closed. Is it not key to rural communities to get jobs and small housing developments back into our rural villages, and will not the excellent Localism Bill help us to change the sustainability rules introduced by Labour that have made that impossible?

The Bill will introduce neighbourhood planning measures and the community right to build, which will enable the incremental growth of villages. This will empower local communities, particularly in rural areas. Also, as I have said, we are revising the whole national planning priority framework, which will enable us to ensure that we have genuine sustainability—the right development in the right places to meet the right needs—while removing the top-down targets that have often resulted in inappropriate development being foisted on rural areas.

Local Authority Employment

3. What recent estimate he has made of the likely change in aggregate levels of employment among local authorities in the next four years. (42487)

No estimate has been made of the change in aggregate employment levels among local authorities in the next four years. It is for individual councils to make their own decisions about how their local work forces are organised and managed to ensure the efficient delivery of services for local taxpayers.

I think there should have been such an estimate. The Office for Budget Responsibility has projected a net loss of 40,000 in public sector employment in the next financial year, yet the Conservative-led Local Government Association says that 100,000 jobs will be lost in local government alone in the coming financial year. How have the Government got this calculation so badly wrong?

It is precisely because it is down to local authorities to configure their work forces to meet local needs and priorities that the Government have not sought to make a calculation and therefore cannot get any such calculation wrong. The right hon. Gentleman might also like to reflect on the fact that some of the figures being bandied about relate not to actual reductions in jobs but to consultations on potential changes that might not come to pass.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council, which, in four years of Conservative control, has reduced its staff by a third, from 4,087 to 2,787, with almost no redundancies? It has cut the communications staff by half and reduced the human resources headcount from 100 to 47, all at a time when its services are rated among the highest in the country.

Hammersmith and Fulham is an exemplar of how councils with imagination and political courage can deal with the matter. My hon. Friend is right to point out that it has done so—without any significant redundancy—by deleting needless posts.

Following a detailed survey of 202 councils, the Local Government Association has confirmed that, because of the scale and speed of the cuts imposed on local government, it stands by its prediction that 140,000 jobs will be lost. This was dismissed by the Secretary of State as a calculation on the back of a fag packet. The calculation includes Tory Hampshire, with 1,200 job losses; Tory Norfolk, with 1,500; and Birmingham, with 2,700 losses in next year alone. Sadly, the LGA got it right and the Secretary of State got it wrong. Will he now apologise?

There is nothing to apologise for, because the error lies with those—including the GMB—who have calculated these scaremongering figures on the basis of HR1 forms, which relate to consultations on possible deletions of vacant posts, changes in work force patterns and voluntary redundancies. They bear no relation at all to compulsory job reductions; the hon. Gentleman should know better.

Local Authority Funding

4. What assessment he has made of the effects of reductions in formula grant funding on local authorities in the most deprived areas. (42488)

5. What assessment he has made of the effects of reductions in formula grant funding on local authorities in the most deprived areas. (42489)

Authorities in the most deprived areas will, thanks to the banded floors, receive a smaller reduction in formula grant than others. We have given greater weight to relative needs in the formula grant, and our new transition grant will make sure that no council has a spending power reduction of more than 8.8%.

If fairness is at the heart of this Government’s decision making, as clearly stated in the coalition agreement, why are the most deprived areas being hit the hardest? Given that the Minister wrongly stated that the most deprived area—Liverpool—did not receive a 30% cut to Supporting People funding, when can Liverpool expect to see a recalculation based on the 1% national average, which would result in an £11 million improvement in its settlement?

Here is something for Labour Members to take into account: one cannot take money away from authorities that are not getting it in the first place. Of course, the biggest spenders, even if we use percentages in the same region, are going to feel the impact in a different way. Liverpool, for example, still receives £764 a head, whereas my authority, by contrast, receives £229 a head.

Will the Minister congratulate Liverpool city council, which is making £100 million-worth of efficiency savings? Does he agree with the independent efficiency expert Colm Reilly of PA Consulting who said that, given the huge cuts in Government funding, the council cannot make the scale of savings necessary without affecting front-line services?

As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, nobody says that this is going to be easy. The deficit—the size of the debt—left to the country by Labour makes these reductions inevitable. However, Liverpool is latterly doing something about it; the problem is that it did not plan for this far enough in advance. Had it done so, it would have been in the same position as Trafford and other local authorities that are carrying out these reductions without some of the pain now experienced in Liverpool.

I used to be a councillor in Trafford, and I think the Minister should reflect on the fact that the deprivation there is nothing like it is in Liverpool, Manchester and Salford—there is no comparison. The areas I have mentioned have higher levels of poverty and unemployment and much greater inequalities in health than other areas. Despite that, Ministers have chosen to inflict the deepest, the most swingeing and front-loaded cuts on those deprived areas. Will the Minister comment on the letters from 131 Labour council leaders and 88 Liberal Democrat leaders, many from deprived areas, who are united in their anger at the unfairness of the cuts and at the constant political attacks on them by Ministers, which we have heard again today?

The hon. Lady refers to Trafford, where she used to be a councillor, but that council receives much less money from the Government than do other councils, including Liverpool. The idea that they are in the same position is untrue. In addition, the hon. Lady should know that we have protected the level of reduction for some of the most needy councils by having banded floors, which means far smaller reductions in the most needy areas, while the transition grant means that no area can be affected by more than 8.8%. A range of other measures, including an increase in the deprivation index from 73% to 83%, also apply.

Antisocial Behaviour (Social Housing)

I recently announced a package of proposals to strengthen the hands of social landlords and tenants, so that they can take swift and effective action to tackle antisocial behaviour.

All too often, the rights of very badly behaved social tenants seem to be given more weight by the courts than the alarm and distress that their poor behaviour causes to fellow tenants in the wider community. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, to discuss how the problem can be tackled?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue, of which I am aware. The amount of time that it takes to evict antisocial tenants is a severe problem, which is why the measures that I announced on 11 January included a proposal for mandatory grounds for evictions when a case has occurred before. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Let me first draw attention to my interests, as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It is quite right for the Government—and all of us—to take action to protect tenants against antisocial behaviour on the part of those who make their lives a misery, but do the Government not recognise that their imposition of harsh housing benefit cuts and steep increases in rents for social housing, and their termination of security of tenure for new social lettings, will inflict misery and insecurity on many more tenants in the future?

That is an entirely inaccurate portrayal of what is happening. For one thing, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the rent policy was set by the last Government in a deliberate attempt to merge housing association and council rents. Ministers in past Governments, including some in the last Government, recognised that the lazy consensus that houses should be given to people for ever, even if their circumstances changed, was long past its sell-by date. It is ironic that so many Opposition Members are prepared to fight and die in a ditch for a policy of lifetime tenures that was introduced by Margaret Thatcher.

Antisocial behaviour is not confined to those in social housing. Neighbours from hell may also be owner-occupiers. What action can be taken to deal with the many landlords of buy-to-let properties who do not care a damn about their tenants, let alone their neighbours?

The big difference between the public and private rented sectors is that because private sector leases tend to be for six months or more, it is much easier for landlords to terminate them. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the difficulty experienced in the private sector, and I am keen for the Government to assist in any way they can.

Community Budget Schemes

7. What expressions of interest he has received from local authorities outside the areas of the family support pilots in the creation of community budget schemes. (42491)

Authorities in many of the 16 first-phase areas, and in a number of other places, are interested in developing community budgets in relation to a variety of local priorities, and we are discussing the possibilities with a range of Departments. The number of areas involved is constantly evolving.

May I press the Secretary of State a little further? Given the demonstrable advantages of community budgeting—value for money, local delivery, and bringing people closer to the political process—what further action is the Department taking to increase the number of projects?

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a great interest in the issue, and that he recently made a number of important points about it to the Select Committee. We are encountering some resistance locally, but we must be vigilant and push local authorities into making decisions, because the future lies in a system that enables us to bring together locally all the funds from the various Departments.

I welcome the commitment made by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)—who is responsible for decentralisation—to look favourably on any further proposals for community budgets from local authorities, but does the Secretary of State not agree that Departments have an obligation to become more involved and proactive in this regard? Does he understand my disappointment that at a recent meeting of the Select Committee, Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Department of Health could not between them cite a single proposal for further decentralisation measures? Is it not time that the Government as a whole got their act together?

The short answer is yes, of course. As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), this is a very important Government policy, and much of the reluctance arises in Departments, on the ground. I look to the hon. Gentleman, the Select Committee and my Department—which is taking a considerable lead—to deliver on the policy. I believe that if we do so, we shall be delivering something much better.

Council Tax

9. How much funding his Department has allocated to local authorities to minimise increases in council tax in 2011-12. (42493)

So I am.

The Government announced in the spending review that we intend to make £650 million per annum available for the next four years to help principal local authorities, including police and fire authorities, deliver a council tax freeze in England in 2011-12. If an authority increases its basic rate of council tax by any amount, it will not be eligible for the freeze grant.

Now that the Secretary of State is back with us, may I thank him for that answer? Under Labour, since 1997 the council tax for the average home in Reading rose by 116%. This year, the new Conservative-led coalition will freeze council tax for the first time ever. On the day that the Leader of the Opposition talks of a cost of living crisis as standing up for families in the middle, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party should begin by apologising for clobbering families in Reading—

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. His question has absolutely nothing to do with the responsibilities of the Government.

The Secretary of State seems to have delayed the inquiry into the localisation of business rates. If it went ahead, Westminster would gain £1 billion and Durham would lose £80 million. What is he going to do to mitigate that, or is that in fact his intention?

Of course, there is going to be considerable equalisation, but it seems to me that:

“Local business concerns are critical to good local government. There are sound democratic reasons why, in principle, the business rate should be set locally, not nationally.”

That expresses the point best, and I would have thought there would be consensus on it right across the Chamber as, after all, those are the very words of the Labour party’s 1997 manifesto.

Housing (North Wiltshire)

10. What criteria are used to determine the number of houses which should be built in North Wiltshire constituency? (42494)

Local authorities and communities should plan for sustainable development in their area, taking a visionary and strategic approach to be responsive to the market using robust evidence of the number of homes required.

Across England, developers seem to be taking advantage of what they believe to be a policy vacuum to press ahead with large-scale planning applications. In my area for example, there are applications for 5,000 homes around Chippenham, the whole of Swindon seems to be moving westward to engulf some of the villages there, and there are applications for 280 homes in Malmesbury. Does the Minister agree that local people should decide how many houses they want and where they should be, taking account of homelessness and all that of course, but looking in areas such as mine at preserving the green belt, the countryside and our way of life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course: taking account of the housing needs survey so that homelessness and affordable housing are addressed, the numbers should be set through a process of local decision making. The days of top-down targets, which led to the lowest rate of house building since 1923, are over. That is official, because I can tell Opposition Members that just a couple of days ago the National House-Building Council announced that there had been an 18% jump in the number of home starts—the applications to start building homes. Bottom-up is starting to work.

My constituents have a keen interest in house building in the North Wiltshire constituency. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), referred to “incremental” growth, which would certainly be more welcome to them than the urban extensions we have experienced in years past. Will the Minister confirm that decisions on house building should be based on meeting local housing need rather than catering for population movements from elsewhere in the country?

The idea that Ministers can sit in Whitehall and somehow dictate these tractor-like targets on five and 10-year plans has finally ended, I am pleased to say. My hon. Friend will be relieved to know that deciding where housing should go will now be an entirely local decision, prompted by the new homes bonus and other mechanisms.

Social Housing

11. What steps he is taking to address under-occupation of social housing to promote social mobility. (42495)

In January, I announced a £13 million programme to address under-occupation by offering support to tenants who wish to move. Our radical social housing reforms will also involve introducing for the first time a national home swap programme.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In my constituency there are a large number of families in overcrowded and cramped housing waiting for a suitably sized home, and the wait for larger homes can be several years. All the while, of course, there are people living in oversized social housing that is no longer needed. Apart from the better home swap scheme that he mentioned, what more can be done to encourage those who are reluctant to downsize, in order to free up that housing?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is an extraordinary 430,000 people living in homes with two or more spare bedrooms, while nearly a quarter of a million people are living in overcrowded circumstances. None of this makes sense, and we have just announced a scheme whereby people are helped to move where they want to. There is no question of anyone being required to move, but assistance with utility bills and bank accounts being moved, for example, turns out to be one of the most useful things available, particularly for elderly people who are interested in moving home.

On reflection, would the Housing Minister like to withdraw his comment that social tenants are “given” their homes? In fact, social tenants enter into a contractual relationship and pay their rent like any other tenants. Does that not show the contempt the Tory party has for them, particularly as he was given his seat by Lord Ashcroft?

On reflection, the answer is no. The truth of the matter is that homes are allocated to people who are in need because they are in need. The idea that just because at one point in their life they were in need, they should continue to have that home and be able to hand it on to another generation, lives, I am afraid, with a past generation. Even the shadow Secretary of State, when she was in my position, accepted the point that housing reform was greatly overdue.

Departmental Administration (Spending)

We are developing an efficiency and reform plan and restructuring the Department to make it smaller and stronger and focused on coalition priorities. We have outlined a new thrift campaign, implementing ideas to remove unnecessary spending on estates, ICT, hospitality and procurement.

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he regret the fact that in 2008 and 2009, the Standards Board for England spent £5,570.54 on just nine chairs? Has he put an end to such shocking waste, not just in his Department but in agencies such as the Audit Commission for which he has responsibility?

Indeed, and perhaps I should thank my hon. Friend for his excellent report on procurement and the improvement of efficiency in local government. It has been a colossal shock to discover how public expenditure was simply allowed to be wasted under the previous Government. I believe that there was an atmosphere in which the view was, “It’s not our money and we can spend it as we like.” We have reduced all manner of expenditure, ensuring that we reduce the number of printers and the amount of colour printing, that we cancel a number of non-essential subscriptions, and make increased use of video conferences and the like. Those all add up and all make a significant difference.

New Homes Bonus (Charnwood)

13. What estimate he has made of the level of funding from the new homes bonus which will be allocated to Charnwood borough council. (42497)

A provisional allocation was made to Charnwood borough council the week before last, which I announced, of £644,387 under the new homes bonus.

I thank the Minister very much for his reply. There is a real need for affordable and family-sized housing in my constituency and on the part of Charnwood borough council. How is the new homes bonus going to help councils to provide such housing?

The great thing with the new homes bonus is that it is a lot more flexible regarding the type of housing required. It will pay more where the homes are family-sized and therefore attract a higher council tax band; but in addition—I am sure that Opposition Members will welcome this—every affordable home built will receive a flat addition of £350 per year, the equivalent to about a third extra over and above the new homes bonus on other houses.

I should start by declaring my indirect interests, in line with those already mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford).

I am sure that the people of Charnwood listened with interest to the Minister’s response, but they will not have heard him admit that Kensington and Chelsea get 52% more in funding per new home than the constituency of the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), and 91% more than Hull. He also conveniently forgot to mention that the council’s revenue support grant would have to be cut to fund the new homes bonus, with money transferring from deprived areas to wealthy ones. So those areas with the greatest need for housing will not get it, while green fields in affluent areas will. Will the Minister tell us by how much Charnwood council’s and other councils’ funding will be cut to fund this policy in years 4, 5 and 6?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady may have misunderstood the way this policy operates, despite the fact that I published it the week before last. The amount that each area gets per home is exactly the same—in fact, I have equalised it across the country—so just because council tax is higher in Kensington and Chelsea there is no question of it being any different from Charnwood or anywhere else; the funding is based on the average in each different area. In point of fact, nearly £1 billion of funding has been provided for the new homes bonus which is not top-sliced off the other sums. In later years, when the money is indeed top-sliced from the formula grant, the bonus will be a positive incentive to get on and build homes—the Labour party used to encourage that.

Local Authority Funding

14. What recent assessment he has made of the likely change in the provision of services by local authorities as a result of reductions in levels of Government funding for local authorities. (42498)

We have given councils much greater financial freedom and flexibility to manage the more than £7 billion of funding from 2011-12 which is moving into formula grant, is being un-ring-fenced or is new funding for the settlement. This will enable them better to meet local communities’ needs. If councils share back-office services, join forces to get better value from their buying power, cut out excessive chief executive pay, and root out overspending and waste, they can protect key front-line services.

I am not sure that that answer related to my question at all. Within weeks of this Government coming to power last May, Lewisham council had half a million pounds slashed from its Connexions budget and half a million pounds cut from employment and enterprise support schemes, and, as we all know, time was called on the future jobs fund. With youth unemployment nearing 1 million, what action will the Secretary of State take to ensure that local authorities can do more, not less, to help young people into work?

I have checked the question and I think that what I said answers it exactly. I must say to the hon. Lady that her local council has £58 million available to it in non-school reserves and that youth unemployment continued to rise under Labour in the good times and the bad. We have given the flexibilities I described and it is about time that ladies and gentlemen on the Benches opposite woke up and accepted their responsibility for the financial state of the nation—the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) laughs at the idea because it is someone else’s money. Labour councils are cutting back more than Conservative councils and the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has done nothing about it.

Northamptonshire county council, East Northamptonshire district council and Wellingborough borough council have all frozen their council tax this year and they are all Conservative controlled. Is it not the case that Conservative councils cost you less and deliver more?

What a wonderful slogan. I wonder who first thought of it. [Interruption.] It is indeed mine and what it says has proved to be the case. There is a really strange thing about this whole process. If we match up councils authority by authority, we see that Liberal Democrat and Conservative authorities are protecting the front line, but under Labour authorities the front line is the first one to go, the voluntary sector is the first one to go and the most swingeing cuts are the first thing to happen. It is time that the right hon. Member for Don Valley accepted some responsibility for that.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the community groups, Save Levenshulme Baths and Friends of Levenshulme, on the success of their campaign, which was announced officially in Manchester town hall this morning by Councillors Amesbury and Reid? Levenshulme baths are to be rebuilt and are to reopen in two years and, in the meantime, the existing baths will stay open. Is this not a victory for community action, unlike the whingeing from the Liberal Democrats on Manchester city council?

When a council has made a significant cut to a front-line service, such as by withdrawing support from 20 libraries, would it be possible to require that council to publish on its website the measures that it has taken to try to protect the service? Such measures could include working with other local authorities, as the Secretary of State has suggested.

The great thing about transparency is that a number of citizens are looking at their local council and asking it questions if it is closing down swimming baths or libraries while spending on things that do not relate to front-line services. I think that transparency is a very good thing. If people are closing down valuable community assets, they should make a very strong case for doing so.

Fire Authorities

15. What recent assessment he has made of the effects on fire authorities of the planned reductions in grants to local government. (42499)

As part of the local government settlement for 2011-12 and the provisional settlement for 2012-13, an assessment of the reduction in spending power for individual, single-purpose fire and rescue authorities was published and is available in the Library.

Since 2004, Lancashire fire authority has successfully reduced expenditure without jeopardising public safety—incidents of arson and fire casualties have been reduced by more than a quarter. Lancashire faces cuts of 4% next year and there are fears that the back-loaded cuts at the end of the comprehensive spending review period will mean a 15% reduction. What reassurances can the Minister give to my constituents and firefighters that those latest cuts will not jeopardise or threaten their safety?

Bearing in mind that the formula grant amounts to some 50% of the income of single-purpose fire and rescue authorities, which therefore have other sources of income through council tax or reserves, the reduction in spending power for Lancashire in the current year is 1%, and next year it will see an increase in spending power of 0.1%.

It strikes me as a bit bonkers that many communities have separate fire, ambulance and police stations, many of which have been built recently. What is the Minister doing to encourage emergency services to work together to cut costs and to get rid of three lots of electricity bills and the such like? Also, what is he doing to ensure that they work together so that when one service is pressed, another can help and support it?

In fairness, a good deal of work is already being done at local level on closer collaboration and joint working between fire authorities and other emergency services, and I commend that. At the time of the settlement, I wrote to the chairmen of all fire and rescue authorities and their chief officers to set out the way in which closer joint working, collaboration, better procurement and the stripping out of back-office services could save money that could be made available to the front line.

The Minister knows that I have surveyed every fire and rescue service in the country about the impact of this year’s financial settlement. Fire chiefs have told me that his cuts to their budgets will result in fire stations being closed, fire appliances being taken out of service and more than 1,000 firefighters losing their jobs in the next 12 months alone. Is he confident that his cuts will not compromise public safety? Will he accept that the feedback from fire chiefs proves that he has singularly failed to deliver on his commitment to give some protection to fire and rescue services? Will he come clean and admit that his cuts—

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition at all. The fire service is protected because its reduction in spending power is 2.2% in the current year and 0.5% in the next year. I have pointed out exactly the measures that many local authorities are taking to save money in the back office and to concentrate on the front line, and I hope that he will encourage authorities to do the same and that he will not engage in scaremongering.

Planning Law Reform

16. What plans he has to take into account work completed on existing local development frameworks in his proposals for the reform of planning law. (42500)

Work that has been completed by councils on their development plans remains valid, provided it is based on up-to-date evidence. The reforms set out in the Localism Bill do not contain any measures that will invalidate work on existing plans, but we have included changes to make the process easier and more flexible.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I recently had the good fortune to attend a village meeting in Caythorpe in my constituency, where local people were concerned that their views should be listened to, as they were not listened to in the context of planning under the previous Government. What assurances can he give me that the views of local people, particularly in rural communities, will for the first time be listened to when it comes to planning?

I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend’s question. He will know that the Localism Bill will give communities the right to be heard and to set out a vision for their community in future. They have not had that before and when the Bill gets Royal Assent, they will have it for ever.

Transparency in Local Government

I want transparency to underpin everything that councils do. All council business should be open to public scrutiny—whether it is expenditure, senior pay, council expenses or voluntary sector funding. I am consulting on a code of recommended practice to enshrine the principles of data transparency and to set out the minimum data that should be published.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and recognising the Vale of Glamorgan council, which is one of two authorities in Wales that have chosen to publish all invoices in excess of £500? The other authority is another Conservative-led council, Newport city council. What influence can my right hon. Friend bring to bear on the Welsh Local Government Minister to force Labour-run and independent-run authorities across Wales to follow their lead and do the same?

I am sure my hon. Friend has done more than enough to demonstrate to the people of Wales the desirability of transparency. It is gratifying that every local authority, with the exception of Labour-controlled Nottingham, now trusts the local population with that vital information.

Topical Questions

First, I commend the work of my officials, led by the chief fire and rescue adviser, who have been working closely with the West Midlands fire and rescue service which is leading the co-ordination, search and rescue efforts following the earthquake in Christchurch. Our thoughts are with the people of New Zealand at this difficult time.

Increased transparency and accountability have been the key tasks of Ministers in recent weeks. We have introduced honesty into the rough sleeper counts. New counting methods reveal that rough sleeping was four times higher than Labour Ministers admitted, with councils such as Labour-run Manchester refusing to report any figures. The plight of the vulnerable will no longer be ignored by the Government. We are also giving local citizens the right to report their local council chamber by blogging, tweeting and online filming. This builds on Margaret Thatcher’s private Member’s Bill in 1960 and the right granted in a local government Act in 1908. It is Liberal Democrat and Conservative local government that is championing openness in government.

I welcome the principle behind the new homes bonus, but if the level is set too high or if local authorities become too dependent on it, could it not become a perverse incentive for overdevelopment?

My hon. Friend is pushing at an interesting point. It will be for democracy at a local level to decide what happens. His constituents can rely on him and their own wherewithal to decide to vote for the party that will provide the right level of housing rather than overdevelopment.

T3. Earlier this morning we heard that HSBC is paying its top banker £5 million. By chance, that is exactly the amount of money needed in my constituency to complete the Decent Homes programme. Will the Minister for Housing meet me to discuss how we might make that happen, so that 1,000 people can live in decent homes? (42512)

Just before the recess I announced a series of spending pledges for the Decent Homes standard which added up to £2.1 billion. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss how best to take the project forward in her constituency.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in a diverse area such as South East Cornwall where we have everything from vibrant seasonal coastal car parks, to town centres that need the support of low car parking charges, to small villages that were built before the car and where residents rely on community car parks to park their vehicles, that community ownership and management is better than a holistic one-size-fits-all charging system imposed by a council and covering the whole county? (42511)

In a place as diverse as Cornwall we look for a variety of ways in which council and other car parks are charged. We have removed much of the pressure on local authorities to increase the charges. That is something that the previous Government were keen on, as a way of using the motorist as a cash machine. Local charging best takes account of local conditions.

On the Localism Bill, 12,000 people in my constituency supported a 1,000-job development, and there was one objector. Guess who the Secretary of State backed. Whatever happened to localism?

Under the Localism Bill, local people will have the right to prevail in future. Once the Bill has received Royal Assent, every community will have the right to a local plan that will then govern decisions made in future.

T5. Conservative-controlled Devon county council has reduced chief executive pay and slimmed down middle and senior management, and it will reduce back-office expenditure by £14 million in 2011-12. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending its efficiency savings? Does he agree that responsible councils should take such actions in order to protect front-line services? (42514)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that council. He lays out a valuable lesson. One thing we are discovering in those authorities that are cutting libraries, Sure Start and all front-line services is that none of them has attempted any of the things that his local council has so excellently done.

T6. The severe cuts to the road maintenance budget have led councils throughout the country to warn that in the years ahead they face a pothole nightmare, notwithstanding the announcement of an emergency £100 million, which the harsh winter has made necessary. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that those councils have a case, or does he think that they should stop “bleating” for more money, as the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) disgracefully said at the weekend? (42515)

The hon. Gentleman has to understand that we are in this position because of the way in which the Labour party left our national finances. The Labour party is apparently happy for us to continue to pay vast sums of money to foreign bankers by way of interest, but we have simply arrived at the point where the country is boracic, and that is a direct consequence of Opposition ladies and gentlemen’s neglect of the economy.

T7. In my constituency I have Brent Cross Cricklewood, the largest regeneration scheme outside of the Olympic park. Can the Minister confirm that, when council tenants or arm’s length management organisation tenants move into regeneration projects, their tenancies will continue unbroken? (42516)

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no chance of, or way in which, a social tenancy can be broken or changed for anybody already in council or housing association homes.

T9. Once the financial year has started, will the Secretary of State give us a report on the reduction in local authority employment over the past year? (42518)

I have already indicated to the right hon. Gentleman that it is for local authorities to decide how best they configure their work force. Let us see what eventually happens. It is important to remember that some of the figures that have been quoted do not bear in mind the fact that the HR1 forms, which are necessary for the purposes of consultation, do not result in job losses. Furthermore, job reconfiguration takes place by many other means that do not result in the figures suggested.

T8. I welcome the scrapping of the previous Government’s top-down housing targets, which caused so much inappropriate development, particularly in my constituency. As the Localism Bill goes through Parliament, however, some developers are land-banking brownfield sites so that they can gain planning permission successfully at appeal on greenfield sites. What are the Government doing to protect such sites in this interim period? Will they consider re-introducing the sequential approach to planning? (42517)

My hon. Friend is right. The mixture of top-down regional targets, together with the removal of a specific reference to a sequential test in planning policy statement 3, did put pressure on greenfield sites. The Government have already changed the definition of brownfield sites to exclude gardens, and in the Localism Bill we have introduced proposals to abolish top-down targets from the regional strategies. The fact that that Bill is making progress through the Commons is a material consideration for developers to bear in mind.

Does the Minister think that having to make a total of £185,000 in cuts to the voluntary sector and £106,000 in cuts to various youth services, as well as having to lose up to 170 posts by March, all because of Government-imposed efficiencies of £15.9 million, are more likely to change and, in fact, reduce the provision of services by North Tyneside council?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. I hope that she recognises that different councils are doing things in different ways. With a maximum cut of 8.8%, there is no reason for any council disproportionately to cut the voluntary sector. I hope that she will look at the examples of positive councils such as Reading, Thurrock, Lancaster, Ipswich, Watford, Stafford, Rugby, Redditch, Crawley and Wolverhampton—10 councils that are either maintaining or increasing their support to the voluntary sector at this time. She should look at them, and go back to her constituency and talk to her councillors.

I recently submitted to the House a petition of more than 2,500 constituents calling on the Government to help to protect the local Kingswood green belt, which is still being threatened by the previous Government’s disastrous regional spatial strategy. What reassurance can the Minister give to my constituents, who are rightly concerned and wish to protect our local green belt?

I warmly commend my hon. Friend for that petition and the work that he has done to protect the green belt in his constituency. As I said in response to earlier questions, the Government propose to remove the top-down pressure of the regional spatial strategies and will maintain statutory green belt protection. Such decisions should be taken by local people to reflect the local needs of their communities.

Today, a bus full of Nottingham people has travelled down to Westminster to highlight the devastating impact that cuts to local authority funding will have on them, their families, their communities and our city. Will the Minister or a member of his team come and meet them in Committee Room 5 after questions to explain how it is fair that a city such as ours with a high level of need is suffering some of the largest reductions in funding?

No doubt it is essential for the people of Nottingham to get into a coach and travel all this way down here, because Nottingham councillors are so frightened of transparency and the truth that they have refused to publish on their website items costing over £500. It is the only council in the country to treat its electorate with such contempt.

In Cumbria and elsewhere, local charities are finding it very difficult to compete with big national charities for council contracts. What steps will the Minister take to allow local charities, which know more and can often do more, to compete fairly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is a great champion of the local voluntary sector. He will know that the Localism Bill will establish a right to challenge, which I expect to be taken up especially by local community and voluntary groups to enable them to do what they do best, which is to know their local community and provide a better way of doing things than what has been required so far.

The Secretary of State will be aware that as a result of his policies and funding settlement, Hartlepool borough council is cutting much-needed local services and making 89 people redundant, but its chief executive has taken an £11,000 increase in his salary, making his pay £168,000. I have written to the chief executive asking him, in the current climate, to waive that salary increase in back pay, but I have received an unrepentant and defiant response from him saying that

“mob rule seems to have been the order of the day”.

What can the Secretary of State do to curb such an arrogant sense of entitlement from some senior executives in local government with regard to pay?

As I was quoted in the hon. Gentleman’s paper as well, he and I clearly make a fairly large mob. In the Localism Bill, we are proposing to require local authorities to set out a senior pay policy statement that will have to be debated and approved by the full council meeting so that every individual member of the authority must tell the public what their policy is on how much people are going to be paid, and why, and must put their names to it and then be accountable for it.

My constituents around Burbage and Hinckley have serious concerns about planning applications that have gone to appeal regarding green wedges around the towns. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give me that the Localism Bill will help to protect green wedges?

This is yet another instance in which the pressures of the top-down regional spatial strategies have threatened green areas, be they green belt or green wedge, as it is sometimes called around towns. The removal of those top-down targets through the Localism Bill and the abolition of the regional spatial strategies will place back in the hands of local, democratically accountable authorities the power to decide the spatial future of their areas.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the chairman of the London fire authority about the 27 missing fire pumps, which the chairman nicked from across Greater London? Will the Secretary of State explain to him that he is putting lives in danger by stealing fire pumps, and tell him to return them straight away?

The hon. Gentleman knows about these matters and therefore really should know better. The 27 pumps were kept by the fire authority as part of a contingency reserve at the time of industrial action by the London fire brigade. I am glad that that action has now been settled.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Conservative-run East Sussex county council, which, after a disappointing grant from the Department for Education, has stepped in with £12 million of capital that it had not planned to give to ensure that the St Leonards academy is rebuilt to provide better education in Hastings?

I am always glad to congratulate my hon. Friend’s council and have no hesitation in doing so today.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning Labour-run Brent council, which at tonight’s budget meeting proposes to close six libraries and all its day care centres, introduce fortnightly refuse collections, and hammer street cleansing and the voluntary sector, while taking the £2.5 million grant that was meant to freeze council tax and applying it to balances?

What a tragic council that is. All it needs to do is take a short ride on the tube to see adjoining authorities in London that are protecting libraries, expanding their services and protecting the front line. No doubt it will get its come-uppance.

As the Secretary of State grows in stature and size, so does unemployment in my constituency. With Haringey council’s announcement of 1,000 job losses, what does he say to the constituency with the highest unemployment in London?

The right hon. Gentleman looks as though he is no stranger to a mixed grill himself. We continue to ensure that local authorities, including his local authority, have a transitional grant and do not face a reduction greater than 8.8%.