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Topical Questions

Volume 542: debated on Monday 12 March 2012

Last week we announced that the abolition of the Audit Commission will save councils £250 million over the next five years in lower audit fees, so cutting quangos does save money; we have finally abolished Labour’s ports tax, which threatened to scupper England’s export trade, so cutting taxes saves jobs; and, finally, we have welcomed more than 3,500 applications so far for diamond jubilee street parties, promoting our guide to organising a street party, so it shows that cutting red tape allows more bunting to be put up.

I thank the Minister for that welcome news, but as part of his duties as Secretary of State will he defend the right of Christian local authority workers discreetly to wear crosses or crucifixes at work, just as he would I hope defend the right of Sikhs to wear the turban, given a pending European judgment?

It is certainly my view that, provided any object does not get in the way of someone doing their job, a discreet display of their religion is something that we should welcome.

Given the great public interest in the national planning policy framework, we would all like to know which construction and property companies the Secretary of State and Communities and Local Government Ministers have met in the past few months, especially as the Electoral Commission revealed that firms in the sector gave just over £500,000 to the Conservative party between July and December last year. The public unfortunately cannot find out that information because no details of meetings between CLG Ministers and others have been published since June 2011. May I ask the Secretary of State, who is responsible for publication, why that is?

All matters will be published in due course. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the Minister responsible for planning and decentralisation, made clear the persons who are members of the practitioners group and with whom we openly consulted. Nothing is hidden, and I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman chooses to bark up such a completely fictitious tree.

That will not really do, and I am sorry that the Secretary of State has once again ducked answering a question, because he is very keen to lecture people on transparency but, it seems, not so keen on it himself. The Housing Minister promised the House a month ago that the information was about to appear, but as of midday today—nine months on from the previous disclosure—there was still no sign of it on the Department’s website, even though the ministerial code clearly states that such information must be published “at least quarterly”. When is the Secretary of State going to start practising what he preaches, especially on something as important as the future of our towns and countryside?

I have consulted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and information on the matter will be published very shortly. I point out that this Department was the first to publish online all spend over £500, so our record bears comparison with anyone’s.

T2. The Department is currently consulting on changes to building regulations. In order to help to reduce energy costs for home owners and to create a proper market in renewables, will the Minister consider making solar panels compulsory for all new builds? (98976)

I share my hon. Friend’s desire to make sure that homes are more energy-efficient and that energy bills fall. We have already raised building standards by 25%, and we are consulting on the next step; I hope that he will contribute to the consultation. If we implement the proposals in the consultation, we will need people to use renewable energy sources in building schemes, and that will go a long way towards what he is seeking to achieve.

We all want house building to get moving again and first-time buyers to get on to the housing ladder, but is it not true that 95%, and even higher, mortgages were what went wrong with the housing market in the first place? Will not any attempt artificially to prop up house building with Government subsidy come back and bite us at some point?

As I said earlier, the problem with the housing market was sub-prime lending, or lending to people who could not afford to pay back the mortgages, not 95% mortgages, which operated perfectly well in this country for many decades. The criteria for lending are now much stricter, and nobody will get a mortgage who is not properly able to pay it, not only with today’s low interest rates but with interest rates that are clearly likely to rise at some point in future.

T3. With the London elections on the horizon, should Londoners elect a Mayor who has frozen the Greater London authority’s share of council tax, keeping more money in people’s pockets, or a man who is more concerned with finding ways of dodging paying his own taxes while increasing everybody else’s taxes? (98978)

Personally, I am backing Boris. I was very shocked to find out about Ken Livingstone’s tax arrangements. It seems very odd for somebody who is standing for Mayor to have a way of avoiding paying tax. In particular, I hope that he has a reasonable explanation about the two people he employed and why those matters were not properly reported to the Electoral Commission.

T9. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Wolverhampton live in appalling conditions in the private rented sector. Self-regulation is not working, and the Housing Minister’s booklet is unlikely to change anything. When are the Government going to recognise that this sector needs regulating, with, in particular, a compulsory national register of landlords? (98984)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to be concerned about the conditions that people live in, and I share that concern very strongly. It is interesting that Labour never introduced a compulsory register in 13 years. It is also interesting that when I came into office and asked to see the sum of work that had been done by my predecessors, the answer was none. There are good reasons why private registers would not work. There are 1.5 million landlords, many of whom are, for example, private individuals letting out one or two rooms. It would be an unworkable system requiring an enormous quango. The answer is to use the existing legislation properly. I will help to advise the hon. Lady’s local authority on precisely how to do that if that is helpful.

T4. Since the reign of Mary Tudor and throughout the vicissitudes of history, Banbury council has started all its meetings with prayer and a recitation of the 84th Psalm. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the general power of competence he has granted local councils will enable those that wish to continue to start their meetings with prayer to do so? (98979)

My hon. Friend is a very distinguished man, and perhaps only someone of his greatly distinguished nature could regard the reign of Mary Tudor as topical. Nevertheless, he makes a good point. We enjoy the power of prayer in this Chamber under the Bill of Rights 1688, and what is good enough for us should be good enough for councils. That is why I was pleased to introduce the general power of competence. The authorities that do not qualify will make arrangements very soon.

I believe that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Minister with responsibility for fire and rescue services, is an eminently reasonable man. In the Adjournment debate last week, he will have heard the strength of feeling expressed on behalf of metropolitan fire and rescue authorities. The grant for Greater Manchester has been cut by 12.5%, whereas the grant for Cheshire has increased by 2%, when Greater Manchester has more fires, more deprivation and more poverty. I believe that settlement to be grossly unfair. Will the Minister, as a reasonable man, change the settlement for years three and four to protect people in metropolitan areas?

It is impossible for me to approach the right hon. Lady other than in a spirit of reason. I gently point out to her that the funding results come from the application of a formula that essentially we inherited from the previous Government. It assigns significantly more money to metropolitan fire and rescue authorities than to those in the counties, and we have adjusted it to give greater weight to density, which advantages urban areas. We are looking to make further reforms when we bring in business rate retention, which will fund all fire authorities.

T5. Communities across north Yorkshire are being hassled, bullied and, in some cases, bribed by wind developers that are carrying out scoping exercises. Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), will the Minister confirm that the revised national planning policy framework will give communities, such as those in north Yorkshire, the absolute final say on where wind farms should be situated? (98980)

The problem at the moment is that there is imposition from the regional strategies. We are getting rid of that. We take the view that if communities are involved in decisions, there can be a far better outcome than if planning decisions descend on them from above.

Erskine is a charitable organisation in my constituency that provides work for and looks after disabled ex-service personnel. Unfortunately, due to the current financial difficulties, it is struggling to compete with the private sector. Will the Secretary of State meet representatives from Erskine to explore how local or central government procurement processes could be used to help these poor soldiers?

I will certainly organise meetings for the hon. Gentleman with the Local Government Association. Of course, 80% of charities receive no money from the state. I have noticed that the top five authorities for extending their funding for charities are Conservative authorities and that no Labour authority appears in the top 20. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Gentleman that if they are not looking for money, the meeting will be even quicker.

T6. I welcome what the Secretary of State said about unauthorised development by Travellers on green-belt land. May I press him a little further? In the village of Normandy and the surrounding area in my constituency, a spate of temporary permissions have been given on appeal to unauthorised development on green-belt land. Will his new rules ensure that the land is returned to green belt in due course? (98981)

The old planning guidance gave Gypsies and Travellers certain exemptions with regard to the green belt. It is our intention to repeal those exemptions.

Will the Minister help me with the problems facing private tenants in my constituency? Almost a third of my constituents are private tenants who pay very high rents in flats and houses that are expensive to heat and often badly maintained. Does he not think that it is time that we had much tougher regulation of the private rented sector, including rent regulation, because rents are astonishingly high for people who are unable to save or to move on from the private rented sector?

I had a lot of sympathy with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. He and I have discussed this matter before. If we introduce rent controls, which seems to be what he and other Opposition Members are calling for, we know exactly what will happen. Rent controls were introduced after the war and the private rented sector shrunk from 50% of the market to just 8%. When rent controls were removed, that doubled to 16%. The latest figures from the English housing survey show that it is on its way up from there. Rent controls would restrict the market and make it more expensive for exactly the constituents whom the hon. Gentleman is trying to protect.

T8. As a result of poor contractual arrangements set up by the Labour Government, the East of England Development Agency has received bonuses of more than £250,000, despite it being scrapped. Does the Minister agree that local enterprise partnerships are already showing that not only are they less bureaucratic, but they give a much better return on public investment? (98983)

They certainly are. The local enterprise partnership in my hon. Friend’s constituency is chaired by Andy Wood of Adnams who, without any bonus, gives fantastic leadership from the private sector to a very successful local enterprise partnership.

Everybody knows that Rochdale is the birthplace of co-operation and has been at the forefront of retail innovation. Once again, it has the potential to create a fantastic town centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that Rochdale is right to work towards being a Mary Portas pioneer?

The Rochdale pioneers were of course immensely important in retailing. If I may confide in the hon. Gentleman, I can tell him that Rochdale is the apple of my eye in the north-west. I hope, if only for the sake of romance, that it can put up a very good case. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to award the pilot scheme to Rochdale.

Residents of Westbury avenue in Bury St Edmunds want to hold a jubilee street party, but local council officers have told them that road signs will have to be erected in that very quiet suburban road at a cost of £396. Will the Secretary of State please assure me that he will do everything to slash such pointless pettifogging bureaucracy?

I can assure my hon. Friend that those regulations have gone. The bunting police have gone, and there is no need to put up expensive signs or do a traffic survey. Why to goodness cannot we simply get on with celebrating the Queen’s diamond jubilee and recognising that such roads can be closed with the minimum of disruption? Let us just enjoy the day.

We now know that black and minority ethnic groups are being disproportionately affected by the flatlining economy. According to the Office for National Statistics, the unemployment level for young black men now stands at more than 56%. Will the Secretary of State explain how his integration strategy and programmes such as the big lunch and community music days will address that?

The integration strategy is far wider than that. I point the hon. Lady to the Government’s social mobility and equality strategies and the Youth United project, and I remind her that important announcements are coming about ensuring that every young person, regardless of their ethnic background, has access to education or employment.

Further to Questions 13 and 14, which were about Government support for town centres, will the Secretary of State take under his wing corner shops and neighbourhood shopping parades by lowering business rates and offsetting that through a levy on out-of-town retail stores’ car parks?

We have indeed reduced business rates and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a discount available for small businesses. In the Localism Act 2011, we have given local authorities the ability to offer a discount and removed car parking restrictions. In case he is in any doubt, I should say that Colchester is the apple of my eye.

Do Ministers agree that spending £80,000 on changing a logo, as Conservative-controlled Nottinghamshire county council has, is an irresponsible use of cash when money is so tight?

The good thing about Nottingham county council is that we can see what it is spending. It is a shame that the same cannot be said of Nottingham city council, the only council in the country that refuses to publish its expenditure.