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Topical Questions

Volume 532: debated on Monday 5 September 2011

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!