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Topical Questions

Volume 534: debated on Monday 31 October 2011

Last week I spoke at the conference on supporting local communities after August’s disgraceful riots. Money is already reaching local firms, but at the request of councils we are extending the deadline for the high street support scheme until after Christmas in order to ensure that even more firms can be helped.

I have a meeting with Louise Casey, who is leading a new troubled families unit in my Department. Such families cost the economy more than £8 billion, and they have been failed by up to 20 overlapping agencies.

This morning I represented Her Majesty’s Government at the memorial service for Sir Simon Milton. His influential voice will be greatly missed, and the Prime Minister in a written tribute said:

“A gentle and modest man, he earned the respect and admiration from politicians of all political colours and from the communities he served so diligently.”

He will be greatly missed.

Repatriating council houses, as well as their rents, will be positively welcomed by tenants and enable Cornwall to build much-needed new council housing, so will the Secretary of State assure me that plans to change the self-financing of council housing are on track to be delivered in April next year?

I know my hon. Friend has a considerable interest in council housing and has been a substantial champion of it. Yes, indeed, that reform is part of the coalition agreement, and, although it has taken some while to negotiate, once it is delivered we will be able to distribute debt throughout the country and place authorities in a much better and stronger position. I know that it enjoys support across the House.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s words about Simon Milton?

As a direct result of a decision taken by the Secretary of State, the most deprived 10% of single-tier councils will see their spending power reduced by almost four times as much as the least deprived 10%. So far, he has failed to justify that choice of his. Will he now explain to the House why he thinks that it is fair?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post. I hope that he will be extremely comfortable, and we will do our best to increase his comfort as the months go on.

The answer is very straightforward. The previous Government made a number of decisions to attack the most deprived areas by removing measures such as the working neighbourhoods fund. They left no provision, so it was up to us to put in some provision to help the most needy. In addition, we have ensured that under those schemes the most needy authorities receive more than the least needy authorities.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words, but an answer to the question would have been even nicer, so let me try another one.

In the Secretary of State’s speech to the Conservative party conference this year, he promised new safeguards for playing fields. In fact, he is scrapping Labour’s planning policy guidance in a way that

“significantly weakens the current protection on sports facilities”—

not my words, but those of Sport England. Why is he doing that, and will he now revise his national planning policy framework to put that protection back in?

I know the right hon. Gentleman is new to the job, but he is very distinguished and should at least have done his homework. He knows perfectly well that that is certainly not the case. We are having very constructive discussions with Sport England about planning policy, and those protections will be there.

T2. What are the Government doing about empty homes and, in particular, homes above shops as a way of easing pressure on the green belt? (77120)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We now have some 700,000 empty homes, of which over 300,000 have been empty for more than six months, and it remains a key priority of this Government to bring them back into use so that some of the 1.7 million families on council house waiting lists and the many more who would like to purchase their homes can do so.

T3. Will the Secretary of State confirm the really startling figures from the first quarter of the operation of the new homes bonus, which show that new home starts went down by 18% compared with the same period last year, and that residential planning permissions went down by 23% compared with that same period? If he can confirm that those figures are correct, will he tell us what plans he has to revise the mechanisms of the new homes bonus? (77121)

Every question from the Opposition seems to involve an attack on the new homes bonus, which will pay the same amount as last year—nearly £200 million—for new homes started, in addition to another sum which may well be similar again, and in addition to an additional £20-plus million for the affordable housing element of the new homes bonus. The House needs to understand whether or not the Opposition support a bonus being paid when new homes are built.

T6. Does the Minister agree that the key to opening up public sector procurement opportunities for small and micro-businesses is to ask local authorities to ensure that companies that are experts in their fields are not effectively excluded by the use of consolidated contracts that favour larger businesses that might be a jack of all trades but a master of none? (77124)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point, because this is precisely why we are working with the Local Government Association on its local procurement programme. The programme is looking in particular at what are sometimes described as micro-lots, which are used as a means of breaking up a large contract into smaller bundles, which are specifically designed to be more accessible to smaller firms and providers.

T4. Even though a five-star dinner at the Savoy, which was paid for by the lobbyist Bell Pottinger, had in attendance at least one firm that had an application in with the Secretary of State’s Department, he says that he has no reason to register it in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests because that day he was eating not as a Minister but as a private person. If we are to have a robust, transparent system of lobbying, does he not think that that loophole needs to be closed, so that we do not have to guess on which days Members are eating privately and on which they are eating ministerially? (77122)

Order. I wanted to hear the question, but the registration of Members’ interests is undertaken by Members in their capacity as Members, rather than as Ministers. I suspect that there will be a correspondence or exchange subsequently, but that is my understanding of the position.

T7. Southend council is facing a sensitive planning application to build a hospice on green belt land. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give to local residents that that would not create a precedent for more building on the green belt? (77125)

My hon. Friend knows that I cannot comment on that particular application, for reasons that he understands, but I think it has been clear from our exchanges today that our determination is to protect the green belt through the national planning policy framework, and to take away the threats that are placed on local councils to remove it.

T5. As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and a strong supporter of the British Legion, I am concerned to ensure that returning service personnel receive the strongest possible support. Why, therefore, did the Minister admit on 10 February that his Department had done nothing to assess the housing needs of that group? (77123)

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady intended to suggest that I had made that comment, but let me reassure her that I have held a returning forces summit to talk about and act upon those people’s rights to get into new-build homes and to get to the top of the waiting lists. I can further tell her that it is my intention to ensure that they have No. 1 priority when we launch the tenancy directions in a week or two. It is the absolute priority of our Department to ensure that returning personnel get every advantage when it comes to new homes.

T8. With reference to planning policy, what measures are the Government going to introduce to ensure that councils can encourage businesses to thrive and prosper, and encourage new ones to come to their area? (77126)

This is happening in relation not only to our planning policy but to the change in the way local government is financed. We have heard some discussion about the new homes bonus, and we are changing and repatriating the business rate. We are also working alongside business in the new enterprise partnerships, rather than dictating to it as the previous lot did.

Greater Manchester is set to lose up to 500 firefighters during this Parliament. How can it be right that Greater Manchester fire service faces a two-year funding cut of 9% when Essex and Cheshire will enjoy an increase of 2%?

The fire distribution formula is based essentially on a needs element, which in turn looks at the pressures on the fire authority, including risks and issues that arise from being urban. In fact, as I said in response to an earlier question, I increased the weighting given to urban factors within the formula. Larger authorities often have the greatest ability to deal with shared services, joint operation and better procurement. The spending power reduction takes account of reserves and council tax, and always remains significantly less.

T9. Many companies in my constituency are finding it hard to cope financially at the moment. What action will the Minister take to boost local enterprise and local business in Kent? (77127)

I am sure my hon. Friend will be delighted with today’s announcement of the regional growth fund expansion in east Kent, including the funding of small and medium-sized enterprises. This supports delivery of critical infrastructure to provide jobs, and at £40 million it is one of the highest awards. I am delighted that the regional growth fund is helping investor technology, and we are seeing the start-up of a local enterprise partnership at the Sandwich site to deal with those questions relating to Pfizer.

Is the Secretary of State aware that when the working neighbourhoods fund was created, local authorities in Bolsover and Chesterfield provided lots of apprenticeships in north Derbyshire. Unless that working neighbourhoods fund is continued through 2012, those apprenticeships, which are like the song and dance of one of his ministerial colleagues, will be gone. What will he do about that?

Before the hon. Gentleman gets into his version of the two step, let me tell him that the former Labour Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), announced the ending of the working neighbourhoods fund, which ended in March. We found some transitional relief, so if the hon. Gentleman is interested in dancing, I suggest he do a tango with his right hon. Friend.

Wiltshire council continues to spend eye-watering sums of taxpayers’ money on redundancy payments. Will the Secretary of State back last year’s Audit Commission recommendation that councils should publish details of such severance payments within a short, set time period?

Controversially, developers in Rochdale wish to build 600 houses on the site of what was the world’s biggest asbestos factory. Will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), say why, during a recent party political visit to Rochdale, he held a private meeting at the site with the council’s head of planning, which excluded everyone else, including long-standing local community campaigners?

All meetings are dealt with appropriately through the codes. The hon. Gentleman will know full well that in any planning application all matters must be dealt with entirely appropriately and transparently.

Time and again, my constituents complain about the effects of garden-grabbing on the character of local neighbourhoods. Will my hon. Friend assure me and the House that planning reforms will protect residential gardens, and stop inappropriate development in future?

I certainly will. We have already changed the definition of brownfield sites so that gardens are not included and no local authority is obliged to build on gardens if it does not want to.

The hon. Gentleman seems to scoff at the idea. Having being in Teesside, it seems to me that job prospects are considerably enhanced. Frankly, he should get behind that, and not criticise it.

I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Great Yarmouth last week and seeing our enterprise zone at first hand. With the announcement then of businesses already signing up to an enterprise zone, and today a signature to the memorandum of understanding with Scottish Power for our port and outer harbour, does he agree that such working together by local authorities and businesses will see the growth of real jobs through enterprise zones?

I was very impressed by what I saw in Great Yarmouth, which has within it Nelson ward—the fourth most deprived ward in the country. What impressed me was people’s determination. Great Yarmouth had an opportunity, about 30 years ago, to become the Aberdeen of the south, and with the move towards carbon capture and similar moves on energy it has an opportunity to become a major driving force within the United Kingdom.

May I draw attention to my interests in the register?

Is the Secretary of State aware that Notting Hill Housing Trust, a housing association, is reported to be marketing overseas some of the homes that it is currently building? Although it may be understandable for private builders facing the very serious crisis in selling properties to do this, is it not totally unacceptable, at a time of chronic need for housing for British people here in this country, for a housing association to be selling homes overseas? What is the Minister going to do about it?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has a long history in housing, and I will certainly undertake to look into the subject that he has raised. Let me mention something else that has come to my attention. A lot of people who are in council houses have second homes, and they rent out their main home or the council home. That is another scandal that I am sure he will appreciate our bringing to an end.

I very much welcome the establishment of the new national social housing HomeSwap website. Is it not a shame that the shadow Housing Minister describes it as a “gimmick”, particularly since his party destroyed the last one?

The opportunity for people in social housing to be able to swap homes in exactly the same way as in the private rented sector, or indeed for home owners, is absolutely invaluable. The scheme says a lot about this Government’s intention of ensuring that social mobility applies to all. It is a great pity that the Opposition spokesman criticised it, given that it will give people the opportunity to move for social reasons, family reasons, and, of course, work.

The Government have made much of localism. Does the Minister believe that it is appropriate that local people and Lewisham council can prevent further betting shops in Deptford high street, given that we already have eight betting shops and four pawnbrokers? Will he revise the Use Classes Order 2010?

The right hon. Lady rightly takes up the cause of her constituents, as do other Members across the country. We are taking this very seriously, and we will have more to say about it during the weeks ahead.

Does the Minister with responsibility for localism believe that Government, and indeed local government, websites can provide an invaluable way of allowing ordinary people to express their point of view? If 100,000 people were to express a point of view, does he think that they should be listened to? A simple yes will suffice.

I hope that we are a listening Government, and I hope that my colleagues in local government are listening councils.