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DCLG (Summer Recess Work)

Volume 549: debated on Monday 3 September 2012

I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 17 July 2012.

Reviving the nations high streets

Our high streets are at the centre of our communities, hubs of local businesses and drivers of growth. The coalition Government are determined to support them and create the best possible conditions to allow businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.

On 20 July, my Department published proposals to scrap restrictions that deter start-up businesses from using empty high street shops. Removing these restrictions on a temporary basis for empty buildings would open up premises, which otherwise would make no contribution to the local economy. This will boost high street and local area regeneration helping encourage start up businesses.

On 25 July, my Department announced a further 15 Portas pilot areas, which will be given a share of a £1.5 million fund along with dedicated advice and free support from established businesses to bring their ideas about the development of their high streets to fruition. This takes the total number of Portas pilots to 27.

To ensure that no high street is left behind my Department has also announced a £5.5 million package of support for 393 town teams to revitalise their high streets. All town teams from across the country will also be able to bid for a £1 million future high street X-fund to reward the most effective and creative schemes to encourage people back to the town centres in 2013, and a £0.5 million fund to help access set-up loans for new business improvement districts. Applications opened on 30 August.

On 1 September, my Department announced new planning rights that will allow more flats to be created above shops without the need for planning permission. The change further streamlines the planning system, making it easier, quicker and cheaper for people to create new homes in existing underused space. It has the potential to help increase the amount of affordable housing and ensures better use is made of existing developed land. Relaxing planning restrictions on creating flats above shops can also help increase the vitality of town centres by increasing footfall and providing a boost to high street regeneration.

Supporting local enterprise

By promoting enterprise, investing in research, creating jobs and giving people more skills we are sending a powerful signal that Britain is a top choice for inward investment and bringing local growth.

On 24 July, my Department announced £3.5 million of Government investment for manufacturing innovation for the new High Speed Sustainable Manufacturing Institute in Essex. The institute will develop new and innovative ways to improve manufacturing techniques and increase productivity that will ensure Britain remains a top choice for investment. It is expected to generate £80 million to the local economy.

The creation of a UK-wide coastal communities fund was announced by the Government last year to provide grants to support the economic development of coastal communities and help pay for projects that can transform and diversify seaside economies. On 14 August my Department announced six seaside towns in the first round of successful schemes in England that will receive grants of up to £2 million each to use on projects that create local jobs, support coastal tourism and development and boost the inshore fisheries industry.

Kick-starting stalled development

Many section 106 agreements negotiated between councils and developers at the height of the housing boom have become unviable, stalling development to the detriment of regeneration and the prosperity of local communities who would benefit.

Stalled sites mean no new homes, no new jobs and no community benefits. On 13 August, my Department announced that teams of expert intermediaries will be available to councils and developers, offering free-of-charge advice and support to prevent these agreements acting as a barrier to getting building under way.

In addition, my Department launched a consultation that proposes giving developers the option to ask councils to renegotiate section 106 obligations if they were agreed prior to April 2010. Currently these obligations cannot be renegotiated for five years once a council refuses a request for voluntary renegotiation by a developer. Opening up the renegotiation process further will provide another new opportunity to help get developments back on track, provide affordable housing and bring wider benefits for communities.

On 29 August, alongside the Department for Transport and Kent county council and Dartford and Gravesham borough councils, my Department announced a deal to unlock the development of 22,600 much-needed homes in eastern Quarry over the next 20 years, delivering as many as 60,000 jobs and bringing a brownfield site back into use. Builders could be on site as early as next summer with the first homes set to be completed by December 2013.

Building more and better quality homes

The design of an area has a significant and lasting impact on the quality of life for residents. This Government believe it is vital that local people have a say over how their communities look and feel.

On 22 August, my Department, along with Sir Terence Conran, British designer and entrepreneur, announced a competition launching in the autumn, to give communities a chance to design their own neighbourhoods. Communities will be invited to submit their designs in front of an expert judging panel.

On 23 August, my Department welcomed a report by Sir Adrian Montague recommending measures to boost professional investment in good quality, privately rented homes to help meet the nation’s housing demand.

In April, my Department launched a reinvigorated right to buy offering eligible tenants discounts of up to £75,000 off the value of their home, accompanied by a new commitment to build replacement homes on a one-for-one basis. To assist tenants in their right to buy on 23 July, we launched a new website and dedicated call centre to provide more advice, information and support.

Strong, united communities

This Government are committed to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families. On 18 July, we published a report highlighting the real life accounts of troubled families that underline our approach to tackling the root causes of the problems faced by these families and bring about real and lasting change.

The 6 August 2012 marked the anniversary of last year’s riots. One year on coalition Ministers highlighted the ongoing work to restore communities. Millions of pounds have been made available to councils to quickly help reopen shops and rebuild affected neighbourhoods and we have ensured that the police continue to build positive relationships with those areas.

In February 2012, my Department announced a £10 million investment in Youth United—a coalition of the major youth volunteering organisations. Over the next two and a half years over 2,500 volunteers will be recruited to run 400 youth groups in communities across the country. Six months on, my Department has noted the quick and enthusiastic take up and continues to encourage work to support young people who want to have a real stake in the future of their communities.

The expertise and excellence of the nation’s voluntary and community sector supporting in the delivery of high quality local services are valued by the local communities they serve. On 24 July, my Department noted their huge contribution and wrote to councils to express gratitude for the positive way the majority are working with the sector and reminded local authorities of the ongoing need to ensure that the sector is not left behind when it comes to funding allocations.

The Olympics brought together communities in celebration and sense of pride and support behind team Great Britain and indeed all other participants. This continues during the Paralympic games. Over the recess period my Department and took an active role in supporting the games raising the flag outside the Department and through ministerial visits and attendance at the games.

Empowering local communities

On 28 August, my Department announced that £1.3 million will be made available from the £8 million tenant empowerment programme, help to give more power to communities over their social homes including through helping tenants learn the skills they need to engage and negotiate confidently with their landlords; forming tenant panels to come together to demand the best value-for-money services; or even to take control of local services themselves if they feel that they could deliver more for less.

On 29 August, my Department made available a £10 million fund to help councils ensure their communities are able to finalise neighbourhood plans for homes, businesses and facilities in their local area. Already more than 200 communities are using the new planning powers introduced in the Localism Act. Councils can now apply for grants of up to £30,000 for each scheme to help pay for the costs of getting plans in place. Payments will be paid to councils to help them support and advise.

On 22 August, my Department published guidance that gives local people practical advice on new ways to get access to less conventional sources of land and green space to grow their own food to take greater control of their local area.

Abolishing regional planning

Revoking regional strategies outside of London formed part of the coalition agreement. The Localism Act 2011 provides for the abolition of regional strategies in a two-stage process. The first stage is to remove the regional planning framework and prevent further strategies from being created, and the second stage to abolish the existing regional strategies by secondary legislation.

The strategic environmental assessment process is set out in an EU directive (Directive 2001/42/EC). In March 2012, the European Court of Justice issued a significant ruling on the interpretation and application of the directive (Inter-Environnement Bruxelles ASBL and Others v Government of the Brussels-Capital Region). Following the decision of the European Court of Justice, in the light of planning policy and legislation that have been put in place since January 2012, in the light of the earlier consultation responses, and in order to be meticulous in observing the requirements of the directive, the Government are now updating the environmental reports and undertaking additional consultation.

On 25 July, we published the first of the updated environmental reports for consultation. In the coming weeks my Department will publish updated environmental reports relating to the proposals on each of the other regional strategies, so that those proposals too can be the subject of additional consultation. A full statement is published the House of Lords, Official Report, 25 July 2012, column 66WS.

Tackling repossessions and preventing homelessness

Tackling the record deficit and ensuring that interest rates are kept down and mortgages are affordable remain top priorities of this Government. On 9 August, latest figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders show that the number of homes taken into possession in quarter two 2012 (April to June) had gone down by 11% on the previous quarter to 8,500. This is the lowest figure since the final quarter of 2010.

We have some of the strongest protections in the world to safeguard people from homelessness. No single voluntary service, Government agency, council or Government Department can prevent homelessness alone, but by working together we can make a big impact.

On 16 August, my Department published “Making Everyone Contact Count” report giving councils, charities, health services and the police a blueprint to work together to ensure that families and vulnerable people at risk of homelessness are offered help early, no matter who they turn to first.

In addition, my Department announced a further £3.5 million to 21 homelessness charities to support help and accommodation schemes for rough sleepers and extend the No Second Night Out initiative to eight more areas—Manchester, Plymouth, Great Yarmouth, North Devon, Taunton, Gloucestershire, Chichester and Worcestershire.

On 31 August, my Department announced £160 million over the next two years in homelessness prevention grants—offering certainty that homelessness services will be funded to the end of this Parliament.

This is in addition to the £160 million that has been allocated to councils over this and last year, which has been used to offer support to those facing the threat of homelessness.

Ensuring fair play on housing and planning

On 28 August, my Department published new guidance for local authorities highlighting the range of legal powers they have to tackle unauthorised encampments and development. It is often thought that local authorities and other enforcement bodies have limited powers available to tackle illegal and unauthorised encampments and the nuisance that they can cause. In fact there are extensive powers, and timely action by local authorities can save time and money down the line before such encampments become established.

On 31 August, in partnership with the Home Office, my Department launched new guidance to councils making clear the wide range of powers at their disposal to clamp down on rogue landlords. Thousands of unauthorised sheds and outbuildings are being rented out illegally to vulnerable migrants by landlords who charge them extortionate rents to live in cramped conditions. Councils in the worst affected areas have at their disposal £1.8 million of central funding to help tackle the problem of rogue landlords.

On 1 September, new laws came into effect in England and Wales to make squatting in residential buildings a criminal offence. My Department has worked with the Ministry of Justice to highlight these new provisions. For too long, squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Hardworking homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first—this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting.

Saving taxpayer’ money: Increasing transparency

The Department continues in its drive for open and transparent government. Following the introduction of a new localist standards regime, councillors are now required to register certain pecuniary interests, including trade union dealings on a publicly available register. Deliberate failure to declare interests could result in a criminal conviction.

To help make sure the new approach is properly understood, on 1 August my Department published a practical guide to implementing the new system and demonstrating how the new local standards strike a common-sense balance between electoral accountability and personal privacy. It clarifies specific issues like urgency of declarations; personal information safety; handling spouse or partner interests and gold plating.

The coalition Government’s transparency code for councils has already seen all local authorities publish their spending over £500 online and open every aspect of business up to public scrutiny including, tenders, contracts senior pay, councillor expenses and voluntary sector funding. On 15 August, my Department announced it is now publishing all of its spend data over £250, a new low threshold in central Government.

On 23 August, my Department put forward new regulations before Parliament that will come into force on 10 September 2012 to extend the rights of people to attend all meetings of a council's executive, its committees and subcommittees. The changes will result in greater public scrutiny opening up councils to local online news outlets and disallowing councils from citing political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press.

Saving taxpayers money: Tackling council tax fraud and error

The coalition Government have worked with councils to freeze council tax for two years, cutting council tax in real terms. Since 2006 council benefit fraud and error has cost the taxpayer an estimated £1.1 billion—an average of around £3 million per council. On 28 August, I reminded councils of the urgent need to get to grips with council tax fraud to ensure they can fully support hard working families and genuinely vulnerable people and deliver value for money to taxpayers.

Government reforms are localising council tax support, putting councils in charge of the discount and giving them a stronger incentive to support local firms, cut fraud and promote local enterprise. Councils will be expected to save over £400 million a year when they begin running local council tax support schemes next year. Councils will keep all savings they can make from reducing fraud and error.

In addition, on 28 August, my Department published a consultation document which seeks views on proposals to provide funding certainty for local precepting authorities (such as town and parish councils), as part of the process for localising support for council tax.

Saving taxpayers' money: Legacy FireControl assets

On 25 July, my Department updated Parliament on the status of the legacy of FiReControl and the launch of a marketing campaign to ensure that the remaining FiReControl buildings are utilised to ensure value for taxpayers’ money and achieve a localist approach to improvements in resilience. The full statement can be found in the House of Lords, Official Report, 25 July 2012, column 62WS.

Saving taxpayers money: Departmental savings

I would like to update the House on the administrative savings being made by my Department. Latest estimates suggest that the DCLG Group (i.e. the Department and its agencies) is making a 44% real terms saving against its running costs over this spending review period by 2014-15. This equates to savings of over £570 million by 2014-15, of which £420 million is from the closure of the Government offices for the regions.

This £570 million figure is an increase from the previous estimates of a £390 million saving. These savings reflect the coalition Government’s agenda of decentralisation, ending the micromanagement of local government, the abolition of regional government, and the broader need to tackle the deficit left by the last Administration.

Ministerial correspondence

I would like to put on the record my thanks to Lord Lexden for undertaking an informal review of departmental correspondence, providing advice on how we can improve the quality and style of ministerial and official replies to correspondence.

Copies of the press notices and documents associated with these announcements have been placed in the Library of the House.