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Communities and Local Government

Volume 532: debated on Monday 5 September 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Business Rates (Local Retention)

The Government have published proposals to allow local retention of business rates and are seeking views by 24 October. The plans give councils a strong financial incentive to drive economic growth, as well as providing protections for places in need of additional support. Subject to the outcome of the consultation, we intend to introduce business rates retention by April 2013.

There is significant concern in cities such as Liverpool that councils will lose money after the first year if they cannot adjust quickly enough to the changes. We have had reassurances from Ministers that councils will get that support in the first year, but will the Secretary of State guarantee that they will get that additional support in years 2, 3 and 4?

Had the provisions been in place over the past few years, Liverpool would have done particularly well out of the system. I am confident that the leadership of Liverpool will respond to this, because it puts Liverpool very much in the driving seat. My opinion is that Liverpool is an extremely good place to invest.

Following the riots, the viability of high streets is a priority. For my local shops, the priority is reform of business rates, which they see as too high and lacking any real connection with local services and local decision makers. Can the Minister hasten the day when business rates are not an issue for his Department?

I certainly hope so. We recognise the burden of rates on small businesses. That is why we are doubling small business rate relief until the end of September 2012. Approximately a third of a million business rate payers, including small shopkeepers, will pay no rates at all for this period, and through the Localism Bill we are giving authorities powers to grant business rates discounts as they see fit.

Businesses on Wirral are concerned that the retention of business rates might result in increased business rates. As the party of the small business, how are we going to protect those small engines of growth in these difficult times?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point, and I can assure her that part of the consultation makes it clear that local authorities will have the ability to bring business rates down, but not to put them up.

In my constituency, the local enterprise partnership is moving swiftly to create business growth across both Warwickshire and Coventry. Can the Secretary of State explain which mechanisms will allow LEPs to receive funding from business rates where they, working with the local authority or alone, have been responsible for economic growth in the area?

LEPs are a partnership between local authorities and business, and we will be encouraging, though we will not be prescribing, local authorities to pool the business rates. I know that a number of authorities around Greater Manchester, west Yorkshire and particularly London are actively considering pooling arrangements, which has the advantage that poorer areas can benefit from richer areas.

Barnsley council has estimated that, had the arrangements been in place last year, it would have seen a cut of more than £40 million last year. Does the Secretary of State think it is fair that poorer areas such as Barnsley may face pressures in delivering vital local public services, whereas wealthier areas may see their business rates receipts go through the roof?

If business rates go through the roof, they will be caught by the “disproportionate” rule and those sums will be taken away and distributed to poorer areas. This was designed to help councils such as Barnsley to retain local growth. The figures that I have seen—we received some figures from Barnsley during the recent settlement—did not appear to be entirely accurate. I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to get the best possible deal for Barnsley.

Ministers—[Interruption]—have already made savage front-loaded cuts to council budgets, and now they want to top-slice the proceeds of business rate growth which they promised to local councils. Localising business rate growth should give local authorities an incentive to grow their business base and to create jobs. Will the Minister explain just how central Government’s top-slicing of business rate growth can provide that proper incentive? Is it not just another hit on local government finance?

The hon. Lady was clearly missed by Members on her side of the House, and indeed by those on ours, judging by that welcome.

The only top-slicing that will take place is with regard to disproportionate gains, and I am pretty confident that Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster councils will see enormous increases in their rates. It is only right that we take that money away and see that it is distributed to other parts of the country, such as to Barnsley. I would have thought that she would support that.

What incentives will there be to encourage local authorities to introduce special low business rates for green energy schemes?

The Localism Bill gives local authorities the discretion to do that, and my hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion which I am very confident a number of local authorities will take up.

High Streets (Planning)

It is a devolved matter for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but the Government are committed to the “town centre first” approach, which prefers to site new retail developments on the high street.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The new planning system framework calls for a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Today, however, the Financial Times describes that phrase as “vaguely defined”. Will the Minister please take this opportunity to offer us a precise definition?

It is the same definition that the previous Government and Governments before them applied. In fact, it is the classic definition. It is that development that takes place should not be at the expense of the interests of future generations—and that is defined economically, socially and environmentally.

The national planning policy framework has a welcome heading on promoting the vitality and viability of town centres, but the Minister was reluctant to make an addition to the Localism Bill concerning district centres and the important relevant hierarchy. What protection will he give to local neighbourhoods in the control of uses and in keeping local district shopping centres viable and vital?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The Localism Bill, through neighbourhood planning, provides precisely such a basis to protect and, indeed, promote the future of district high streets, and we have already funded a number of areas, especially on high streets, in order to demonstrate their ability to capture the importance of regional high streets as well as of city centres.

One of the most successful policies of the previous Conservative Government was their change to the planning guidance in the mid-’90s to ensure that priority was given to retail development in district or city centres or adjacent to them. Will the Minister now give an assurance that his proposed changes to the planning system will not water that down in any way and lead to an increase in stand-alone retail developments at the expense of our city and town centres?

Local communities, such as Chippenham, which choose to bring forward neighbourhood plans to facilitate redevelopment of their town centres may at the same time wish to restrict development of out-of-town and edge-of-town developments. Will neighbourhood planners have the authority to do that?

Not only will they have the authority do so, but national policy will continue to be clear that retail developments should be in town centres first. That is crystal clear. It has been a very successful policy, which was first introduced by John Gummer when he was Secretary of State.

The Government have weakened protection for the high street in the national planning policy framework and rejected Labour’s call for local people to have the powers to plan their high streets, instead setting up a review and a retail summit. Does the Minister not recognise that what the high street needs is real action and real shops if we are to put the heart back into Britain’s hard-hit high streets?

There is no dilution of the importance of town centres—of putting high streets first. In fact, over and above the planning system, we have relaxed parking standards so that people are able to drive and park in town centres—crucial, if they are to compete fairly with out-of-town centres. It repeals something that the previous Government introduced, sadly, which was blighting town centres. We reversed that.

Local Government Expenditure

The most important thing that the Government are doing is to return power to local authorities, because they are the people who are best placed to manage their resources in a way that meets local priorities, but specifically we are also supporting a raft of initiatives, such as the local government procurement programme.

Recently, I met a local business, Colan Ltd, which was concerned about the way that local authorities procure goods and services. My constituent stated that local authorities have conflicting policies that are costing small companies such as his and in some cases are wasting public money. Will the Minister detail what work is being done to put in place more joined-up procurement across local authorities to support small businesses and ensure better use of public money?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The estimate is that some 20% could be saved on the £50 billion that local authorities spend on third parties, which is about £452 per family a year. To that end, the Government are working with the Local Government Group on behalf of the sector to identify short and longer term savings through the local productivity programme.

On spending efficiency, my local housing association tells me that a lone parent with a spare room might be moved from housing association accommodation into private rented accommodation at a cost of £40 more under the new housing allowance. Is that an example of Government ideology or just of stupidity?

I suspect that it is an example of inaccurate point scoring by the hon. Gentleman. We propose to give local authorities greater flexibility to meet the pressures that vary from place to place, rather than having a “one size fits all” straitjacket.

Transparency in Local Government

Following public consultation earlier this year, I will shortly publish a code of recommended practice on transparency, setting out the principles and minimum standards that authorities should follow. That will ensure that councils can be held fully accountable to the people they serve.

I think we can all agree that greater transparency is a friend of the democratic process, but it needs to be backed up by the empowerment of local residents. How will the Localism Bill drive through both transparency and greater democratic input?

The Localism Bill will indeed do that. Perhaps the most notable of its provisions is on the transparency of chief executive and senior salaries, which will have to go through a vote of the whole council. I am sure my hon. Friend understands that the Localism Bill is just part of the move towards transparency, which might better be described as ensuring that the public are kept informed.

How transparent is it for Ministers to mask the real cuts in local government spending, such as the 16% cut for Nottingham city council, by dreaming up a statistical methodology that they call spending power and spinning it as a cut of just 8%? Why do they not just come clean about the cuts to the poorest areas in the country?

The body that thought up the spending power recommendation was the Local Government Association. Indeed, immediately before we announced it, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who is sat on the Labour Front Bench, endorsed it as the way we should go.

Enterprise Zones

The Government have authorised 22 enterprise zones. We do not have plans to appoint any more. However, local enterprise partnerships can confer many of the advantages of enterprise zones without reference to central Government.

I warmly welcome the £20 million that the Government are giving to the Mayor of London to support enterprise in Tottenham and Croydon in lieu of the designation of an enterprise zone. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that money will not be ring-fenced in any way? Will he meet a delegation from the Mayor’s office and Croydon council to discuss how else the Government can support the regeneration of Croydon in the light of what happened a month ago?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the leadership he has shown in the community of Croydon in the wake of the riots. I am pleased to give him the assurance he seeks. The money will be unring-fenced and can be spent in the way that the people of Croydon think best. I am happy to meet such a delegation and I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be visiting Croydon this week.

When asked on BBC Radio Stoke why Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire was not selected as an enterprise zone in round 1, the Prime Minister, standing in Stoke-on-Trent, said:

“Look, you’re not missing out on an enterprise zone, there will be an enterprise zone within the Stoke and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership…and there will be one in this area and we’ll be advised by the Local Enterprise Partnership about where it should go.”

The local enterprise partnership did advise, but we were not on the list. The map boundaries have not changed, and we are not part of the black country. What support will the Government now give to provide the enterprise investment that is needed, and will the Minister look again at our being included?

I understand the hon. Lady’s disappointment that that particular bid was not approved, and I would be very happy to meet her to explain why. However, there is some consolation in the fact that 90% of the black country’s enterprise zone is located in the Stoke and Staffordshire area, so there is some good news for the regeneration of her area.

Can the Minister explain why part of Leeds should be an enterprise zone, but Bradford should not be and neither should Shipley? Indeed, can he explain why the whole country should not be an enterprise zone?

Our ambition is to make the whole country an enterprise zone, but we go one step at a time. The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that the decision was made by the local enterprise partnership. Unlike the previous round of enterprise zones, these ones were not picked in Whitehall. It was for the local enterprise partnership to designate where it thought the zone would work best.

There were two areas in London bidding for an enterprise zone prior to the riots: Tottenham and Croydon. Neither was granted enterprise zone status, but we were given a £20 million fund, for which I am grateful. However, it cannot be right that of Tottenham’s £10 million fund, £8 million should go to Tottenham Hotspur football club. I want to support the football club, but we will need far more regeneration in Tottenham if we are to see the kind of turnaround that we need in the poorest area in London. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can move forward?

Having paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for his leadership in Tottenham. He knows that the funding is available to Tottenham, as indeed it is to Croydon, and I would be very happy to meet him to discuss how it is going to be spent.

Housing (Armed Forces Personnel)

9. What plans his Department has in respect of the provision of housing for current and former members of the armed forces. (69927)

I am determined to ensure that those who have served or are serving in the military and armed forces get all the help and assistance possible with purchasing a home, and indeed in the Government’s affordable home programmes.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I draw his attention to today’s Daily Mail, which highlights the rather shocking disparity in the housing accommodation offered to asylum seekers and to ex-members of the armed forces such as Private Alex Stringer, a triple amputee? Can the Minister assure us that the Government will bring forward schemes to prioritise housing for ex-servicemen and women? I believe that those who have recently fought for their country deserve better accommodation than those who have merely recently arrived here.

I say to my hon. and, I believe, gallant Friend that I entirely agree that it is essential that people who have been through armed service for this country should expect not just to have the disadvantages removed of having been away, such as perhaps a lost connection with the local area, but to be positively advantaged. I reassure him that that is exactly what our policy is intended to do. I can tell the House that just this weekend the very first recipients under the Government’s new Firstbuy scheme, in which we aim to ensure that service personnel benefit, were Mr and Mrs Ferguson of Telford, who have just moved into a four-bed home. He was a military policeman in the Army.

Licensing Areas

The Housing Act 2004 requires local authorities to review the operation of selective licensing designations, and I certainly encourage them to do so. The Department has therefore not carried out an assessment itself of the effectiveness of those areas.

The main problem with selective licensing, of course, is that it does not deal with stock condition, and we see many properties in selective licensing areas that are squalid. Can the Minister assure local communities that the Government will allow councils to include the most recent decent homes standard as a licence condition?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been very active on this issue, and I know that he has a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government next week, at which I am sure he will make that point very strongly. Licensing conditions are matters for local authorities when they draw up their proposals.

With more than 1 million people living in substandard privately rented accommodation, and with massive front-loaded cuts to council budgets making it harder to tackle slum landlords, the Housing and Local Government Minister is clearly failing in his responsibilities. However, as Henry Ford once said:

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

Will the Minister therefore adopt a more intelligent approach and abandon his laissez-faire attitude to regulation, which is creating a charter for slum landlords, by implementing the light-touch licensing system recommended by the Rugg review, adopted by Labour and welcomed by the National Landlords Association and the Association of Residential Lettings Agents?

I am happy to tell the House that 14 local authorities have accepted selective licensing areas—they have approved them and put them in place. That is the way to go. Local authorities should have the power and the responsibility to do that; they should not have the obligation to do it.

Empty Homes

We have put in place powerful tools and incentives to support local communities in tackling empty homes. Particularly through the new homes bonus, communities will receive a direct financial reward for bringing an empty home back into use, and, of course, we are investing £100 million in tackling empty homes directly.

With more than 2,000 empty homes across the Blackpool and Wyre boroughs covering my constituency, does the Minister agree that tackling the relatively simple issue of filling empty homes in urban areas would reduce pressure on existing greenfield and green belt sites?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a scandal that we have in this country 300,000 homes that have been empty for longer than six months. In Blackpool and Wyre, the number of empty homes actually fell last year, and I want to give credit to the work of Blackpool council’s working group, which is working with other agencies to reduce that number. However, the investment that we will announce later this month will make a big difference to the figures nationally, and, I hope, in his area.

I draw the House’s attention to my previous declarations of an indirect interest, which are a matter of record.

Although I welcome all attempts to bring empty homes back into use—I saw some excellent examples during the recess of self-help schemes that do just that, including in Leeds and Hull—homelessness and rent have increased, as the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), admitted over the weekend. It was therefore surprising that his colleague, the Housing and Local Government Minister, wrote to me during the recess to seek my guidance and ideas from Labour’s policy thinking. That was from a man who pointed out that the shadow Minister was going to—

Order. May I ask the hon. Lady to come straight away to a question? That is what we are here for.

I just thought that that would be an interesting point, Mr Speaker.

Even with the net addition of empty homes being brought back into use, can the Minister tell us when he expects house building under his Government to exceed the 207,000 net additions achieved under Labour in the year before the recession hit?

What I will say is that our investment in social housing, which we announced in the comprehensive spending review with the aim of delivering 150,000 homes, will in fact deliver 170,000 homes. That is a massive success which will increase the stock of social housing above and beyond Labour’s targets.

Will my hon. Friend put pressure on his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to see how they can bring back the many hundreds—if not thousands—of married quarters that stand empty around the country?

I certainly hear with great sympathy what my hon. Friend says. We could perhaps have a discussion separately on how we can co-operate to deliver that result.

Could the Minister tell us exactly how many empty homes management orders have been used? As the number is not likely to be very high, does that not suggest that we ought to reform how they are used?

In the five years that empty homes management orders have been in force—they were introduced in 2006—only 46 have been made by local authorities across the country. That contrasts with the 300,000 empty homes, but they are the back-stop. I am happy to say that a lot of good work is done by many local authorities and other agencies to bring homes back into use. I intend to accelerate that process dramatically.

I would like to encourage the Minister to pursue with vigour and enthusiasm the points made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). There are too many empty houses, and if we can get them occupied, there would be a lot less pressure on the open countryside.

That is absolutely true. There has been a substantial failure of the market in bringing many of these homes back into use. That is exactly what our proposals, which are being announced later this month, are intended to address.

Planning Reform

12. What discussions he has had with heritage bodies on his Department’s proposals to reform planning legislation. (69930)

I and my officials have met representatives from English Heritage and other heritage bodies several times to improve the neighbourhood planning aspects of the Localism Bill. I am pleased to say that that has resulted in several helpful amendments that have enjoyed cross-party support.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply. Would he now like to take the opportunity to apologise to the 3.6 million members of the National Trust, whose concerns over the Government’s charter for sprawl were dismissed by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), as a left-wing smear campaign? Before the right hon. Gentleman explains whether Sir Simon Jenkins is a Tankie or a Trot, would he not agree that this is just further proof that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the British countryside?

I noticed that my hon. Friend described some of the leaders of some of these organisations as “left wing”. If it is untrue, it is a great insult; and if it is true, it is a great shame. The hon. Gentleman is a passionate defender of the historic environment, but so too are we on the Government Benches, and we are determined to preserve the character of middle England—but young England needs a roof over its head too.

In those discussions with heritage organisations, was the Minister able to clarify whether local plans will be able to designate grade I agricultural land with a specific value?

As has already been said, there has been considerable concern across the country that the Government are trying to steamroller through policy affecting future planning decisions. We were promised that the draft NPPF would be published alongside the Localism Bill. It did not happen. Then we were told that it would be published in Committee. That did not happen either. Then we were assured that it would definitely be published before the summer recess, but that did not happen either. Does the Minister recognise that by trying to bypass Parliament and dismiss legitimate concerns, he has undermined efforts to reach consensus on future planning policy?

That is total nonsense. The commitment was to publish the NPPF by the end of July, and we did that. On not showing it to Parliament, I should say that I was looking at the record of the previous Government, and I noticed that there was a press release on 6 August 2009 about a new Government consultation on planning regional strategies. The idea, then, that the way we have done this is not in accordance with practice is for the birds. It is nonsense.

I am afraid that that answer was not very helpful. I hoped that we could have a constructive discussion. It is in all our interests to have a planning system that can provide jobs, homes and growth in a sustainable way, and we want to work with the Government to put this situation right and reach consensus. In order to move forward, therefore, will he extend the consultation period on the NPPF, hold a debate on it in Government time and allow a vote on the final document, so that Parliament and the country can debate the reforms properly?

We have put in place extensive consultation arrangements: we put out a call for evidence in January; we invited a practitioners group to publish its suggested draft a few months ago; and we have had the standard consultation period. The right hon. Lady will also know that I have committed to holding a debate here, and have asked the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee to look into the matter. It is very clear—I am completely open about this—that we want to have the fullest possible debate. I welcome her constructive approach. It is much needed because we have a crisis in housing and growth in this country that needs to be addressed by reforming the planning system in order to provide those things.

Under the strategic housing land assessment process started by the previous Government, developers can nominate potential sites to go on a list in a way that does not seem to engage heritage organisations or heritage issues. Given the presumption in favour of development, does that mean that heritage issues cannot be brought to bear as reasons for refusing applications on sites on that list?

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend an assurance that the primacy of the local plan remains, and that national policy will continue to require rigorous protections to be in place for heritage assets.

Housing (Leeds)

It is not for central Government to assess local plans. Our planning reforms make it clear that it is for local councils to assess their local needs and to plan to meet those needs in a way that reflects local priorities.

I am grateful for that reply. What steps is the Department taking to provide guidance to support investment in brownfield and inner-city locations to generate much needed employment and reduce the damaging impact on the environment caused by developing greenfield sites? Will the Minister also look again at counting windfall sites in the five-year plan?

It is certainly proper for local planning authorities to take into account windfall sites, but it is also necessary for every planning authority to ensure that it has sound evidence-based proposals for housing in particular, as well as for other development. I know that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about the situation in Leeds, and it is really for Leeds to develop its evidence base so that plans can go forward in a sensible and sustainable way.

Kirkstall Forge in Leeds West is a brownfield site that has planning permission for 1,000 new homes. However, if they are going to get built, the Department for Transport needs to invest in a new railway station, which, as things currently stand, is on hold. Is there any joined-up thinking in this Government to ensure that such developments get the go-ahead and deliver much needed new homes?

The hon. Lady has made her point, so let me make mine, which is that it is very much for the planning authority approving a development to see what the associated infrastructure should be and how to create the investment force that can deliver it. The new homes bonus will deliver a substantial amount of additional money to Leeds, which can borrow against it in advance to develop the infrastructure that it needs.

Planning Reform

We are simplifying the national planning policy framework, as some Members may have noticed. Through the Localism Bill, we are also abolishing the regional strategies, which have placed top-down burdens on every authority in the country.

I thank the Minister for cutting back at the thicket of rules and regulations that hamper development. Can he quantify the cost to local authorities of creating neighbourhood development plans?

The cost of developing a neighbourhood plan will depend on how detailed the plan being executed is. However, we are providing support for every neighbourhood that wants to produce a neighbourhood plan. We have ensured that support will be available even before the Bill is introduced, so that every community that wants to have a neighbourhood plan can get on with it.

Is it not the case that the presumption in favour of development at the heart of the new planning framework puts every piece of green space at risk of development?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that question because it enables me to say categorically: no, the answer is that it does not. What the presumption says is that when a local plan is absent or silent, there will be an assessment of whether a development should go ahead, the test of which will be whether it is sustainable, which is absolutely crucial. I have been campaigning for the environment for my entire political career, and I will continue to do so.

Does the Minister agree that for high streets to survive and flourish through the planning system, as much control as possible should remain at a local level and away from regional inspectors?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this is the situation that we have arrived at, because people quite rightly resist the imposition from above of targets and policies that take no account of local opinion or local needs. By stripping away those impositions from above, we will have plans that represent the views and aspirations of local communities. That will start making people in favour of development, whereas the previous Government set them against it.

If the Minister’s plans are to support local government, what powers will he give it when developers do not deliver? The Westfield shopping centre in Bradford has taken 10 years to happen, and the local authority has no powers to get the developers to deliver. Has he considered such powers in his new proposals?

I visited the development site that the hon. Gentleman mentions last month. It is right in the centre of Bradford, and I can see that there is a problem at the moment and that the site needs to be brought back into use. I agreed to work with the leadership of the council to explore ways of doing that, but he will know, as an experienced Minister, that we cannot force a developer to act if it does not have the necessary funds in place to do so.

Local Authority Service Provision

15. What recent assessment he has made of potential effects on levels of local authority service provision of reductions in central Government funding to local authorities. (69935)

Local government is best placed to assess and decide on local priorities, not Whitehall. This Government have given councils the power and flexibility to take decisions locally on how to deliver the savings needed, and I hope that they will do so by reducing back-office inefficiencies and high senior salary levels, rather than cutting the front-line services that matter most.

Youth workers in Oxfordshire, like others up and down the country, were instructed to work on the streets during the recent disturbances, but they are now all being made redundant. Youth work is clearly a front-line service, so what is the Minister going to do to stop this destruction? I do hope that he is not going to reiterate the nonsense that savings can be made by cutting executive pay and merging back-room functions.

I am sorry that, in her otherwise serious point, the hon. Lady suggests that efficiency is nonsense; I do not think that it is. In answer to her specific point, the British Youth Council, the National Youth Agency and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services have all condemned the disorder that we saw on the streets and they are working well with the Government. I hope that she will support the Government’s initiative for national citizen service, which is being piloted in the Bolton lads and girls club in her area. There’s youth service in action!

New Homes

The latest planning statistics show that in the year to March 2011, local planning authorities granted 37,500 residential planning permissions; that is up 8% on 2009-10.

May I draw the House’s attention to my interests?

Will the Minister admit that the figures for the second quarter—the latest available—show that the number of planning consents for residential development were down 23% on last year? That is the second lowest level ever recorded, and less than half the level necessary to provide for housing needs. Will he also now admit that the Government’s maladroit tampering with the planning system has created the near impossible—namely, achieving the lowest level of housing planning permissions at the same time as infuriating the National Trust and other countryside groups by the prospect of indiscriminate growth?

The right hon. Gentleman was the architect of many of the policies that led to the lowest level of house building since the 1920s. When we rip up the regional spatial strategies, cancel his top-down targets and put local people in charge, we can see the results, not measured over one little quarter that he plucks out of the air but over the entire first year of this new Government. Those results show that there were just 88,500 house building starts in the last year of his Government, and that the number had risen to 103,500 in the first year of this Government. That is a rise of 17%.

Unauthorised Development

Local authorities already have strong powers to act against unauthorised development which apply to everyone who ignores planning controls. In the Localism Bill, we have taken action to restrict retrospective planning applications, to ensure that people do not get away with flouting the system.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. What assurances can he give me that those rules will apply equally to all residents, and that the Travelling community will not be exempt from rules that apply to the rest of the population?

It is right and proper that we should respect the lifestyle choices of the Travelling community, but that does not give them particular rights over other citizens, particularly among the settled community. This Government will introduce special rules to ensure that authorities that provide pitches for Travellers receive a top-up against the new homes bonus, but the planning rules must be blind to a person’s ethnic background.

Housing Supply

18. Whether he plans to set the strategic housing land availability assessments of potential housing provided by unimplemented planning permissions against the five-year supply requirement. (69938)

I am grateful for that reply, but I urge the Minister to work closely with councils on publishing more guidance and setting out how to build a strong evidence base in order to include windfall sites, so that Leeds city council can stand up in the planning courts and use the 2.3 years of windfall supply as part of the current five-year supply, because at the moment, it is losing on every appeal.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. As he knows, I visited Leeds in recent days, and I believe he was returning from his honeymoon, on which all Members will, I am sure, wish to congratulate him. I understand the situation he outlines: having the ability to use these unimplemented consents will be a start, and I would be happy to meet him, now that he is back in such fine form, to continue the discussion.

Topical Questions

I have today laid a written statement outlining the work of my Department over the recess. We have been promoting economic growth, promoting local shops and firms, and giving new incentives for councils to create jobs and businesses. We have increased freedoms to local councils, cut Whitehall red tape and boosted transparency in government. We have taken the lead in helping local communities get back to business after the August riots. I would like to pay tribute to local councils that provided leadership to their communities during that period, to the firefighters who bravely tackled arson in the face of violence and, above all, to local residents who literally picked up their brooms to clean up and reclaim the streets after the mess.

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that, unlike the previous Government’s disastrous regional spatial strategy under which 10,000 houses were planned to be built on the Kingswood green belt, the national planning policy framework will retain all current green belt protections?

There was a time when I was a frequent visitor to my hon. Friend’s constituency, so I know the strength of local feeling about the green belt. Let me give him a clear and unequivocal assurance that the green belt will be protected under this coalition Government, unlike under the previous Labour Government, who promised to build on it.

T10. The Aspes road-Leyfield lane footpath in my constituency is little used by local people, yet it has become a focus for crime and antisocial behaviour. Will the Secretary of State look at the rules and bureaucracy that make it very difficult for local communities to secure the closure of such footpaths? (69953)

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the specific problem he mentions; perhaps we will be able to do something to sort it out. I am grateful to him for raising the issue.

T2. At a time when the whole country is working hard to help pay down the last Government’s deficit and public sector workers are experiencing a two-year pay freeze, it appears that some council chief executives are still finding elaborate ways to hike their pay. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging overpaid council chief executives to do the right thing and take a pay cut? (69945)

I certainly hope that chief executives will do the right thing. Above all, this issue is not just about money, but a question of leadership. It is about looking other council workers in the eye, particularly those who might face voluntary redundancy or early retirement. That is why chief executives should make some kind of sacrifice. Frankly, it is no good making a big song and dance about taking a cut and then bumping up expenses in private.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision, in the aftermath of the riots, to give the extra £20 million to Tottenham and Croydon. Does he agree that this should be focused on the businesses that have been burnt out and devastated and the citizens who were the major victims of the devastation? Will he be clear that he never intended £8.5 million of that riot money to be given to a very rich premiership football club, namely Tottenham Hotspur?

I shall be visiting Croydon very soon to discuss the possibilities. However, it is important to understand that the extra money made available was intended not to deal with riot damage or to get businesses up and running again, but to deal with some of Croydon’s long-term structural problems. I noted carefully what the right hon. Gentleman said about the football club, and will be happy to discuss with him elsewhere what should be done next.

T3. A recent independent report on the use of section 106 moneys by Labour-run Reading borough council concluded, among other things, that it was “difficult to categorically state that officers or members in position of power have not abused their position”.What advice can the Minister offer concerned council tax payers who want to see the full and exhaustive investigation that Labour in Reading is refusing to initiate? (69946)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. As I am sure he will appreciate, I must be careful not to say too much about the individual case because I understand that a reference may be made to the district auditor, but I can say more generally that both the report and his question highlight the problem that has arisen as a result of the opacity and lack of transparency of section 106 agreements. The Government inherited that problem, but we are committed to reforming section 106 agreements, and have made proposals to do so.

Does the ministerial team agree that one way of making local government more efficient would be to make the people who work in it feel valued, and feel that they do a good job for their communities? Is it not about time that Ministers spoke up with one voice about what a good job those people do throughout our communities?

I entirely agree, and I think that if there was ever an example of that, it could be seen in the aftermath of the riots. I spoke to just about every council leader affected, and was immensely impressed by their determination to ensure that their communities recovered very quickly. I cannot praise their efforts highly enough.

T4. Many of my constituents are totally perplexed about why Labour-run Kirklees council is trying to steamroller through big housing developments in parts of the countryside such as Lindley Moor and the northern gateway area while there are hundreds of empty homes throughout the district. Does the Minister agree that the number of empty homes in Kirklees should be a material consideration in the council’s local plan? (69947)

Yes, I do agree, and it will be entirely possible for the empty homes in my hon. Friend’s authority to be considered as part of the contribution to the total.

I am not sure that the Minister entirely succeeded in convincing the House earlier with his answer to the question about the definition of the phrase

“a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

Given that the interpretation of that phrase will be central to the Government’s ambition to improve the planning process, will the Secretary of State consider providing a clearer definition and placing it in the Library of the House?

As I said before, we have adopted exactly the same definition that applied under the last Government. I have made it clear that if there are discussions to be held on ensuring that everyone understands precisely what is meant, I shall be very open to that, but what is crucial is that we reform planning policy in order to unlock jobs and create homes for the next generation of young people.

T5. Under the coalition Government, house building statistics in England are 22% higher than those during the comparative period under the last Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must never again see circumstances in which council tax bills double yet results are so poor? (69948)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to allow communities to grow and allow local people to have a stake in that growth, which is why we will ensure—both through the new homes bonus and through reformed business rates—that an ambitious local authority can improve the lot of people who live in their area, who, for the first time, will have a stake in the future.

In response to the question from the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said that we were facing a crisis of growth. What does it say about the policies of the present Government that after the abolition of the regional development agencies and six months after the budget for growth, a Minister has come to the House and admitted that there is a crisis of growth?

The crisis of growth that I was referring to was that bequeathed to us by the previous Labour Government. We noticed that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has decided not to say what she thinks of the reforms that we are enacting. She has spent six weeks failing to give a view on that. A few weeks ago, the leader of her party said that

“the promise of a better life for the next generation is under threat…How are they going to buy their first home?”

Does she support our simplified planning system or not? She did not answer.

T6. Does the Minister agree that we need to keep our high streets healthy and diverse and support independent shops? Will he therefore support the Cambridge amendment 153AKC, tabled by Lord Greaves, to the Localism Bill, which gives local people the power to support their high streets in that way? (69949)

The health of the high street is a fundamental characteristic of a healthy community and we are strongly promoting that through the national policy planning framework—or the other way around even. We will look hard at the proposals that come from our noble Friends in the Lords and give careful consideration to them.

It is clear from an earlier answer that the Minister sees the current planning framework as a burden. Is he so blinkered to the concern that his changes could signal the return to the 1980s planning free-for-all, undermining the established sequential test—brownfield, open space—and town centre policies along the way?

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case. If he takes the specific example of brownfield sites, he will find that paragraph 165 of the framework sets out clearly that land of the least environmental value should be brought forward first. That is another way of saying brownfield land first.

T7. I welcome the proposed localisation of the council tax benefits system. Can my hon. Friend say whether the funding of the administration of that system will also be localised, or remain central Government grant? (69950)

As my hon. Friend knows, we are consulting on a raft of matters in relation to local government finance. We propose shortly to issue some technical papers. When he has perhaps read those, I will be happy to meet him to discuss the issue.

To address housing need, we need to build more than 200,000 properties, but according to the statistics that are coming out, it is unlikely that we will complete half that number in the coming year. The Government have already massively cut support for affordable housing and made a complete botch of the planning system. What will they do to address the coming housing crisis?

The hon. Gentleman has rightly defined the problem of the legacy that this Government inherited, with the lowest house building since the ’20s, but I am pleased to be able to report that, compared with the comparative period when Labour was in power, since the election, housing building starts are up 22%. I hope he will join me in welcoming those statistics.

T8. If the Prime Minister were to give the Secretary of State an additional role, I doubt he would ask for more money to do it, so does he agree that council chief executives who double as returning officers and already earn more than he does should not receive an additional fee for overseeing elections? (69951)

This is something very close to all our hearts in this Chamber. That, of course, is a matter for the Secretary of State for Justice, but to me this seems common sense. I have not come across many chief executives who do the count and organise the postal votes; that is often done by the deputy returning officer. I know that a number of returning officers ensure that the extra money is shared among staff. I think that that is the right course, but if chief executives are pocketing that money, they should feel ashamed.

Local authority-run closed circuit television played a vital role in investigating many of the riots in our high streets only a month ago, yet the Protection of Freedoms Bill will make it more difficult and bureaucratic for local authorities to install CCTV. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to reflect on that, and consult local authorities and police before we go ahead with the measures in the Bill?

Of course we will reflect on those matters, but it is important that these important intrusions into people’s private lives are regulated, and the Bill intends to regulate them, but if the hon. Gentleman has a specific point, we will be happy to look into it.

The West Midlands fire service is proposing to merge two fire stations in my constituency, which will significantly reduce the level of fire cover, reducing the number of fire engines from two to one. Will the Minister responsible commit to meet me and the chief of the West Midlands fire service to review those proposals and to ensure that the same level of fire cover is retained in my constituency?

Of course I am happy to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend, but I must point out that these are local decisions for the fire authority, which must at all times act in accordance with its integrated risk management plan and its statutory obligations under fire services legislation.

What is the Secretary of State doing in conjunction with other Departments to promote awareness among uninsured local businesses affected by last month’s riots that under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 the deadline for making compensation claims will fall imminently—this week, I think?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we extended the normal period within which claims can be made. We have put out a simplified form—or, rather, we have worked with local authorities to put out a simplified form. It is available on our website. I am not aware that there are many businesses that have suffered an uninsured loss that have not come forward, but we do intend to use this money to get those businesses back into business, so that the community can continue to thrive.

May I congratulate the whole ministerial team on being bold on planning reform? Whatever the rights and wrongs of individual planning decisions, it cannot be right that the planning process itself costs 10 times more in central London than in central Paris or central Brussels. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to ensure that we pare down the costs of the planning process so that we can contribute to the country’s economic growth.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Reform of the planning process is a crucial part of “The Plan for Growth”. We have inherited a situation from the previous Government whereby the centralisation of the economy has led to depressed levels of growth. We are turning that around through fundamental reforms, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s support.

Last year, Nottingham city council, which serves some of the most deprived communities in the country, was subjected to the biggest cuts in funding, while rural shire counties were protected. Will the Secretary of State look again at this year’s settlement and get a fairer deal for my constituents?

We had to put in place protection for Nottingham because the Labour party withdrew the working neighbourhoods fund; we had to protect Nottingham from Labour cuts. My advice to Nottingham is that if it wants to get favourable treatment from the Government, it should publish its expenditure online: publish and be damned!