I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 20 July 2011.
Supporting High Street Recovery
As I outlined in my written statement of 11 August 2011, Official Report, column 121WS, my Department has taken a leading role in cross-government action to help rebuild communities, open up shops and to help residents and councils get their areas back to normal as quickly as possible in the aftermath of the public disorder.
With the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, we are providing an additional £20 million to create a new high street support scheme. The flexible scheme is aimed at supporting the specific streets and areas where businesses suffered most. Local authorities will be able to use it to fund the proportion of hardship relief from business rates that would otherwise fall to them, and to help affected firms to get back up and running quickly.
In addition we announced a £10 million recovery fund to help councils with the immediate costs of making their areas safe, clear and clean again, including funding council tax relief. The Government will also meet councils’ immediate costs for helping people who have had to leave their home as a result of the rioting.
Helping Local Shops and Local Firms
On 1 August, I announced that centrally imposed limits on town centre car parking spaces will be scrapped, providing a boost to high streets and giving councils greater freedom to support local business and town centres.
My Department recognises the vital economic and social role of pubs in the local community. On 2 August, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), launched a review of restrictive covenants, a legal clause that can be used to prevent community pubs reopening as public houses following a sale. By changing the use of certain restrictive covenants, communities would also be given greater opportunities to use the new “community right to buy” power in the Localism Bill.
On 25 August, new figures published by my Department illustrated how businesses are benefiting from the doubling of small business rate relief. We are determined to ensure that even in a tough financial climate, local businesses are able to thrive when given the right support.
Driving Local Growth and Regeneration
The Government are determined to help ensure that Britain is the best place in the world to start and grow business and we believe this begins at the local level. It is local business and commerce that drive the private sector growth, jobs and wealth that this country needs.
On 17 August, together with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, I announced 11 new enterprise zones. This brings the total to 22 enterprise zones across the country that will accelerate local growth, generate thousands of jobs and attract hundreds of new start-up firms. The zones will benefit from simplified planning rules, super-fast broadband and over £150 million of tax breaks for new business for the next four years. The introduction of enterprise zones is just one of over 100 reforms being taken forward as part of the Government’s “Plan For Growth”, announced at Budget 2011, to create the conditions for strong, sustainable and balanced growth.
On 17 August, I also announced a £20 million enterprise and growth package for Tottenham and Croydon to address the long-standing barriers to growth which were further compounded by the recent riots. The London enterprise fund is intended to provide specific, targeted support to these areas to arrest and reverse economic decline, provide immediate investment and to boost the local economies.
We have taken swift action to restore the flow of regeneration funding from the European Union after a period of interruption caused by irregularities in projects under the last Administration. The European Commission has welcomed new measures taken by the Government to standardise the monitoring system and introduce a programme of enhanced checks. On 1 August, the Commission confirmed it would lift the interruption on payments of European development funding in England allowing vital regeneration work to continue bringing wider economic development and other benefits to local communities.
Improving the Planning System
We believe that planning policy should promote sustainable growth and responsible development rather than hinder it.
On 25 July, my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for cities, decentralisation and planning, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) announced a new, simpler national planning policy framework which streamlines over 1000 pages to 52 pages. The draft framework, which is open for consultation, is a key part of our reforms to make the planning system less complex and more accessible, and to promote sustainable growth.
The document is underpinned by powerful protections for communities to safeguard the natural and historic environment. It underlines the need for local authorities to work closely with communities and businesses and to seek actively opportunities for sustainable growth to deliver the homes, jobs, and infrastructure needed for a growing population while protecting the environment
This Government want to simplify the planning system and make it less bureaucratic for everyone. On 29 July we set out our intention to local authorities to introduce a new “planning guarantee” which will speed up local planning applications meaning that no planning application should take longer than 12 months to make a decision. Local people will be able to see how their councils perform against the guarantee using information which is made available by councils as frequently as possible.
We recognise the significance of positive planning on the wider community and believe that the current system has impeded the expansion of good schools. On 15 August, together with the Secretary of State for Education, I introduced a new planning statement to support the expansion of popular state schools and the creation of free schools. The new guidance is a boost for state education and local promoters of the Government’s flagship free schools programme, who can now be confident their proposals will be processed swiftly in response to demand from local people.
On 27 August, the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, Department for Communities and Local Government, encouraged local authorities to consider how reforms across the planning system and new powers restoring local control over housing provision could be used to create more housing supply by enabling people to have more opportunities to choose innovative housing solutions—such as residential moorings.
On 27 August, my Department published a new and simple guide for communities wanting to start up, share or save their own community orchards that could help reverse the national decline in traditional orchards. The guide will form part of a series that continues with our commitment to cutting out red tape and making it easier for communities to protect the spaces they value most.
In addition to this on 30 August I outlined how new planning reforms in the Localism Bill can be used by local communities to classify green spaces such as bowling greens and safeguard them from the threat of development or closure.
On 31 August, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for cities, decentralisation and planning, announced an additional 36 “front-runner” areas that will test out neighbourhood planning, bringing the total to 126 across the country. Each front-runner’s local council is being given £20,000 to support work on neighbourhood planning and free advice from planning experts will be available for the local community.
Delivering a Fairer Housing System
On 3 August, the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government announced plans to speed up the process for evicting tenants from homes when all other efforts to curb their antisocial behaviour have failed. The new mandatory power for possession will speed up the possession process by allowing previous convictions for serious antisocial behaviour to trigger eviction proceedings and short-cut the often long and expensive process which often requires landlords to prove again the actions of their tenants. I announced our intention to include, as part of this consultation, a proposal to make necessary changes to housing legislation so that landlords will have even stronger powers to evict tenants who engage in serious antisocial behaviour or criminal activity such as rioting beyond the local neighbourhood.
On 25 August the Minister of State also outlined plans that give councils more financial freedoms to improve, buy and build new housing for the local community. The proposals will allow councils more flexibility to trade their assets and use the receipts to enable further investment new homes and regenerating the local area.
Increasing Freedoms for Local Government
Continuing our commitment to give councils greater financial freedom, on 25 July, we once again opened up applications for councils to apply to borrow and sell against their assets to enable them to tackle historic pay inequalities while protecting front-line services. The deadline for applications is 16 September 2011.
On 2 August, I set out our proposals to localise support for council tax, freeing up billing authorities to decide how best to support working-age households and establish stronger incentives for councils to get people back into work. These changes sit alongside the Government’s wider welfare reforms that are focused on ending a culture of benefit dependency, and in order to protect the positive work incentives and distributional impacts of universal credit some changes to the universal credit design may be required. The Government will provide further detail in the next few months.
Since August 2010, we have been examining the most cost-effective way to disband the Audit Commission, transferring audit into the private sector and allowing local authorities to appoint their own auditors. Determining the best value-for-money approach, on 28 July, I announced that the commission will outsource all its in-house local public work to the private sector in the next financial year.
On 2 September, my Department published guidance to local authorities on how to protect voluntary and community groups from disproportionate cuts to their funding. The guidance, which reduces 56 pages of prescriptive statutory guidance to one page, outlines how councils can achieve best value in their areas. In deciding how best to fulfil their best value duty, councils are required to consult those using, or likely to use, a local service. This should include community and voluntary organisations.
Augmenting Transparency in Government
The Department is continuing its commitment to deliver transparent and open government to drive out waste, protect front-line services and ensure value for money to the taxpayer. We want to make it easier for local people to see how their money is being spent. On 22 July we launched a new online search engine to show residents when they could use their rights to inspect their council’s detailed financial spending and ledgers.
On 21 July, my Department published a further group of reports presenting the findings from research projects commissioned by the previous Administration. There remains a backlog of unpublished reports that were produced by the previous Government. The reports and findings are of general policy interest, but do not relate to forthcoming policy announcements. We are publishing these documents in the interests of transparency and as part of our freedom of information commitment to publish the results of all commissioned research. The latest batch relate to resilience, and can be found online at:
We believe that the public has the right to see the scale and variety of publicly owned assets and we have urged councils and other public bodies to publish their own assets lists that will help to identify billions of pounds of potential savings. In recognising the huge worth of public assets we have also committed to working with areas seeking to make savings through better property management. On 5 August, my Department published a demonstration map outlining over 180,000 publicly owned assets which helps to illustrate the potential scope for savings.
I am placing in the Library copies of the departmental press notices and papers associated with the announcements above.