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Communities and Local Government

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2011

We now move on to the debate on issues relating to Communities and Local Government. Seven Members are listed to speak and there is a six-minute time limit on contributions. As I will be leaving the Chair shortly, may I wish everyone in the House, and all those who work in it and visit us, a merry Christmas and a happy 2012?

When the coalition came into government, its focus had to be on reducing the UK’s debt and putting the UK economy on a sustainable footing. For too long, the UK had overspent and under-delivered. The Chancellor made it clear that the Government’s economic policy objective is to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth that is more evenly shared across the country and between industries, rebalancing the economy by moving from unsustainable public spending and towards exports and investment. This should support the UK’s long-term economic potential and help to create new jobs. In addition, the Government have introduced the Localism Act 2011, which recognises the need to develop sustainable communities, allowing them greater freedom to develop while focusing on the planning needs of the local area, with a strong emphasis on regeneration.

Combining both those aspects is the starting point of my speech, which is about the regeneration and expansion of the Liverpool city region’s ports and waterways. How important are the ports to the city region? The ports and maritime industry have played a vital role in the history of Liverpool. In fact, so prosperous was the port that for periods during the 19th century, Liverpool’s custom house was the single largest contributor to the British Exchequer. Disraeli described Liverpool as the second city of the empire as the port became the gateway to the world, with 40% of the world’s trade passing through it. Liverpool built the world’s first enclosed commercial dock in 1715. Further docks were added in later years, all interconnected by lock gates and extending 7.5 miles along the Mersey. This interconnected dock system was the most advanced port system in the world. These magnificent docks, extensive dock systems and waterways still exist today and are ripe for regeneration.

However, the course of life does not run smoothly, and during the 20th century the port began to decline owing to a combination of the UK’s lack of a manufacturing base and the shift away from the Commonwealth to the Common Market. The southern ports of Southampton and Felixstowe, and eastern ports such as Hull, benefited from this move. In the 1900s, Liverpool’s population was about 850,000, but it began to decline in the 1950s, and rapidly so in the ’70s. Today, the population is about 450,000—and yet the city was designed to hold double. A city with such a large infrastructure to sustain—from a tube system, to parks, listed buildings, art galleries and museums, and even two cathedrals—is expensive to run and much in need of an increased population. Added to that, Liverpool, without the full use of its port and waterways, is only half a city; having water down only one side and an inability to make use of it makes it thus. I therefore propose that any impediments to the use of its waterways, or unfair restrictions placed upon the city so as not to enable it to use them, would harm not only Liverpool and the Liverpool economy but the whole of the city region.

As times change, situations do too, and in 2012 the port of Liverpool is again ripe to come to the fore, for several key reasons. First, there is the growth of the new emerging markets such as those in the far east and Brazil; that does not only affect imports, as the UK is looking to double exports to Brazil by 2015. Secondly, there is the decision to widen the Panama canal to accommodate the world’s largest vessels. That is due for completion in 2015 and promises to change the structure of world trade flows. When completed, larger ships will emerge from the Pacific, prompting expansion of the US eastern seaboard ports such as New York. As Liverpool is already the primary western facing port into the Atlantic, it will be favoured as a primary port for all these extra-large vessels. Thirdly, there is the domestic consideration of costs to business and ultimately to the consumer. Liverpool is geographically well placed and very central, with a population of 8.2 million within 70 miles of it and easy connections to Ireland and Scotland; and a four-hour heavy goods vehicle journey from the port of Liverpool can reach a population catchment of 34 million. Fundamentally, Liverpool remains a great place for doing the things that supported its early growth—notably, handling the UK’s trade with the USA and the Americas and emerging markets, and maintaining its links with Ireland.

The city region has the ability to create a port hub—a super-port, if you will, Mr Deputy Speaker. To achieve this, it will need to continue the development of the 3MG inter-modal hub in Halton, the rail freight scheme at Parkside, the world cargo centre at Liverpool airport, and the post-Panamax facility, which is a new £300 million container terminal capable of simultaneously handling two of the new-generation post-Panamax size containers, and is privately funded by Peel Holdings. Although the existing maritime and logistics sectors support approximately 34,000 jobs, development of the super-port projects could transform the Liverpool city region economy, creating 21,000 jobs by 2020 and nearly 30,000 jobs by 2030 with the extension of the cruise liner terminal. At present, liners are permitted to berth only for port-of-call visits, but a turn-around facility would generate approximately £1 million for the city region economy for each liner. There is also the development of the—

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey). I thank everybody in the House who has looked after us over the year and wish them a very happy Christmas and a happy new year. I hope that this Christmas gig will become as popular as the “Doctor Who” Christmas gig.

I want to raise some planning issues that have upset my constituents, because I do not like to see my constituents upset, and then to discuss the national planning policy framework, which the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) will also mention. I am a member of the National Trust and have dealt with planning litigation. I have had to read planning policy guidance and planning policy statements, so I understand why some people want to streamline them. However, that should not be done to the extent that they are non-existent. They are comprehensive and, together with the local plans and unitary development plans, they came about as a result of careful consultation. Word is already out that the national planning policy framework will be a lawyers charter. Lawyers are rubbing their hands in glee.

Turning to Walsall South, I hear stories in my surgery of intimidation, threats and broken windows, all because some people oppose an application. I had many specific cases to raise, but sadly time has been cut short, so I will deal with just two. In my constituency, the green belt is already under threat. For example, officers said that the proposal for the Three Crowns inn site would involve unacceptable development in the green belt and there were no special circumstances to outweigh that. However, the planning committee let it go through, so three detached houses have been built on the green belt. That is a great cause for concern. My constituents told me that a substantial amount of time was taken up by speakers in favour of the development, but that they were allowed only three minutes.

That brings me to the long-suffering folk who live around 1 Woodside close. All previous applications have been refused by the inspector on the basis that development would have an adverse impact on the character of the local area. My poor constituents have had to put up with six applications of a similar nature. Of the last two applications, one for the construction of 13 flats was dismissed on 28 October 2010 and one for the construction of 14 flats was dismissed on 20 August 2011. Still the applicant persists without any response from the council. Clearly, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 needs to be revisited by the council. The residents in Cottage Farm residents association feel that their views have not been taken into account. I will present a petition to the House at the end of the debate this evening on behalf of those residents. I admire their resilience and stamina.

That brings me on to the national planning policy framework. The Government want to promote well-being, but they put it at risk by putting the green belt under threat. The Chancellor wants to use planning to stimulate growth, but town centres are crying out for development. The Government appointed Mary Portas to look at what is wrong with our town centres and she has told them to make explicit in the wording of the NPPF a presumption in favour of town centre development. In Walsall town centre, 15.8% of shops are empty—an increase of 20% since February.

The NPPF will weaken the test that is applied to town centres. Under the sequential test, developers have to show that there is no suitable alternative site in the centre, but that does not apply to offices. The NPPF will relax brownfield targets; relax the requirement to plan for the efficient and effective use of land; reduce the protection of the green belt; remove the direction to direct offices to the town centre; and reduce sustainable economic development. The combination of those things will push development away from where it is most needed.

No. I am sorry, but I do not have time.

Walsall has a history of protecting employment land and has a sustainable settlement pattern. Manufacturers who are experiencing growth have not asked me to raise planning issues; they have asked for money for apprentices so that they can train them and fill the skills gap. This is not about housing either, because the Home Builders Federation holds more than 280,000 units with planning permission that are ready for development. Planning permissions do not deliver new homes. The problem of there being not enough homes is more to do with the stagnant property market, banks not lending and the boom in overseas investors investing in housing, not affordable housing.

Paragraph 16 of the NPPF states that the development of sites protected by the birds and habitats directive would not be sustainable. However, in the autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he wants to relax the habitats directive. I am on the side of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the Prince of Wales, the campaign by The Daily Telegraph, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the people of Walsall South. Whose side are the Government on? With respect to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have a special phrase: this is not about being a nimby, but about being a NIGEL—“Not In the Garden of England”. We are all NIGELs now.

Finally, once land has been sold and developed, it is lost for ever. That is our heritage. That is what we leave to the next generation. I urge the Minister to think again.

May I start by thanking the many Members from all parts of the House who have paid tribute to the way in which the Backbench Business Committee handles these debates? As Forrest Gump put it, these pre-recess Adjournment debates are a bit like a box of chocolates:

“You never know what you’re gonna get.”

I just hope that my contribution does not stick in people’s throats.

All the Members and staff in this House will be looking forward to spending Christmas with their family and friends. We are looking forward to a traditional Christmas dinner and, if we are lucky, to a warm log fire. However, not all our country-folk are as fortunate. I would like to spend some time remembering the hundreds of people around the country who will not spend Christmas with their friends and family, and who will not enjoy gift giving and festive celebrations, but who will instead spend it on the streets, desperately hoping for passers-by to give them a few pennies or pounds.

Homelessness can have dire consequences. Just last month, I was saddened to hear about the death of two of my constituents who had been sleeping rough on the streets of Newquay. If we are to tackle the crisis of homelessness in our communities, we first need to understand better the causes. A recent report by the charity St Mungo’s highlighted the role that relationship breakdown, domestic violence and mental health problems can play in leading people to sleep rough on our streets. Indeed, relationship breakdown is the largest single trigger of rough sleeping cited by outreach workers. It is the reason for just under a half of all male rough sleepers. Almost a third of female rough sleepers have left home to escape domestic violence. The St Mungo’s study also found that just under half of rough sleepers have one or more mental health problems. Indeed, people who have slept rough are more than 15 times more likely to have a diagnosis of schizophrenia than the general population.

At this time of year, it is important that we recognise the work of charities such as St Mungo’s in helping people in desperate need. I hope that in his response the Minister will join me in paying tribute to the great work that such charities do in caring for rough sleepers and giving people a second chance. In particular, I would like to recognise the work of Cosgarne hall in St Austell in my constituency in helping local people.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech on the problems of homelessness. I join him in paying tribute to the work of St Mungo’s and many other charities. Does he acknowledge that one problem for such charities is that when they house people in hostels or relatively short-stay accommodation, they have enormous difficulties in finding move-on accommodation? It ends up with a blockage in the system because local authorities cannot cope with the numbers that charities refer to them. The Government must address that issue.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We need to make the journey from presentation at the local authority through to hostel accommodation and supported accommodation much more seamless. I endorse entirely his recommendation.

St Petroc’s is another homelessness charity in Cornwall. It helps to provide food and shelter to the more than 100 rough sleepers across Cornwall. That will be particularly important in the cold days and months ahead. I have visited the St Mungo’s shelter in Brent, as I am sure has the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and seen the work it does with homeless people. I was also lucky enough to visit the Outpost housing project in Newcastle recently, which works with young lesbian, gay and bisexual people who get kicked out of home after coming out. Like many hon. Members, I have also been to Centrepoint here in London.

From all those visits, one thing is clear: we are all just a few steps from being homeless, whether through losing our job or losing our partner. There is no typical homeless person and homelessness can and does affect people from all walks of life. That is why I am calling on the Government to consider the introduction of a right to shelter—a fundamental statement of principle that the Government will do more to help those who find themselves homeless, often through no fault of their own. It is simply not right that many people can go to their local authority for help and be turned away to sleep on the streets in the sixth largest economy in the world. As well as a right to shelter, there needs to be more recognition by drug, mental health and other service providers that they have a role to play in preventing homelessness. We need a more flexible, personal service that reflects the complexity of an individual’s life so that we can achieve the vital ambition of ending rough sleeping.

Over the past year, 102,000 people approached their local council and declared themselves homeless, an increase of 15% on the previous year. Tackling homelessness must remain a Government priority, so I welcome the fact that the spending review protected the £400 million of homelessness grant to local authorities and the voluntary sector, and the fact that the Government have prioritised help for single homeless people, providing £10 million to the charity Crisis to help in its good work. I also understand that a cross-departmental ministerial working group has been set up to address some of the complex causes of homelessness. However, much more can be done, and I reiterate my call for a basic right to shelter and sufficient funding to ensure that no individual is left with no option but to sleep rough.

I hope that my contribution today, though limited, will serve as a wake-up call to the Government to do more in the years that remain to them, so that in future we can all enjoy our Christmas holidays knowing that nobody will be spending them out in the cold.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a good new year, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I absolutely concur with what the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) has just said about homelessness. He put the case very well. Despite various changes in homelessness legislation over the years, I find that in London a depressingly large number of people are denied access to housing because they are single, because they are concealed homeless or because they do not have an identifiable physical condition or mental illness. They end up sleeping rough, sleeping in cars or in some cases just endlessly sofa-surfing among friends’ homes.

It is quite surprising that if we go down to “Occupy London Stock Exchange” outside St Paul’s, we find quite a lot of people living there who work, and for whom it is a place to live and survive. That is the reality of homelessness in this country. It is probably slightly worse in London than the rest of the country, although I acknowledge everything that the hon. Gentleman said about Cornwall and the south-west also having a considerable problem.

I wish to draw attention to a number of matters in this short contribution. I am proud to represent an inner-London constituency, and housing is the biggest issue that my constituents face by a long chalk. The borough as a whole has 13,000 families on the register of those who need somewhere much bigger to live, and we have a very large number of young people and children growing up in grossly overcrowded accommodation. In such accommodation it is impossible for all the children to maintain good health, do their homework and achieve anything at school. It is hardly surprising that there is so much family breakdown and underachievement in school.

I have people in my advice bureau in tears because they have three teenage siblings, sometimes of widely differing ages, sharing a bedroom and they are unable to study or do any homework, with all the obvious consequences. That leads to underachievement in school and to consequences for the rest of our society, as those young people feel excluded from the education system and end up in the criminal justice system because of what they get into.

We have to recognise that the overall rate of private renting in Britain is growing at the expense of owner-occupation. That gap is growing much faster in London, to the extent that in my constituency, privately rented accommodation now accounts for well over 30% of all households, owner-occupation is below 30% and the rest is made up of council and housing association accommodation and a very small number of co-operatives. Almost a third of my constituents live in private rented accommodation.

For young people who are in work—perhaps a young couple earning reasonable salaries—it is impossible to raise the deposit for a mortgage even if they can afford one. Their only chance of buying is if their parents are well-off enough and prepared to remortgage their own property to provide them with a deposit. The average age of first-time purchasers in London is now in the late 30s, if not the 40s. The choice between private rented, council rented and purchased accommodation that the Government talk about so blithely simply does not exist.

Even in my borough, which is doing its very best on housing matters, it is impossible to buy somewhere under a part-rent, part-purchase shared ownership scheme. A key worker needs to be on more than double the average London income to get anywhere near buying somewhere under shared ownership. That is a major problem.

The situation has very serious consequences for London. Where are the skilled workers of tomorrow whom we need in the public service? Where are the service workers of tomorrow? Where will such people come from unless we seriously address the need to examine all sectors of housing difficulties?

The hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent case, and I agree with much of it. Does he agree that one concern is that a pernicious generational divide might be emerging, broadly between the baby boomers—the housing “haves”—and generation X, for which, as he rightly says, home ownership is an aspiration that many will never be able to meet?

Absolutely. Those who own and occupy their own homes in my constituency tend increasingly to be much older people. If they pass on or decide to sell their property, it is nearly always sold to a speculative owner who then rents it out privately. The rental income from those properties is absolutely enormous. There is therefore a very strong case for seriously increasing the powers, facilities, opportunities and abilities of local government, and for intervening in the question of housing markets as a whole.

I turn very briefly, because the debate is short, to the case of my own borough council. It is doing its best to address the borough’s housing issues, and it is building about 100 new council homes a year, largely on local authority housing land, disused garages, car parks and difficult places on estates. In some cases it has made agreements with preferred partners through housing associations, which are building on former industrial land, although there is not much of that, or on other sites. The council’s condition for joint participation with a housing association is that it maintains the existing tenure system—a tenancy for life—and rent structure. That means that the rents are not market-related but economically related, and are those that the local authority charges. That is having a good effect, and the council is doing its best, but unless we can address issues on a wider basis, with much greater Government investment in council housing for rent, the needs of my borough will not be met any more than those of any other borough.

I have two points to make in the last 42 seconds that I have. The first is about housing benefit. Will the Government raise the cap on housing benefit, so that the new rent levels that are imposed on people do not force them out of their homes? I have lost count of the number of people who have come to my advice bureau about to lose their home because of the housing benefit cuts and rent increases.

Finally, the Labour mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone has proposed the concept of a London living rent. We have had a London living wage, and it is time to have a London living rent to be fair to people who are forced to live in privately rented accommodation by making it affordable, long-term and permanent.

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to raise the issue of sprinklers in buildings. I do so because last year a serious fire took place in commercial premises in Lowestoft, in my constituency. Thankfully there were no casualties, but if sprinklers had been installed, the significant impact and upheaval that subsequently affected many people would have been avoided.

Wessex Foods was a large food warehouse and factory located on the south Lowestoft industrial estate, processing raw meat into burgers. On Sunday 14 July 2010, firefighters from the local fire station were called to a fire at the site and arrived in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, the fire had already developed to such a degree that they were unable to go into the building safely. The building was completely destroyed by the fire, which took 10 days to be fully extinguished. At its height, 14 fire engines and 80 firefighters were at the fire, and over the course of the succeeding 10 days almost every firefighter in Suffolk attended the scene.

The impact on the local community was profound. A factory that had been in operation for 30 years has now been permanently closed and razed to the ground, and 150 people have lost their jobs. Despite the size of the building, at approximately 5,000 square metres, and the use to which it was put, sprinklers had not been fitted. If they had been, the outcome would have been completely different and the firefighters would have been back at the fire station within an hour.

There are compelling reasons why the current approach to sprinklers should be reviewed. Where sprinklers are installed, there is a dramatic reduction in fatalities and injuries. There has never been a multiple fire death incident anywhere in the world in a building fitted with a sprinkler system that has been designed to the appropriate standard for the purpose intended.

There is a need to have regard to demographic changes. People are living longer, and older people are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of fire. They may not be able to evacuate a building as quickly as young people. Those who suffer from dementia face added challenges. As a nation we are encouraging older people to continue living in their homes longer. I have no problem with that, but we need to ensure that elderly people, especially those living alone, are provided with an appropriate level of protection.

There has in the past been concern about the reliability and cost of sprinklers. However, in recent years, there have been significant advances in both design and reducing costs. The likelihood of a sprinkler going off accidentally is now estimated to be of the order of 16 million:1.

It is important to have regard to the views and needs of the fire service. Firefighters do a great job, often in hazardous and dangerous circumstances. We owe it to them to reduce risk as far as reasonably possible. With fire service budgets and resources coming under increasing pressure, it is important to focus on measures that make their jobs easier. I am mindful that in rural counties, including Suffolk, we are reliant on a combination of full-time crews and retained crews in market towns. As work patterns change, recruitment of retained firefighters is becoming more difficult. We thus need to ensure that we reduce the risk of major incidents wherever possible. It is also important for Government to listen to local fire chiefs and fire authorities. They are the people on the ground with first-hand experience, who invariably know best, and they advocate more widespread use of sprinklers. In the past year, not only Suffolk but Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Humberside have demanded a more proactive approach.

For commercial and industrial premises, two issues need to be addressed. First, we find ourselves out of step with many other countries. In England, only buildings of more than 20,000 square metres are required to be fitted with sprinklers. In Scotland, that figure is 14,000 square metres, while in Germany it is 1,800 square metres. If we had been in line with the European average, the devastation caused by the Wessex fire would have been avoided. Secondly, there has been too little focus in determining policy up to now on the business disruption that arises from a major fire. In these difficult and uncertain economic times, we can ill afford that. Some 85% of small and medium enterprises that suffer a serious fire never recover or cease trading within 18 months.

It is important that the Government review the new and compelling evidence on sprinklers that is becoming available. This should be taken fully into account in the review of part B of the building regulations due in 2013. It is important that that review takes place on time and is not delayed. The evidence that we need to look at includes feedback from Wales, where the fitting of sprinklers in new residential property has been mandatory since the spring. Next year is the bicentenary of the installation of the first sprinkler system in Britain in the Theatre Royal, Drury lane. Some might say that not much progress has been made in 200 years: I would say that now is the time to redouble our efforts to save lives, to protect the vulnerable and to safeguard jobs.

May I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all the staff of the Houses of Parliament a very merry Christmas?

I speak today in support of increased local decision-making in the planning system. Specifically, I would like to encourage the Government to ensure that the neighbourhood plans made possible by the Localism Act 2011 give local people enough power to have a real say over what development takes place in their area, where it takes place and, crucially, whether it meets the sustainable development test.

There are many cases in my constituency that illustrate not only the ways in which people currently feel disengaged from the planning system, but the great potential in communities when they get organised. A great number of my constituents have contacted me about large housing developments proposed near Birds Marsh woods and the Avon floodplain in Chippenham. They have emphasised the importance of preserving the countryside around the edge of the town, and many have expressed their frustration at their apparent inability to affect the decisions being made. One lady made the point that,

“the voice of ordinary residents does not seem to be heard, and decisions are made by people for whom this is not their home”.

Similarly, the expansion of an edge-of-town Sainsbury’s superstore has recently been approved by the council, leading to the resignation in dismay of the chair of the Chippenham Vision group.

Earlier this month, I asked the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation what advice he would give to councils that face such developer interest in out-of-town sites. He assured me that the “town centre first” policy remains firm, but that development in Chippenham would suggest otherwise, as Wiltshire council felt free to ignore it. There will be no public confidence in a "take it or leave it" attitude to planning policy, with some councils proceeding with development that is neither sustainable nor what local people want, for fear of paying for expensive appeals by developers.

I intend to speak on much the same issue later in respect of wind farms. Does the hon. Gentleman take the view that when the Government impose massive development on an area where the people simply do not want it, it poses a huge threat to people’s faith in democracy?

The imposition of development plans that are not owned by the local community was exactly what we had in the regional spatial strategies—the grand regional plans left to us by the previous Government —and I applaud this Government for abandoning them. The RSS in the south-west of England never actually took legal force, and I am glad that it will never do so. It is important that people feel that decisions are made locally and democratically.

In Wiltshire, the council has not yet adopted its core strategy—its local plan—and we of course await the final version of the national planning policy framework in the spring. In the interim, our system is not robust enough to balance the competing interests in the planning process, and development too often seems inevitably set to proceed.

For the hon. Gentleman’s information, I was born in Chippenham, thus I have an interest in it. I applaud what he is trying to do. Out-of-town developments not only disfigure beautiful landscapes in a beautiful area; they also create vastly increased traffic and environmental consequences for everyone else, as well as a complete hollowing out and destruction of the town centre, which becomes the home for charity shops and banks—and very little else.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am delighted to learn of his interest in Chippenham. In fact, it was that very concern about the hollowing out of the town centre that prompted the resignation last week of the chair of the Chippenham Vision group, who had sought, in a voluntary capacity, to work with different parts of the community to build a vision for the future of our town centre. However, that was fundamentally undermined by the decision to grant a dramatic increase in the retail floor space of an edge-of-town superstore, which will no doubt be expanding into non-food items, threatening the businesses in our town centre, to which I shall return later.

Given the Government’s new presumption in favour of sustainable development, and given the record of other councils in agreeing permissions on unallocated “white land”, which does not benefit from the protections in the draft framework, I see a need for robust mechanisms to ensure the rigorous application of that presumption according to clear tests. I was encouraged by a recent response that I received from the Under-Secretary of State, Baroness Hanham, who, without pre-empting the consultation responses, acknowledged that the meaning of “sustainable development”, as well as its application, was an area where the Government needed to look again more closely in the consultation. I would suggest that a crucial part of any mechanism for deciding whether an application qualifies for that presumption should be input from the local community. The question should not end up being decided in the courts through case law, or by planning inspectors. If that happens, the Government will not achieve their objective of greater localism.

Instead, I suggest that we should look to the examples offered by communities in Wiltshire that are working with the Government’s framework for neighbourhood plans in the Localism Act 2011. Woolley, in Bradford-on-Avon, and Malmesbury, in north Wiltshire, are two communities that are seizing this opportunity. In their impressive document, “Plan for Woolley 2026”, residents have come together in an entirely voluntary capacity as Friends of Woolley to draw up a framework for Woolley’s physical, community and economic development for the next 25 years. Meanwhile in Malmesbury, Councillor Simon Killane is spearheading the neighbourhood planning pilot scheme. That includes a neighbourhood forum, which will bring residents and community organisations to meet potential developers to discuss their plans and what they might mean for the local community and the infrastructure it needs. Those plans will be assessed against the neighbourhood plan, based on residents’ own aspirations and ratified by a local referendum.

I was pleased to read Baroness Hanham’s assurance that such neighbourhood plans will have to be “given a fair hearing” against other local authority plans or, indeed, the national planning policy framework. The 2011 Act gives neighbourhood plans statutory force. As she points out, such plans will have to be

“in general conformity with strategic policies in the local plan”.

However, the word “general” is very important. It reminds me of the old planning policy statement 12, whose definition stated that

“the test is of general conformity and not conformity.”

That means that it should be possible for a neighbourhood plan to conflict with land allocations in existing core strategies or local plans, as long as the general aims of development can be achieved, perhaps by bringing different land into use. The Government need to be clear about what “sustainable development” is taken to mean in that context. In my view, sustainability encompasses the impact of development on carbon emissions, travel-to-work journeys, the conservation of wildlife and the preservation of our countryside.

I would not oppose housing development, but I believe that local plans need to propose development that accommodates the needs of the local population and the understood demographic changes that are envisaged, and not be about accommodating outflow or overflow from other towns. To do so would be to allow a council’s settlements to become dormitories, which is something that we are vigorously fighting against in Wiltshire. Members should be aware that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government is due to publish its report on the draft national planning policy framework tomorrow. I look forward to reading its recommendations and contributing to further debates on this subject, so that we might harness the power of genuinely local decision making in our planning system.

Thank you for this opportunity to raise the subject of financial transparency in local government, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would also like to extend my thanks to the TaxPayers Alliance and the Local Government Group for providing some of my research notes.

This is an important issue, because we would all agree that we should be doing everything we can to ensure that council tax is affordable, especially against the backdrop of pressure on front-line services, particularly adult social care, which is piling on costs for local authorities. With that in mind, I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement in June 2010 calling on councils to provide financial transparency by publishing online information about spending over £500 by the end of January 2011; all councils except Nottingham city council have now done so. Such financial disclosure will act as a trigger, enabling local taxpayers to see how councils are using public money, shine a spotlight on waste, establish greater accountability and efficiency, open up new markets, and improve access for small and local businesses and the voluntary sector.

To strengthen that, the Government published their “Code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency” in September 2011. The code stipulates that the provision of public data should become integral to local authority engagement with residents, so that it drives accountability to them, it should be promoted and publicised, so that residents know how to access it, and it should be presented in a way that encourages residents to use and compare such data. Despite all that, however, we have not been overrun by a fully mobilised army of armchair auditors seeking to identify savings. This is a real opportunity that has been missed. To my mind, that is because although a vast amount of data has been put into the public domain, much of it is hard to comprehend.

I believe that the focus should be on the quality rather than the quantity of what is available. Three examples highlight this. First, most councils publish their expenditure to comply with the guidelines, but that does not necessarily mean that the publication is clear. Individuals are therefore often unable to challenge expenditure. Secondly, we have seen examples in which, when the data are printed off, font size 2 is used. Those data are technically accessible, but they are not exactly readable. Thirdly, the information is often hidden away on websites. A good example is provided by Birmingham city council. To access its data we have to go to the homepage, then click on “Council and Democracy”, then on “Services”, then on “Featured Services”, then on “Corporate Resources Directorate”, then on “Invoices and Payments”, and then on “Payments to suppliers over £500”. The process takes us through seven different pages, and it is not signposted in any way. The information would be very hard to find without going through the DirectGov site—or being Columbo. Chris Taggart, the founder of, has said:

“Public sector data is still being treated as an asset to be sold, rather than an underlying infrastructure of a modern democratic society, and with this approach people and the innovators who seek to empower them are marginalised and disenfranchised.”

There are, however, many good examples of local authorities providing data in innovative and eye-catching ways. Examples are Kensington and Chelsea, and Northamptonshire, which map the data so that residents can understand at a glance where the money goes. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says that councils should set out reasons for particular spending decisions so that a more informed judgment can be made. It also highlights the need for effective feedback mechanisms, so that people can comment on spending and have their views taken on board.

Information needs to be accessible, transparent and understandable. I therefore welcome the five steps to fully open data that are set out in the code, but they need to be more robustly enforced. Guidelines could be altered to ensure that local authorities published their expenses in a comprehensible manner. A number of small and medium-sized enterprises are also working with open data, including OpenlyLocal, Spotlight on Spend and Armchair Auditor. Those private enterprises are all developing new ways of presenting council data. I would urge central Government to encourage local government to make use of such sites to break down its spending and make it more easily digestible and comparable.

I also have a recommendation. I would like to use incentives to encourage residents to become that army of armchair auditors. There is a fear that any savings that residents identify will simply disappear back into a council black hole. Perhaps 50% of the savings could go back to the council for it to spend as it wished, with the other 50% being spent on the front-line service of the resident’s choice. That could involve improving the local school, the local community library or a local sports club. This could be processed by a committee of back-bench councillors and finance officers, who would weed out the majority of suggestions. Probably 95% of the expenditure identified would be justifiable; it might just have been badly explained on the council website, for example. The remainder of cases could be passed on to the lead member for finance to bank, which would help the taxpayer and improve front-line services. CIPFA has also pointed out that when expenditure is found to be justifiable, a letter should be sent to the resident to explain what the money is being spent on.

A number of arguments have been made against this proposal. Some councils have said that they would be embarrassed if residents found that they were not spending money efficiently. I say that they should embrace that, because if a saving is identified, the council will have the opportunity to spend the money on something that people will reward it for. Nottingham city council says that the process would cost too much money. I do not think that that is an excuse when there is so much pressure on council tax bills. It has also been suggested that it would be too difficult to provide answers, but I find that unacceptable. Surely someone is signing off those budgets, and therefore owns them. A further argument is that much of this would involve one-off expenditure, but I believe that local authorities should still learn from such experience. This is a real opportunity to enthuse local residents and to deliver much-needed savings.

I am conscious that it is a privilege as well as a duty to wind up a debate for the Government from the Dispatch Box on any subject. Having spent some 18 years as a local councillor myself, including three years as leader of Stockport council, before being elected to this place, winding up a debate on local government issues today is a special honour for me.

Members on both sides of the House acknowledge that local government faces unprecedented challenges. All councils are effectively being asked to do more with less, and some are managing it better than others. I am confident—indeed, the coalition Government are confident—that local councils up and down the country are equal to the task. This Government want to work with local authorities whenever and wherever they can in a spirit of partnership.

Most Members of all parties are genuinely committed to good, sound local government as the most effective way of delivering the essential public services on which so many of our constituents depend. We recognise and acknowledge that there are hundreds of thousands of dedicated professional people employed by local authorities who are doing a very good job to the best of their ability. Although we expect councils to share the burden of our deficit reduction strategy, it is not because of some ideological desire to do down the public sector, but because local authorities collectively account for about a quarter of all public expenditure. As the country struggles to overcome the difficult financial situation we are now in, councils have a key role in helping to tackle the problems.

I have been particularly pleased to note the Government’s progress on their empty homes strategy, their investment in social housing, and increased democracy in the planning network through neighbourhood plans—putting local residents in charge of the decisions that affect them.

Let me now deal with today’s debate. I start by thanking all Members who have contributed by speaking passionately about their own concerns—and, more importantly, those of their constituents. In the time available, I will endeavour to give a worthwhile response to each Member’s speech.

The hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) referred to the development of the port of Liverpool to promote economic growth. As a fellow north-west MP, I am familiar with the issues she spoke about. Indeed, the hon. Lady and I share in our constituencies the great river Mersey, which, as everybody knows, starts in Stockport and finishes in Liverpool—not the other way round.

I am speaking for this Government and for myself when I say that it is vital for the Government to continue to do everything in their power to contribute to economic growth in the Liverpool city region, the north-west region and, of course, across the rest of the country as well. The hon. Lady is right that the port of Liverpool has a crucial role to play in all this. As she will be aware, the Government have welcomed the report on Liverpool by Lord Heseltine and Sir Terry Leahy. Their knowledge and understanding of the issues have been invaluable in shaping that report. Although it was an independent report, so Government policy will not be bound by it, we acknowledge that it provides a unique opportunity—not shared by other cities—for Liverpool city region and its partners to own the recommendations and to drive them forward in partnership with central Government. It has been noted and acknowledged that 6,000 jobs and £1.6 billion-worth of investment could be added to the wider SuperPort initiative by 2020.

The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) talked about planning issues in her constituency. The first thing I would say to her is that I am no stranger to the frustrations of the planning system myself, so I sympathise with some of the frustrations she expressed today. As it happens, like the hon. Lady—I do not know whether it is appropriate to declare the interest—I am a member of the National Trust.

This Government clearly acknowledge that an effective planning system is vital for economic growth, for strong and vibrant communities and for a sustainable environment. As I am sure the hon. Lady is already aware, I cannot personally discuss the merits or otherwise of individual planning applications, as there is a strongly held convention that Ministers do not comment on the merits or otherwise of such an application in case it impinges on the impartiality of the Secretary of State, should that application come before him for determination. The specific issues she refers to are, of course, the responsibility of Walsall metropolitan borough council.

Reforming the planning process is one of the Department’s key priorities and I am sure that the hon. Lady, like myself, will be looking forward to reading the Government’s response to the national planning policy framework consultation, which will be published in spring next year. Indeed, the coalition agreement and the growth review commit the Department to a radical package of reforms that will transform the planning system to ensure it meets the aspirations of our communities and supports the sustainable development that the country needs while at the same time being as simple to understand and as streamlined as possible.

The next contribution was from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). I start by praising his campaigning work on homelessness. I know he has an excellent track-record on this issue both in his own constituency and at a national level. He speaks with great passion about the topic. I can confirm the coalition Government’s commitment to action on the issue, on which they have already done a great deal of work.

Let me mention just a few of the measures that we have taken. We have protected the £6.5 billion Supporting People budget, and we will invest £400 million in homelessness prevention over the next four years. We recently announced a £42.5 million boost to provide more than 1,500 new and improved bed spaces to improve hostels for rough sleepers and ensure that those coming off the streets receive the support they need. We are giving an additional £20 million to Homeless Link for a new homelessness transition fund to support the roll-out of No Second Night Out and protect vital front-line services. I echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to the valuable work done by St Mungo’s, which was also mentioned by other Members, and by St Petroc’s in his constituency.

I agree with the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the importance of affordable housing, not just in London but throughout the country. The Government have manifestly taken serious steps to tackle the chronic lack of such housing. In 2011-12 we are allocating £40 million to London boroughs to prevent homelessness and tackle rough sleeping. The Department has also transferred £8.45 million a year to the Greater London Authority for four years so that it can fund and commission pan-London rough sleeping services. They include rolling shelters, tenancy sustainment teams and outreach services which generally operate across borough boundaries.

As was mentioned earlier, we have provided £12.5 million for Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, for a crisis private rented sector development programme to enable the voluntary sector to set up private rented sector access schemes for single homeless people. In its first year alone, the programme will lead to the creation of more than 1,500 tenancies. Our £4.5 billion affordable homes programme is set to exceed expectations and deliver up to 170,000 new homes by 2015.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) spoke of the benefits of installing sprinklers in residential and commercial new-build properties. I listened with interest as he made his case—with great enthusiasm—and I am sure that the Department will also have noted its merits, especially given his detailed knowledge of the terrible fire at Wessex Foods in his constituency, to which he has referred before.

My hon. Friend did not call for the introduction of new regulations, although he highlighted the fact that sprinklers can save lives, thus preventing a considerable impact on the local community. It is important to note, however, that building regulations already contain provisions for the installation of sprinkler systems in buildings where the risk is considered high enough to justify their use—such as tall blocks of flats, commercial and industrial premises, and assembly and recreational buildings over 30 metres high—as well as provisions for large storage buildings and care homes.

In December last year, following an extensive public consultation exercise, the Department published the findings of a review of building regulations in a report entitled “Future changes to the Building Regulations—next steps”. The review concluded that there was no new evidence that would justify revisiting the requirements for sprinkler protection for all buildings at present.

I commend the work being done by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) in relation to the national planning policy framework on behalf of his constituents. I assure him that his views are being taken into account in the national planning policy framework consultation, which—as all Members will know—recently closed. I am sure he appreciates that I am not in a position to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation by commenting on the issues that have been raised today, but I know that he joins me in welcoming the aim of the reforms, which is to simplify a system that most people agree has become too complex and confrontational, and to emphasise the central and critical role of the local plan to decision making. The draft national planning policy framework distils more than 1,000 pages of national policy guidelines into about 50.

We have made clear through the housing strategy published on Monday 21 November that we must do more to provide homes for young people and growing families. We also need jobs in expanding businesses. However, that will not be at the expense of our natural and historic environment. The points made by my hon. Friend about sustainability are hugely important.

Finally, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) that financial transparency in local government is essential. Like me, he served as a local councillor before being elected to the House, and it was interesting to hear about his experience in Swindon. The coalition Government expect councils to be transparent about their finances. We have set out our expectations in our code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency, which was published on 29 September 2011. As set out in the code, all local authorities in England are now expected to publish online details of any expenditure of over £500. We have been very pleased with the positive response from councils in respect of publishing this information—with one or two notable exceptions. I am also pleased that local government is continuing to forge ahead and publish a wealth of further information beyond expenditure, such as on contracts and tenders, council allowances, senior salaries and payments.

I am aware that I have run out of time, but may I conclude by wishing all Members a very happy Christmas and a prosperous new year?