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Topical Questions

Volume 524: debated on Monday 28 February 2011

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%.