I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 9 February 2012.
The freedom to pray
On 10 February, the High Court ruled in a case against Bideford town council, banning the practice of prayers at the formal beginning of council meetings. The basis of this ruling was a narrow interpretation of section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. In short, the Court asserted that councils do not have an explicit power to hold prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings.
I do not believe it was ever the intention of Parliament when it passed that Act 40 years ago to prohibit council prayers, which are a common-day practice that dates back many centuries. It is my view that this judgment was another example of the public sector marginalising faith by promoting an illiberal and intolerant secularism.
I believe Christianity continues to play an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation, especially given we have an established Church. As the Prime Minister asserted in his speech in Christ Church, Oxford, in December,
“We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so”.
Of course, we respect those with other faiths, and those with none. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty, and the fight for religious freedom in British history is deeply entwined with the political freedoms we take for granted.
While Parliament’s prayers are protected by the Bill of Rights, local councils have no such shield. Last week, I decided to fast-track the commencement of the general power of competence in the Localism Act 2011. Previously local authorities have only been able to do those things that the law specifically empowered them to do or which are incidental to those things. The new general power of competence turns the current situation on its head. Rather than looking to Whitehall to hand down specific powers, it enables councils to do anything that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. These new flexibilities for councils include the freedom to pray and hold prayers at the start of council meetings, should they wish. It is also a major constitutional innovation in itself, opening the doors to greater innovation in local government and will help councils make savings through greater joint working and sharing of services.
Following the signing of a commencement order on 17 February, the power is now in effect for all principal local authorities in England and by April for parish councils meeting the necessary requirements, following the ratification of necessary (affirmative resolution) orders in both Houses of Parliament. My Department has also published an advice note on how the general power of competence will relate to parish councils and practical steps that parish councils can take in the meantime. I am also considering if further steps need to be taken to remove legal obstacles to town hall prayers.
By effectively reversing that ruling, I believe we are striking a blow for localism, for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism, for long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness, and for parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism.
Council tax freeze
To support residents and families, the Government have set aside up to £675 million for local authorities in England to freeze council tax in 2012-13. This is the second year the Government have offered to freeze council tax to help keep bills and the cost of living down.
As of 10 February, over 200 local authorities in England are preparing to vote this month to freeze or reduce council tax next year according to public sources.
As councils set their budgets in the next few weeks I expect to see the number freezing to rise further. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), wrote to all councils leaders strongly encouraging them to sign up to this year’s freeze offer. He reminded them that it would be a public service that local residents will greatly appreciate as well as an opportunity to reform, restructure, innovate and lower their spending base permanently.
Getting Britain Building
We are determined to tackle the housing shortage, boost the economy, create jobs and give people the opportunity to get on the housing ladder.
The £420 million Get Britain Building Fund will help builders with planning permission get back on to housing sites that have been shut down because of problems accessing development finance. Over the next two years, the fund is expected to unlock up to 16,000 homes on sites that are currently stalled, and help create up to 30,000 jobs in construction and related industries.
The short, simple and straightforward application process has made it easier for smaller building companies, as well as larger developers, to bid for funding. Already there have been 176 expressions of interest.
On 15 February, my Department published details of 18 of the most important local housing sites that, subject to due diligence and contracting, could benefit from Government cash to get builders back to work. These 18 developments will go to the next stage of assessment for £45 million funding from this scheme to get workers back on site and deliver 1,300 new homes.
Local transparency and local accountability in public sector pay
Transparency is at the core of delivering efficient and accountable government. The Localism Act requires councils to publish and be accountable for their pay policies, helping to ensure that local remuneration arrangements are open to public scrutiny and provide value for money for the whole of the public sector.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has set out the Government’s commitment to tackling tax avoidance and will continue to take necessary steps to protect the Exchequer and maintain fairness in the tax system. As local government is also paid from the public purse, on 17 February, my Department issued new statutory guidance on the matter.
“Openness and Accountability in Local Pay” states that authorities should review senior appointment remuneration, particularly where arrangements could be perceived as seeking to minimise tax payments. It specifically states that council pay votes should start at £100,000. Councils should also publicly justify any big bonuses, above-inflation pay rises, or the recruitment of staff already in receipt of public sector retirement or severance money (so-called “double dipping”).
Elected councillors have until the end of next month to approve pay policy statements that should include explicit local policies on all the above practices and whether or not they intend to permit any of these arrangements. This will be complemented by the “Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency” which requires openness on spending, contracts and senior salaries. I believe that greater local accountability and the sunlight of local transparency will drive out remuneration arrangements that would not command public confidence.
My Department wants to see communities in which people feel safe and are proud to call home. In July 2011, the Government’s champion for active, safer communities, Baroness Newlove, identified tackling problem drinking as her most urgent priority. On 14 February, my Department announced a £1 million fund giving 10 successful communities—based on models of grass-roots projects already delivering for their neighbourhoods—the resources to tackle problem drinking and deal with it head on.
The announcement of the new fund coincided with the publication of Baroness Newlove’s report “Building Safe, Active Communities: Strong foundations by local people”, providing communities with practical advice to neighbourhoods and highlighting some of the barriers that have stifled their growth.
While 2012 is set to be an Olympic year, we are determined that the legacy of the games continues to benefit communities in the long term. On 14 February, I laid before Parliament an order enabling the establishment of the London Legacy Development Corporation. This will assume from the Olympic Park Legacy Company the task of managing the post-2012 development of the Olympic park in east London, and of fringe areas previously managed by the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation. The order will come into force on 9 March 2012.
Copies of the associated documents and press notices have been placed in the Library of the House.