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Topical Questions

Volume 526: debated on Monday 4 April 2011

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.