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Communities and Local Government

Volume 537: debated on Monday 5 December 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—


Housing starts over the six quarters since the Government were formed are up 24% when compared with the previous six quarters under the previous Government. However, we recognise the scale of the challenges ahead and have introduced a radical and wide-ranging set of policies in the housing strategy.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but, despite his Government’s promise to build more homes than Labour, the actual figures are a 7% decrease in housing starts, a 6% fall in net supply in the past year and a 99% fall in affordable housing in the past six months. How does the Minister intend to rectify that?

We can all play with figures, but I would have thought that the only accurate indication—[Interruption.] Well, I would have thought that the actual indication on which everyone in the House could agree would mean taking the period since we have been in power and comparing it with the same period beforehand. If we do so, we discover that housing starts are up by almost one quarter, which of course is in stark contrast with the record under the previous Administration, when the number of affordable homes reduced by 200,000.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Crawley borough council, which for the first time in decades has started building new social and affordable housing and, indeed, has plans to build a further 1,000 units over the next few years?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local council on that, and he will know, because I have written to him and to all Members, that the new homes bonus provisional allocations have just been announced—with £430 million and, for the first time, a recognition of the number of homes that have been built at an affordable level. We are undoing the mess that was left by all those years of a lack of affordable house building in this country.

I draw attention to the interest declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Minister says that he wants to compare the period in which the current Government have been in power with an equivalent period under the previous Government, but he seems to be under an illusion that the current Government came to power on 1 April 2010. They did not. Will he now stop trying to take credit for housing that was built during the period of the previous, Labour Government and show respect for statistical honesty and truth, which we in this House regard as important?

If the right hon. Gentleman, as a distinguished former Housing Minister, is asking me to stop including four weeks, he has his wish.

Modern, purpose-built student accommodation often resembles blocks of flats. It can reduce the need for ordinary family homes to be turned into houses in multiple occupation and, sometimes, mean that HMOs can be returned to family accommodation, so in future will councils be allowed to count such flats towards the delivery of their core-strategy housing targets?

My right hon. Friend asks an important question, and it is true that in the past housing built for students was not included in the old-fashioned targets, which led to the lowest house building since the 1920s. I am pleased to let him know that under our new system the answer is yes, they are included, and what is more they attract the new homes bonus as well.

The Government’s own statistics show the number of new homes down by 6%, homelessness up 10% and, now, a catastrophic collapse in affordable house building over the past six months—of 99%. So few new homes have been built that the Housing Minister could visit them all in the next six weeks. Does he accept that this is a direct consequence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s £4 billion cut in housing investment, and that this sorry record of failure demonstrates that the Government’s housing policy, like their economic policies, are hurting, not working?

No, I do not accept a single word of that. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman, who is the sixth Labour Housing Minister or shadow whom I have faced, that actually the figures for those in temporary accommodation are down by 4%, and that homelessness is at its lowest level for 28 of the past 30 years. On the specifics of the numbers, I know that he is keen to twist official statistics to try to represent whatever he wants to show, but the truth is that I could not possibly visit 92 different providers, which I can now reveal to the House have agreed to build 70,000 units at a cost of £1.4 billion. That is far in excess of anything delivered by the previous Administration. I know that he has not been in the job for long, but many of his predecessors are on the Opposition Back Benches, so he could consult them and ask how we ended up with 200,000 fewer homes.

Third Sector

2. What assessment he has made of the effect on the third sector of reductions in funding for local authorities. (84494)

3. What assessment he has made of the effect on the third sector of reductions in funding for local authorities. (84496)

11. What assessment he has made of the effect on the third sector of reductions in funding for local authorities. (84505)

Local spending decisions are of course a matter for local councils, but there is no excuse for targeting the voluntary sector disproportionately. The Government are working closely with the third sector to assess capacity and to provide support—for example, through the transition fund and Big Society Capital—and we are looking together at opportunities for the voluntary and community sector to benefit from local authority commissioning.

The simple fact is that third sector organisations are facing savage cuts because of this Government’s local government settlement. How is the Minister going to advance the big society agenda with such savage cuts to the third sector? Will he help councils such as Telford and Wrekin, which has adopted the co-operative council model and is trying to work in partnership with voluntary organisations but is facing serious financial problems?

The hon. Gentleman represents the area of Telford, and Telford council has had a reduction of 4.2% in its spending power this year. In September, the Government published their best value guidance, which advises councils such as Telford not to make disproportionate cuts in the voluntary and community sector. A 4.2% cut in that sector might be considered proportionate, but more would not. The Government put the highest value on the voluntary and community sector and believe that it is the foundation of a healthy civic sector; that is why we are protecting it.

Last year, Blackpool received from the Minister’s Department one of the worst funding settlements in the country—a cut of up to 14% on top of the area-based grant cuts. That meant that the new Labour council inherited a youth budget that had been slashed from £2 million to £1 million, which has created havoc in the co-ordinating work and activities of voluntary and third sector organisations in my constituency. If the Minister’s Department can dream up £500 million schemes like Growing Places on questionable formulae, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Department to dream up some extra funding for these organisations.

The hon. Gentleman has got his figures slightly wrong. The reduction in Blackpool’s spending power was 7.3%. If it adheres to the best value guidance that we have issued and does not make a disproportionate cut, then that should be the limit of it. I remind him that only last week his council was allocated £1 million from the new homes bonus. We are also continuing the funding of Supporting People, which will provide £6.5 billion of funding throughout this spending review period, and that is available for his council to spend.

What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people employed in the third sector who rely on funding from local government? Has that number increased or reduced since the Government came to power?

There are 900,000 charities, voluntary groups, co-ops, mutuals and social enterprises in the country, three quarters of which have never applied for or received any funding from local government or from central Government. Of course, that means that some 200,000 do get help to provide services for the public. That is why we have the transition fund to support those organisations—it has already made grants to more than 1,000 of them—and why the Office for Civil Society has a budget of over £400 million to support the civic and voluntary sector over the spending review period.

This may not be an issue of funding but of the need to jolt local bureaucracies into being more creative in engaging with our social enterprises and local third sector organisations. Now that we are seeing, I hope, the passage of the Bill on social value promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), may I urge the Minister to work more aggressively with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who is responsible for civil society, so that we can have more creative local authorities that engage with civil sector organisations?

I would be very happy to work with my hon. Friend and with other organisations. Let me make it clear that the Government are strongly promoting the development of social enterprises and are very keen to see the sector that they can support increase.

It is pretty clear from the Minister’s responses that he has completely lost touch with reality. We all know that this Government have singled out local authorities with the greatest need for the highest cuts. If the Minister would care to come down from his ivory tower and join us in the real world, he would admit that the big society is a big con leading to a big unfair society. How can he possibly justify a system that leads to huge variations in funding cuts to charitable organisations? For example, the north-west region is losing nine times more per capita than other parts of the country.

The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong. He needs to look at how much money the Government grant system provides per resident in those authorities. He will find that it is far higher than in the south, for the very good reason that those areas need such support to a greater extent. That is why I was able to report the reductions in spending power for the authorities that I did. I remind him that a large number of local authorities have succeeded in protecting the voluntary sector in their area. There is no inevitability about the events that he is characterising.

Trade Union Officials

4. If he will take steps to end the practice of employing publicly funded full-time trade union officials in local government. (84497)

6. If he will take steps to end the practice of employing publicly funded full-time trade union officials in local government. (84499)

18. If he will take steps to end the practice of employing publicly funded full-time trade union officials in local government. (84512)

All local authorities need to make sensible savings to protect front-line services and keep council tax down. Councils should be reviewing the merits of publicly funded full-time union officials. Those are non-jobs on the rates and it is wrong that council tax should be used to subsidise trade union activity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given that union leaders and officials are full-time politicians in all but name who receive more than £113 million of taxpayer funding each year, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the implementation of a register of interests for union leaders, thereby subjecting them to the same level of public scrutiny as all other politicians?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I was shocked to hear what he said, because I was not aware that trade union officials did not have a register. I would have thought that in this age of transparency, we should urge them to do that. I know that Opposition Front Benchers are keen for everybody else to have such restrictions. Why should trade union bosses not be a little more open about their funding and their interests?

Redditch borough council recently told the TaxPayers Alliance, in response to a question, that one person in Redditch was given “reasonable time required” to carry out union duties. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that Redditch taxpayers are unable to conclude what may or may not be reasonable?

I am very pro-union and I think that it is important that we do give time off. However, I am not entirely sure that ratepayers should pay for that. It should legitimately be paid for through trade union activities. In that way, we could all recognise the enormous value that trade unions give to this country.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, I will not be shouted down. According to the TaxPayers Alliance, Staffordshire county council, which covers my constituency, subsidised the unions to the tune of £281,000 or the equivalent of 10 full-time members of staff. Does the Secretary of State agree that such subsidies should be subject to a council vote and that any councillor whose election campaign is bankrolled by the unions should have to declare an interest?

This is money that is being taken away from the front line when times are tough. I am shocked by the amount of money that Staffordshire is spending. On whether Labour councillors who are bankrolled by the unions should declare an interest, it is very clear that the Localism Act 2011 abolished the Standards Board but created a new criminal offence of not declaring interests. There is a reasonable case for saying that if one is bankrolled by the unions, it is a prejudicial issue and the sensible thing would be to withdraw from the proceedings.

Will the Secretary of State disown this attack on the most basic and benign feature of trade union work—day-to-day support for staff from their colleagues who volunteer to act as union reps? These are the unsung heroes of Britain’s volunteering tradition, the workplace wing of the Prime Minister’s big society. They save employers and the Exchequer millions of pounds by cutting the number of tribunal cases, cutting the number of days lost through illness and improving the take-up of training. [Interruption.]

I think I got most of what the right hon. Gentleman said. I am very pro-trade union, and he is absolutely right. He is a very senior Member, and he puts his finger on the nub of the matter. They are volunteers, and the nature of a volunteer is that they are not paid by the council. I am very much in favour of all facilities being available to trade union officials, but I do not want them to be paid for on the rates.

Does the pro-union Secretary of State recognise the hard work carried out by many trade union reps in the workplace on health and safety and many other things? That saves industry and the taxpayer millions and millions of pounds.

Of course I recognise that. My great-grandfather was one of the people who helped found the trade union movement. The most important thing that the hon. Gentleman needs to understand is that there is more facility time in the public sector than in the private sector, and there are fewer strikes in the private sector than in the public sector.

There is a legal right to time off for trade union duties. Are we not seeing an outright attack on trade unionism? The Secretary of State well knows, because he has had the opportunity to negotiate with unions in his distinguished career in local government, that trade unions are a force for good. I wonder whether his coalition partners support him in his endeavour.

Indeed, I have had many opportunities to negotiate with trade unions, and I have enjoyed every single moment. However, the important point to consider is what is voluntary and what it is legitimate for the taxpayer to pay for. For example, my Department and a number of local government bodies collect the trade union fees, and they are paid in directly. Where there is a political levy, we are putting public money into the coffers of the Labour party. If it were going to the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats, that would be regarded as something of a scandal.

Adult Social Care

5. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on funding for adult social care. (84498)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has held a number of discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on that issue. In recognition of the need to reform the system that we inherited, the Government have said that we will bring together our proposals in a White Paper in the spring. We are providing an extra £7.2 billion over the next four years to protect access to services that support vulnerable people.

The recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission exposed the poor quality of care of some home care providers. I have received complaints from constituents that reinforce the report’s findings. Funding has been a problem for a long time, so will my hon. Friend discuss further with the Secretary of State for Health the diversion of more money from health to social care, on top of the £648 million already announced?

As I said, it is appropriate that we consider the matter in the context of the White Paper that is to come out in April. The report is valuable, and the Government as a whole will want to consider its recommendations carefully. I point out to my hon. Friend that the £648 million in this year will be followed by another £622 million in the next. That £1 billion coming from the Department of Health is matched by £1 billion coming from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Why does the Minister not admit that the Secretary of State’s ambition to be the biggest axe man in Whitehall has been achieved on the backs of elderly and vulnerable people? Because of the Government’s slash and burn policy, 70% of councils are having to cut social care, leaving old people to choose between help with washing and help with eating. The cost in wasted lives is incalculable, and the cost to the NHS through more delayed discharges and more emergency admissions will run into millions of pounds. Why does he not now admit that the Government’s policy is not only uncaring and out of touch but economic madness?

The hon. Lady neglects to recognise the fact that the Government have assisted local councils in the greatest need by increasing the weighting given within the settlement to the needs allowance and by introducing a transition grant to assist those that are most dependent on public money. She fails to recognise that this Government are attempting to sort out the economic mess that she and her colleagues left behind. Finally, she fails to recognise the observation of the head of the No.10 policy unit when she was in government that the

“long-term funding of social care was the largest piece of unfinished social reform under Labour.”

We are sorting out her mess.

Notwithstanding the very welcome move to bring health and social care funding together and the extra money this year, councils across the south-west are struggling with the increasing burden of social services funding, particularly for adult care. Does the Minister share my concern that services to those with lesser needs is being cut, but that that is storing up more problems for the future? Will he consider making it easier to invest to save, so that we can have important interventions now rather than later?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point and I would be happy to meet her to discuss those matters in more detail. On the other hand, we need to give adequate flexibility to local authorities to prioritise their spend to reflect local needs and pressures, but I will happily discuss the matter further with her.

Local Authority Spending

8. What estimate he has made of the change in per capita local authority spending power in each region between 2011 and 2013. (84502)

Per capita spending by local authorities is estimated to be £1,170 in 2011-12, a change of 4.4% on the previous year, and per capita spending power by local authorities is estimated to be £1,118 in 2012-13, a change of 3.6% on the previous year.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but will he confirm that the 10% most deprived areas of the country are losing four times as much as the 10% least deprived areas?

The hon. Lady neglects to recognise the fact that local authorities in the greatest need get on average three times more funding than those that are better placed. In terms of regional comparisons, I observe that the change in spending power in her region is exactly the same as it is in my region in Greater London.

Last year, the Secretary of State claimed that front-line services would not have to go because of his spending cuts. We now know that that is not the case. More than 100,000 jobs —people who serve others—have already disappeared from councils and there are more to come. How on earth is it fair that twice as many women as men have lost their jobs working for local councils? Is that not another sign that women are paying the biggest price for the failure of the Government’s economic policy?

It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman did not refer us to the £48 billion of reductions that were planned when he was a member of the Cabinet and that he did not apologise for the £120 million we are wasting in interest on the debt that he left behind for us. It is a pity that he does not recognise that this Government have supported the most vulnerable councils in the ways that I have indicated previously, including with the transitional grant to which I referred. It is also a pity that he does not recognise that workplace issues can best be dealt with flexibly if they are left to local authorities rather than to micro-management.

Unauthorised Encampments

9. If he will take steps to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised encampments. (84503)

The Localism Act 2011 will give councils more powers to tackle unauthorised development, such as stopping the abuse of retrospective planning permissions. We are reviewing what further steps can be taken to increase council powers to tackle unauthorised development and occupation. High-profile cases such as Parliament square and St Paul’s show that the current system is far too slow and that councils need stronger powers to protect local amenities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that local authorities apply their powers consistently? Residents such as mine in South Ockendon find it very irritating that they have to abide by the council’s planning regulations while unauthorised encampments nearby are able to flout them with impunity.

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. It is important that everyone in this country is equal before the law and that the law is used against those who seek to abuse their position. After the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill received Royal Assent, my Department started to work with the Home Office to produce guidance for local authorities that want to make byelaws that provide for the confiscation of property. Such byelaws will allow for the removal of tents in Parliament Square.

In my constituency of North West Leicestershire, we often find that illegal Traveller encampments are located on the very edge of our district, or straddle land with another bordering council. That can lead to unnecessary delays and confusion while councils decide who is responsible for the site. Is the Secretary of State aware of that problem? If he is, what steps is he taking to ensure that councils co-operate to ensure that such encampments are removed as quickly as possible?

I am aware of the problem, which illustrates how existing planning procedures that were introduced under the previous Government are flawed. It is important to have equality between Travellers and the settled populations. There is now a duty on local authorities to co-operate. I know of a number of successful incidents in which local authorities have worked in consortiums to deal with this problem. Enforcement will be quicker. Stronger powers under section 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 can be used when there is a vacant pitch or an alternative site in a nearby local authority.

School Crossing Patrols

10. if he will bring forward legislative proposals to require local authorities to provide safety crossing patrols outside schools. (84504)

We have no current plans to introduce legislation, but local authorities should not be cutting essential front-line services like safety crossings outside schools. Councils can make sensible savings by reducing senior salaries, rooting out waste, sharing back office functions and spending smarter.

Does the Minister agree that local authorities such as Manchester City council should not be trying to pass on the cost of providing crossing patrols to local schools because schools should be using their additional pupil premium funding to improve educational attainment?

Only last week, my hon. Friend’s own local authority was notified of a £4,600,000 new homes bonus payment and it already has £100 million in its balances. I agree that it is right for that local authority to look carefully at its spending priorities before it seeks to offload duties on to others.

The safety of children is paramount, but if the Minister were inclined to legislate, would he agree to place the highest priority on those school crossings that were in the most dangerous areas? That is precisely what Manchester City council has done today in confirming that all high-risk school crossings will continue and that strenuous efforts will be made to ensure that funding is in place for all medium-risk crossings as well.

I simply point out that Manchester council has had a reduction in its spending power of 8.8% and yet has announced that it intends to cuts its services by 25%. That is wholly disproportionate.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Mark Pickering, the head teacher of Clanfield junior school in my constituency, who, twice in the last six months, has patrolled the crossing himself because of a lack of staff from Hampshire county council. The money is there, but the volunteers are not. Does he agree that legislating on this proposal might be a little heavy-handed?

I certainly think that it is something of a paradox that, in these current times, it is difficult to recruit people for these jobs. However, having raised this issue in Parliament, I am sure that there will now be a flood of volunteers who are keen to offer their services.


The hon. Lady will know that I take a keen interest in this subject. We have protected the entire homelessness grant—£400 million—over the spending review period and, having revised how homelessness statistics for people sleeping rough are calculated, we found that the correct count was more like 1,700, rather than the 400 previously claimed.

I thank the Minister for that answer but my local homelessness charity, Framework, recently reported a sixfold increase in rough sleeping in Nottingham over the past year. How does he respond to chief executive Andrew Redfern’s warning that the Government’s deep cuts and welfare changes risk undermining Framework’s 10 years of success in tackling homelessness?

I am genuinely concerned to hear that, but I have the statistics for the hon. Lady’s local authority and they show that levels of homelessness have fallen over the past two years. She will be pleased to hear that the homelessness grant to her local area rose from £400,000 last year to £636,000 this year. If her local authority is not correctly returning information on the number of homeless people, I would be grateful if she could chase it up. It is one of our absolute priorities, and I am pleased to say that homelessness remains at its lowest level for 28 out of the past 30 years.

Infrastructure Projects

Under the major infrastructure regime, applicants are required to consult the community before a planning application can be accepted. The Localism Act 2011 will extend this requirement to applications to local authorities.

I thank the Minister for that reply and for outlining the consultation process that local authorities should follow. Will he instruct Calderdale council to hold a full consultation on the future of Halifax central library so that the thousands of local people objecting to its proposals can have their say?

I know that the hon. Lady has taken a great interest in the library. I cannot comment on particular applications but she will understand from my comments that I consider it important that all applicants, especially on issues of major importance, should engage with the community from the outset. That is good practice in this country and across the continent, and it is why the Localism Act will make it a requirement.

Will the Minister consider giving parish councils a far stronger voice in the representation of local people and in commenting on major infrastructure planning applications?

My hon. Friend will know that one of the most important parts of the regime is the requirement for major infrastructure applications to demonstrate that consultation with the community has taken place? That is why we are extending some of those provisions to the local authority regime.

Right to Buy

The right-to-buy scheme was a transforming policy that enabled 2 million people to own their own home, so we will shortly consult on proposals to reinvigorate the right to buy, offering tenants discounts that will once again enable them to purchase their homes.

The original right-to-buy scheme was an outstanding success. Will my hon. Friend confirm that increasing the discount available to tenants will increase social mobility and allow hard-working families to take their firsts steps up the housing ladder?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nothing did more for social mobility in this country than the right-to-buy scheme and those 2 million families who got to own their own home. Sadly, the number of homes purchased under the right-to-buy scheme dwindled to about 2,600 last year because the discounts were cut so much. We will consult, we will ensure that those discounts are raised and, critically, we will replace each home sold under the right-to-buy scheme with another affordable home for rent.

I declare an indirect interest as previously recorded by Hansard.

In his autumn statement, the Chancellor studiously avoided, like the Minister has done in the past—although I note his comment today—using the term “like-for-like replacement” of affordable housing. The chief executive of Plymouth Community Homes has stated publicly that he will probably have to sell two, perhaps three, discounted homes to build one in the same area. Will the Minister tell us whether his like-for-like offer, about which his own Back Benchers are sceptical, refers to a property in the same area and of the same size, and will he explain how that will be tracked?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady is no longer my opposite number. When she was, I explained that it is now possible, through the affordable rent programme, to build a home for affordable rent by investing less public money than previously—that is, of course, because the rent is at an intermediate level. However, it is also supported by housing benefit, which means that rather than seeing a net reduction of 200,000 affordable homes for rent, as happened under the previous Administration, we will be building more of them.

Elected Mayors

15. What steps he is taking to promote his Department’s consultation on additional powers for elected mayors. (84509)

The Localism Act 2011, which was passed two weeks ago, allows new powers to be devolved from central Government to cities. Each city has been asked what additional powers it would like to take on under this new provision. I can announce to the House that I am today laying before Parliament draft orders, to be made under the Localism Act 2011, that would, subject to the approval of both Houses, provide for mayoral referendums to be held on 3 May 2012 in 11 cities: Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield.

I thank the Minister for that response. I very much support the consultation, which I see as part of the Government’s continuing localism agenda. However, I am a little concerned that the emphasis seems to be on elected mayors for the large cities. Does he have any plans for smaller cities to hold referendums on elected mayors?

I am grateful for that question from my hon. Friend, who is a passionate advocate of the mayoral system. He will know that the coalition agreement committed us to introducing referendums for the largest cities, but it is possible for other cities, including his own, to have referendums too, either by resolution of the council or through a petition, which would need to be signed by about 4,000 electors in Carlisle.

High Street Development

19. What steps he is taking to ensure that planning policies promote the development potential of high streets. (84513)

The Government strongly believe in supporting town centres and are committed to following a “town centre first” policy. The draft national planning policy framework requires councils to pursue policies to support the viability and vitality of town centres. We are now considering all responses to the consultation.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he consider repeating Labour’s empty shops initiative to enable councils to pursue innovative uses for empty units, such as using them for cultural, community or learning services, rather than leaving them empty?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. One of the proposals that we are consulting on is the so-called “meanwhile use” of empty properties, so that they can be brought back into use quickly, without needing a full planning application. That can bring shops and other premises back into use and keep high streets vibrant.

Councils should help town centres to realise their potential. Wiltshire council, however, faces developer interest in out-of-town sites. What advice can the Minister give to local authorities attracting such interest before their local plans, the core strategies or the national planning policy framework are agreed?

The “town centre first” policy has been very successful in directing development to town centres, and it is important that this should continue. The national planning policy framework is being consulted on, but our commitment to the “town centre first” priority, with all the tests that it requires, is firm.

At a time when many of our high streets are struggling and are in danger of losing further jobs—let us remember that a massive 25,000 full-time jobs have gone from the retail sector in the last year alone—are the Government altering the sequential test for town centre development in the draft NPPF, thereby risking more greenfield development at the expense of our town and city centres?

No. Our commitment to the “town centre first” policy—which was introduced by our right hon. Friend John Gummer when he was Secretary of State for the Environment—continues. It has been very successful. We want development in town centres, rather than out of town.

Home Ownership

On 21 November we published our housing strategy, which sets out an ambitious programme to support home ownership, including for 100,000 prospective buyers with small deposits and, of course, through the right to buy, which we discussed moments ago.

As my right hon. Friend said earlier, one of the greatest vehicles for social mobility—including on the estate where I grew up—was the opportunity for families to be the first in a generation to own their own homes. In addition to the right to buy, what measures, including accessing finance, are the Government introducing to create greater home ownership?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the right to buy empowered many families, and it will happen again. However, it is also the case that a whole generation is now locked out by record high house prices—seven times average earnings. To help bridge that gap we are backing an industry-led mortgage indemnity scheme, which will mean people again being able to get 95% mortgages, which operated very well in this country for many decades.

There is a real fear that the Minister will fail to achieve anything like the number of first-time home buyers that he expects to achieve through the right-to-buy programme. Another major problem is the increase in stamp duty that has resulted from his ending of the stamp duty holiday. Will he tell us how many home buyers will lose out for that reason?

As has been said so many times from the Dispatch Box—but it has still not been heard—the country was seriously in danger of going bust. To do nothing about that, to add to the deficit, and to assume that the solution in every instance is to spend more money or introduce an additional programme to enable it to be spent, is not the answer. The answer is to help people to bridge the gap. The introduction of 95% mortgages through the mortgage indemnity scheme is an innovative move that is backed by the industry and the Government, and I believe that it will help up to 100,000 people over a very short period.

Topical Questions

Today I am giving more details of extra help for small businesses with their rent bills. We are cutting taxes for small shops and firms.

I recently met the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi to discuss aspects of Inter Faith Week, including our £5 million Near Neighbours initiative, which will support the work of local faith groups in building a stronger society.

Last week we paid more than £400 million in new homes bonuses, rewarding councils for delivering 160,000 more homes in the last 12 months, and we have announced that we will be addressing any loss of bonuses in areas affected by last summer’s riots.

I have met members of the Gurkha Justice Campaign and Joanna Lumley to discuss our new £1.5 million fund which will help to ensure that Gurkha veterans who fought for our country are treated with the dignity and respect—

Order. The Secretary of State’s answer is of great interest, but I am afraid that it is far too long. Blue pencil is required.

It is good to know that the Secretary of State is earning his salary. He has clearly had a very busy couple of weeks.

In recent years, the partnership between MacMillan Cancer Support and the Citizens Advice Bureau has provided thousands of cancer sufferers with crucial benefits advice, but unfortunately the service is being cut throughout the United Kingdom. That includes the Lanarkshire service, which is based in Airdrie. Does the Secretary of State agree that, as the local authority cuts imposed by this Government and the Scottish Government take hold, this essential service cannot be allowed to disappear, and will he consider ways in which the Government can support it financially to enable it to continue?

Obviously I am concerned by what the hon. Lady has said, but, with respect, I am responsible for English local authorities. I suggest that she address her question to the Secretary of State for Scotland or to the Scottish Executive.

T2. The new homes bonus and the proposed changes in business rates provide a real opportunity for local government to develop its own tax base. Will the Secretary of State consider granting further additional tax-raising powers to local government to give it more financial independence? (84519)

We have no plans to increase taxation—the coalition is about reducing taxation whenever possible—but if an authority opts for a mayoral system, there will be additional financial freedoms from which residents can benefit.

Last November the Secretary of State said that he was determined to give small business a helping hand. The most direct way in which he can do that is through his own Department’s budget. Will he explain why, just when times are getting tougher for businesses, the Department’s spending on small businesses in the last six months was 64% lower than it had been in the previous six, while its spending on large firms rose by 22%? How is that a helping hand?

We are offering small businesses a holiday from business rates, but the Government have a responsibility to guarantee procurement and good value for the taxpayer. The right hon. Gentleman needs to understand that he and his Government left the country in a hole, and that he and his Government were planning additional costs for local government in the form of an extra £2 billion worth of cuts. He does not have a leg to stand on.

T3. Dudley council has been selected as the dissemination hub in the black country for support to troubled families. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the national unit for troubled families and confirm when local authority hubs may be able to proceed to implementation? (84520)

We are encouraged by the work that Dudley and other councils have put into developing the dissemination hub proposals. However, with the establishment of the new troubled families team under Louise Casey, it is only right that the team undertake a root-and-branch review of the programme to support and challenge troubled families, and that does include funding issues. The exception is the grant to community budget phase 2 areas, including Dudley, to help to develop a community budget project plan. That grant was paid as part of the November early intervention grant.

T4. In the light of the Chancellor's statement on the regionalisation of public sector pay, how much more should a dinner lady in Tunbridge Wells be paid than one, say, in Barnsley? (84521)

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that a high degree of regional pay exists in local authorities and the difference between grades is considerable. That is due not just to London weighting. Let me give him an example. A finance officer in London will receive just short of £27,000. In the east midlands, they would receive £20,000 and in the south-west they would receive £22,000. A refuse collector will receive £21,000 in London and £16,000 in Yorkshire and Humberside. So the hon. Gentleman needs to understand that regionalisation in pay has existed for a long time in local government.

T5. Will the Secretary of State agree to visit Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege to be a member, to congratulate it on its pledge to freeze council tax for the next four years while maintaining all its front-line services and its entire grant to the local voluntary sector? (84522)

I will be happy to take my hon. Friend up on that offer. Kettering is a very good example of how councils can ensure that front-line services are protected, and of course we have been ensuring that we assist councils by freezing council tax again for a further year.

T6. If the Government are determined to sell off social housing at an increased discount, as we have heard this afternoon, will the Department pay for that discount, or is the Secretary of State going to steal that money from the local area, where it could be used to provide increased social housing? (84523)

As I have explained several times, the intention is that homes will be built one for one, on the basis of every home that is sold. How that will operate and whether the money will stay locally or be returned via the Homes and Communities Agency will of course depend on what is appropriate in different areas and we will consult on that. There is obviously a Welsh dimension to this and we will talk to the Welsh Assembly, too.

T7. In South Lakeland, more than 3,000 families are on the housing waiting list and more than 3,000 second homes stand empty most of the year. Will the Minister acknowledge the deep injustice that that entails and consider allowing councils to charge double the council tax on second homes in the most blighted areas? (84524)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I certainly acknowledge the seriousness of the problem in his constituency, in the south-west and in other holiday areas. We are consulting on council tax discounts and the empty homes premium. I am sure that he will be alert enough to submit, on behalf of his local authority, a suitable consultation response.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the interest that he has taken in regeneration in Tottenham, but is he aware of the Mayor’s outer London fund? A nasty rumour is circulating that it is a sop to outer London boroughs in preparation for the election. I hope that Tottenham will get the lion's share of that money.

I am pleased to be able to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have a copy of his book, and a jolly good read it is too. We expect Croydon and Tottenham to receive approximately £10 million each from the London enterprise fund, but the exact breakdown has not been decided yet, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will have something to say on that. In recommending the book, I would draw Members’ attentions to the insightful point that

“Labour’s greatest dereliction of duty in government was social housing.”

I am sure we can all agree on that.

The Secretary of State will, no doubt, read the tome over the festive season, and we look forward to hearing about that in due course.

T8. About £170 million of European regional development fund money for Yorkshire and the Humber is still unspent. How is the Secretary of State’s Department helping to unlock that, and will he meet me to discuss how we can unlock it faster? (84525)

I will certainly meet my hon. Friend. I am sure he understands that we have had to revisit the administration of the fund, as it was plagued by a legacy of poor administration under the previous Government. We have overhauled the management of the schemes and, in recognition of the work the Government have done, the Commission has lifted an interruption—in other words, a non-payment—which it had previously placed upon the programme. We are also keen to make sure the scheme is properly aligned with policies such as the regional growth fund.

T10. The Minister is far too complacent about the glacial progress in respect of the European regional development fund. Over £1 billion lies unallocated because the Department has been unable to find an unlocking mechanism via the Homes and Communities Agency. Will he urgently present to the House for scrutiny a proper, detailed plan on how he intends to deliver this money to the regions for which it was intended, before it is lost to them for ever? (84527)

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman, a Labour Member, to lecture anyone about the administration of the fund, because his party’s stewardship of the fund was condemned by the European Union, which called for a stop to payments as it did not believe they would be properly dispensed, and which made sure that councils, including some in the hon. Gentleman’s area, had to pay back money under what were called financial directions under the 2000-06 programme. That was all thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s party’s foul-up of the system.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on standing up for freedom of speech and freedom of religion by allowing councils to choose whether to hold prayers? Is it not the case that if mainstream parties do not stand up for this country’s Judaeo-Christian culture, heritage and traditions, unpleasant parties will?

Several centuries have passed since Queen Elizabeth I said she did not wish to have a window into the hearts of people with regard to religion. We belong to a society that should show respect to all religions, and those who do not want to participate in prayer before the start of proceedings should follow our example. Here Members can simply make themselves absent, but are still able to participate fully in the Chamber.

In respect of union representation, has the Secretary of State had time to read the 2007 Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform report showing savings for society of up to £371 million in reducing the number of days at work lost and up to £207 million in reducing work-related illnesses? Will he carry out his own assessments before embarking on some mad, bad, dangerous anti-union legislation?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. Far from being anti-union, we are very pro-union, but what we are not terribly in favour of is unions being paid by the state to follow their activities. That seems to me to be an utterly moderate and reasonable view.

Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that, under his stewardship, DCLG Ministers and civil servants will not pay for expenses such as trips to casinos in Sydney, Australia by putting them on to Government procurement cards paid for by taxpayers’ money, as was allowed when the now Lord Prescott was in charge of the Department?

We have closed down many of the procurement cards. They did not provide value for money. We are also publishing all spending of over £500 a month, cutting down the number of cardholders from 210 to 33, cancelling cash withdrawal facilities from the cards, and introducing new internal checks and audit trails for pre-approvals. We must remember that this is the public’s money, and those given the privilege of a credit card on the public expense must not use it as their flexible friend.

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge the debt that the Thatcher Government owed to the policies advanced a decade earlier by the Labour councils in Newport and Leicester, which believed that the experience was that rent is theft?

In reply to the question about elected mayors from my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) rightly pointed out that it is possible for constituents to petition for a referendum, but he will be aware of the considerable resistance within local authorities. Will he assure me that if that proves to be a continuing problem, he will look further at means to deal with it?

I am convinced that the leadership that a mayor can provide can turn around the prospects of cities and towns across the country. I would encourage my hon. Friend, who has formidable local leadership skills, which I have witnessed, to mount the campaign that he talks about.

At these questions on 31 October, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) about a secret private meeting he attended about house building on a former asbestos factory site in my constituency. Extraordinarily, he refused to answer and his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), answered on his behalf. On 2 November, straight after those questions, I wrote to him for answers to these questions but after a month I still have not had a reply. When are Rochdale residents going to get an answer to these questions about this secret private meeting —why does he not answer now?

Calderdale council, which pays £80,000 per annum directly to unions for representatives for its work force, is looking into withholding the equivalent of one day’s pay because of the recent strikes. Will the Secretary of State advise us whether he is aware of many other local authorities that are doing the same?

In these stringent times, all local authorities are seeking value for money. I certainly believe in the principle of people being able to withdraw their labour. That is a very important freedom that we have in this country, but it should not be without cost; it makes it so much better if people thereby lose money.