I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 18 September.
Freezing council tax for hard-working families and pensioners
On 8 October, the Government announced new support to local authorities to enable them to freeze council tax and keep taxpayers bills down for the third year running. Freezing bills again will really help hard-working families and those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners with their cost of living.
The Government will set aside an extra £450 million to help freeze council tax bills in England. The support for local authorities means that taxpayers living in an average band D home in England could save up to £72 compared to a 5% rise in council tax.
The £450 million will be made available, through a new grant scheme, to local authorities which decide to freeze or reduce their council tax next year. If they do, councils, police and fire authorities in England will stand to receive £225 million of funding in both financial years 2013-14 and 2014-15, equivalent to raising their 2012-13 council tax by 1%. Funding will also be provided to devolved Administrations as a Barnett consequential.
Over the last two years the Government have provided grants of around £2 billion to help freeze council tax. A freeze in council tax in 2013-14 would represent a real terms cut of around 2% and a fall of 9% in real terms over the past three years.
For 2013-14, the Government will propose to lower the local authority tax referendum threshold to 2%, to protect against excessive council tax rises. My Department will set out further detail on the excessiveness principles in due course; the final principles are subject to the approval of the House of Commons.
Handing power back to local communities
We are determined to put people back at the centre of local decision making and give them the opportunity and power to shape the future of their area.
On 21 September, the community right to bid, created by the historic Localism Act, came into force, allowing communities to “stop the clock” on the sale of valuable local assets, giving them time to put in a takeover bid and preserve assets for the benefit of the community.
This new right gives voluntary and community organisations and parish councils the opportunity to nominate an asset to be included on a list of “assets of community value”, pausing the sale of a successfully listed asset for six months. On 4 October, my Department published advice for local councils to ensure they have all of the information they need to support local communities in their right to bid.
On 5 October, my Department launched a new community shares unit to help local people claim a stake, and become part-owners of, treasured local assets and services. The new unit aims to grow the community shares market with the ambition of launching over 200 share issues over the next three years.
Helping troubled families turn round their lives
On 8 October, my Department confirmed that the troubled families programme is on schedule to meet the Prime Minister’s pledge to turn around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by 2015. Over 40,000 claims have been made for up-front “attachment fees” worth over £100 million as part of the groundbreaking payment-by-results programme, meaning councils are committed to working with one third of families in the first year of the three-year programme.
Under the deal with local authorities, Government will pay councils up to £4,000 per eligible family if they reduce truancy, youth crime and antisocial behaviour or put parents back into work. The Government’s £448 million three-year budget is drawn from across seven Departments in a bid to join up local services dealing with these families on the front line.
Tackling unauthorised development
On 10 October, my Department announced proposals to give councils greater freedom to stop unauthorised traveller sites being set up and prevent long, drawn-out stalemates like Dale Farm.
The proposals will allow councils greater freedom to choose when to use “Temporary Stop Notices” in relation to caravans which are used as main residences and are in breach of planning control and any person guilty of this offence is liable to a fine of up to £20,000 (or unlimited on conviction on indictment).
Under the current system councils are constrained as to when they can use these powers against caravans which are main residences. A small minority have sought to abuse the planning system, this proposal will assist local councils in taking immediate effective action and enable them to safeguard their local area from the emergence of unauthorised sites. A technical consultation on these proposals will be published in due course.
Improving homes and getting empty homes back into use
On 27 September, my Department published statistics that show bringing thousands of empty properties back into use has unlocked over £63 million of additional funding that is directly benefiting local communities through the successful new homes bonus scheme.
In total, local authorities have brought nearly 38,000 long-term empty homes back into use over the past two years—helping to tackle the housing shortage and providing a roof over the heads of hard-working families across the country.
On 28 September, my Department confirmed nearly £1 billion to 41 councils over the next two years to bring over 86,000 homes up to a decent living standard while at the same time offering a boost to local businesses up and down the country. The investment secures the continuation of the decent homes programme until the end of this Parliament.
Helping first time buyers
We are determined to help people meet their aspirations for a home of their own and to help first time buyers take their first step on to the property ladder. The Firstbuy scheme has proved a huge success, with developers reporting more than 8,000 reservations by the end of August this year.
On 11 October, my Department announced that £40 million will go to 41 developers to help 2,500 first-time buyers this year. This is the first allocation from a £280 million pot to extend the Firstbuy scheme, which is set to help a total of 27,000 first time buyers.
The £280 million boost to Firstbuy forms part of the housing and growth package announced in September, and is one of a range of measures designed to get Britain building and kick start the economy.
Delivering locally-led regeneration
Since its designation as a new town in 1967, Milton Keynes has been subject to central Government involvement. On 2 October my Department announced proposals to transfer planning functions, currently undertaken by the Homes and Communities Agency, back to Milton Keynes council. This will enable the council to plan more strategically in the area and allow local residents to have a greater say in how that land is developed.
The Department has made a major contribution to the redevelopment of the Olympic park and surrounding areas in east London. On 1 October, the London Legacy Development Corporation was given powers to become the local planning authority for this area, with the planning decisions team of the Olympic Delivery Authority and two planning staff from the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation. The London Legacy Development Corporation is now fully equipped to secure the regeneration of its area—its mandate under the Government’s Localism Act 2011.
Preserving Ironbridge Gorge
On 4 October, my Department announced £12 million to preserve and protect the world heritage site at Ironbridge Gorge. My Department will pay a total of £2.2 million during 2012-14 for the stabilisation of Ironbridge Gorge and provide a further fund of up to £9.8 million in 2014-15, subject to approvals.
Each year the Ironbridge Gorge draws in over half a million tourists from near and far to the area and pumps £20 million into the economies of Telford and Wrekin and the wider Shropshire area. Funding will be used to preserve the site which is under threat from landslides and slippage that could damage and even destroy the historic site and tourist industry it supports.
Commemorating the first world war
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of world war I, on 11 October, the Prime Minister announced that my Department, alongside the Department for Education, would invest £5.3 million to give pupils and teachers from every maintained secondary school in England the chance to go on a tour of the great battlefields and take part in remembrance ceremonies on the western front.
This flagship scheme, part of the centenary education programme, will allow pupils to learn at first hand about the sacrifices made by troops and help ensure that this significant aspect of our history and the impact it had on our nation’s culture and heritage is passed on for generations to come. A procurement process will be run to decide on a single tour operator before the visits start in spring 2014, running until spring 2019.
Copies of the associated press notices and documents have been placed in the Library of the House.