I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 24 May 2012.
Diamond Jubilee Celebrations
2012 is a year of celebration and it was heartening to see how communities across the country came together to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Across the country thousands of street parties were held and I praise local councils for showing the spirit of celebration and taking a flexible approach to local residents’ party plans.
On 29 May, I endorsed and attended the launch of the Jubilee Hour campaign. Jubilee Hour calls on people across the UK to donate 60 minutes of their time to help their local community, to honour the Queen’s 60 years of service.
Supporting the High Street
We are determined to see the nation’s high streets thrive and enable them to fulfil their potential as economic hubs that will help drive growth across the country.
On 26 May, my Department announced the first 12 Portas pilot towns. The pilots will receive a share of £1.2 million; a dedicated contact point in Government to provide advice and support to help identify and overcome challenges to local business growth; have access to free support from retail industry leaders and opportunities to meet and discuss with fellow pilots to enable them to secure the future of their town centres.
Over 370 applications to become Portas pilots were submitted from across the country and in response to clear appetite my Department has opened up a second round competition for a further 15 Portas pilots. Each will receive the same funding as round one winners. The deadline for applications is 30 June.
In addition to supporting our high streets my Department wants to help ensure that local shopping parades, crucial to local neighbourhood economies, are not left lagging behind from lack of investment, antisocial behaviour and competition from online shopping and mega-store discounts. On 6 June, my Department published a new guide that builds on the Portas support, giving hands-on practical advice and insights on how to restore local shops into vibrant business areas, highlighting the range of Government support on offer to enable them to succeed.
Helping families with their council tax bills
This Government are determined to ensure that local residents get a fair deal on council tax that helps them with their cost of living.
On 28 May, my Department confirmed plans to amend some technical council tax rules to give elected local councils greater flexibility to help residents through fairer approaches to billing, second homes, empty homes and solar panels. These reforms could allow councils to make up to a £20 reduction in the bill for a typical band D property in England, or hold bills down by the same amount.
These reforms will give local residents a new legal right to choose to pay their council tax bills in 12 monthly payments rather than 10 months; support the take-up of voluntary electronic billing; give councils greater local flexibility to choose to waive special tax relief on second homes and empty homes and allow councils to use the monies to keep the overall rate of council tax down. Reforms will allow councils to tackle long-term empty homes through an empty homes premium. Reforms will also prevent a “sun tax” supplement on bills for homes with solar panels or the need for intrusive inspections where panels are installed by a third party under the “rent a roof” scheme.
The Government’s response to the technical consultation paper on council tax also outlined our plans to consider the issue of family annexes. My Department is keen to remove more of the tax and regulatory obstacles to families having a live-in annex for immediate relatives—such as those for teenagers or their elderly grandparents—more commonly known as “granny flats”. While self-contained annexes occupied by those over 65 benefit from a council tax exemption, no form of relief is available for those under that age, and some families unreasonably face two separate council tax bills for one effective property.
We will be undertaking further work through a broader review of how annexes for family homes can be supported with the aim of augmenting housing supply and supporting extended families.
Getting empty homes back into use
While the levels of long-term empty homes are at the lowest levels since 2004, tackling the 720,000 empty properties and bringing thousands of homes back into use is a top priority.
On 29 May, my Department announced the 20 successful bids from local authorities that will receive a share of the £60 million clusters of empty homes fund. Empty homes can often attract antisocial behaviour and associated crimes such as vandalism and fly-tipping. By returning empty homes back into use we can provide families with much needed homes, kickstart local training and employment opportunities and help to improve local communities.
In addition voluntary and community groups across the country will receive over £25 million to tackle individual empty properties in their area, to ensure that another 5,600 empty homes are occupied once again. In total, the coalition Government are providing £155 million of central funding, rising to £215 million including matched funding, to bring empty properties back into productive use.
Supporting the Community Right to Build
We are giving communities the power to decide on future development in their local area and putting planning permission powers firmly back into the hands of local people.
Under the new community right to build, communities will be able to approve new local developments without the need to go through the normal planning application process, as long as the proposals meet certain criteria and there is the backing of more than 50% of voters in a local referendum. On 29 May, my Department made £17 million available to support communities to deliver building and development projects that the local area needs.
In addition my Department has pledged a £2,000 “early bird bonus” to those communities that move quickly and submit their plans in by the end of March next year.
To support communities, the charity locality is providing expert advice and detailed one-to-one mentoring for those looking to exercise their right to build.
Tackling waiting lists and improving standards
Tackling social housing waiting lists and getting families and vulnerable people into homes is a top priority.
The Localism Act 2011 will give local authorities the flexibility to end the main homelessness duty by arranging and offer of suitable accommodation in the private rented sector, without requiring the applicant’s consent. These changes to the homelessness legislation will give local authorities freedom to make better use of good-quality private rented sector accommodation. They are part of reforms to social housing to ensure that the system is fair; that good, affordable housing is available for those who genuinely need it; and that we get the best from our 4 million social rented homes.
On 31 May, my Department published new safeguards to protect families housed in the private rented sector and ensure that safety standards and assurances are in place. This will provide extra legislative protection by preventing local authorities from using poor quality private rented accommodation for households owed the main homelessness duty. The consultation also sets out how homeless families should face the least possible disruption when being offered new accommodation and avoid the upheaval of long-distance moves.
Protecting homeowners from cowboy builders
People take pride in their homes, investing in their improvement and repair yet around 85,000 complaints are made about building work in homes each year according to the Office of Fair Trading.
On 6 June, my Department strengthened the requirements under competent persons schemes that allow traders to self-check their own work. Organisations that run competent persons schemes now need to be accredited to an international quality standard in order to operate; have to assess that their members’ competence levels and actual work are up to national standards; and be required to promote the membership and use of their schemes.
Theses measures also ensure that householders have a financial safety net in place such as a guarantee or insurance, to catch them if self-check installers fail to finish work properly or if they cannot be chased through the courts.
Copies of the accompanying press notices and associated documents have been placed in the Library of the House.