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Communities and Local Government

Volume 539: debated on Monday 30 January 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Public Spending

1. What steps his Department has taken to increase transparency in (a) local government and (b) departmental spending. (92054)

We have replaced the previous Administration’s byzantine bureaucracy with transparency and local accountability. We have asked every council to open up their books and to publish their spending over £500. Every council is doing this, apart from Nottingham city council, which finds it a bit difficult.

My Department is practising what we preach. Not only do we publish our spending over £500, but we have also published every single item of corporate credit card spending since 2004.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating and applauding Tendring district council, which has decided not only to publish items over £500, but to publish all items of expenditure every month? This has created a climate of thrift that has allowed it to cut council tax. Will he ensure that Whitehall Departments, agencies and quangos take similar steps?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Tendring. The council did not make the headlines for many years, but suddenly it has started coming up with lots of new initiatives. It is certainly in the forefront of transparency, and where Tendring leads, I am more than happy to follow.

Frankly, it is not good enough, because the Department is not publishing spending between 50p and £500, and that is where—on credit cards and in other areas—a lot of things go wrong. Can we have some transparency in this wretched Department, instead of the cover-up it is currently practising?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. We have published every penny of spending on credit cards, and that is why we know that Labour Ministers wined and dined at some of the finest restaurants in the country, including the Boisdale, Somerset House, the National Gallery, the Wolseley and the Cinnamon Club. It may be of interest to know that Labour Ministers were not alone—the Audit Commission managed to go to L’Escargot, Coq d’Argent and the Cinnamon Club, and its board members even went to an oyster bar to discuss corporate governance, and then lost the receipt.

Empty Properties

We have put in place powerful tools and incentives to support local communities to tackle empty homes. The Government published “Laying the Foundations—A Housing Strategy for England” on 21 November 2011. This sets out our plans for tackling empty homes.

I thank the Minister for that reply and I congratulate the coalition Government on taking action after 13 years of failure. While I welcome the empty homes premium and the empty homes fund—and bearing in mind that the borough of Colchester has 2,024 empty houses, 591 of which have been empty for more than six months—may I urge him to bring more pressure to bear on local authorities, especially as 2,000 dwellings is roughly the size of a sprawling estate, land for which is short and which would be a planning and environmental disaster if it went ahead?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is a scandal that there are so many empty homes, especially if they are empty for more than six months. The total at the moment is 270,000 across the country, but the good news is that that is a reduction of 21,000 in the last year. It is important to tackle the problem and that is why we have committed £150 million to bringing empty homes back into use. I am sure that his friends in Colchester will want to take advantage of that.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating councillors Sian Reid and Catherine Smart of Cambridge city council on their work to reduce the number of empty homes in Cambridge since 2004? The Government’s £150 million empty homes fund is welcome. How can Cambridge city council access it in order to get even more empty homes back into use?

Local authority bids will be invited shortly for the £100 million that we have announced for providing affordable housing, and I hope that Cambridge will be right there. We are currently drawing up the criteria for the £50 million to tackle the worst concentration of empty homes. I also know that several community and voluntary groups in the east of England have their eyes on Cambridge.

Although the number of homes empty for six months in the Dover district has fallen sharply, to 872, do Ministers agree that a lot more work is needed to undo the damage of the past in Dover? In 2005, there were 674 empty homes. I urge the fastest possible action. During the same time, the social housing waiting list has grown by 14%.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is an urgent task to get empty homes back into use, particularly affordable use. Often, the waiting lists facing many local authorities could be shortened if authorities tackled empty homes vigorously. That is why we have provided the new homes bonus as a reward and are investing £100 million to switch empty homes to affordable homes.

Does the Minister accept that making use of empty homes is vital not just to tackling homelessness but to protecting the green belt from house building?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. An empty home already has planning permission and is capable of use without all the aggravation often created by new development. More than that, an empty home is often the cause of antisocial behaviour and other problems in a community, so it is a double win; in fact, a treble win. I agree entirely.

Sefton has a shortage of land for building houses but has 6,000 empty homes. Why do the Government not let councils such as Sefton include those homes in their housing strategy? That would also be a way to protect the green belt and urban green space.

I strongly urge Sefton council to develop a stronger policy on tackling empty homes. I hope that with the incentives that we have provided—the new homes bonus, the investment in affordable housing and the £50 million available to tackle the worst concentration of empty homes—it will do exactly that. The matter that the hon. Gentleman raises really relates to issues in the national planning policy framework and his council’s core strategy. I suggest that he watch this space.

Although dealing with empty homes is one way to address the housing crisis, what is the Minister doing to build more homes, particularly as the net supply, housing starts and housing completes have all fallen?

First, we have commissioned a social and affordable housing programme, which will deliver 170,000 homes during this Parliament, resulting in more social and affordable homes at the end of this Parliament rather than a reduction, as happened under the Labour Administration. Secondly, the new homes bonus was paid out on approximately 160,000 new and returned empty homes in the past 12 months, and we are determined to increase that rate dramatically.

Private Rented Sector

3. What recent assessment he has made of value for money and standards for tenants in the private rented sector. (92056)

The English housing survey shows that standards in the private rented sector have continued to improve more rapidly than in other sectors. In most areas, renting remains more affordable than purchasing a home.

Shelter’s rent watch report 2011 found that, on average, private rents in 55% of local authorities in England were unaffordable for ordinary working families, and that 38% of privately renting families with children had to cut down on food to pay their rent. Many rogue landlords are still out there, providing appalling accommodation at poor value. What are the Government doing about those issues?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out those issues. I am concerned to ensure that quality in the private rented sector is as good as possible, and I am undertaking work in that direction. It is worth considering, though, that satisfaction rates in the private rented sector are higher, at 85%, than those in the social sector, at just 81%.

What is the Department’s view on local landlord accreditation schemes, and what advice does he give on such schemes to local authorities?

Local accreditation and licensing schemes can be good value for local people. I attended a local accreditation in Welwyn Hatfield on Thursday evening. The scheme is very good and designed locally to address local problems; in our case, it happens to be a student population. That is the advantage of doing it locally: it can be fitted in with what the community requires.

Rents are soaring in the private rented sector, and too many rogue landlords are ripping off tenants, undermining reputable ones. Yet earlier this month the Prime Minister said that rents were falling, and the Minister for Housing and Local Government has put up for grabs the remaining tenant protections that he has not already scrapped. Will he explain why the Prime Minister is so out of touch that he thinks that rents are falling and why he believes that basic tenant protections amount to red tape, at a time when it has never been more important to regulate the private rented sector, in order to drive standards up and rogues out?

On the first point, I imagine that the Prime Minister was probably referring to recent surveys by LSL Property Services showing two-month falls in rent levels. Those might be partially seasonal, but nevertheless rents have been falling—we will see what happens in future months. The hon. Gentleman calls for greater regulation. I will tell him what happened when there was greater regulation in the private rented sector. There used to be rent controls, for which some of his colleagues, including Labour’s London mayoral candidate, are calling, but when they were introduced, the housing rented sector fell from 55% of the overall sector to just 8%. However, since rent controls were abolished in the late ’80s, the market has doubled to 16%. I am afraid, therefore, that more regulation is unlikely to be the solution.

House owners have a duty to declare neighbour problems or disputes when selling their properties. Will the Secretary of State protect tenants in the private and social housing sectors in the same way by making it the law that landlords and agents must disclose neighbour problems when they enter into a new tenancy agreement, so that we do not have one rule for house owners and another for tenants?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that when people move they know what their neighbours are like, whether for social housing, properties purchased or in the private rented sector. I encourage everybody thinking about renting to use an agent that belongs to something like the Safe Agent Fully Endorsed scheme, which provides reassurance that some of these checks are being carried out properly.

Empty Properties

4. What steps he is taking to make (a) empty houses and (b) vacant properties above shops available for rent. (92057)

Our strategy for empty homes applies to all properties, including flats above shops, but we are also committed to revitalising high streets and shortly will publish the Government’s response to the Mary Portas review.

The South Hams is one of the least affordable places to live in the UK, with house prices on average 16.7 times the average income, and more than 1,200 households on bands A to D of the housing waiting list. What does the Minister plan to do to address these affordability issues in the South Hams?

My hon. Friend is right that for levels of non-affordability in many areas to have reached 16.7 times average earnings is unacceptable. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), referred to the social house building programme and the 170,000 being delivered during this Parliament. She will also be pleased to hear about the provisional allocation, within the local authorities comprising her constituency, of more than £3.5 million under the new homes bonus, which will also encourage greater affordability when used to build more homes. We are also considering allowing homes over shops, and many other changes coming from the Portas review.

Will the Minister explain how dismantling the powers available to local authorities to deal with empty homes above shops—for example, the management orders have increased from six months to two years, and properties have to be substantially dilapidated before action can be taken—will help to deal with the problem?

There might just be a fundamental difference of opinion between Opposition and Government Members on this matter. The latter believe that private property should not be taken over automatically by the state just because somebody has gone on holiday or is working absent. There have been cases where people who have been working absent for six months have come back to find that their properties have been taken over. That is unacceptable, and we do not want that to happen. The hon. Gentleman is right that we have raised the limit to two years, but a range of tools is available to local authorities to get properties back into active use, and we are working actively on the empty homes programme. The Government are fully committed to getting properties back into use, hence the big drop in the number of empty ones.

Given the Mary Portas review and the flagging state of many high streets in our small market towns, what more can be done to help change to residential the usage of redundant retail properties that, realistically, are unlikely ever to be used for retail purposes again?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He will be aware that we are looking at making changes to the use class orders, through the national planning policy framework, to allow for greater flexibility. We have a good opportunity to allow some commercial properties to be more easily converted to homes, and I hope that will help with the ever-present pressures on housing in this country.

Council Tax Benefit

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on lower-income households of his planned localisation of and changes to council tax benefit. (92061)

On 19 December my Department published an impact assessment setting out the Government’s assessment of the impacts of the reform of council tax support.

The Secretary of State has told councillors that they have a “moral duty” to freeze council tax this year, but at the same time he plans a cut of £500 million, or 10%, to council tax benefit for the poorest, so that the only people to face rising council tax bills next year in constituencies such as mine will be the most deprived and the working poor. Why is he balancing the books on the backs of the poorest?

The hon. Gentleman’s original question referred to localisation and changes in level. I hope that he accepts that the localisation part of the proposal is absolutely right and fully consistent with what this Government are doing. The changes in level are necessary to tackle the deficit; they are part of the Government’s deficit reduction programme. I would remind him that the bill for council tax benefit has gone from £2 billion a year, in 1997, to £4 billion a year. That is largely a product of the rampant rises in council tax during the 13 years of Labour Government, so it seems absolutely right that we should tackle the deficit in this way.

Those on low incomes in Cirencester are suffering a double whammy. Their town council is increasing its precept by 4.7% and the police are increasing their precept by 2.9%, at a time when the district and county councils are making the tough decision to freeze council tax. Will my hon. Friend see what can be done to ensure that all precepting authorities keep their increases to a minimum?

The Secretary of State has made the Government’s point of view clear. He believes—and I believe—that local authorities and precepting authorities should behave with responsibility in these difficult times. I am sure that his words will have been heard, and I am happy to underline them from the Dispatch Box.

Will the Minister confirm that localising council tax benefits in 2013 and cutting Government support by 10% will mean that if authorities that are strapped for cash cannot put extra money into the benefits scheme, if pensioners cannot have their benefits altered, and if councils have to take account of the tapers for people in work, those on council tax benefit who are out of work will see those benefits effectively cut by over 20%?

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for our localising the council tax benefit? Secondly, I do not recognise or accept that figure. If he looks at the impact assessment, he will see that he has grossly overstated the facts. In fact, the average weekly reduction in support will be £2.64 per household. I believe that is the right figure to be quoting in the House, not the one that he chose to use.

Council tax more than doubled under Labour, whereas the coalition has funded a council tax freeze for two years in a row. I support this Government’s localism agenda. Does the Minister agree that it will be fairer for the general population as a whole under the current Government’s scheme?

Yes I do. I would make the point that with localism comes the capacity of local authorities to fine-tune the schemes in their areas to suit their local circumstances, and I would encourage local authorities to start to do that.

The Minister needs to accept that the scheme he is proposing is arbitrary and unfair, and hits the working poor most. How can he possibly justify cuts of between 13% and 25% in benefit for people of working age, and a switch from annually managed expenditure to grant, which means that any increase in claims will be paid for by cuts in benefit for the poorest people? Is it not time that the Government, who were prepared to accept a million-pound bonus for a banker, realise that they do not have the moral authority to inflict such cuts on the poorest people in our communities?

Order. The hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) must exercise the kind of restraint that I am sure has characterised his distinguished performances in the law courts over many years.

I should like to remind the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) that the proposals in the Bill will give local authorities the capacity to vary the discounts on second homes and empty homes, and that there will be extra income for local authorities in that regard. There will be scope for efficiency and for the authorities to tailor their schemes to their local circumstances. I do not accept the point that she has made.

Business Rates

10. What assessment he has made of the possible effects on local authorities in deprived areas of his planned localisation of national non-domestic rates. (92063)

12. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of his proposals for the localisation of business rates on regional inequality. (92065)

Currently, local authorities see no financial benefit from delivering growth. Our proposals will create a strong incentive for all local authorities, wherever they are in the country, to promote growth, local enterprise and jobs. We will ensure that no council will lose out as a result of its business rates base at the outset of the scheme.

Recent estimates show that, after year 1 of the business rates reforms, Hull council could lose up to £45.5 million, on top of the cuts that it has already targeted. With richer areas such as the City of London and Westminster benefiting at the expense of places such as Hull, how will this policy help to rebalance the economy between the poorest areas in the north and the richest in the south?

The hon. Lady neglects to mention that, throughout the period of the Labour Government, the economic position of the north deteriorated by 2%, while that of Greater London improved by 15%. Moreover, her city of Hull grew in excess of the national average over the past business rate period, as did Manchester, Leeds, Durham and Stockton-on-Tees. All those places will gain under our proposals; they did not do so under the system that her Government operated.

It is astonishing that the Minister has just completely failed to address my hon. Friend’s question. The poorer areas, which have already done badly under this Government in regard to their funding from central Government, are going to be even worse off unless they can guarantee to generate increased economic activity. Not every area can give that guarantee, however. Are these measures not simply going to make the poor poorer, and is that not morally unacceptable?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not pleased that his Manchester constituency grew at about 6.9%, as opposed to a national average of 5%. He might also like to take on board the fact that a baseline will be set for all local authorities that takes into account their needs and resources at the beginning of the scheme, and that they will thereafter be protected by the top-ups and tariffs that flow from the baseline being uprated in line with the retail prices index.

Does the Minister agree that the localisation of business rates will result not only in local councils taking a greater interest in the activities of local businesses, but in local business people taking an interest in the activities and performance of their councils? Does he agree that that will help deprived areas as well as others?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The proposal has been welcomed by the Local Government Association, and—the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) might be interested to know—by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. It was of course one of the recommendations of the Lyons inquiry, which was set up by the previous Government, and then ignored by them.

Parking

The Mary Portas review on the future of our high streets recommended the establishment of a new league table for parking charges. We welcome the review and will publish our response to it in the spring.

Why do so many parking schemes across the country involve the use of parking machines that do not give change? When the Government make their assessment of the Portas review, will the Minister check to see what proportion of local authorities have parking machines that give change to the hard-pressed people who are suffering in these Tory times?

First of all, I should point out that planning—and therefore many of the changes to parking regimes—is devolved in Wales and Scotland. Furthermore, one of the first things this Government did was to remove Labour’s incredible instructions to have only upward increases in parking charges and deliberately to build too few parking spaces in both residential areas and high streets throughout the county.

Order. We must have order, however angry and irate is the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas). He is shouting out that he has not had an answer to his question, but if that were to legitimise that sort of ranting, there were would have been permanent ranting in the House of Commons under successive Governments over the last 100 years. We cannot tolerate it.

Excessive car parking charges are a tax on our town centres and high streets. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the implementation of free control parking schemes in many of our town centres would put us on a level playing field with out-of-town stores and therefore start to rejuvenate our town centres and high streets?

My hon. Friend is right. Key is ensuring that local and sensible plans are in place to ensure that people can arrive at a town centre, shop and not be exposed to unreasonable charges. I encourage all local authorities to think about their local economy—something that should be much easier to do when they know that they are going to be keeping the business rates in future.

National Planning Policy Framework

13. When he plans to publish information on transitional arrangements in respect of his national planning policy framework. (92066)

We are committed to publishing the national planning policy framework by the end of March, having taken account the consultation responses, and the framework will include transitional arrangements.

I am glad to hear the Minister say that, as there have been reports that the Government are minded to introduce a transitional period of 18 months. Will he confirm what the transitional period will be—how much time will be allowed? Will he also explain why Members and local authorities have had to learn some of the details from the media?

I would be keen to understand that myself. We made a commitment that we would consult and listen to the responses, and the transitional arrangements were included. I gave a commitment to work closely with the Local Government Association on the transitional arrangements, and we are having those conversations.

Will the Minister confirm that the transitional arrangements will cover the application of PPS25 to properties at risk of flooding, and that all the reassurances given under PPS25 will continue into the permanent arrangements afterwards?

Clearly, the protection of properties against flooding is important to the whole country, and not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We are working on the transitional arrangements to ensure that there is no gap between the current regime and the new regime.

In connection with the transitional arrangements to the national planning policy framework, will the Minister update us on village greens? Last year, in his speech to the Conservative party conference, the Secretary of State spoke glowingly about his determination to protect village greens, so why does he now have plans to charge local communities £1,000 just to start the process of protecting them? Is the policy of a grand for a green going to continue?

I had not spotted the hon. Lady at our party conference, but she would be a welcome visitor at any time. The consultation on village greens is being taken forward by DEFRA. What we have consulted on in the national planning policy framework is a new designation of local green space, which will make it open to every authority for the first time to protect locally valued green space in the same way as the green belt. We shall respond to that consultation shortly.

New Homes Bonus

The Government will shortly announce the final new homes bonus payments for 2012-13. These were provisionally estimated in December at £430 million.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Conservative-run Milton Keynes council on its innovative plans to use part of a new homes bonus to acquire land assets from the Homes and Communities Agency, which will help to stimulate both more housing regeneration and economic growth?

Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend’s council in Milton Keynes is a shining beacon of housing growth and delivery, which puts many other councils to shame.

Towns such as Hastings have almost no new land for the building of new homes, but we are encouraged by the new homes bonus to tackle derelict buildings and are doing it well, despite—if I may say so—being controlled by a Labour council. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that social bonus is as welcome to communities as the additional financial bonus?

I entirely agree. In the last year 85 homes in Hastings have been brought back into use, which is indeed welcome. It is essential for us to reverse the catastrophic policies that, under the last Government, led to the lowest level of house building since the 1920s.

May I draw the House’s attention to my interests contained in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?

According to the Minister’s answer to a written question that I submitted on this subject recently, more than 70% of all homes qualifying for the new homes bonus in Kensington—one of the richest and most expensive parts of the country—are in council tax band A, which means that in 1991 their rateable value was less than £40,000. No developer or housing association director to whom I have spoken believes that it is possible to build a one-bedroom flat with that value, and some do not think that it is possible even to build a broom cupboard with that value. Is the Minister’s much-vaunted new homes bonus scheme delivering what it is supposed to deliver, or is it simply encouraging the reclassification of existing multi-occupied houses?

I know that the architect of the previous system does not like the new homes bonus, but I have to say that he is very mistaken about its impact. Nearly 160,000 new homes have been built—[Interruption.] Twenty-two thousand were brought back into use in the past year. I also know that the right hon. Gentleman is convinced that the new homes bonus does not benefit the right kind of homes, but I can tell him that two thirds of all new homes have been between bands A and C, which is exactly in line with the normal averages. The new homes bonus is rewarding homes throughout the country, and he should welcome the increase in house building.

The Minister will be aware that east Lancashire has received some of the lowest new homes bonus payments for the second year running. He will also be aware that there are more properties than people in the region, and that given such a market it is very difficult to build new properties. What is he going to do about the problem? It is not possible for us to receive the necessary amount of money in Hyndburn, yet we are paying into the pot year after year and losing out. Is this not just another example of “Take from the north and give to the south”?

The hon. Gentleman and I have had many discussions about the issue, and he will know that his local authority is being paid for homes that are returned to use when they have been empty for a long time. I should have thought that the new homes bonus money would be welcome and useful to him in that regard. Moreover, his area has just received all the housing market renewal money for which it asked, but I did not hear him say thank you.

European Regional Development Fund

15. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the efficient approval of applications to the European regional development fund. (92068)

The Government have improved the management of the ERDF. We have already saved the taxpayer £100 million on the last programme, and two thirds of the way through the current programme, two thirds of the funds have been allocated.

I thank the Secretary of State for using his weight to sort out the recent problems involving broadband and ERDF funding. Will he confirm that the North Yorkshire project and pilot can proceed to the next stage of the ERDF funding application?

The Secretary of State has indeed been helping in the negotiations with the European Commission to ensure that there is more flexibility on broadband projects, which is absolutely right. I understand that Connecting North Yorkshire will proceed with those plans forthwith.

Does the Minister accept that the big block on the approval of applications is the failure to provide the match funding that is needed for many investments to boost jobs and growth? There is £245 million going begging that is earmarked for Yorkshire. What is the Minister going to do about match funding?

The right hon. Gentleman is incorrect. The allocations that have been made are on track, and the correct proportion have been made for this point in the programme. Many match-funding opportunities are available, and they are being taken up, not least in Yorkshire. The chaos caused by the previous administration of the programme lost £100 million of taxpayers’ money that could have been invested, but by making the changes that we have made, we have saved that money for the taxpayer.

Troubled Families

In December, the Prime Minister announced a £448 million programme to turn around the lives of 120,000 troubled families. So far, more than 95% of upper-tier local authorities have engaged with the programme. Local authorities have begun to recruit a local troubled families co-ordinator, and to pull together their own list of local troubled families. We have also been able to offer each area £20,000 to help it to prepare for the programme.

The funding for the troubled families initiative involves councils covering 60% of their costs up front and central Government picking up the tab for the remaining 40%, albeit on a yet-to-be-defined payment-by-results basis. Merrick Cockell, Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association, describes this model as “doomed to failure”. Does the Secretary of State agree with him?

The hon. Lady has, I am sure accidentally, given a partial quote. Sir Merrick is, of course, completely behind our approach, and was laying out a theoretical example that we are not adopting. We do not expect the entire 60% to come from local authorities’ moneys; we expect some of it to come from other agencies, and indications so far suggest that that will be successful.

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s questions to the Select Committee, and should she want to be actively involved, let me say that it is my intention that things will be handled on an all-party basis and that she will be most welcome to make a contribution.

Some 55,000 of the 120,000 most-troubled families have children with behavioural problems. How will the work being done to deal with problems such as serial truancy dovetail with other initiatives dealing with parenting and early intervention?

Probably about 65% of those 55,000 cases involve truancy issues, while others involve criminal convictions and special educational needs. The purpose of this initiative is to pull all the various interventions and programmes together so that we can, at last, tackle these issues. I have found from talking to council leaders of all political parties that we all recognise that we must solve these problems, and this is our big chance to work together to do so.

Housing (Affordability)

The housing strategy recognised that affordability has significantly deteriorated in recent decades. Under-supply of housing is a major factor. The strategy announced an ambitious package of measures to boost house building, including the £420 million get Britain building fund, the release of public sector land and a new-build mortgage indemnity scheme.

Is the Minister aware that the average family in Southampton would have to spend nine times its salary in order to purchase an average house in the city, and that, based on rent as a proportion of median income, Southampton’s private sector rents are also deemed very unaffordable? How does he intend to take people out of this trap, given that even if the Government’s affordable housing programme works it will produce only 70% of what the Labour programme produced in its last five years?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I should perhaps point out to him that we have a programme for 170,000 social and affordable homes by the end of this Parliament, which will leave the country with a net addition to the amount of social and affordable housing, unlike the 220,000 fall in such housing during Labour’s period in office.

I should also point out that the most important thing we are doing is stabilising the financial situation of this country and keeping interest rates low. The combination of policies the coalition Government are following will produce the results that the hon. Gentleman and I both want.

Housing (Veterans)

I am determined to help current and former members of the armed forces gain the housing they deserve. Among the several measures I am taking, I have given service personnel priority for the Government’s affordable home ownership schemes, including Firstbuy, and I am consulting on proposals to change the law to make it easier for service personnel to access social housing.

I welcome the Minister’s reply. Will he join me in congratulating UK Homes 4 Heroes, which supports homeless ex-service personnel? In order to see the great work that that charity is doing for our brave ex-servicemen and women, will he consider visiting a base for the charity’s outreach programme that is opening in my constituency in March?

I congratulate UK Homes 4 Heroes, which does a tremendous job. I know that 16 very dedicated people work with that charity. I also congratulate all the other charities across the country that do such great work for homeless and returning personnel. Last year I held a housing summit as part of the military covenant to try to ensure that we do everything possible to ensure that housing for people who return from having fought for this country is a No. 1 priority.

Does the Minister agree that it is vital to consult all organisations that represent ex-service personnel when framing housing policy that affects them?

Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I mentioned the housing summit a moment ago, and I invited a range of service organisations to represent those personnel. It is important to get their ideas. I have also recently written to two service organisations to invite further contributions and all ideas are welcome, so I extend that invitation across the House.

Topical Questions

I congratulate the 150 local authorities that have already signed up and intend to take the council tax freeze. I expect those numbers to grow as the weeks progress. On a more sombre note, I thank Members of the House for their contributions to the commemoration of Holocaust memorial day. It is very clear to me, looking at the various events that have taken place around the country, that Members of Parliament have been very heavily involved. It is important for us, at all times, to speak up and speak out against extremism and hate.

Will the Minister outline the measures he is taking to ensure that front-runner schemes, such as the Lockleaze front runner project in my constituency, have sufficient expertise, resources and actual power to do what they are remitted to do? Will he meet representatives of the project in my constituency?

Obviously, neighbourhood planning is a radical new right that gives communities and businesses real power in deciding the shape of the place. We will be providing £20,000 for each of the front-runner projects so that they can get on to the front foot. Should my hon. Friend wish to be involved and to meet me or my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, she would be more than welcome.

The Secretary of State is on record as saying that he is determined to help those facing the “frightening prospect of repossession”, yet the Government are making that prospect more likely for many hard-pressed families. The number of forced repossessions, in which the bailiffs come in, has risen by 27% since he took up his job. What is he going to do about it?

Any recession or downturn has a very long tail. When there are pressures such as those we see in the world economy, one can understand how household budgets are under pressure. That affects repossessions. It must be said that had interest rates not stayed at 0.5%—something that has been possible only because we have cut the deficit, because we have been working to cut the deficit and because we have had a credible plan to do so—and had the previous Government remained in power, we would surely have seen great numbers of people facing repossession.

I am sorry that the Secretary of State was not able to answer for himself. People want not excuses but help. The Secretary of State knew that there would be a problem, because he sent a letter to No. 10 last year to say that there would be an increase in the number of people who would lose their homes. However much he tries to disown that letter, is it not the case, whether it is because of benefit cuts that threaten more people with the loss of their home, the collapse in affordable housing starts or a Housing Minister who seems to believe that council housing is a “stagnant option for life”, that the only thing families can look forward to is more and more insecurity?

First, the Council of Mortgage Lenders said that there would be 40,000 repossessions last year, but there were fewer than that; they came in at 36,000 or 37,000. I should have thought that that would be welcomed, even by Opposition Members. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is tempted to go back to old letters, but that letter has already been proved wrong in several different ways, including the fact that its main concern was the number of affordable homes that would be built. We now know that rather than 150,000, 170,000 will be built. I should have thought that he welcomed those moves rather than going back to old letters that have already been discredited.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend instruct the Planning Inspectorate that in considering whether a local authority has made adequate provision for housing over a five-year period it should take into account all the extant granted permissions for housing that a local authority has given, irrespective of whether construction work on such housing has started? (92082)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We want to strengthen the sovereignty of local plans and it seems to me that if councils have done their bit by granting planning permission, that ought to be taken into account by the Planning Inspectorate. I will certainly make sure that that point is reflected in the new framework on which we are consulting.

T2. What briefing does the Minister plan to give to the Prime Minister to ensure that he knows that, contrary to what he has repeatedly suggested in statements, rents are, apart from the odd small drop, continuing to rise across the country, hitting hard-pressed families? The Prime Minister needs to know. (92080)

It is absolutely true that rent rises are of concern and put a lot of pressure on people, but it is also true that private sector rents did not rise at the same pace as mortgage costs right up to 2007, so to some extent the market has been catching up with house prices. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that it is only one month of drops, because LSL has reported a second month of drops in rent prices.

T5. Given that the Fylde borough council local plan will not come into force for a couple of years, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me and my constituents that we will not see a stampede of planning applications in the meantime? (92084)

I certainly encourage my hon. Friend’s council to make all speed in producing its plan, as it is desirable that there should be a plan in place. However, the transitional arrangements that we will put in place will make sure that councils that are doing the right thing by planning for the future of their area will not be disadvantaged.

T4. The Minister’s Department estimates that neighbourhood plans could cost each council up to £63,000, but each council could receive only £20,000 at best. Given that both council planning and planning aid budgets are being cut, will the Minister explain just how these will be implemented without diverting scarce resources from other much-needed services? (92083)

We have put funds aside to make sure that there is support for communities in preparing neighbourhood plans. In fact, we have another round of front-runners. We have been deluged with applications to get on with neighbourhood planning and we have heard examples of that from across the House today. We will make sure that there is support for all these communities.

T6. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in praising the contribution that many indoor markets across the north of England make to our local communities, including Cleveleys and Bispham in my constituency. Will he update the House on the progress he is making on implementing the recommendations of the Mary Portas review? (92085)

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we will have a Government response to the Mary Portas review by spring. We have also backed the “Love your local market” fortnight, working with the sector, and I know that there are many excellent markets across the north of England, including in his own patch.

T7. I met the chief executive of Dale and Valley Homes in my constituency on Friday, when he told me that nearly a quarter of his tenants will be hit by the bedroom tax. He said that many of those people are not on benefit but are working and are on a low-income or minimum wage, and that he has no smaller houses to move them on to. What does the Minister say to my constituents who risk losing their home or being driven out of minimum-wage jobs on to benefits as a result of the reforms? (92086)

The hon. Lady points to an unnecessarily miserable view of the changes being made, which have the overwhelming support of this country. Things have to be the same for those on welfare as for those in work and, as Members will know, there are many people in their 20s and 30s who share properties—not rooms but properties—and the same should be the case for those on benefits.

T8. Last week, Thames Steel in my constituency went into administration with 350 workers being made redundant. That is another employment blow for the Isle of Sheppey, which already has above-average unemployment. Will my right hon. Friend consider designating Sheppey as an enterprise zone so that we encourage more firms into the area? (92087)

It is relatively easy to create an enterprise zone without the Government’s help. All that is required is a local development order, which the council can provide, and deals on superfast broadband, which the council can put together. Councils now have the ability to discount business rates. If my hon. Friend would like to come to see us, I shall put my Department at his disposal to take him through the process to help his local council.

Is the Secretary of State aware that some developers, including Peel Holdings, which has a small retail park in Whitebirk, between Accrington and Blackburn, appear to have aggregated a series of minor planning permissions gained over the years for minor modifications to existing planning permissions to claim that they are entitled to a lawful development certificate justifying a major change of use? Does he also accept that that practice appears to run contrary to, and potentially undermines, his entirely commendable approach to strengthening high streets?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. The whole process of securing small plots of land within a larger plot under change of use and making minor modifications is normal and, by and large, it works reasonably well. However, a local authority can take into consideration the cumulative effect on the larger plot in looking at those individual applications. If it appears to the local authority that the developer has abused the system or has taken a number of measures that will affect the whole, it is perfectly possible to take that into consideration.

T9. Under planned housing benefit changes, more than 2,000 of my constituents in social housing are expected to move to accommodation outside the social rented sector. They will be forced to move to smaller, more expensive accommodation in the private rented sector, thereby increasing the housing benefit bill. Is it not about time that the Minister for Housing and Local Government, along with the Department for Work and Pensions, scrapped those ludicrous plans for existing tenants? (92088)

The context of the housing benefit changes in particular need to be taken into account. The housing benefit bill was only £14 billion 10 years ago. It is now £21 billion, and left unchecked it would be £25 billion by the end of this Parliament. We propose to ensure that it does not increase to more than £23 billion. That is the scale of the changes—not £25 billion but £23 billion. Opposition Members seem to be disagreeing today. In the past week, they have agreed, then disagreed, then agreed, then disagreed. The House has a right to know where they stand on this matter as well.

I draw the attention of the House to my indirect interest in those registered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford).

May I take the Minister back to his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)? Will he give a straight yes or no—very simple—on whether he expects the number of forced evictions in the private rented sector to increase in the coming year?

The answer is that I very much hope that the number does not increase, and there is a very large sum of money—about £200 million—available for the mortgage rescue scheme. We are doing everything we can to ensure that people stay in their home, including encouraging people to seek early help and advice. In fact, I held a meeting of the home finance forum only last week in conjunction with the Treasury and the sector. The single greatest thing that we can do to keep people in their home in this country is to cut the deficit.

I think it is fair to say that there has been a healthy debate about the contents of the national policy planning framework, but does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need to press ahead with simplification of the framework so that we can secure the sustainable development and economic growth that we desperately need in this country?

I do agree with that. My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, which considered the matter, and it concurred that it was necessary and desirable to simplify the planning system that has grown to such an extent that it holds back growth and gets in the way of local people participating in the future of their neighbourhood.

It is nearly two years since this nightmare coalition was thrown together, yet we are still waiting for it to implement the regulations stemming from the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. To quote a twice delivered speech in the Chamber, if not now, when?

I thank the Minister for that answer and note that a quarter of the recommendations in the Portas review were suggestions that had been put forward under the Sustainable Communities Act. When bringing forward those regulations, will he ensure that town and parish councils have the right to make suggestions directly to the Government under the Act, rather than having to depend on county councils to act as unnecessary gatekeepers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have opened up the Government to receive representations directly from all members of the community, whether community groups or individuals, rather than them needing to go through a filter before arriving with the Government.

I would like to give the Housing Minister a third opportunity to give a straight answer on the bedroom tax. The real reason housing benefit has risen so much is the growth of the private rented sector, so why are council and housing association tenants being told to leave their homes or take a benefit cut?

A whole range of protections is in place, including the fact that people can choose to bridge the gap themselves. If they cannot do that, a discretionary fund of £190 million is available. If that does not work, by definition a third of properties within the local housing area are available. There are just some decisions that cannot be delayed, and it must be right that people who are in receipt of different types of benefits, whether social housing or housing benefit, have to make the same decisions as people who rent or own privately.

Many of my constituents are wondering what the point is of local elections when so many decisions taken by the elected local authority, and supported by the majority of people, are simply overruled by remote authorities. Given that the referendum clause has been deleted from the Localism Bill, what hope can my constituents have that we will see a genuine shift in favour of local democracy?

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the referendum carried out in Salford last Thursday. Local residents convened a referendum on whether the local authority’s system of governance should be changed and got a positive result. It is entirely possible for local residents to take control of the governance of their local authorities should they wish to do so.

The chief executive of Hammersmith and Fulham borough council recently retired. Thanks to a pay rise of £11,000 last year, which took his salary to £281,000, the Library calculates that he will receive a pension of £100,000 and a tax-free lump sum of £250,000. When the council is cutting Sure Start by 50%, is this a good use of public money?

I am sure that the answer is no. I am pleased that the level of chief executive remuneration has dropped by 14% and that 25% of chief executives have taken a voluntary pay cut. I am also pleased that Hammersmith and Fulham is reducing its council tax for the fourth year running.