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Topical Questions

Volume 539: debated on Monday 30 January 2012

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.