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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 526: debated on Monday 4 April 2011

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Government Funding (Services)

1. What recent assessment he has made of the likely change in the provision of services by local authorities as a result of reductions in the level of Government funding to such authorities. (50339)

We have given councils much greater flexibility and the financial autonomy to manage their budgets. If they share back-office services, join forces to get better value for money, cut excessive chief executive pay, and root out waste and fraud, they can protect key front-line services.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but does it not demonstrate that he is miles away from the reality of what is happening in the streets? My local authority, which is one of the most efficient and a four-star authority that has frozen its council tax for four years, is faced with 500 job losses, massive cuts in most of its services and a £28 million loss in spending in its local economy. What is he going to do about that?

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has many duties in this House, but perhaps he should have spoken to his council leader, Councillor Marie Rimmer, who says:

“most job losses”

will be

“achieved by not filling posts, early retirement and voluntary redundancies”,

which is hardly the position that he paints. It is also telling that Sally Yeoman, the chief executive of Halton and St Helens Voluntary and Community Action, blames the drop in funding on the ending of the working neighbourhoods fund—a fund that the Labour party had decided to end in March.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating councils that have protected front-line services through creative and innovative thinking about their budgets, such as Medway council, which has halved its funding to trade unions and given that money to fund library books instead?

I do indeed congratulate them. My hon. Friend points out to those on the Opposition Benches a way in which money can be directed towards the front line. I hope that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) will send out requests that Labour councils similarly look towards trade unions and reducing their costs.

The Secretary of State has described his cuts as progressive, fair and protecting the most vulnerable. Last Friday, Conservative-led Birmingham city council inflicted the biggest cut in local government history of £212 million. Some 4,000 people face losing their care packages, including some of the most vulnerable, many of whom are in ill health and in the twilight of their years. Is that progressive, fair and protecting the most vulnerable?

Let us be absolutely clear: these are Labour cuts. The Labour party was planning £14 billion-worth of cuts, all of them front-loaded. At least we changed the formula to help the most vulnerable. We find ourselves in a position where we know perfectly well that the Labour party would have inflicted even greater cuts on local government.

New Homes Bonus

2. What assessment he has made of the potential benefits to Kirklees district of the new homes bonus. (50340)

Today, I have announced the final allocations to local authorities under the new homes bonus for 2011-12. All parts of England will receive significant funding from the scheme. Kirklees will receive £1.3 million, Rugby £435,000 and Gloucester £782,000. The funding is completely un-ring-fenced and councils will be able to use it according to the wishes of their local communities.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he confirm the protection of the green belt and will he consider the suggestion from the Campaign to Protect Rural England perhaps to have an enhanced rate of new homes bonus for brownfield sites to encourage regeneration?

I looked carefully at the new homes bonus and at where there should be an uplift and I came to the conclusion that the only uplift we would give would be to those who built additional affordable homes, and that is a block grant of £350 per home. The green belt is entirely protected; that is in the coalition agreement and we stand by that position.

The local authority in my constituency of Rugby has been quick to recognise the benefits that come with the new homes bonus and it has ambitious proposals for new housing development. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that planning authorities across England recognise the lead of authorities such as Rugby and allocate land for the new homes that are so badly needed?

In many ways, authorities such as Rugby have led the way by being so keen to produce housing. The difference is that now every single one of our constituents gets to benefit from new homes being built. There is £200 million on the table that is being distributed today. I note that the Opposition seem to be against their own authorities receiving the money.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), may I ask my right hon. Friend whether more could be done, perhaps on the paperwork, in order to attract developers into constituencies such as mine, which are entirely urban and therefore have only brownfield sites to offer?

One of the changes that we have made is to enable local authorities to set their own targets for brownfield sites. I have been to my hon. Friend’s constituency and I know that there are many good sites available. Rather than housing being built on sites where the regional spatial strategy seemed to insist that it went, housing can now go where it is required. Much of that will be on the brownfield land that I went to see. That is one of the features of the Government’s policy, and of the new homes bonus in particular.

Last week the Minister for Housing and Local Government wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) and claimed that the new homes bonus will not penalise deprived areas to favour more affluent ones. Can he explain to me why his figures differ so widely from those of the National Housing Federation, which estimates that the four northern regions of England will lose £104 million, whereas the five southern regions will gain £342 million?

It may have escaped the attention of Opposition Members that the new homes bonus rewards the authorities that build homes. That is why it is called the new homes bonus. Of the five areas that are building the most homes—the five top councils to receive the new homes bonus—three of them are in the midlands and the north.

The Government’s stated objective is to ensure that more new homes are built than were being built before the recession. I am sure that it is an objective with which we can all agree. However, if the new homes bonus does not incentivise individual authorities sufficiently so that the sum total of all the individual parts does not meet the Government’s objective, what is plan B?

The point about the new homes bonus is that it is just one element in a series of steps that we are taking to ensure that house building goes ahead. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention that it slumped to the lowest level since 1924 under the old top-down targets. The new homes bonus will ensure that £200 million is distributed today, but it does not stop there. We are also proposing build now, pay later. We are slimming down some of the many regulations that prevent house builders from getting homes built faster, and we are encouraging them to renegotiate section 106.

The hon. Lady says that it is not working, but we have already seen an increase in the number of homes planned and starting to be built.

The Ansty technology park is in Rugby and the Government announced on Friday that they would sell it off. That was an important job-creation opportunity brought into existence by the old regional development agency which was scrapped by the Government. Would it not be preposterous if Rugby gained from the new homes bonus through developing such a site for housing?

The new homes bonus is entirely flexible to allow local authorities to decide how the cash that comes in is spent—those hundreds of millions of pounds being distributed today—so that they can take it and use it for their own objectives. There is a conversation to be held locally rather than nationally about how that money is used in Rugby.

Community and Voluntary Sectors

4. What assessment he has made of the likely effect on the community and voluntary sectors of reductions in the level of Government funding for local authorities. (50342)

Spending decisions are a matter for local councils, but no council should make disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector. It is increasingly clear that well run councils are following that principle, but that a few of the worst run are targeting the voluntary sector for disproportionate cuts.

On Friday I met representatives of Westhoughton visiting service who, having lost a third of their budget, do not know where to turn to make sure that their elderly clients get the support they need. That is one of the many voluntary and community sector groups that have contacted me in desperation. I hope that the Minister does not reply by saying that Bolton council should have prepared for the cuts or should protect the voluntary sector, because it did and it has, but the Government have cut £42 million—three times more than Labour would have cut. If the council does not have the money, it cannot give it to groups. What can I say to these groups?

The hon. Lady can start by getting her figures accurate. This is the second time in a row that she has come to the House with bizarre figures. I was at a loss to understand where she got them from, but the source of her information turns out to be a magazine called the Bolton Scene. It is not a paper of record. In between obituaries for fish—“Farewell to popular fish”—it includes all sorts of misinformation about the settlement for her council. If she sources her information accurately, she will discover that the cut to Bolton’s budget is 7% and the council should not be cutting local groups disproportionately.

My right hon. Friend has made great efforts to ensure that local authorities publish their spend above £500. Will he extend that to urge local authorities to publish the amount of their spend that is given to voluntary organisations? I think that that transparency would be very worth while.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, although there is one council that has failed to publish its spending over £500: Nottingham city council. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) squirmed and wriggled rather than urge the council to publish those details. I hope that she will take the opportunity today to say that it should publish them.

Well, here we have Ministers again castigating local councils for cuts affecting voluntary organisations, but the Cabinet Office is cutting grants to many volunteering organisations, Government cuts to legal aid funding will have a serious impact on Citizens Advice and the VAT rise and loss of gift aid transitional relief will cost the sector £250 million. Does the Minister not see just how hypocritical that stance is toward local authorities? When will the Government get their act together on supporting the voluntary sector?

Of course, the hon. Lady never saw a piece of spending that she did not like. The hypocrisy is to complain about the inevitable consequences of the previous Government’s overspending. As she has the opportunity, perhaps she will just nod and agree that no council—for example, a Labour council looking to her for leadership—should cut disproportionately. It is a time for leadership from the Opposition Front-Bench team. If they want to hang around like ghouls, wailing and moaning from the sidelines, they can do so, but they should take a lead and give a message to Labour councils.

Order. To date there has been no breach of order from either the Opposition Front Bench or the Treasury Bench, but I remind hon. and right hon. Members that they should be very careful in their use of the word “hypocrisy”.

Government Funding (Distribution)

5. What assessment he has made of the equity of the distribution of Government funding for local authorities. (50343)

The local government settlement is a fair outcome in very difficult circumstances—those circumstances being that we are borrowing £400 million every day to plug the gap left by Labour. We have worked hard to get equity between local authorities, giving proper attention to both their level of dependency on Government support and their local resources. That is why we have transferred the needs-based element from 73% to 83% of the formula grant and introduced the banded floors. As a result, for every pound per resident of formula grant that goes to the least dependent authority in London—Richmond—Lambeth will get £4.86, which is almost five times as much per resident as the least dependent authority.

As far as equity for local taxpayers goes, the council tax freeze will provide £2.4 million to Lambeth this coming year.

Of course, the fact is that the most deprived single-tier local authorities are seeing their spending power reduced by nearly four times the amount of the least deprived local authorities. For example, Lambeth—the Minister omitted this point—is having to make just under £40 million-worth of cuts to services in my area, including to Lambeth senior citizens day centre in Brixton Hill. That centre provides food and a place to go for—[Interruption.]

Order. It seems to be contagious. Both sides are taking too long. We will have a quick question from Mr Umunna.

The older people’s centre is facing cuts of up to 80%. Will the Minister come with me to the centre and explain how he will help it to continue to survive in the coming financial year?

According to Lambeth council’s own website, it is reducing its front-line service provision by £1 million, but I draw the House’s attention to the fact that it is also increasing its reserves from £83 million last year to £93 million this year. Perhaps the question about equity would be better directed at the council than at us.

Some councils, many of them Labour-controlled, are protecting overpaid bureaucracies and slashing services run by the third sector, while others are embracing social enterprise and charities in new models of social services provision. Will the Minister recognise good behaviour in future allocations to get true equity to the people who need it?

I thoroughly understand my hon. Friend's point, and as he will know, the local government resource review will look at those matters in the near future.

The wheels are well and truly coming off the Government’s explanation for their swingeing cuts to local government—that is pretty clear. Contrary to his assertion that he would protect the most vulnerable by making his cuts “fair and progressive”, the Secretary of State is actually imposing the biggest cuts on the country’s poorest communities and leaving more affluent areas relatively unscathed. Even his own Housing Minister confessed last week that the poorest areas will shoulder the harshest cuts. Will the Minister replying do the decent thing and admit that the Secretary of State’s declaration about fairness and the Chancellor’s assertion that we are all in it together are completely and utterly preposterous?[Official Report, 26 April 2011, Vol. 527, c. 2MC]

The hon. Gentleman has of course used a selective quotation, and that is entirely his prerogative, but it does rather undermine his case. The reality is that no local authority in this country faces a reduction in its real expenditure of more than 7.7%, and offset against that is the new homes bonus that we have announced today, through which Lambeth, for instance, gets £1.9 million.

Community Housing

6. What plans his Department has to establish trusts to assist communities in providing homes for local people. (50345)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and remind him that the Localism Bill, for which he and I served in Committee, contains provisions for the community right to build, which will allow community organisations to bring forward schemes for small-scale development, including housing, without needing to go through the traditional planning route. As he and I know, we hope to achieve Royal Assent for that at the end of the year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. One of the problems with housing supply is the availability of land, but the Government own vast tracts of land throughout the country, so has his Department given any consideration to bringing forward some public sector land to meet the housing crisis?

I remind my hon. Friend that “The Plan for Growth” published last week by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Chancellor set out plans for the release of more public land, and this Department is very strongly engaged in making sure that that leads to more housing.

Home Ownership

At the Budget, we announced the Firstbuy scheme, which will be co-funded by the Government and house builders, bring £500 million of investment into the sector and build about 15,000 homes throughout the UK. In England, those figures are £200 million and 10,000. In addition, the Government’s commitment to reducing debt is perhaps the most important thing that we can do to create stability, and recently I held a first-time buyers summit to pull together the sector and ensure that progress is made.

I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that the new funding for the Firstbuy scheme will help the construction industry, creating new jobs and increasing the pace of economic growth?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on, of course, and the scheme will do both those things. The critical difference between it and the schemes that the previous Government ran is that the person purchasing the house has to provide a deposit. In addition, the amount of money going in from the Government will be reduced to make it much better value for money.

Will the Minister ensure that all the initiatives for first-time purchase and for shared ownership are well publicised in every local authority in England, and that the new homes bonus money can be used, where local authorities agree, for the maximum number of property builds and for the maximum number of people acquiring a property—through shared ownership or outright possession—for the first time?

I am very grateful for that question, not least because I am able to congratulate Southwark on today pulling in £2.6 million from the new homes bonus. That money certainly can be used in precisely the way it is required locally, and whatever the principal concerns are for local people. It is the way to incentivise more house building, and we will make sure that it works effectively alongside the Firstbuy scheme.

The Minister referred to the new scheme as relevant to the replacement of HomeBuy Direct, which as he is aware was the much more generous scheme that he scrapped just 10 months ago. Is this not another example of the Government introducing a new policy to make up for the fact that their previous policy has gone wrong?

The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong. HomeBuy Direct continues until 2012, so there is no question of its having come to an end. It was a funded scheme for a specific period which will come to an end at that point, so by launching another scheme that overlaps rather than replaces it, we have, I assume, achieved precisely what he would want.

I make my usual declaration of an indirect interest in the entry in the register for my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford).

HomeBuy Direct was a good scheme, and considering that the Minister called it an “expensive flop” I am delighted that the Government have seen fit, albeit somewhat late in the day, to enhance it further and, in many ways, to replicate it. Can he confirm that, as the Financial Times reported, this is nothing more than his admitting that he cannot fix the mortgage market? Has he not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) said, just wasted a vital 10 months, leaving hundreds of thousands of first-time buyers—not tens of thousands, given the sort of scheme we are describing—with no hope under this Government of securing their own homes?[Official Report, 9 June 2011, Vol. 529, c. 5-6MC.]

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to clear up one thing. It is worth knowing that when I said that the HomeBuy Direct scheme had been an expensive flop, it had been launched 10 months earlier and had helped just five people to secure a home. It is true that the scheme has developed over a period of time and has helped people in between, but as I said in my previous answer—I appreciate that it was given after she had written her question, but none the less it is useful to connect the two—the previous scheme does not end until 2012. We are in 2011, and we have already announced a new scheme.

Unauthorised Development

8. If he will bring forward proposals to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised development. (50347)

The Government take the problem of unauthorised development seriously. Among other measures, the Localism Bill, which completed its Committee stage in the House of Commons on 10 March, includes provisions aimed at strengthening local planning authorities’ powers to tackle the issue.

Unauthorised developments, particularly illegal Traveller sites, have poisoned relations in our communities. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will use to the full the new powers in his Localism Bill to ensure that local councils are given the powers they need to determine these issues on the basis of local need and historic demand, not imposed national quotas?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. In addition, we will very shortly be consulting on the section 106 planning guidance, which deals with Gypsy and Traveller sites, and I hope that he will contribute to that consultation.

People in Hightown, Melling and Lydiate in my constituency are concerned at the possible development of the green belt. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm whether the new legislation will make it harder for developers to build on the green belt, and will he allay the fears of many people that it is a developers’ charter?

No, the way in which we intend to deal with problems of unauthorised developments is to get tougher. We are doing four things. We are going to deal with the question of concealed buildings and those who seek to hide a dwelling behind a construction; we will be increasing the penalties; we are going to ensure that people can appeal either for an enforcement order or a retrospective planning application, not both; and we are going to increase the ability to deal with fly-posting. Our general policy is this: we intend to ensure that the green belt is held solid and absolutely inviolate by this Administration. We are not going to follow the tenets of the former Labour Government by concreting over the green belt.

Social Housing

9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on levels of homelessness of the proposed changes to rules on the changes in the treatment of tenancies in under-occupied social housing. (50348)

The security and rights of existing social tenants, including those who are under-occupying, will be protected in the reform of social housing. I have announced a £13 million scheme to help local authorities to offer tenants greater flexibility in their choices.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he accept that the allocations policies of some local authorities, including Manchester, result in larger, hard-to-let properties being under-occupied through no fault of the new tenants? Given the one reasonable offer rule, surely some existing tenants will no longer be able to afford to stay in their property, and some potential tenants will not be able to afford to take the one reasonable offer.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there are problems with the allocation policy at the moment. One thing that we plan to do through the Localism Bill is to provide much greater flexibility to allocations. For example, if somebody is seeking to move home within the sector, they should not have to join the back of the regular queue. In addition, by the end of this year we will have set up a mobility scheme, which will cover 90% of homes in this country.

David Morris is not here. The grouping therefore falls and Mr Ruffley’s question will follow later.

Green Spaces

The coalition Government have moved fast to enable communities to protect their green spaces. Three measures stand out. The first is the end to the perverse classification of gardens as brownfield land, which has led to the destructive practice of garden grabbing. The second is the abolition of density targets so that developers have greater freedom to provide homes with gardens. The third is the introduction of neighbourhood plans, which will allow local people to safeguard green spaces and incorporate them in their vision of their community.

Can the Minister therefore explain to me what on earth the Chancellor of the Exchequer was talking about in his Budget speech? One of the most important parts of the speech was on how he would free up the country to developers. Most people in Huddersfield now know that their green spaces—not green belt, but green spaces—are vulnerable to being built on.

Of course they are not. At the moment, the regional strategies place a threat over communities, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He is a great localist, and he and I agree on this. I commend his blog to those on the Opposition Front Bench, who are chuntering away. There is a very persuasive piece on this matter under the title “The party I love is a party of ideals. That’s why I back David Miliband”. It states:

“I’ve always wanted to be in a party rooted in our diverse communities…nourished and reinvigorated by the ideas and aspirations that stem from our grass roots.”

We are giving the grass roots the right to determine the future of their green spaces, something for which I welcome his support.

Rural buffer zones and other planning designations protect areas such as my constituency from the westward expansion of Swindon. Does the Minister agree that, leaving aside the green belt, we have all kinds of ways in which to protect our countryside from excessive building?

My hon. Friend is right that development must be sustainable and must not compromise the ability of future generations to enjoy the environment that we have. The Government’s policy has always been clear in that regard.

Local Government (Employment)

14. What assessment he has made of the likely effects of reductions in Government funding on the number of people employed by local authorities in 2011-12. (50353)

The Department makes no such centralised estimates for the good reason that 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.

The Tory-led Local Government Association has made the estimate, however, that 140,000 jobs will go as a result of these policies. PricewaterhouseCoopers has said that for every job lost in the public sector, one will go in the private sector. That makes almost 300,000 jobs. How on earth can that help the recovery?

That is because the Government are committed to reducing the deficit to enable a proper and sustainable private sector-led recovery. That is no doubt why the Office for Budget Responsibility has demonstrated that there will be an increase in private sector jobs of 1.3 million over the same period. That is nearly four times the figure quoted by the hon. Gentleman.

Is it not the case that if councils used their reserves more effectively, unlike Manchester city council, and did not keep sending officers out of the door at half a million a pop, like Nottingham city council, so many jobs would not have to be lost?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The Government have made it abundantly clear that significant sums are held by local authorities in reserves, much of which is not allocated. Sensible use of those funds at a time of financial crisis would enable councils to protect their front-line services.

Leisure Facilities

May I urge the Minister to take a closer look at Labour-led Leeds city council, which is cutting funding to Garforth leisure centre in my constituency yet continues to waste taxpayers’ money, such as £6 million on new furniture?

I hope the council did not go to the same suppliers that gave our Department the sofas and the peace pod. I note that Leeds city council has £32 million in its reserves, and I hope that it might consider a use for that money to support facilities in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Local Authority Executive Pay

17. What recent representations he has received on the levels of remuneration for local government executives. (50356)

Representations have been received from Members of Parliament, leaders of local authorities, trade union branches and members of the public. Although it is a matter for individual councils, we expect restraint and leadership to be shown locally when setting senior pay. We have introduced measures in the Localism Bill to increase local democratic accountability for decisions on senior pay. We have also been consulting on proposed new transparency arrangements for local government, including how public money is used in relation to senior pay.

Forty-three per cent. of chief executives are paid more than the Prime Minister, and their pay has increased by more than 78% in the past five years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this culture of excessive pay is a direct result of the last Labour Government’s consistent ability to spend more than this country could afford?

I entirely agree. Chief executives’ pay has got completely out of kilter. There are now 800 local government employees in the top 1% of all earners according to Will Hutton’s figures. With regard to the chief executive of Suffolk, that county does many fine things and is an exemplar authority in many ways, but the chief executive’s refusal to take a pay cut has meant that she has detracted from Suffolk’s many fine achievements.

Will the Secretary of State look in particular at the case of Mr Nick Johnson, who for the past four years has supplemented his local government ill health retirement pension by being paid £1,000 a day by Hammersmith and Fulham council, so that when he leaves later this year he will have taken almost £1 million from taxpayers? In doing so, will the Secretary of State ignore the fact that the local Conservative party says that Mr Johnson is good value for money, and that he has advised the Tory party on housing policy?

I kind of understand that it has never been a glad morning since the hon. Gentleman lost his position as housing chairman at Hammersmith. Frankly, abusing somebody from the safety of this Chamber does him no credit at all.

Council Tax

18. What change in band D council tax he expects (a) on average in local authorities in England and (b) in Tamworth borough between 2010-11 and 2011-12. (50357)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. By sharing back-office services with Lichfield district council and by bearing down on furniture and other equipment costs, Tamworth borough council has managed to keep council tax frozen, reduce its spending and ensure that it is doing a good job. Will my right hon. Friend please commend the Conservative-controlled council, and its retiring value-for-money chief executive David Weatherley, for the work that they have done?

Of course my hon. Friend has much to be proud of in Tamworth council. It clearly cares about front-line services and is not prepared, as some Labour councils have been, to use the poor as a battering ram against the Government for base political motives.

Section 106 Revenue

19. What plans he has for the future of rules governing the use of section 106 moneys collected by local authorities. (50358)

The Government are committed to delivering a simplified, locally driven planning system that supports sustainable economic growth and development. A key part of that is the framework that ensures that local communities benefit directly from development. We intend to retain section 106 agreements in a scaled-back form, alongside the community infrastructure levy, to fund local infrastructure and community facilities.

Given that commitment to empowering local people, is there any intention to provide greater flexibility to parish councils, such as Sherfield English parish council, which desperately want to use accumulated section 106 moneys, but cannot do so under current rules?

The answer is yes. The Localism Bill centres on giving greater discretion to local communities to use the funds that come with developments so that they can invest in infrastructure locally. We know that one of the sources of opposition to development is people’s reasonable fear that they will not get the infrastructure that the development requires. We are changing that through the Bill.

A recent scrutiny report at Wiltshire council revealed that it had failed to claim £16 million of section 106 agreements to date. Given the pressures on councils to spend on and invest in the infrastructure in their communities, does the Minister agree that now would be a good time to make such claims?

It would be an excellent time. My hon. Friend’s suggestion should apply to councils throughout the country.

Order. I apologise. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has just entered the Chamber. He is only just in time, but he is here.

Council Tax

20. What recent estimate he has made of the average change to council tax bills for households in (a) Harlow, (b) Epping Forest and (c) Essex between 2010-11 and 2011-12. (50359)

It is good to see my hon. Friend in his usual place.

Council tax bills for Harlow, Epping Forest and Essex are unchanged between 2010-11 and 2011-12. That pleases me, too, as my hon. Friend and I are constituency neighbours and share Epping Forest and Essex.

It is the second year in a row that Harlow council has frozen council tax without having a major impact on front-line services. Will the Secretary of State meet Harlow councillors to learn how their example can be spread throughout the country?

As my hon. Friend is my neighbour, it will obviously be a pleasure to visit an exemplar council, which is doing the right thing: protecting front-line services and keeping down the council tax.

Efficiency Savings

21. What mechanisms his Department is using to achieve efficiency savings in its budget for 2011-12. (50360)

My Department will deliver efficiency savings in the next financial year by driving down our core running costs and through key contracts that have been renegotiated. This is expected to deliver efficiency savings of around £11 million: £4.2 million from information technology, £6.5 million from buildings and £0.6 million from facilities management.

I welcome the steps that the Secretary of State is taking to realise efficiency savings and improve accountability and transparency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that more must be done to create a real value-for-money culture in more local councils in the country, and that that aim should feature more strongly in public servants’ objectives so that it is reflected in their work in the communities and for council tax payers?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. It is particularly important for my Department to take a lead. That is why we have been so keen to reduce the central costs of our budgets and to take a lead in reorganising the Department to recognise its changing role, whereby it no longer dictates to local government, but tries to enable more power to go to local communities.

New Social Housing

22. What estimate his Department has made of the likely number of new social housing starts between May 2010 and April 2015. (50362)

We are investing £4.5 billion in new affordable housing over the next four years, with the hope of producing 150,000 new affordable homes.

I thank the Minister for his reply, although I note that he referred just to affordable housing, not to affordable social housing. Given the imminent publication of the Government’s child poverty strategy, what conversations has he had with colleagues in other Departments about the impact of the lack of affordable social housing on achieving our child poverty targets?

The hon. Lady is right to draw the subject to the House’s attention. It is sadly true that there were 45,000 fewer affordable social homes in this country following 13 years of her party’s being in power. I have had extensive conversations with colleagues across Government to ensure that, in the next 13 years—or at least in the next four—a significantly greater number of social, affordable and all types of homes will be built across the social and regular housing sectors because this country needs homes, for which the new homes bonus will provide a significant boost.[Official Report, 8 June 2011, Vol. 529, c. 3MC.]

Does the Minister agree that special measures are likely to be required in areas such as Bradford, which has low market rents, because raising our rents up to the 80% level will yield no additional funds for new social housing starts?

Let us be clear that the existing social housing programme continues—£2.2 billion goes into that. An additional amount will go into affordable rent. Affordable rent does not mean 80% of market rent. The key words are “up to” 80% of the local market rent, meaning that in some areas, the figures will be somewhere in between social rent and the market rent, but not necessarily 80%.

May I draw attention to my entry in the register?

Will the Minister admit that he will not build any social rented homes at all, and that the ones that will be built are all inherited from the previous Government? His policy of so-called affordable rented homes—at 80% of market rents—will not produce any social rent properties, and even worse, it will require the conversion of former social rent properties to so-called affordable rent properties when they become available for re-let. That means no new affordable social rented homes, and more people waiting for a home that they can afford.

It seems obvious to me that if homes are not built today or at least at the time of the election, and we subsequently build them, they will be counted in the homes that we build. The fact that we have decided to continue to put £2.2 billion into the build programme in addition to the affordable rent programme means that we will out-build the previous Labour Government not just over four years, but in comparison to their 13 years, in every single year.

Shared Ownership Schemes

23. What steps his Department is taking to increase the flexibility of access to shared ownership schemes for first-time buyers. (50363)

The Government are committed to supporting those who aspire to own their own homes. As announced in the Budget, we are introducing the Firstbuy equity loan scheme, and the Homes and Communities Agency’s affordable housing programme in 2011 to 2015 will include affordable home ownership where appropriate in local circumstances.

I very much welcome that additional flexibility. Some of my constituents have said that they find existing schemes to be a bit over-bureaucratic, particularly as regards the relationship between where people live and where they work. I hope the Minister will look to new schemes to reduce the hurdles that face first-time buyers.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that the bureaucratic burdens have become a complete nightmare. When the Labour party eventually gets to the point of reflecting on why it was booted out of power, it will realise that one reason was that the level of bureaucracy—the top-down diktats and the impossible paperwork before anyone could do almost anything in this country, particularly build homes—led to fewer homes being built than at any time post-war.

Topical Questions

I am sure the whole House would like to place on record its gratitude for the professionalism and commitment of the 60 firefighters who are deployed as part of the UK’s international search and rescue team assisting the victims of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. With the number of dead and missing growing daily, our thoughts are with the brave Japanese people.

The Budget revealed our plans to help support local enterprise and jobs, including the extension of the business rates holiday for small firms and small shops. The Department is the lead Department for enterprise zones, and we will make further announcements in the coming weeks. Letters detailing the first payments of the new homes bonus go out to local authorities today. The Department has published its plans for a future of local audit and delivery that is better value for money for taxpayers than the failed Audit Commission regime. The new rules to stop unfair competition from municipal newspapers are now in effect. I am sure that local press and the public noticed that Labour MPs voted en bloc to defend town hall Pravdas.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments on those brave firefighters, and express sympathy for the people of Japan?

With reference to the review of the statutory duties placed on local authorities, the Secretary of State will be aware that there is a great deal of concern among families with disabled children and young people. Can he give us some clarity on this matter, and confirm that no changes will be made to statutory duties relating to that group without formal consultation and a full impact assessment?

I think I can go further than that and tell my hon. Friend that we will not be making any changes to that duty. I am grateful to her for raising this issue because it comes out of an agreement between the Government parties and the Local Government Association in which we decided to get an audit of statutory duties. That has been established for the first time, but the fact that we have been able to count those numbers does not mean that we are going to make any significant reductions in them—certainly not in relation to the matters to which she has referred.

May I associate the Opposition with the Secretary of State’s comments about the people and firefighters in Japan? There, as in this country, the emergency services go towards danger to save others and our thoughts are with those in Japan at this time.

It seems that with every passing day Ministers are being forced to rethink ill-thought-through policies. One Government policy that councillors and the public do not understand is the decision to front-load cuts to council budgets. Will the Secretary of State tell councillors, communities and Members of the House why it was necessary for the heaviest cuts to local government to fall in this first year?

I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s remarks about our firefighters. May I respectfully remind her that the Labour party was due to introduce cuts this year and that local government was not protected and therefore would have faced higher cuts under Labour than under the coalition Government?

There is no evidence of that and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Labour would not have front-loaded the cuts to local government. As on many occasions, the Secretary of State has not answered the question and has left us with no idea why the front-loaded cuts were necessary. As was said earlier, the Housing Minister let slip that the Government knew all along that Labour councils representing the poorest areas of our country were getting the worst of the cuts. Is it fair that while the Secretary of State’s own local council loses just £17 per head this year, councils such as Manchester and Liverpool, which he has criticised, are losing nearly 10 times as much?

My local council has a budget that would have been lost in the sub-committees of Manchester city council. Labour’s Budget in March 2010 admitted there would be cuts to regional development agency regeneration, the working neighbourhoods fund, the local enterprise growth initiative, the housing and planning delivery grant and time-limited community programmes—and that was just the start. The front-loaded cuts from the Labour party would have meant £14 billion-worth of cuts falling in this year. Under Labour cuts, unprotected Departments would have received an average real-terms cut, over the spending review period, greater than those under the coalition’s deficit reduction plan.

T2. Because of mistakes made by Cumbria county council in its single status process, Cumbria’s outstanding teaching assistants face a 30% drop in pay and deprofessionalisation. Will the Minister meet me, representatives of Cumbria’s teaching assistants and the county council to find a solution to this impasse so that Cumbria’s teaching assistants can be fairly rewarded and Cumbria’s children can be properly supported? (50330)

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, but I am sure he will understand that the role of central Government in relation to local government pay and work force issues is extremely limited because they are rightly for local councillors to decide in local circumstances.

T3. Planning applications for wind farms, Travellers’ sites and new housing—which of those will parish councils be given a veto over and when? (50331)

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman awaits the publication of the details of our national planning policy framework, which will set out the parameters within which all local plans will be drawn up.

T4. Parish councils are an important part of the structure of local government, but they often feel that they have to take an unfair and disproportionate regulatory burden, the latest of which is that they will all be obliged to employ their parish clerks, with all that entails, such as making national insurance contributions, although many such clerks get only an honorarium, which they could easily declare in their annual personal tax return. Does my right hon. Friend agree? (50332)

My hon. Friend remarks on an issue of some importance, particularly to smaller parishes. I am a little surprised that some of the professional organisations associated with parish councils have welcomed the move, but I think it would be sensible for my hon. Friend to meet me and a Treasury Minister to see if we can sort this matter out.

In June, east Lancashire was hit hardest by the area-based grant reductions, and in October, it was again hit hardest by the reductions in the support grant and the axing of the housing market renewal programme. Today we find out that east Lancashire authorities feature in the bottom 27 for payouts under the new homes bonus. In fact, my Conservative council is to receive just £62,000—despite being one of the most deprived in the country—out of 350 authorities. It is understandable why—we have 1,300 empty properties and a Conservative council—but does the Secretary of State accept that the new homes bonus is unfair and hitting the deprived hard?

The hon. Gentleman should recognise that we have done what he asked us to do, which is to bring those empty homes into the new homes bonus and turn empty homes into property. He and the House also need to understand that the allocation of the new homes bonus is about building houses or bringing derelict houses back into use. It is not on the basis of permissions; it is about getting things built. My advice to him is to get back to his council and tell it to get building.

T5. In last week’s Budget debate, the Secretary of State told the House that at the heart of his approach to planning was a presumption in favour of sustainable development. What does he understand sustainable development to be? (50333)

It is a very good question. The Brundtland commission captured the classic definition of sustainable development, which is development that does not compromise the needs of future generations in meeting the needs of the present generation.

Ministers will have seen the wealth of evidence showing that increased street lighting leads to lower levels of crime, so do they share my concern that Nottinghamshire county council wants to reduce street lighting and will they join me in urging it to think again?

My own local authority is considering similar measures, and providing that that is done at a reasonable time, in the early hours of the morning, it is a sensible move towards greening our provision. However, in places where there are difficulties with crime, I would expect local consultation to take place.

T6. Can the Minister give an update on the expected timing of a further announcement on the proposed eco-town at Bordon, and does he agree that there should be a local referendum before any large-scale development there takes place? (50334)

Just to be clear, my hon. Friend raises an important subject, because eco-towns were being pushed on to areas without local communities having any say about them. Indeed, there was even a separate planning policy statement about eco-homes under the previous Government. We are not in the game of pushing communities into building homes in ways that are not compatible or sustainable locally. I am absolutely certain that my hon. Friend’s local authority will want to take notice of all local opinions and balance that against things such as the new homes bonus benefits, which it will get from building new homes.

Does the Secretary of State still believe that abolishing the Audit Commission will provide savings of £50 million a year, or has that figure been revised?

The hon. Gentleman raises a point about the abolition of the Audit Commission, which I see is still going out to promote its cause in the weekend newspapers. The reality is that we need local audit that is efficient and brings competition into the marketplace. We see no reason whatever to have the country’s fifth biggest auditor owned by this Government.

T7. I was shocked to hear in the media that disabled people under-occupying homes will have their housing benefit cut. Can the Minister either dispel that rumour, or at least tell the House what estimate he has made of the cost of rehousing those disabled people and then carrying out the necessary adaptations in their new homes? (50335)

Of the changes that we are making in affordable housing and social housing allocations, the most important thing is protecting the most vulnerable people. The whole House will agree that when resources are tight, paying for spare rooms—rather than paying for people to live in the homes that are available—does not make sense. In those changes, however, we will ensure that disabled people are protected in the best possible way.

The last Labour Government oversaw the greatest renaissance of our cities since the Victorian age. Central to that was the densification of development on brownfield sites. Why have the Government junked that policy for more sprawl, the destruction of the countryside and the gutting of our cities?

Under the previous Government’s target, gardens in cities, which make a huge contribution to the biodiversity and pleasantness of life in cities, were erased. We have got rid of that, and our cities can breathe easily as a result.

Dover and Deal are fortunate indeed to have a representative who is as passionate a localist as my hon. Friend. I know that he is crusading to have the port of Dover retained in the hands of the local community. As Members know, the Localism Bill provides an opportunity for local communities to make a bid for assets of community value—and I dare say this might provide such an opportunity.

Given the Secretary of State’s well-publicised comments about “Pravda on the rates” and his desire to stop unnecessary council publications, what message does he have for Liberal Democrat-controlled Stockport council, which continues to publish the “Civic Review”, promoting only Liberal Democrat councillors just weeks before the local elections?

T9. My constituents support the Localism Bill and the empowerment it will bring to local communities, particularly in the world of planning, but can the Minister reassure my constituents that the announcements about growth and planning applications in last week’s Budget will not be contradicted? (50337)

My hon. Friend is right. I can certainly give that assurance. He will know that in our election manifesto and in the coalition agreement, we said that we would bring in neighbourhood planning and a presumption in favour of sustainable development. We are doing that.

Residents of Wideopen in North Tyneside have for a number of years defended a green open space from development. They won one appeal, but the latest planning application has resulted in a public inquiry. Will the Secretary of State commend the residents on their commitment to save the open space and please agree to meet me about this matter?

The hon. Lady will, I am sure, understand that I deal with these matters in a quasi-judicial way, so it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment that might be interpreted as prejudging any appeal.

T10. Does the Minister agree that shared services are the way forward in local government? The chief executive of Redditch and Bromsgrove councils, Kevin Dicks, has already managed to save hundreds of thousands of pounds by uniting services between the two councils. Is this not the way to cut costs while improving services? (50338)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am pleased to see that local authorities up and down the land—regardless of whether they be county, district or metropolitan—are increasingly looking towards joining together to get better value and protect the front line. I am truly sorry that that enthusiasm is not shared by Opposition Members.