I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose for conference recess on 15 September.
Delivering better services
Under the last Administration, thanks to policies engineered in Whitehall, millions of homes saw cuts to their local rubbish collections. Weekly rubbish collections are the most visible of all front-line services and I believe every household in England has a basic right to have their rubbish collected every week.
In June 2011, the Government review of waste policy in England stated:
“The Government will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle, and to tackle measures which encourage councils specifically to cut the scope of collections”.
On 30 September, my Department announced a new fund of up to £250 million to support councils to deliver weekly collections of household waste. The new weekly collections support scheme will support councils which switch from fortnightly to better weekly collections, and will support weekly collection councils which wish to keep and improve the weekly service they offer, such as through better procurement, new technologies and reward schemes like Recyclebank and others.
Councils will be able to bid individually or in consortiums, and with the private sector, where that increases value for money. In order to encourage the most innovative and locally tailored solutions, authorities will be able to bid for a mix of revenue and capital funding.
In due course, I will make a further statement on the detail of this scheme, and the details for inviting councils to submit innovative bids for funding. This initiative will help councils deliver better weekly collections, and in the process make it easier for families to go green and improve local amenity and local environment. It also builds on the abolition of bin taxes through the Localism Bill and our plans to abolish unfair bin fines introduced under the last Administration.
Helping local families
Under the last Administration, while bin collections halved for many homes, across the country council tax more than doubled. In 2011-12, the coalition Government introduced a council tax freeze, which was taken up by all participating councils.
On 3 October, the my right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced £805 million support to help freeze council tax bills for a further year. The support for local authorities, on top of the existing freeze, means that taxpayers living in an average band D home in England could save up to £72 compared to a 5% rise in council tax. In addition to providing real help to households in difficult times this provides a positive contribution to those local authorities who wish to keep council tax down while protecting vital front-line services.
I will shortly make a written statement setting out the provisions for English local authorities and my officials will then write to the authorities with full details of the scheme for 2012-13, including providing an indicative breakdown of estimated grants to help local authorities with their budget planning.
Improving transparency and accountability
Transparency is at the core of delivering efficient and accountable Government. On 29 September, my Department published the final code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency. The code of practice calls on local authorities such as councils and fire and rescue services to shine a light on every part of their business, from employees’ salaries over £58,200 and details of all their contracts and tenders to details of grants to voluntary organisations, spending data and the locations of public land and building assets.
Subject to consultation, Ministers will consider making the code a legally binding requirement to ensure authorities are fully accountable to the people they serve. The coalition Government have abolished top-down inspection and increased local autonomy making local accountability more important than ever. Central Government have a role in ensuring that local people can exercise their right to know how their money is being spent and have the information they need to question that spending. Decentralisation and a robust local democracy needs greater local accountability.
On 5 September, I informed the House that I had asked the Audit Commission to outsource its audit work from next year, as the first step towards disbanding the Commission and introducing a new, decentralised audit regime which will allow local authorities to appoint their own auditors. Following careful consideration of the options, we determined that outsourcing was likely to offer the best value for money for the taxpayer. In line with our commitment to transparency, on 10 October my Department published on its website a summary of the independent report we commissioned to inform our decision.
In September and October my Department published two further groups of reports presenting the findings from research projects commissioned by the previous Administration. 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. The first group was published on 29 September and relates to immigration; a summary of the reports and their cost to taxpayers can be found online at:
The second group, published on 6 October relates to housing; a summary of the reports and their cost to taxpayers can be found online at:
Ensuring fairness for council workers and taxpayers
The cost of local government pensions to the taxpayer has risen from £1.8 billion in 1997 to £6 billion in 2009-10 increasing burdens on council tax—and in turn, hitting pensioners the hardest. In the light of changing demographics, this growing burden is not sustainable or fair on the taxpayer. Moreover, Lord Hutton’s report sets out why public sector pensions need to be reformed to more fairly protect taxpayers.
On 7 October, my Department published a consultation that proposes how to deliver the £900 million of savings required by the spending review 2010 to the local government pension scheme in England and Wales by 2014-15.
The paper proposes a progressively phased increase in employees’ contribution tariff from April 2012 that would raise an additional £450 million, or 1.5% of pay, and a change in the accrual rate from April 2013 to raise an additional £450 million, or 1.5% of pay. This provides a balance between increasing employee contributions and adjusting the accrual rates while making the necessary savings to better protect the taxpayer.
To ensure the scheme continues to be an attractive scheme to all existing and future members. Any increases in contribution rate will protect low earners, with no increase for those earning less than £15,000, and mean high earners pay in proportionally more reflecting their more generous pensions.
We will continue to engage with local government and trade unions throughout the consultation as they have a key role to play. We hope all parties will take the time to consider these proposals in a constructive manner.
Building a better Britain
We believe that creating the conditions for sustainable growth and thriving economies begins at a local level, with local control and responsibility and local investment.
On 3 October, the coalition Government invited the Lancashire and Hull and Humber local enterprise partnerships to develop proposals for two new enterprise zones. This is in response to the recent announcement by BAE systems on their sites in Brough, Warton and Samlesbury. The zones will benefit from simplified planning rules, super-fast broadband and tax breaks for new business for the next four years. The Government will work closely with these local enterprise partnerships to develop strong and viable proposals for enterprise zones that will accelerate local growth, generate hundreds of jobs and attract many new start up firms.
On 10 October, my Department published a consultation on reforming the community infrastructure levy to provide that a proportion of the money raised from development will go directly to the neighbourhood where it takes place. Local people will have the freedom to spend this money to deal with the demands that new development places on their community, for example by providing facilities such as parks, playgrounds and community centres or new and improved transport.
The levy will also continue to be used to contribute to larger infrastructure projects across areas like new roads, transport, or hospitals. Developers will benefit from a system that ensures they know upfront how much they will be expected to contribute towards the infrastructure needed to support new development and communities will benefit because they will be able to decide for themselves how the demands placed on their area are best addressed.
The Government are also moving ahead with plans to release disused public land and empty offices with enough capacity to build up to 100,000 new homes by 2015. On 5 October, four Departments with significant landholdings published their strategies that set out how their formerly used land and property has the capacity to deliver more than 50,000 desperately needed new homes.
Over the summer these departments have moved swiftly to identify land and property that could be released for new development. This builds on the 11,000 housing starts that will be achieved through the release of land owned by the Homes and Communities Agency. The amount of previously-developed land owned by the public sector is more than twice the size of Leicester, and its development could support as many as 200,000 construction and related jobs.
At the same time, my right hon. Friend, the Minister for Housing and Local Government announced fresh steps to help communities across the country reclaim and develop hundreds of acres of unused public sector land and buildings, which could be used to deliver the schemes communities want to see in their areas. Members of the public will now be able to request a sale of public land and buildings by filling in a simple and user-friendly form. It will replace a system that is so obscure and restrictive that it has hardly ever been used, with only one successful application in the past 13 years.
The improved process for requesting the sale of public land and property will be one way of applying for land to be released by Government Departments, and will also apply to land owned by councils and other public bodies.
Promoting home ownership and affordable housing
The Government also want to support people to meet their aspirations of home ownership. Since 1980, nearly 2 million social homes have been bought by their occupants under Right to Buy, improving social mobility and building mixed communities. The Right to Buy gave something back to families who worked hard, paid their rent and played by the rules. It allowed them to do up their home, change their front door, improve their garden—without getting permission from the council. It gave people a sense of pride and ownership not just in their home, but in their street and neighbourhood. Yet under the last Administration. Right to Buy discounts were cut significantly.
On 2 October, the Prime Minister announced the intention to raise Right to Buy discounts to a level which will make the scheme attractive to tenants across England. The receipt from the Right to Buy will be used to pay off the housing debt and build more housing for affordable rent—for every home bought under Right to Buy, a new affordable home will be built, over and above our existing plans. Further details of this will be set out in the forthcoming housing strategy. The reform of the housing revenue account system is and remains a coalition priority and the timetable for the reform remains unchanged.
Tackling the 700,000 empty homes across the country is a top priority for my Department. On 20 September, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), announced more powers for community groups to bring empty homes back into use. Community and voluntary organisations will be able to bid for a part of £100 million of Government funding for pioneering housing schemes that will ensure empty properties are lived in again. This will also help to provide more affordable housing. The coalition Government are already providing more incentives for councils to bring empty homes back into use, including them in the new homes bonus. In one year of the new homes bonus just under 16,000 previously empty properties have been brought back into use.
My Department will also consult in due course on plans to allow councils local discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their area that have been empty for more than two years, to provide a stronger incentive to get the homes back into productive use and remove the blight from such properties on local neighbourhoods.
The coalition Government will stand by and help families who work hard and play by the rules, while tackling the small number of people who abuse the system. In this context, it has been estimated that there could be 6,000 households living in this taxpayer-funded social housing with incomes greater than £100,000. This is not fair to the millions of people in genuine housing need and those who work hard, earn a modest income, yet still remain on a housing waiting list. On 4 October, the Minister for Housing and Local Government indicated that he will be looking at introducing a “pay to stay” scheme for social tenants on incomes greater than £100,000 who want to stay in those properties. A consultation on this will be published in due course.
I am placing in the Library copies of the press notices and papers associated to this statement.