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Topical Questions

Volume 547: debated on Monday 2 July 2012

On Thursday, I spoke to the Local Government Association annual conference. I announced our intention to make it easier for councils to abolish chief executive posts without having to hand out massive payouts, welcomed the £430 million in bids for the new weekly collection schemes, and noted the next stage of town hall transparency in which new rules will require councils to declare their trade union funding and their interests. In the interests of bipartisanship, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who courageously put down questions on council tax collection and exposed the inability of Labour councils to collect council tax.

Shelter has advised me that my borough of Bexley has one of the highest proportions of home owners at risk of repossession in England. What funding and advice does the Secretary of State intend to give Bexley so that it can cope with that risk?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will recognise that repossessions are at their lowest since 2007. The most important thing that we can do to help people is to ensure that interest rates are kept at a reasonable level. That is what the Government have done. An increase of 1 percentage point would add £1,000 to the costs faced by her constituents and put more people at risk.

T2. The Minister will be aware of the excellent representations by the Witham town centre team to bring a Portas pilot to Witham. Will he congratulate that team on their vision and, importantly, support them in bringing that vision to Witham town centre? (114411)

I am aware of the excellent Portas pilot bid by my hon. Friend’s town team. I wish it well, along with the other 350 or so bids that are still in the competition. As I mentioned, an announcement will be made before the end of this month.

Properly targeted and funded family intervention works, so why have the Government introduced a half-baked scheme based on research that fails to distinguish between poor families and those involved in antisocial behaviour? Why do they refuse to give details of their cost estimates on the spurious grounds that the spending of public money is commercially sensitive? Is it not because they want to disguise the fact that they have slashed services such as Sure Start and youth intervention programmes, which really make a difference, and the fact that councils will get back only a tiny fraction of the millions that they have already lost?

I would have thought the hon. Lady would have been a little bit more jolly, considering that I congratulated her on the great work that she has been doing on behalf of the Government.

I am very surprised at the hon. Lady, because we would not have been able to help troubled families without the intensive help of Labour councils. The big difference between what we are doing now and what she suggests is that we are allowing councils to come up with their own schemes and methodologies. All that we are interested in is the outputs. Frankly, she should congratulate all those who have worked hard, because we can now identify the correct families, three months ahead of when people expected us to be able to do so.

T6. Has the Minister had a response from the UK Statistics Authority to the letter from the shadow Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), about net losses in social housing? (114415)

Yes, I can report to my hon. Friend and the House that I have had a response from the UKSA. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) pleaded in his letter for an answer on whether I was right to say that the reduction in affordable homes for rent under Labour was 45,000 or 200,000. I am pleased to say that the UKSA wrote back to both him and me and confirmed that the figures showed an overall reduction of 421,000 homes for social rent during Labour’s time in office—a disgrace, and in stark contrast to the 170,000 that we will be building over the next three years alone.

T5. There has been a 40% reduction in homelessness services for women between 2011 and 2012. As the number of homeless people increases and the services available to support homeless women reduces, what will the Minister do about it? (114414)

As the hon. Lady will know, I bring together eight Departments in a working group on homelessness and its causes. Our next report is very likely to be on the precise issue of the women who make up a subsection of people who are homeless. It is worth bearing in mind that one of the first things the Government did was to change the disgraceful rules that prevented the number of homeless people from being properly registered under the previous system. It is also worth knowing that the level of homelessness is less than half the average under the previous Administration.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend consider working with Cherwell district council, myself and others to make Bicester a garden city? (114416)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his knighthood, which is thoroughly deserved. We have heard that being a dame accords a Member no special privilege, but my hon. Friend commands the respect of the House uniformly.

I am very happy to work with my hon. Friend. The difference between this Government and the previous Government is that such things are entirely up to the local authority, but we will do everything that we can to help that fragrant corner of Oxfordshire become a garden city.

Rochdale is a hot spot for home repossessions and homelessness. Does the Minister accept that there is a link between the bankers’ LIBOR scandal and such problems?

All the research into homelessness proves that there are a lot of different causes, and LIBOR may be a contributory factor if it transpires that mortgage rates have been adjusted as a result. The hon. Gentleman takes a considerable interest in the matter, and I am sure he will be pleased to note, as we are, that repossessions last year fell to their lowest level since 2007. Low interest rates have been a very important reason for that falling number.

T8. One of my constituents recently asked our local planning department whether he needed planning permission to erect a shed for his mobility scooter. The planning officers refused to answer his question and insisted that he had to submit a form and pay a £75 fee to determine whether the shed was covered by permitted development rights, which it was. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for local authorities to charge for simply clarifying planning rules? (114417)

The Minister will know that more rain fell on Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding areas in a few hours last Friday than would normally fall in the whole month of July. The resulting floods damaged businesses, people’s private homes and the transport infrastructure. Ministers will want to join me in thanking the local authority employees, who responded magnificently, and the emergency services more generally for their response. Will the Secretary of State look again at the Bellwin formula to see whether it works reasonably? It is an old formula, and possibly ripe for revision to deal with exceptional circumstances of that kind.

The right hon. Gentleman will be very familiar with Bellwin and the formula and he is right to praise the emergency services and local people. I have spoken to friends in the area, and I know the events were traumatic. I recall the enormous damage and wreckage—both physical and psychological—caused by a flash flood in my constituency a few years ago. The Government have not yet received an application under the Bellwin rules, but I can assure him that when it comes, we will look at it most sympathetically in terms of the formula.

T10. A woefully inadequate number of new houses were built in Labour’s 13 years in government. What progress is being made on new houses in areas such as Hastings and Rye, so that young people have a chance of getting on the property ladder? (114419)

The good news is that programmes such as NewBuy, which allows people to get a 95% mortgage once again, will help people in Hastings and across the country, as will programmes such as Firstbuy, which is on track to deliver more than 10,500 homes. The record low interest rates will also help people, as long as they continue and as long as we ensure that the deficit is not allowed to balloon.

On social housing, does the Minister agree that it would make a lot of sense if priority were given to the building of bungalows for rent, which would assist the elderly or those who have mobility problems and free up two and three-bedroom family social rented houses for those on the waiting lists?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman—that is a very sensible approach, as is ensuring that the right to buy is available. Right to buy frees up the home lived in by the occupant who has had the opportunity to reach the aspiration of purchasing their own home. The cash is then used to build another home to take somebody off the record waiting lists we were left by Labour.

Cherish Chippenham’s bid for a Portas pilot will be even more competitive in the second round, which I am delighted the Minister will announce later this month. We have heard that some places consider their high streets to be in a more dire situation, but does he agree that there is far more to the important criterion of potential for improvement than simply a statistical vacancy rate?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A vibrant town centre requires all sorts of things to bring people in to shop there. He will be interested to know that not only will the second round be announced before the end of the month, but so will a £1 million prize for the most improved town centre. That does not have to be one of the Portas pilot—it can be any town centre. Every single one of the towns that apply will enjoy the support of the Government.

Hammersmith and Fulham’s housing strategy involves plans for 22,000 new homes in three opportunity areas. That should be good news for the 10,000 local families waiting for social housing, but not one of those 22,000 homes will be a social home for rent. Is it the Government’s housing policy that my constituents have to move out of London if they want an affordable home?

I know the hon. Gentleman has never quite got over his days as Hammersmith and Fulham housing lead, even though Hammersmith and Fulham is now doing a phenomenal job, delivering far more homes than were available under the Labour administration. I am sure those of the 170,000 homes for affordable rent that are in Hammersmith and Fulham will be enjoyed by the constituents there.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement last Thursday that he will change the law in order to require councillors to declare union support and donations as pecuniary and therefore prejudicial interests. Did he receive representations from the Labour Front-Bench team against these proposals when the statutory instrument came in this month? If not, would their union paymasters be justified in thinking them asleep on the job?

This matter—not whether Labour has been asleep on the job but the amount of union involvement with councillors—is of enormous concern. We are taking the moderate and reasonable approach of saying, “We support unions and it is wonderful that they support the Labour party, but we would like to know and it should be a matter for public disclosure.” Given that it is so uncontroversial, I am sure it will receive support throughout the House.

Is the Minister aware of the housing crisis throughout central London in the private rented sector, with rents rising well above inflation, housing benefit being capped or cut, and many families being evicted and communities broken up? Is it not time that we lifted the housing benefit level and introduced strict regulation of the private rented sector to preserve families and communities in the inner-city parts of the country?

It is absolutely the case that rents are not well served by caps at all, and when in place they enhanced neither rental levels nor the quality of properties. For example, the housing market shrank to 8% with rent caps. There is no advantage to introducing rent caps. Without them, the market has expanded again to 16%, serving people in London and elsewhere far better.

Are the Government’s excellent proposals for troubled families being embraced by local authorities throughout the country?

I am delighted to report that all 152 principal local authorities signed up last month. I am also delighted at the amount of progress being made and delighted that at least some Opposition Members have been more than helpful. It is our first big chance to do something about this serious situation.