Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 550: debated on Monday 17 September 2012

I have laid before the House a statement on the work of my Department over the summer recess. Today, we announced to the House that £25 million will be made available for local enterprise partnerships. Over the last week, integration has been at the forefront of my diary, including backing the Holocaust memorial appeal and its work in organising student visits to Auschwitz; speaking to the Faiths Forum For London, which brings together different faiths and creeds; and visiting Hampshire to see how the Government’s funding is helping Gurkha veterans and their families, supporting those who have fought for Queen and country and who are proud to call Britain home.

I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interests, as are previously on record.

Sadly, it appears that the Secretary of State is paying little more than lip service to the statement he made on planning last week. Can he explain why my constituents, who are now going to have to live 150 metres away from a waste to energy plant, are being treated differently from those in Norfolk? The Secretary of State has called in a waste to energy plant in Norfolk; he has not called in the one in Plymouth, despite the fact that it covers three authorities and should therefore be of regional importance.

I looked very carefully at the hon. Lady’s representation, but we call in only where there are national and regional implications. None of the statutory undertakers has requested that it be called in. Ultimately, this issue should be dealt with by local people.

T2. The Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership has done a truly excellent job, but the small team running it faces an uphill battle accessing funding streams and preparing bids in time. Clearly, the Secretary of State has anticipated my question because he has given a partial answer, but can he provide some more detail? What assurances can he give me that those LEPs will receive the support they need moving forward to enable them to become successful? (120909)

I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend has done through the all-party group, which produced an excellent report. I am sure she will be pleased that we are releasing £25 million. We are making some initial money available, but we need to be absolutely clear that LEPs are there to enable local authorities to come together and to share powers and sovereignty, so the majority of this money will be on the basis of match funding. We are not going to fund LEPs if local people do not value them, but if they do and they are prepared to put resources in, we will match that funding.

May I join others in welcoming the new ministerial team to their positions? Local decisions about planning have been the foundation of our system for at least two generations, but on 6 September the Secretary of State, the only survivor of the reshuffle, astonished everyone when he announced legislation to hand over this power to the Planning Inspectorate in cases where he thinks local councils’ decisions are not up to scratch. We all want speed, but when it comes to quality why does he think that he should decide what good decisions are, rather than locally elected councillors?

I have to say that that was an extraordinary intervention from a former Minister who looked to build 10 eco-towns right in the middle of our green belt and gave a number of powers to someone in my position to intervene in the running of local authorities. Our approach builds on a basic right—an applicant has a right to appeal on the basis of non-determination; it simply builds on that and is there to help local authorities. In most cases, this is about where local authorities simply cannot cope, which is why we are urging mergers with adjoining authorities’ planning departments and why they will always find a friend to local planning in myself.

That was, if I may say so, not an example of muscular localism, but rather a lot of waffle. The truth is that the Secretary of State cannot explain how this legislation will work—I suspect that that is because No. 10 has only just thought about it; he has not yet clarified whether it will apply to planning applications for housing, and Government Members might like to ask that question. His Conservative colleague, the Local Government Association leader, Sir Merrick Cockell has called the plans

“a blow to local democracy”.

Is it not the case that the Secretary of State is no longer in control of planning policy? Are not a lot of local communities up and down the country going to be very angry when they discover that he has taken away from them the power to decide on planning applications locally?

Again, I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s pizzazz on this matter. However, we are not imposing eco-towns on the green belt and we are getting rid of the spatial strategies, subject, of course, to a proper review of the environmental assessment, which seems to be inconsistent with the position he sets out. We are there to simply help local authorities. If he is worried about me imposing something on the green belt of Essex, let me assure him that Stansgate abbey is absolutely safe.

T4. Given that the Department’s figures show that almost 1 million houses in England are either empty or have planning position but are not yet built, does the Minister agree that there is absolutely no need for any councils to be building on green belt or greenfield, or in flood-risk areas? (120911)

There is, in the new national planning policy framework—a phrase I find extremely hard to say—a clear instruction or suggestion that local authorities should prioritise brownfield sites. There are also very clear protections for the most special green space. It is, of course, for local people, through their local authorities, to decide what balance to strike between development and protection. However, the national policy has not changed and is very clear.

T3. I welcome the new fire services Minister to his place. He follows a class act in that role—the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). Will the new Minister reassure us that he will continue the good work being done with the Department for Education to reduce the number of fires in schools and, specifically, to promote the introduction of fire sprinklers in new schools and their retrofitting in old ones? (120910)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I fully endorse his comments about my predecessor, who did an excellent job. I am fortunate to follow in the footsteps of someone who did such great work in moving this issue forward. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that education about fire and fire safety is hugely important, and it is an area in which I intend to continue the good work of his good self and my predecessor.

T7. Does the Housing Minister agree not only that Firstbuy has enabled 16,500 more first-time buyers to own a home but that it underlines our commitment to the aspiration to home ownership—an aspiration that the Labour party, when in government, treated with total contempt? (120914)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Labour Government sought to strangle schemes such as right to buy; indeed, I understand the TUC has now voted to remove that right for council tenants. I trust that when the shadow Housing Minister responds, he will be able to tell us whether he agrees with his ex-friends. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting home ownership through Firstbuy and NewBuy. We are proud of that; it is a commitment that will last.

T5. The bedroom tax is forcing many people to apply for much smaller council houses. What is the Department doing to ensure that local authorities such as North East Derbyshire have the money to build smaller homes? (120912)

We are of course, together with others, putting some £19.5 billion into the affordable housing programme. However, we need to bear in mind the other side of the coin, namely people who face overcrowding while others live on their own in three or four-bedroom properties. I have no problem with the new size criteria; indeed, there are choices, such as taking in a lodger, that could actually help people to maintain their property.

May I highlight the installation of temporary telecommunication masts on an emergency basis? In the Tettenhall area of my constituency, one of those masts has been put in on an emergency basis, with no consultation and no notice, which has caused unnecessary distress, unease and concern among residents and my constituents.

There is provision for local authorities to erect mobile phone masts in an emergency where existing coverage has been threatened, but of course they will want to give adequate notice to local people of anything they are doing so that people are not too surprised by developments on their doorstep.

T6. Hartlepool borough council derives 17% of its business rates from a single company—the nuclear power station. From April 2013, the safety net threshold will be insufficient to match the financial risk, which will increase as the station comes to the end of its operational life. Will the Secretary of State look at the issue urgently to ensure that Hartlepool does not yet again miss out financially? (120913)

The Secretary of State has already assured the House that additional permitted development rights for home owners will be restricted in conservation and other sensitive areas. Can he assure me that sensitive areas will include those subject to article 4 directions, and also those where family housing has come under attack from insensitive over-development of houses in multiple occupation?

I think we can do better than that. We are going to be consulting on the matter, and my hon. Friend will get an opportunity to make a contribution.

T8. Given that homelessness increased by 26% in the past year, why did Ministers think that the right policy response was to increase conservatory building and reduce the amount of affordable housing by changing the section 106 agreements? (120915)

I think the hon. Lady—I hope not deliberately—misunderstands what we are trying to do on 106. It can be a great help in delivering housing, and in some parts of the country that is exactly what it does, but in other parts it is actually a hindrance to delivering social housing, because unrealistic targets mean that if there is a 50% target, 50% of nothing remains nothing. That is why we have been so successful in dealing with progressive local authorities to renegotiate deals and deliver social housing.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the role of Highways Agency holding objections in holding up growth? The beautiful market town of Wyndham in my constituency is threatened with a wave of inappropriate applications because just up the road the Highways Agency has sat for more than a year on a holding objection for 1,200 homes in Hethersett. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look into that for me?

T9. The Government recently announced that they would allow developers effectively to plead poverty in their section 106 agreements in order to get out of building affordable homes. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many affordable homes will not be built as a result of those changes, bearing in mind that the National Housing Federation estimates that 35,000 new affordable homes are built through the process each year? (120916)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has pointed out, if we do not take these steps many of the developments will not take place. Nevertheless, if we go ahead with the schemes, as we hope to do, we estimate that around 10,000 affordable homes might be lost through section 106 agreements, which is why we have put in place a funding scheme that will provide more than 15,000 additional properties and bring a further 5,000 empty properties back into use. We will get double what was going to be lost.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Newark and Sherwood Homes in my constituency is threatening its tenants with eviction for displaying a poster requesting not to have election literature delivered? Is it not unprecedented for a housing authority to step into the democratic process like that, and will he talk with the Electoral Commission about the matter?

That seems to me to be treating tenants as some 19th century mill owner might have treated his workers. It is entirely inappropriate that tenants should be refused their democratic right to display a poster. I urge the returning officer to look into the injustice immediately.

There are 18,500 families on the council waiting list in my borough, but they cannot afford to buy the new homes that the Minister wishes to put on the brownfield sites in my constituency. He ought to understand what an insult it is to my constituents that the section 106 agreements, which could have brought community gain, will not be in place in Lewisham.

I hope that the right hon. Lady understands that if that development does not take place, she will get no social housing at all. Part of the problem she has is that she thinks that, just because an agreement has been reached, houses will be built. She needs to be realistic and understand that under her Government, nearly 500,000 social houses were lost, and that is a disgrace.

I thank the Secretary of State and the planning inspector for upholding Bradford council’s decision to reject a wholly inappropriate development in Micklethwaite in my constituency, but will the planning Minister explain on what basis the Secretary of State, who had not visited the site, disagreed with some of the points for rejecting the developer’s appeal against the planning inspector, who had visited the site?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Secretary of State and the planning Minister act in a quasi-judicial capacity when making these decisions, so I am afraid that I cannot comment on the individual case, but I will be happy to talk with him separately to understand the background to it.