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Topical Questions

Volume 530: debated on Monday 20 June 2011

Since the last oral questions we have announced plans to build 100,000 homes and create 25,000 jobs by selling off surplus public sector land. We have unveiled a new planning protection to help communities to protect valuable green open spaces. We have opened up the books on the lavish spending of the previous Government via the Government procurement card—Whitehall’s flexible friend.

On a more sombre note, we are making a £2 million contribution to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to ensure the long-term preservation and restoration of its memorial site. It is our collective responsibility to educate future generations about the horrors of the holocaust and never to forget why we need to challenge and combat the forces of hate.

The need for more new homes is accepted across the House. In addition to Firstbuy and the new homes bonus, one way of increasing the supply of new homes will be to relax the planning rules, including allowing the conversion of empty commercial space. The Government’s current consultation on that proposal will be welcomed by first-time buyers as well as the Opposition. Will the Minister tell the House when the legislation might be introduced and estimate the number of new homes that might be created in this way?

I think the proposal will be welcome in all parts of the House. We heard opposing views from the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), but my hon. Friend has until 30 June, when we will be closing the consultation. The proposal could produce 70,000 new homes over 10 years. I share his commitment to that aim.

We have already heard today about the concerns over the level of charges being raised on the old and vulnerable in our communities as a result of the cuts, but it is not only those people who are facing increases in charges. Tory-run Wandsworth and Bexley councils are planning to charge children to play on their swings. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning this fun tax, or is pay to play now official Government policy?

Let us be clear: under the Labour Administration councils were harangued about not charging. Councils were instructed to charge more. We will look at the level of charging in the context of the reform of local government finance, but it ill becomes the Labour party to suggest what the right hon. Lady is now suggesting when under Labour charges went up and the council tax doubled.

T4. I would like to bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Housing Minister the good work being done by Erewash borough council and the private landlord sector across the borough to encourage landlords to consider housing benefit recipients on an equal footing with tenant on private lets, which has strengthened the process of moving families into appropriate accommodation more quickly. Will he welcome this cross-sector work? (60301)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the relationship between local authorities and private landlords is critically important. We have seen how the total stock of social housing declined under the previous Administration. We are going to do something about that by ensuring that we build an additional 150,000 affordable homes, but the relationship with the private sector is absolutely key, and I encourage and wholeheartedly welcome it.

T3. Following that answer, we were told that the Government’s changes to local housing allowance will bring down private sector rents. If that turns out not to be the case, what plans have the Government to ensure that private sector rents are affordable for the large section of my constituents who earn too much to qualify for social housing or local housing allowance, but not enough to buy a home of their own and, as a consequence, spend a huge proportion of their income on rent every month? (60300)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and this is a huge problem for a large number of his constituents and those of many Members across the House. The answer, of course, is that I hope he will give his full backing to the Localism Bill in the Division Lobby when it comes back to the House, as it contains provisions on affordable rent that are designed to get people out of the private-rented sector and into lower-cost rents of perhaps 50%, 60%, 70% or 80%. That will help his constituents and many of ours to afford that rental.

T7. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s recent statement of 13 April on Traveller sites provides excellent advice to Wiltshire council when it comes to consider contentious planning issues in Alderbury and Salisbury? (60305)

It is quite reasonable to see this as an emerging policy. We have put out a consultation document on Traveller sites, and there are a few more days before the consultation closes. It should be clear in the council’s mind that this is a policy that is changing and emerging.

T5. The Housing Minister is familiar with the blight caused by private landlords in old terraced houses in Manchester and Salford. The area-based registration of private landlords has had some success in dealing with the problem, but those schemes under the Housing Act 2004 are coming to an end. If local authorities can show that there has been some success, will he agree to the extension of those schemes? (60302)

The simple answer is yes. I have visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and seen some of the problems for myself. I am very much in favour of the discretionary local licensing schemes, which can play an important part. I pledge that when I come back to see his Collyhurst estate, which is about to have its decent homes funding get under way and have work done on that, I will be very happy to visit one of those licensing schemes.

Will my right hon. Friend visit my constituency so that I can show him at first hand the greenfield land that is being developed, while thousands of units neighbouring my constituency, which have been approved by Leeds city council for building on, are being completely ignored by housing developers, thereby totally undermining any regeneration the city would like to achieve?

I would be delighted to go to Yorkshire to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and advise the council that the best way it can control its destiny is by adopting a local plan forthwith.

T6. Despite receiving £20 million of cuts—£5 million more than Wandsworth borough council, and £15 million more than Bexley—Bolton’s labour-run council will not be charging children to play. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Bolton council on protecting children from the Government’s huge cuts? (60304)

T9. In the week of the anniversary of the emergency Budget, what additional steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to help the Government to achieve their fiscal mandate? (60307)

We have delivered a good settlement for local government; we are looking to reduce our own Department, including reducing at the top and reducing numbers; and we are looking to extend that by offering help on growth, on enterprise zones and on local partnerships for growth. This Department has changed enormously over the past year by becoming pro-growth and helpful to local communities, offering power to local government and ensuring that ordinary people do not face a big increase in council tax.

In the Westminster city council area, 3,000 elderly and disabled people are losing social care, children’s centres are being cut, street cleansing is being cut and the youth service is being cut. In the light of that, does the Secretary of State think it is a good use of public money to run a summer roadshow

“to counter the messages that people are hearing about council services being reduced or withdrawn”?

We have been most careful to ensure that priority has been given to the most vulnerable. That is why we made sure that £6.5 billion went into the Supporting People programme, and £400 million into homeless programmes. We expect that to be reflected by local authorities prioritising the most vulnerable.

It is a national scandal that wanted and profitable pubs are being closed against the wishes of the communities they serve and simply to serve the interests of greedy developers and pub companies. I was delighted to welcome the Minister with responsibility for community pubs to the launch of the all-party save the pub group’s new planning charter. Will he welcome that charter and work with the group to ensure that the Government do all they can to protect pubs?

I am delighted to work with the hon. Gentleman and to discuss his charter—I should be delighted to join him in a pub, if need be. The Government are determined, through our planning reforms and the Localism Bill, to give communities an opportunity to acquire those assets that genuinely can be viable.

Conservative-run Lancashire county council has increased day-care charges from £5 to £30 starting from this month. Does the Minister think that the residents and elderly of Lancashire will see a 600% improvement from that Conservative council?

I dare say that, if Labour had been in control, we would have seen even bigger increases. After all, this is the year that Labour was going to impose pretty big front-loaded cuts on local authorities, and it was urging local authorities to increase their charges. A Labour MP should therefore not castigate a local authority that increases charges after listening to a Labour Government; he should be encouraging it.

I have a council that is keen to transfer assets to community groups, and community groups are, encouragingly, interested in taking them on. However, there seem to be some barriers in terms of not only VAT and the complexity of the VAT system but community insurance policies, so will the Department put in place a working group to look at the barriers that are stopping people transferring assets to community groups?

My hon. Friend makes some very important points, but such matters are way above my pay grade. With regard to charitable trusts and the like, however, it would be sensible for her to talk to members of my Department, and we will do our best to help her.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

On waste, will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department spent £1.3 million in the first four months of this year on legal advice and consultancy? How much of that was attributable to the consequences of his unlawful decision to try to abolish regional spatial strategies?

I am delighted to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the bill has come down from what it was under Labour, and that quite a lot of that money was actually expended on decisions taken by my Labour predecessor. We have been using that money to unravel the mess that he and his friends left behind.

The village of Braybrooke in my constituency is gradually being surrounded by unauthorised developments in open countryside as a result of applications from the Gypsy and Traveller community. What additional powers and guidance will the Secretary of State give to the local planning authority to ensure that the village is not completely encircled?

The current consultation on the planning guidelines is open for a few more days, and we will be interested to hear my hon. Friend’s views if he has not already submitted them. We are determined to tackle this problem, and the Localism Bill and the changes to the guidelines are designed to achieve just that.

The 1% increase in mortgage activity over the past 12 months is largely focused on remortgages. Why is that?

Because there was an enormous bank crash due to the fact that the debt in the British economy got out of all possible control, with Labour spending money that this country simply did not have. We are in the process of unravelling that mess. I am pleased to report to the hon. Gentleman that for the first time for a very long time average lending to first-time buyers has dropped below 6%.

Further to Question 2, do Ministers accept that in towns where there is a major garrison there is a significant impact on the rented housing sector, both public and private? That being the case, will the coalition Government provide additional resources over and above what they would provide for a town without a garrison so that our current and former service personnel can be housed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the additional pressures that arise when there is a garrison in a town. As I announced at the Dispatch Box an hour ago, this Government are determined not only to honour returning service personnel but to put them at an advantage by putting them right at the top of the list and for top consideration for such things as the Firstbuy scheme. We will send Firstbuy agents into the garrisons to ensure that they can help to get the right people into these new homes.