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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 543: debated on Monday 30 April 2012

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Empty Homes (Northumberland)

1. What steps he is taking to promote the refurbishment of empty and vacant homes in Northumberland. (105713)

I have allocated £150 million to bring empty homes back into use, and £160,000 has already been committed to a project in Northumberland, subject to contract. In addition, of course, Northumberland has received a reward of £630,000 through the new homes bonus for bringing 256 long-term empty homes back into use.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that Northumberland county council, in drawing up its local development framework, should promote and maintain brownfield sites for development before any greenfield sites?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and I draw his and the council’s attention to the publication, two weeks ago, of the national planning policy framework, which sets out the importance of making sure that all such plans are founded on the principles of sustainable development. Of course, the Government want to encourage every local authority to focus on land of the least environmental quality, and that, of course, includes brownfield sites.

In Newcastle, which is right next to the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), 99% of empty homes are in private landlords’ hands, so why are the Government increasing from six months to two years the amount of time that a property has to stand empty before the council can issue an order to bring it back into use?

A high proportion of the 280,000 long- term empty homes are indeed in the private sector. That is why we have provided funding to support bringing them back into use for social homes, and a second round of funding where there are clusters of empty homes, which will be helpful in those areas. As for the orders that the hon. Lady referred to, only about 50 homes in the whole country have been subject to that procedure in five years. It is not a very effective measure, but it should be a back-stop, which is why we have put in place a new two-year limit.

Is my hon. Friend aware that one category of accommodation that is now often empty is bedsitting rooms in sheltered accommodation for the elderly? We have an example of that in Wooler in Northumberland. Does he recognise that it will be necessary for us to create more suitable accommodation for elderly people, both to enable such properties to be taken out of use permanently, and to meet the requirements of an ageing population?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and draw his attention to the national planning policy framework. In drawing up its housing strategy, Northumberland unitary authority must take account of the needs in its area. Of course, the Government are funding a social and affordable homes programme, which will deliver 170,000 affordable homes by 2015. I very much hope that housing providers in Northumberland will be bidding for money from that fund in a suitable way.

Fire and Rescue Services

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of funding reductions on the operational activities of fire and rescue services. (105714)

4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of funding reductions on the operational activities of fire and rescue services. (105716)

5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of funding reductions on the operational activities of fire and rescue services. (105717)

13. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of funding reductions on the operational activities of fire and rescue services. (105726)

17. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of funding reductions on the operational activities of fire and rescue services. (105730)

Operational matters are best assessed at the local level. It is for each fire and rescue authority to determine the operational activities of its fire and rescue service through its integrated risk management plan, which is subject to consultation with the local community.

I am extremely proud of the Cleveland fire service, which looks after the area of highest industrial risk in Europe. Its proactive work in Teesside communities has driven down house fire numbers, which have gone down and down, and it has excellent working plans with local companies. I am told that owing to the drastic agenda being pursued by the Tory Government, Cleveland has lost or will lose 180 firefighters. The Government are playing with people’s lives so I would like to know what the Minister’s message is to people in my communities, and who he will blame when there is a tragedy there.

The Cleveland fire service does excellent work. The risks that it deals with on its territory are recognised by the fact that its funding per head of population by formula grant is the highest in the country and more than twice that received by many authorities in other areas.

It is estimated that South Yorkshire fire and rescue service will lose 100 firefighters’ jobs. It is all very well for the Minister to say, “We’ll pass the budget cuts down and somebody else has to take the responsibility.” What happens if response times increase in South Yorkshire and the people in South Yorkshire, who are not a party to the decision that has been taken by the Government to cut the budgets, feel unsafe in their beds at night?

Response times are dealt with through the integrated risk management plan. I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that the reductions in expenditure of formula grant to the fire service are less than those for local authorities as a whole. They are part of the deficit reduction strategy, and he might like to reflect that part of the deficit caused by the Labour Government was the better part of half a billion pounds wasted on the aborted FiReControl project, which did nothing to keep anyone safe.

Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service has already made significant savings, including cuts of 28% to back office staff, but we are facing deep front-line cuts. May I urge the Minister again to look carefully at the situation faced by metropolitan areas such as Tyne and Wear, and ensure that he brings forward a funding settlement that is fair?

I have met representatives of metropolitan fire and rescue authorities and meetings continue to take place at an official level, and we will meet representatives of any fire authority, regardless where in the country they come from. In Tyne and Wear, the formula grant per head at £29 is significantly above the average, which reflects some of the risks. In fact, the formula was updated by this Government to give a greater weighting to population density.

I refer the Minister to the answer he gave a few moments ago to my hon. Friends in relation to risk assessments. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the excellent report that was carried out on fire deaths and injuries by the County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue brigade, which showed that poor health, social issues and deprivation are key contributory factors to high levels of fire risk. We are losing 40 firefighter posts, so what risk assessments were carried out before cuts to central funding were made to the Durham and Darlington fire and rescue brigade?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has not grasped the point that the risk assessment is dealt with at a local level by the integrated risk management plan, which is consulted upon with the local community and then approved by the fire authority. Durham’s funding per head has been maintained over two years at a steady level of £21 per head. It is worth saying that all metropolitan fire authorities have had increases in their capital grant of 50% to 80%, which is significantly more than under the previous Government.

Two hundred firefighter posts are being lost in Greater Manchester, but Cheshire and Essex are getting a 2% increase in their budgets. As there is a greater risk of fire, civil disturbances and industrial incidents—and in my constituency motorway incidents as well—in the metropolitan boroughs, how can the Minister possibly justify such a huge cut to the metropolitan authorities and an increase to the leafy counties?

I was just looking at the figures that the hon. Lady gives me for her authority. It is worth observing that Greater Manchester is funded at the rate of £26 per head in formula grant. Cheshire, which was referred to, gets only £18 per head in formula grant, so I do not think she is giving a fair comparison.

At Castle Donington in my constituency there is a monument to the waste and profligacy of the previous Government with regard to fire services: a £14 million unused regional FiReControl centre that is still costing the taxpayer £5,000 a day. Particularly galling is the fact that Leicestershire has the lowest funded fire authority in the country. Will my hon. Friend remind the House how much the previous Government wasted on regional FiReControl centres?

The figure that the Public Accounts Committee of this House gave was not less than £469 million, and I observe that in one year, 2010, the Labour Government spent £69 million on consultants, which is broadly the amount that the fire services have contributed to deficit reduction over two years.

Will the Minister congratulate Dorset fire and rescue service on its work in co-ordinating its efforts with the police and ambulance services in preparation for the Olympics? However, there is a worry that the improved resilience infrastructure will fall away after the Olympics. Will he do what he can to ensure that the much-needed blue light improvements are not dismantled after the games?

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will seek to do that. I have had the pleasure of visiting Dorset fire and rescue service and am impressed by the joint working that is being done. The Government, in all Departments, are anxious to continue improving interoperability.

I have to say that I am a little puzzled by the Minister’s responses this morning—[Hon. Members: “This afternoon.”] That reinforces my puzzlement, as his answers have been so confusing. The point is that the Prime Minister, prior to the general election, gave a solemn pledge that he would veto any ministerial plans that involved cuts to front-line services, yet in the Minister’s Department we have seen thousands of firefighters losing their jobs, dozens of fire stations closing and response times going through the roof. As a consequence, he is putting the safety of the public at risk. Did he forget to tell the Prime Minister about his cuts, or is this simply another broken prime ministerial election pledge?

A lot of fire and rescue authorities are making the savings not by cutting firefighter posts or reducing fire stations, but through shared operations, better joint working and, interestingly, amended shift practices—one thing that the hon. Gentleman seems to have taken on board rather literally.

Council Tax Benefit Localisation

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of council tax benefit localisation on low-income families. (105715)

An impact assessment is on my Department’s website. These reforms will give councils a greater stake in getting people back into work and will help to reduce the budget deficit. The Government are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in society and have been clear that pensioners should be protected and changes should support work incentives.

At a meeting on Friday local authorities from areas of high need, such as Chesterfield, Bolsover and North East Derbyshire, were still bemoaning the fact that they have just suffered a 19% cut in the money they receive from central Government. This proposal will mean another £500 million cut in areas of high need, which is equivalent to 10% for all those local authorities. It is high time the Government started listening less to press barons like Murdoch and more to the democratically elected voices in local government.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is letting his phobias get the better of him. No local authority has faced a reduction in its spending power of more than 8.7%, and the figures he talks about are not real at all. I know that he did not always support the Labour Government’s policies, but he was right behind them on building up the deficit. He now needs to get behind this Government in tackling that deficit.

Of course, it has been very beneficial to those on low incomes who are paying council tax and those who rely on council tax benefit support. I think that the Government should be commended for the action they have taken, and it is astonishing that some Members on the Labour Front Bench condemned the introduction of this proposal.

May I draw attention to my interest as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?

I remind the Minister that we are talking about cuts in council tax benefit, that the Government’s own proposal is for a 10% cut, not 8%, and that that will translate into a 16% cut for those who will bear the burden because of the protection of those over pension age, but extraordinarily, if the Government believe in what they are doing, why have they been so embarrassed as to have done nothing for the past three months? We have been waiting for Report stage of the Bill leading to the introduction of those changes, but it has been parked. Where has it been?

The right hon. Gentleman is of course a doughty fighter on these matters, and I assure him that the Bill will be back in the House within a week or two.

Is not the best way to help those on low incomes to freeze council tax, and is the Minister aware that Harlow’s Conservative district council has frozen council tax not just for one or two years, but for three years?

Clearly, a good way of reducing the cost to the state of the council tax benefit system, and the cost to the householder, is to freeze council tax, and I commend the hon. Gentleman’s local council on the work that it has done.

The Government’s own figures show that a cut of 16% in council tax benefit will cost the poorest families more than £161 a year, but does the Minister accept that, in fact, the cuts are likely to be far higher than that, up to 25%, depending on the number of pensioners in a local authority area? Does he think that this postcode lottery for the poorest families is fair? How can the Government justify cutting the incomes of 1 million struggling families while increasing the incomes of millionaires?

The hon. Lady of course is completely off track. In reality, local authorities will have choices about how they manage the reduction and be able to choose, through the design of their scheme, whether some awards should be reduced. They can manage the reduction by reconfiguring the funding of other services, through efficiency savings, by using reserves or with flexibility over the council tax, which the same Bill before Parliament gives to local authorities.

Devolving Power to Cities

For more than 100 years power has been remorselessly sapped from our great cities, and I am determined to restore power to them. The Localism Act 2011 gave a general power of competence; our city deal programme devolves more powers; and this week’s mayoral referendums will allow local people to decide how their cities should be led.

Last week Bristolians heard about the resignation of Barbara Janke, the city council leader, making it six changes of leadership in the city in the past 10 years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such chopping and changing makes a strategic vision for the city very difficult, and that what Bristol needs to fulfil itself is the vision, accountability and stability of an elected mayor?

I do agree. I have the greatest respect for Councillor Janke, but six leaders in 10 years is no way to run a city as great as Bristol. The leaders of Liverpool, Leicester and Birmingham city councils have all said that they could lead their city better as an elected mayor. The mayoral referendum offers an historic choice to the people of Bristol: they have the chance to make it a turning point in the city’s history.

At the most recent meeting of the Liaison Committee, the Prime Minister, in a response to a question that I asked, said that

“I can absolutely assure you that on the city deals…we can do those deals with individual cities whether or not they are going to have a mayor.”

Yet, in the Yorkshire Evening Post on Saturday, the Minister agreed that there were powers that the Government would be happy to give to an elected mayor, but not to a traditional council. Does the Minister agree with the Prime Minister that powers can be devolved to cities irrespective of whether they have an elected mayor or an elected council leader, as long as they have strong governance arrangements?

The hon. Gentleman and his Select Committee on Communities and Local Government know that I am always and everywhere keen to devolve power to local government, including to cities. What we have said to conclude our city deals is that there has to be stronger governance, and the case of Bristol demonstrates that. When there is a revolving door of leaders, it is impossible to have the necessary accountability, so there needs to be stronger governance, and an elected mayor meets that model.

If the Minister is so convinced of the benefits of elected mayors, why did he require dictatorial powers to force local authorities to hold elections? Would it not be fairer to have a yes/no question, rather than one loaded so much in favour of elected mayors?

My hon. Friend will know that the Electoral Commission set the question. In fact, the terms of the referendum are very similar to that which the previous Government introduced in London to give the people of London a chance to vote on whether to have a mayor. I think that most people in London conclude that it has been a success.

Why does the Minister persist in selling his reforms as introducing London-style city governance in other large cities in England? If he genuinely believes in London-style city governance, why will his proposed mayor of Manchester be responsible for governing only one tenth of the city region?

The election is based on the current boundaries of Manchester, and that seems perfectly reasonable. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is asking me to abolish the councils that exist in Greater Manchester. Salford, which is part of Greater Manchester, will have a mayor who will be elected on 3 May, and the people of Manchester have a choice as to whether they want to join it.

Private Landlords

Excessive red tape in the sector would push up rents and reduce choice for tenants. That is why we are streamlining licensing processes for houses in multiple occupation and scrapping plans for an expensive and counter-productive state register of every landlord. This afternoon I am chairing a taskforce on rogue landlords in order to try to drive them out of the market.

One way of alleviating the regulatory burden on landlords but also improving safety and security for tenants would be to provide a simple standardised document containing all landlord and tenant responsibilities, from fire safety to antisocial behaviour. The planning system is about to benefit from a process of simplification. Will the Minister do likewise with the private rented housing sector?

I am pleased to report to my hon. Friend that standards are certainly improving in the private-rented sector. For example, satisfaction levels are higher than in the social sector and rates of energy performance are better than in the private sector. I like the sound of his idea, and I will certainly have a look at it. It sounds as though it might be comparable with a template lease, and it is worth further consideration.

There are now more than 1 million families with children whose home is privately rented, and Shelter says that a third of them cut down on food to pay their rents and they can all be kicked out with less than a month’s notice. Why are the Government so out of touch with the pressure that people face that they are denying even the basic security of a legal right to a written tenancy agreement?

The right hon. Gentleman, who knows a thing or two about housing, is absolutely right to indicate the pressure in the system caused by more than a decade of building far fewer homes than are required, which has led to rents rising very quickly. There are now some signs that rents have started to moderate. The English housing survey shows that rents rose at a slower pace than inflation; LSL Property Services shows falls for the third month in a row; and Professor Michael Ball reports that they fell by a tenth in real terms between 2008 and 2011. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, following on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), to suggest that we must always drive for improvements, and that may well include looking at leasing documents.

High Speed 2 (Property Bonds)

8. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on whether a precedent exists for a property bond to be established for homeowners whose properties are affected by High Speed 2. (105720)

The Government’s approach to compensation for property owners was set out in the HS2 document, “Review of Property Issues”, which was published on 12 January by the Secretary of State for Transport, who, together with colleagues, was consulted in the usual way before publication.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that as there have already been two years of property blight, which potentially remains until 2026, whereby people are unable to sell their houses normally, it might be necessary to consider a property bond to normalise the property market? Will he reassure me that if that were the case, his Department would not veto such a decision on the grounds that it might create a precedent for other national infrastructure projects?

My hon. Friend, who is a great campaigner on this issue, knows from the answer that the Transport Secretary gave her in the previous session of oral questions that my right hon. Friend recognises the impact that the plans for HS2 are having on residents along the route of the line and has given an assurance that she will make sure that the package is fair to all those residents.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Fire Authority

9. What recent discussions he has had on funding for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough fire authority. (105721)

On 31 January, I met representatives from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough fire authority, together with representatives of Suffolk fire and rescue authorities, to discuss their interest in the control centre building in Cambridge and funding matters. They also discussed their bid for joint control working. On 8 March, there was a follow-up meeting at official level.

I thank the Minister for those comments. Fire services such as ours in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, which are already low cost and largely have retained firefighters, are extremely vulnerable to excessive funding reductions. Beyond a certain point, there is no alternative other than the withdrawal of appliances and station closures. I accept the need for some savings, but there is still a lack of clarity about how much the service will have to save. Will the Minister meet me, staff from the authority and the service and other local MPs, who are also concerned, to discuss how much funding will be made available in future?

The overall reduction in funding to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough fire authority is 1.5% of its spending power. I am glad to say that the joint bid with Suffolk to improve fire control room services was successful, and that it will receive £400,000 in revenue and £180 million in capital funding. I am always happy to meet hon. Members to discuss the circumstances in their constituencies.

Order. Poplar and Limehouse are a little way away from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, to which nevertheless I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman’s question will exclusively relate.

I am humbled by your confidence, Mr Speaker, in my ability to speak about the funding of Cambridgeshire—and Suffolk, which the Minister also mentioned in his response to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). In his discussions with those two county authorities, and others, did the Minister consider their funding of the fire service college, which is about to be privatised? How will he maintain control over the college and can he assure hon. Members about its future?

I will happily answer that at an appropriate moment, but I doubt whether I shall be in order if I try to do so now. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the fire service, but the discussions were about joint control room bids—a facility made available to all those interested in bidding. As he will recognise, the need to have such discussions about the future of joint control rooms arose partly because we were stuck with 30-odd-year leases on control rooms that were not usable because the previous Government never delivered the IT to go inside them

For the avoidance of doubt, the fire service college is in the Cotswolds rather than the Fens.

Will the Minister support me in saying that we should pursue further shared and combined services with other fire authorities on, for example, payroll, administration and human resources rather than moving immediately to front-line cuts such as the closure of Stanground or Dogsthorpe fire stations in the city of Peterborough?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there are sensible means of meeting deficit reduction targets, without having an impact on stations and staffing. I pointed that out in a letter to the shadow fire Minister, the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), in December 2010. References to shared service, joint working, joint procurement, flexible shift patterns and working patterns are exactly the sort of issues that go-ahead fire authorities are taking on board.

High Streets

I published the Government response to the Portas review on 30 March. We have accepted almost all Mary Portas’s recommendations, and added some of our own.

I am proud to champion Leyland’s bid to be a Portas pilot, which will focus just as much on invigorating community spirit as on invigorating the high street. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local town teams can best support the regeneration of the high street and our town centres through full engagement with every level of the community, as Leyland in my constituency has done?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There have been a remarkable 371 applications by town teams to become Portas pilots. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her incredible work, which will doubtless be noted in the Leyland Guardian when it is next published, and wish her every success.

Does the Minister agree that out-of-town shops can attract shoppers away from high streets? Will the Government consider introducing the opportunity for local authorities to impose car parking charges, even on privately owned car parks, for out-of-town shopping?

It is, of course, the case that the balance between out of town and town centre has a considerable impact. It is for local authorities to make those decisions. In the national planning policy framework, we set out a clear town centre first policy, but ultimately local authorities need to make decisions about parking. I strongly suggest to local authorities that it would be advantageous to them—Mary Portas backs up the point—to think carefully about the parking charges in town and concentrate on reducing those to make town centres more popular.

A useful tool to support high street shops and town centres is the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010. The Act was passed more than two years ago. Can the Minister let the House know when the regulations that support that excellent legislation are likely to be laid so that local communities can take full advantage of it?

I wonder whether the Minister agrees with me and Mary Portas that the clustering of betting shops in high streets is becoming a real problem. It means a lack of diversity in high streets and, in the case of Deptford high street, much antisocial behaviour. Why will the Government not give local authorities more and better powers to deal with that menace?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that the balance of shops is often very important. The Government said in our response to Mary Portas that we were carrying out a use class order review, which is ongoing. The right hon. Lady’s local authority, and those of all hon. Members, already have more options than they perhaps realise through article 4. They would certainly want to work with town teams to make the best possible progress.

House Building

In 2011 just over 98,000 new houses were started—25% up on the numbers from 2009—and we are building 170,000 homes for affordable rent in the next three years.

In London, private rents are rising and families are being forced to move away from relatives, and children from their schools. With 360,000 Londoners on social housing waiting lists, why did construction start on only 56 new affordable homes in the latest six-month period? When will the Minister take his responsibility seriously, and how will he address this grave problem in London?

It is important to give accurate figures in the House. Once again, the most comprehensive and accurate figures available must be those from the English housing survey, which demonstrates that rents have been not rising, but falling. Her Majesty’s Opposition refuse to accept those basic facts and keep repeating incorrect information about rents. They ignore the fact that under this Government, homelessness right now is at half the average level that it stood at in 13 years under Labour.

The Government cancelled housing market renewal, and only 210 houses were built in Oldham last year—for the Minister’s information, those are independent figures—which is the lowest level in seven years. Fewer than half those houses were affordable homes. With nearly 6,500 households on housing waiting lists in Oldham and 1.8 million nationally—that is also an independently validated figure—when will the Government get a grip on housing?

Here are the facts: the housing market renewal programme in places such as Oldham and elsewhere destroyed 10,000 homes in this country, but by contrast, the previous Government built only 1,000 through that pathfinder programme. That is what destroyed housing in this country. By contrast, through the demolition of the housing market renewal programme, this Government are building 170,000 more homes for affordable rent in the next three years. That will be more than were built in 13 years when affordable housing numbers declined under Labour.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the massive housing developments proposed under the old top-down system for Barwell and Earl Shilton in my constituency? There are to be 2,500 houses for each town, which is a 25% increase. Does he agree that meaningful consultation is absolutely vital, and that simply putting a notice up on a church wall or placing an advert in a free sheet is inadequate?

It is essential that there is proper consultation. Ending the top-down targets that the regional spatial strategies represented is absolutely the right thing to do, and will lead to more building in the longer run, simply for the fact that local communities will take responsibility and ownership, and, of course, take up the new homes bonus, which, I notice, Opposition Members have yet to return to the Treasury.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the work that Boris Johnson has done in London on housing? There are 50,000 more affordable houses in London, with more than 1,600 of those in my London borough of Hounslow. He has promised to bring another 55,000 houses to London if he wins on Thursday. What can my right hon. Friend do to help him to deliver them?

Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Boris has been a champion for affordable housing in London, and indeed it seems very likely that he will have delivered 50,000 homes for affordable rent. It is worth bearing in mind that fewer than that were delivered throughout the entire country under 13 years of Labour.

The Housing Minister said that house building would be the gold standard on which this Government would be judged and that what brought him into politics was homelessness, yet we know from figures released today that house building is down 26% on average compared with what was achieved under a Labour Government, and that homelessness has risen by 23%. With millions in desperate need of a decent home at a price they can afford, will he now accept that his housing policies, like the Government’s economic polices, are hurting, not working?

The whole House has noticed that there have been no housing policies from the Opposition since the election. Housing starts in England in 2011 were up 25% compared with 2009, and in the same period the value of new housing construction was up 33% and construction orders were up 35%. Not for the first time, then, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has got his figures plain wrong.

Localism

I warmly welcome the public debate that the hon. Gentleman has led with the Local Government Association. He and I share a strong view that we must disperse power in our society. The Localism Act 2011 is an important step in that direction, but I regard it as a point of departure rather than a destination, and I encourage every council to respond to his report.

The Minister will know that there is a strong and growing all-party campaign in the House and outside for statutorily defined independent local government. Does he think there is something in the DNA of the British people that means that, unlike the Italians, Germans, Americans, Canadians and everyone else in a western democracy, they are incapable of deciding how to run their own affairs locally and need Whitehall to tell them how to do it?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I think that exactly the opposite is the case and that our towns, cities and communities across the country will prosper when they have the opportunity—and, indeed, the right—to do things their way, rather than the way Whitehall dictates.

The Minister’s determination to devolve political decision making to the lowest possible level is extremely welcome. Can he, for example, think of any circumstances under which he would dictate to a local city or local authority what flag to fly outside the town hall?

I cannot imagine such a thing. How a community chooses to represent itself and with what images and emblems seems to me the epitome of local choice.

Planning Reform

Our planning reforms have simplified the system and put power into the hands of local communities to deliver the growth they need. Thanks to the excellent work of the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibility for planning, our reforms arrive at a balance between economic activity, the environment and heritage.

Is the Secretary of State aware of a pioneering partnership in my constituency that is getting built not only a much-needed bypass but thousands of vitally needed homes? Does he agree that this is a case of where Central Bedfordshire leads today, others should follow tomorrow?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s authority. This was the kind of thing we wanted to do when we embarked on the reforms. None of this would have been possible without the general power of competence or devolving local authority finance. It represents the future of local authorities.

With planning applications running six times higher in the south-east than in the north-east, how does the Secretary of State envisage his planning reforms will contribute to reducing regional growth inequalities?

I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that our planning reforms were welcomed by the North East chamber of commerce, which saw, as perhaps she will come to see, that the reforms are a liberation and will enable a good partnership between local enterprise partnerships and local authorities. They will enable them to work together with people in the north-east for the people of the north-east and will release them from some of the burdens that her Government left on the people of the north-east.

Planning Applications

16. What criteria he uses when calling in or recovering planning applications; and if he will make a statement. (105729)

The Government believe that planning decisions should be taken in, and by, local communities, and so use their call-in powers sparingly. Essentially, the powers are used when matters are of national significance.

The planning inspector’s decision on the Kelmarsh wind farm in my constituency helped to spark a massive campaign against onshore wind in this place and beyond. In such cases, how long does the Secretary of State legally have to recover or call in decisions, and what is the Department’s policy in this area?

My hon. Friend will know that I cannot comment on a particular case—the quasi-judicial status of ministerial decisions is well understood at the moment. Once a decision notice has been given, that is the end of the Secretary of State’s discretion in the matter.

Topical Questions

I have been reviewing my Department’s plan to abolish the Audit Commission. Ministers have told the House previously that the abolition would save £50 million. I am afraid that was wrong: the revised estimate suggests that the abolition will save taxpayers not £50 million, but £650 million over five years. Combined with the scrapping of 10 other quangos, from the Standards Board to the Government offices for the regions, the reductions in my Department’s running will save £1 billion of taxpayers’ money.

Empty homes are a big problem in Pendle, so I welcome the £100 million of funding to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing, and the additional £50 million to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is far more than Labour did in its 13 years of power?

The Labour party’s idea of a housing policy was to demolish perfectly good houses. We felt it was important to get houses that had been left unoccupied back into business. That is why the scheme is available through the new homes bonus, and it is also the reason for the reforms to get clusters of unoccupied houses back together, which the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) spoke of earlier. We are determined that what are perfectly good houses, in areas where communities have lived together for many years, should be brought back into circulation.

Conservative councillors must have been very encouraged over the weekend to read the Secretary of State’s admission in The Sunday Times that lots of them are going to lose their jobs come Thursday. Families are struggling because of the failure of the Government’s economic policy, but at least they know that council tax is lower in areas with Labour councils than in Conservative ones. Would the Secretary of State like to congratulate Labour councils on their achievement?

I congratulate the shadow Secretary of State, not only on attending his son’s wedding last week, but on continuing the trend of fiddling figures. The only way he can get at those figures is to ignore all the district councils. In band D, the Labour party continues to be £62 more expensive than the Conservative party.

I know that the Secretary of State does not really do detail, but I would have thought that even he could work out the figures for himself. The band D council tax rate is £81 lower in Labour areas than in Tory areas. He has made great play of trying to keep council tax down, but as we heard earlier, because of his legislation, his plan next year is to increase the council tax paid by a lot of people who are on low incomes. Does that not show that, far from us all being in it together, the Secretary of State is determined to dump some people in it more than others? Is that not the real reason why he has thrown in the towel before polling day?

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has form on council tax. When he was deputy leader of Ealing council, it increased by 65% in one year only, although we should not be surprised, because council tax has doubled under Labour. However, I repeat: the only way he can arrive at anything close to those figures is by ignoring every single district council in the country. As the small print of his figures clearly shows, he has ignored a third of councils in order to arrive at those ridiculous figures.

T2. Does the Minister believe that the BBC’s recent coverage of Newham’s housing policy was fair and accurate? (105739)

I do not believe that the coverage was fair, balanced or timely, given that the election for the Mayor of London is taking place in Newham exactly a week after the coverage. Given that the BBC chose not to mention to any Department that it was running the story, it is impossible to understand how it thought it could be running a fair and balanced story.

T4. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Minister for Housing and Local Government that Birmingham’s claim to have only nine rough sleepers is ludicrous? Furthermore, is that the only thing that he finds ludicrous about the antics of those who are running Birmingham city council? (105742)

There is a wider point about the homelessness and rough sleeping numbers, which is that before this Government came to power, the figures were simply inaccurate. The majority of authorities did not return the relevant numbers. The change now is that we have required every local authority to send in its numbers and regularised the way in which rough sleeper numbers are collected, so that we can properly focus resources on tackling the scourge of rough sleeping.

T3. In Crewe, I have been helping a community of elderly residents at Linden Court after the local housing association attempted to move them out on just a few months’ notice in order to redevelop the site. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State use his good offices to encourage housing associations to treat the elderly with the care, courtesy and respect that they deserve, particularly those whom they are considering moving out of their homes? (105740)

I am not sure that I need to use those powers, because my hon. Friend has used his considerable influence and I now understand that the housing association is having a rethink and looking into other ways of dealing with Linden Court, which I visited with him a few years ago. It is important that, when elderly persons are being moved out of their homes, they should be treated with enormous dignity, and local authorities and housing associations need to go about that task at a leisurely pace.

T7. An antisocial neighbour, whether the tenant of a private landlord, a social landlord or a public landlord, can not only make their neighbours’ lives a misery but destroy a whole estate. On that basis, rather than reducing the role of communities through local councils, why does not the Government give them real powers to ensure that they can deal with antisocial neighbours? Instead of calling it “getting rid of red tape”, we could talk about doing something positive. (105745)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why we are proposing to criminalise certain types of antisocial behaviour and ensuring that previous offences can be taken into account. For example, if someone engaged in antisocial behaviour in someone else’s community during the riots, that should clearly count against them when it came to their own housing situation.

T5. Many of my constituents believe that there should be less, not more, influence on our daily lives from the European Union. Will Ministers therefore take a vigorous stand against the EU proposal that the EU flag be flown permanently above 1,000 of our public and private buildings? Our country’s flag is the Union Jack. (105743)

This obligation is likely to be placed on us because of our control of the European development funds. We are currently under an obligation to fly the EU flag for one week a year. It seems to me that the flying of a flag should be a joyous act, rather than one imposed by another authority. The idea that we should be fined for not flying the EU flag is utterly ridiculous and a sign of a lack of confidence on the part of our EU partners.

T8. In the national press today, there are at least three reports of dramatic increases in bed-blocking. Bed-blocking occurs when patients cannot be discharged from hospital because social care packages have not been put in place by hard-pressed local authorities. This is now costing the taxpayer about £600,000 every day. Is not this more evidence of this Government’s failed policies on social care in local government? They are cutting too far and too fast. (105746)

We have put in an extra £7.2 million, but the hon. Gentleman makes a reasoned point. I feel that the reforms in the national health service and giving local authorities more responsibility for health should enable us to get a much better and much more closely co-ordinated and integrated process. The movement from hospital into care or into a person’s home needs to be better organised. The Government will certainly produce a White Paper soon to deal with this. I hope that it will meet some of the problems that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

T6. Ahead of the London elections, do Ministers share my concerns over alarms raised by local councillors in Tower Hamlets about alleged voting fraud? What steps are being taken to ensure the integrity of the ballot? (105744)

I do share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I share the concerns of six Labour councillors who wrote to the Electoral Commission on Monday last week, pointing out serious worries about electoral fraud. I think the Electoral Commission should have picked this up sooner—back in February, when two Labour Members of Parliament complained about this. I have written to the Electoral Commission today to propose that it moves a lot faster and ensures that the police are present, as required, on polling day.

It is increasingly difficult to find housing in Newham within the rent cap that the Government have set. Instead of criticising the BBC for exposing what is happening, will the Minister take action to improve matters?

The right hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that immediately that the Newham story was flagged up, we went on just one website to search for properties and we could find within the Newham cap of £15,000 rent a year—not the £21,000 maximum cap—1,000 properties available in Newham or within five miles of it. That is why it is a disgrace that the council was considering sending people halfway across the country.

T9. My right hon. Friend the cities Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), will have noted, not least from the Centre for Cities annual report, that progress in Gloucester is encouraging on a number of fronts, including the regeneration of major sites and the expansion of our specialist training company to provide apprenticeships and skills for our thriving small and medium-sized enterprises engineering centre. Gloucester would be delighted if the Minister could visit the city to look more closely at some of our successes and our challenges. (105747)

The reason why Newham council is thinking of sending tenants to my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent is as a result of the massive failure of house building under the Tory Mayor of London. What assurances can the Minister give my constituents that they will not face an unplanned influx of residents because of Tory failings in London?

That is simple. This Mayor has delivered 50,000 affordable houses for rent, outperforming the previous Labour Mayor. If constituents vote for him again, he will deliver even more next time.

Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to compare the track records on council tax for the current Mayor of London and his Labour predecessor?

It is a very straightforward comparison. Each year under Ken Livingstone, the council tax went up; each year under Boris Johnson, the council tax was either frozen or went down.

Does the Secretary of State intend to continue with his Department’s consultation on home improvements and related energy efficiencies in the green deal, or is he proposing to scrap it in the light of the advice from a No. 10 spokesman who said that the proposals were bonkers and would not happen?

We are currently considering all applications during the consultation. We will be looking closely at that and we will ensure that we do not place an undue burden on the public.

Those on the housing list whose change in situation, such as having an extra child or additional medical needs, means they meet the criteria for higher banding of need for housing, or those who change the nature of their request, such as for a new location, have to restart their time on the housing list. Does the Minister think that that is fair, as it prevents us from collecting accurate data?

What is required is for local authorities to have a far greater say in the way their housing lists are run. That is why I am pleased to be able to report to my hon. Friend that that is exactly what is being proposed through the Localism Act—and it is exactly what is about to come into force.

We have engaged in a number of discussions with the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have been very constructive, especially at officer level, but it is still up to individual constituent parts of the United Kingdom to decide whether to implement the proposals.

The last Government shamefully ran down the right-to-buy discount. Does the Minister agree that that acted as a brake on the aspirations of those who wished to join what we Conservatives call the great British property-owning democracy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The right to buy, which enabled 2 million hard-working families to buy their own properties, was disgracefully run down, so that only 3,000 a year could take advantage of it under the last Administration. The right to buy is back, however: there is a £75,000 discount, and for every home that is sold another is built. That is the way in which to meet hard-working families’ aspirations in this country.