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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 553: debated on Monday 12 November 2012

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Town Centres

Before I reply, I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment to the Privy Council.

The Government have recently announced support to help revitalise more than 300 town centres in England through the town team partners scheme, which is in addition to the 27 Portas pilots that were announced in the summer. Building on this year’s success, we are delighted to announce another “Love your local market” campaign for next May.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks and for his answer.

Our town centres need to adapt to changing times and circumstances, and in particular the fact that we have an ageing society and growing numbers of people who suffer from dementia. The Prime Minister identified dementia as one of the Government’s key priorities, and the Government are working with the Alzheimer’s Society through the dementia challenge. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that his Department works with the Alzheimer’s Society to ensure that our town centres are dementia friendly?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his advocacy of the rights of people with dementia, and on his work in that field. He will be delighted to know that a couple of days ago the Prime Minister received the latest report on this issue, and I can announce that more than 20 cities, towns and villages have already signed up to become more dementia friendly. We are working with a wide range of groups within society, including leading businesses, high street banks and others, to find ways of going still further. For example, Tesco supermarket is training its staff to provide better support for customers with dementia, as are many of our banks.

Will the Minister condemn the disruption caused by far-right groups that, twice in the past month, have brought their extreme and racist demonstrations into Rotherham town centre, landing us with a bill of half a million pounds in policing costs and lost trade?

I certainly do condemn that, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. The Department is taking a lot of steps to bring communities together, and we will shortly be announcing further funding for further such measures. The right hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that only a few days ago, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced a further £214,000 for the “TELL MAMA” campaign, which is about reporting acts of anti-Muslim hatred.

People are delighted that Desborough and Kettering town centres are newly designated town team partners. When might they expect to receive the extra funding that goes with that designation?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign to achieve that success for his constituents. The money available is £10,000, and some of the 300 successful towns have already received those funds. If the cheque is not quite in the post, I assure him that it will be fairly soon.

Are not the Government’s attempts to revive town centres undone by the appalling Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which allows major out-of-town retail parks to be designated of national significance? When will we have clear guidance and joined-up thinking on our town centres?

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. The national planning policy framework has a clear “town centre first” policy, and the Department is putting a large amount of funding into measures such as the Portas pilots schemes—and many others—to provide support for our town centres. The Government are supporting town centres, which have experienced real problems given the disastrous situation in which this country’s economy was left.

Audit Commission

2. What progress his Department has made on developing proposals to reform the Audit Commission. (127612)

The Government are abolishing the Audit Commission. I am aware that in the past my hon. Friend has raised cases—and there are others—of where the auditor’s costs have been high in relation to the objections raised. That is why we have included provisions in a draft Bill to make it absolutely clear that the auditor has discretion to reject

“frivolous, repeated or vexatious objections.”

I am sure that my residents in Swettenham will be relieved to hear the Minister’s reply. Will he confirm that, under the new approach, there will be a role to play for local district auditors in better holding council expenditure to account?

Yes. Importantly, with local district auditors, we have clear, local accountability to ensure that scandals such as Labour-run Corby’s £47 million Cube simply do not go unnoticed by residents.

Is the Minister aware that the Audit Commission has fine, dedicated staff, many of whom have laboured under the uncertainty of not knowing whether they would have employment in future? What are we doing to look after those very good staff? Is he not aware that local auditors are very often more prone to corruption? How will he deal with that?

That is an extraordinary comment to make about local external auditors, who have already shown local council savings of around 40%, which is part of the savings we can see for local councils, which they need to make. I met the new chairman of the Audit Commission recently. He is working with the teams, which are working well, towards the wind-down that will save this country around £650 million.

Unauthorised Development/Illegal Encampments

7. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the powers of local authorities to deal with illegal Traveller sites. (127618)

We have renewed councils’ powers to deal with illegal and unauthorised encampments. On 28 August, we sent new guidance to council leaders on how to best use these existing powers. We will also consult on giving councils greater freedom to stop unauthorised development related to caravans.

Over the past two years, there have been 78 reported incidents of illegal encampments in my constituency. Travellers are telling my local residents that they had better sell their properties to them now, because they will not be able to sell them at all when there is an encampment at the back of the property. That tends to undermine social cohesion in my constituency and people’s belief in the planning system. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will ensure that all parts of our society are dealt with fairly and equally under the planning guidelines?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. It is immensely important to ensure that communities are free from intimidation, and that all communities can safely go about their work in the sure and certain knowledge that the Town and Country Planning Acts treat people the same. That is why we have issued the guidance. There can be absolutely no excuse for any local authority not taking prompt action.

A recent case in Warrington has involved a group of Travellers being repeatedly moved on peacefully using section 77 directions to leave orders, but they move only a few hundred metres and the whole process starts again, costing time and money. Will the Secretary of State consider amending the order, such that people will be required to leave the local authority area and not just the site?

It is probably no comfort to my hon. Friend to learn that the number of caravans on unauthorised sites has gone down—in 2007, it was 21%, and it is currently 16%. However, with regard to directions to leave orders, under sections 62A to E of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, unauthorised campers commit an offence if they do not leave when directed to do so, or if they return to the district within three months after being directed, and the police may arrest and detain them.

Right to Buy

My Department is bringing right to buy directly to tenants. This month, we are writing to around 100,000 households, including those in Milton Keynes. We have a dedicated website, social media and helpline, and are working with councils to provide specialist events for tenants.

Milton Keynes council has produced an excellent guide to right to buy. May I urge my right hon. Friend to share it with other local authorities that, for some reason, might be more reticent about promoting this excellent policy?

My hon. Friend is rightly proud of his council. The website is exemplary, as is the information available to tenants. We are committed to ensuring that people have a clear understanding of right to buy, which offers discounts of up to £75,000. I hope the Local Government Association takes note of that excellent piece of work.

Transitional Council Tax Grant

5. When he expects to announce the allocation of the transitional council tax grant to local authorities. (127615)

11. When he expects to announce the allocation of the transitional council tax grant to local authorities. (127622)

17. When he expects to announce the allocation of the transitional council tax grant to local authorities. (127629)

The Government published on 18 October the grant allocations that local authorities will be able to claim if they comply with the terms of the transitional scheme. These are available on the departmental website. The deadline for claiming the grant is 15 February, and payments will be made by the end of March 2013.

I thank the Minister for his response, but is he aware that my council, St Helens, will have to make £48 million of cuts over the next three years? The only way it can access the transitional funding and keep council tax down is by cutting services to the most vulnerable members of our community.

I would be very disappointed if the hon. Gentleman’s council was affecting the most vulnerable in the community, as this Government have put in place protections for them, and the guidelines are clear about that. Those who are among the most vulnerable suffered from the doubling of council tax under the previous Government and saw the benefits bill more than double. It is important that councils protect the vulnerable, which is why this Government have put the new scheme in place, with the opportunity and the money from the transitional grant, to help them do just that.

I have listened to what the Minister has said, and I have to agree with my council leader, Bill Dixon, that the Government are behaving like a bunch of headless chickens. They have had to introduce a new fund to make up for a policy that was not quite thought through. Why did they not think it through?

Under the previous Government, the council tax benefit bill went from £2 billion to almost £4.5 billion. It is right that this Government are dealing with the deficit that the previous Government left us and sorting out the economic problem. We are letting local authorities deal with what they need to do locally, and we have put in place £100 million to protect the most vulnerable, whom councils such as the hon. Lady’s unfortunately seem to want to hit.

Wigan is consulting on a number of proposals, all of which, by necessity, will hit the working poor, people with disabilities, or families with young children. Does the Minister believe that forcing councils such as Wigan to chase people in those vulnerable groups for money that they simply do not have is either fair or a good use of council tax payers’ money?

Again, I hope that the hon. Lady’s authority will do what it is supposed to do and look after the most vulnerable. Instead of attacking the most vulnerable, it should be dealing with its back-office costs, cutting down on fraud and error worth £200 million last year alone, and taking advantage of this Government’s scheme to help the most vulnerable, while still bringing down the benefits bill, which the last Government sent from £2 billion to nearly £4.5 billion.

The previous Government made absolutely no provision to continue the area-based grant, which provided important sustenance for communities such as mine in Hastings, so we are grateful that we have got the transitional grant. May I urge the Minister to consider looking carefully at whether councils such as Hastings can make additional efficiencies in order to justify additional access to the transitional grant?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It was a pleasure to meet her, along with council leaders, just last week to discuss the transitional grant, which 12 authorities benefited from last year. We will certainly be looking at the issue she raises, and we will announce details of where we are with the transitional grant after the autumn statement.

Can the Minister confirm that, despite the pressures left on local government finances by the last Labour Government, pensioners’ council tax support will not be reduced?

Absolutely. I am very happy to confirm that this Government are protecting vulnerable pensioners. Pensioners have saved and worked hard all their lives. They deserve security and dignity in retirement, and this Government are protecting their position.

May I pay tribute to the work the Minister has done in securing the £100 million fund, and to his energy in protecting coastal town communities and ensuring that the transition works effectively?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Obviously we are doing what we can to ensure that the most vulnerable are well protected. It is just a shame that we have had to do that because so many Labour councils, such as Manchester and those of some hon. Members who have spoken today, have decided to take forward schemes that hit the most vulnerable. It is this Government who are doing their best to ensure they are well protected.

This is an emergency relief scheme for Tory council candidates, and it is a shambles, is it not? The Secretary of State spent 12 months telling us he wanted local schemes; he has now had to design a national one. Because councils are getting back only a fraction of the money that has been cut, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that it is not possible to design schemes that meet the criteria within the funding available. There is no clarity on whether councils will have to spend more money on consultation, and because the grant lasts for only a year, they will then have to design new schemes and consult on them again for 2014. Meanwhile, at the sharp end, the poorest people in the country are faced with bills that they cannot meet and the threat of being taken to court.

It is amazing that the party that left us with a council tax benefits bill that had more than doubled is now complaining that this Government are trying to sort out the economic mess we inherited. It is very simple: we are talking about a voluntary scheme, and if councils want to take it up, they can. They will have the money in March to help them through the first year and they can then take their schemes forward, but many councils will have structured schemes that protect the vulnerable in the first place. It is a shame that too many Labour councils are trying to affect the most vulnerable. This Government are doing what they can to protect them from badly run Labour councils.

Unitary Local Government

I have to tell the Secretary of State that my constituents in Exeter will be very disappointed by his reply, not least because one of his first acts in government was to take away their council’s hard-won unitary status. Given that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have described Lord Heseltine’s report as excellent, why does he have such a problem with this particular part of it?

It is indeed an excellent report, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the former permanent secretary to the Department, as its accounting officer, washed his hands of the unitary restructuring in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, demanding that Labour Ministers direct him to continue. He warned that it would

“impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector”.

He said:

“the evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits”.

He also said:

“There is every likelihood of such judicial review proceedings being commenced.”

The system was a complete Horlicks, and that is why we abolished it.

My right hon. Friend is right: the diversity of local government in England is very important, and there is no “one size fits all” solution. Does he accept, however, that it was the last Conservative Government who introduced unitary authorities in the first place, and that Wiltshire has been praised by my noble Friend Lord Heseltine for getting rid of five dual-tier district authorities and replacing them with one, thereby saving an enormous amount of money, keeping the council tax frozen, and getting rid of large layers of bureaucracy in the process?

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend is at one with his local council. Of course I am not opposed to unitary authorities; what I am opposed to is the imposition on local authorities, from the centre, of costly reorganisations I am urging authorities, particularly small district authorities, to start to work together, to merge not just back-office but front-office functions, and to provide a much better deal for their people.

What is the Secretary of State’s problem? Fewer politicians, fewer chief executives, fewer local government press officers—why does he not just get on with it, and actually make some savings that the public will enjoy?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not at one with his local council. I understand his frustration, but all the improvements that he wants—fewer press officers, fewer officials, lower costs—can be achieved by sensible local authorities that merge their front-office and back-office functions, and I for one would very much welcome that.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s answer to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), will he think again about some of the smaller unitary authorities, which experience real difficulties when demands are placed on them in respect of, for example, social care? If just one child requires 24-hour care, that can throw the entire budget out. Will he consider the need for larger unitary authorities?

My hon. Friend makes my point far more eloquently than I could. The problem was that the restructured authorities—one of which would have been Exeter—were too small. They lacked critical mass, and there was a risk that they would be unable to take the necessary steps. It makes much more sense for larger local authorities to deal with matters in a more strategic way, and to work together closely. The days when an authority could rely on having its own chief executive, its own director of social services and its own education director are long gone. Authorities must now look towards merging their functions.

Private Sector Rents (Outer London)

8. What assessment he has made of recent trends in private sector rents in local authority areas close to London; and if he will make a statement. (127619)

There is no definitive source of data for rent increases at local authority level. What data we do have show an annual increase of between 0.9% and 3.3% to June 2012 nationally. For Slough, the Valuation Office Agency has published an indicative average rent of £750 over the same period. The figures for neighbouring boroughs range from £650 in Dartford to £1,200 in South Buckinghamshire.

I feel tempted to give the Minister a geography lesson, but I will resist the temptation. Is he aware that spending in Slough on emergency housing provision for temporarily homeless people has gone up by 10 times in the last year? The reason for that is not an increase in homelessness; it is that landlords will not accept people who are being paid the local housing allowance rate as they prefer to wait for people being sent from London at higher rents and with premiums. What are Slough and other local authorities on the boundaries of London supposed to do about that?

I think that all hon. Members are aware of that problem, as we all share it in our own constituencies. We are taking steps to address it, however. The hon. Lady should take a look at our latest moves that will make it easier for local authorities to use the privately rented sector. I can say to her that across the country some 30% of private affordable rental accommodation falls within the housing benefit levels, and we have invested £200 million to have more housing built specifically for that purpose. The key is to get more accommodation.

Will not prosperous home counties such as east Berkshire and north Oxfordshire have to use our housing stock as effectively as possible? Will the Minister compliment housing associations such as Sanctuary Housing, which recently got together tenants in under-occupied property where children had grown up but had now left home, and tenants in over-occupied property, to see whether it was possible to arrange swaps so that the housing stock could be used more efficiently?

I welcome what my hon. Friend’s local authority and many others are doing in that regard. We have put in place measures to make sure the limited accommodation that is available is made use of most effectively in precisely the way he describes, but the key is building more affordable housing, and that is what this Government are doing.

Order. Hyndburn has much to commend it, but it does not form part of a local authority area close to London. I call Karen Buck.

With private rents in London in particular soaring and driving up homelessness, can the Minister tell us which of the following two statements is consistent with Government policy: the statement by the previous Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), that homeless households should not be uprooted from their local communities and moved hundreds of miles away, or what is actually happening in the seven west London local authorities, who in their homelessness strategy have talked of their aim to manage the movement of households out of London?

There is no evidence that across the board there are rising—or rocketing—rents as the hon. Lady described. Only on Friday we announced measures that will make it easier for local authorities to make use of the privately rented sector. We have also introduced measures to ensure that accommodation is appropriate, taking account of not only the accommodation itself but local facilities, including schools. That will help councils keep people in the local area.

Localism Agenda (Planning Policy)

10. What progress he has made on implementing the localism agenda in respect of planning policy. (127621)

I am pleased to say that 65% of local authorities have published local plans, and 200 frontrunners of neighbourhood plans are working hard to bring their plans into effect. We are working to revoke, subject to the environmental reports, the regional strategies that the last Government introduced and that were hated so much.

Local referendum took place in Menston in my constituency. On a 49% turnout, 98% voted against a proposed 300-home development on previously green-belt land. Despite that, Labour and Lib Dem councillors from other parts of the Bradford district came over and voted to impose that development against the wishes of the local community. What is the Minister going to do about that, because until something is done, localism will seem a distant dream to my residents in Menston?

It is fantastic that the people of Menston participate in democracy as vigorously as they do, and I am sure that almost 97% of them voted for my hon. Friend. I urge him to encourage his constituents to explore the possibility of a neighbourhood plan, as such a plan would enable them, rather than people from elsewhere, to determine the future shape of their community.

My constituents have their doubts about the ability of neighbourhood plans to protect them. In Formby, a developer is talking about building affordable homes at the price of £300,000 on green-belt land in an area that floods. Will the Minister tell me what is in it for my constituents with that kind of proposal for developers, and what on earth happened to localism, because they cannot see any of it in Formby?

What happened to localism is that local plans are coming in at a rate of nearly triple that achieved by the previous Government. We have neighbourhood plans that the previous Government never introduced, but which the hon. Gentleman’s party now claims to support. As a result of those plans, local wishes are being translated into planning policy, where people are willing to take responsibility for their communities.

The Minister mentioned regional spatial strategies. The West Midlands RSS is proving harder to kill off than the Terminator. Will he please ensure that it appears next on his list for termination?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are as frustrated as she is by the way the European Court of Justice has put a very large spanner in the works. We are now conducting strategic environmental assessments to get rid of such plans, having created an assessment to bring that in. We have published five environmental reports, and the report for the west midlands will be published very soon. We will look at the results of that report before making a final decision, but our policy to revoke these unwanted, unloved strategies remains firm.

In the spirit of localism, will the Minister take on board the concerns of the many councils that are against the centrally imposed relaxation of permitted development rights, such as Bromley, whose leader said it would result in an

“uncontrolled planning free for all”


“undermine the rights of our residents to voice their views on their surroundings”?

In the light of that, will the Minister allow councils to make their own decisions about whether they want to relax permitted development rights? When can we expect the consultation and why has it been delayed?

Perhaps if the hon. Lady had checked, she would have discovered that the consultation was published an hour ago. Unlike her, I have met the leader of Bromley council. I explained to him that he retains, as do all local authorities, the right to issue an article 4 direction to set aside a particular permitted development where it is not appropriate for the area that they represent. That has always been the case and will remain the case with these permitted development rights, which are very popular across the country.

Household Waste

12. What initiatives his Department has put in place to support access by householders to municipal rubbish and recycling centres. (127623)

We are committed to the principle that householders have access to municipal rubbish and recycling centres where they can deposit waste and recycling without charge. The Department’s £250 million weekly collection support scheme will, where appropriate, support local authorities to invest in infrastructure, including municipal rubbish and recycling centres.

I welcome that statement. Does my right hon. Friend understand that Kent county council is preventing council tax payers from accessing their waste recycling centres if they drive a privately owned pick-up truck, or a car decorated with advertisements for a company of any description? That Soviet-like diktat means that private motorists who possess only a pick-up truck are prevented from disposing of legitimate household waste, as are employees of companies that do not generate trade waste, such as driving school instructors. Does he agree with those policies?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Up until this point, I had never seen Kent county council as cigar-chomping commies, but I will certainly pass his remarks on to the leader of the council. Councils have a legal duty to provide a civic amenity site for households free of charge for local residents. It is in a council’s interest to offer those services to reduce fly-tipping and increase recycling. We oppose tip taxes. Indeed, it was the previous Government, a Labour-run Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that actively considered introducing charging households as part of their bin tax agenda. We have consigned Labour’s bin tax to the dustbin of history.

Council Tax Relief

13. What legal advice he has received on whether councils will have to carry out a new consultation process if they adopt a new scheme of council tax relief in order to qualify for the transitional council tax grant. (127624)

As the hon. Lady may know, and as has been the practice of previous Administrations, the Government do not confirm or deny whether legal advice has been received on any issue. Whether further consultation is required is a decision for individual local authorities. Each local authority will have to make a judgment, taking into account the scope of its own initial consultation, the scale of any changes required and whether they require further consultation.

Given that the Minister only weeks ago announced transitional relief should local authorities fulfil certain criteria, will he give them more time to consider and consult on the criteria by extending the deadline beyond 31 January, which is the date by which he said he would impose schemes?

We are very determined to ensure that the local authorities applying for funding—bearing in mind that it is a simple scheme and that we will take the word of their section 151 officers—will have the money in advance and in full in March, which means a tight deadline. However, if local authorities and local authority leaders are looking at improving their scheme, in order to work with the Government’s scheme to protect the most vulnerable, they should challenge their officers over whether they need consultation.

4G Spectrum Revenue

14. Whether he has had discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on using the revenue received by the Exchequer from the forthcoming auction of the 4G mobile telephone spectrum to fund the building of affordable homes. (127626)

16. If he will estimate the potential number of affordable homes, jobs and apprenticeships that would be created if the revenue from the auction of the 4G mobile telephone spectrum was used to fund an affordable house building programme by his Department. (127628)

18. If he will estimate the potential number of affordable homes, jobs and apprenticeships that would be created if the revenue from the auction of the 4G mobile telephone spectrum was used to fund an affordable house building programme by his Department. (127630)

As the 4G auction has not yet taken place, we do not know what the total amount of generated revenue will be, but hon. Members should be aware that £600 million has already been allocated from the fund for science and innovation. We are making great progress in the development of affordable housing, and we hope to have 170,000 more affordable homes over the period, with £19.5 billion of investment.

If the Government did the right thing, the cash could pay for 100,000 social and affordable homes, cut homelessness, create nearly 600,000 jobs, make a major contribution to the economic recovery and help rescue Ministers from their appalling house-building record. Will the Minister stand up to the Chancellor and demand the cash?

No, what I will do is ask the hon. Gentleman where he thinks the £2.5 billion will come from, given that Ofcom put out a press release today saying that it expects the amount raised to be roughly £1.3 billion; remind him that we have already allocated £600 million of the sum; and point out the rather bizarre situation in which the press release to which he refers says that a third of the revenue will be used for affordable rented homes, whereas the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey),on the Labour Front Bench, says that the Labour party is against them.

With the latest affordable housing supply figures showing an across-the-board decrease, does the Minister agree that his Government’s failure to build enough affordable homes and homes for social rent, combined with their economic policies, are fuelling homelessness and rough sleeping?

I am absolutely staggered that the hon. Gentleman asks me that question, bearing in mind that, when his party was in power, 421,000 social houses were lost—became unavailable—whereas the coalition Government are seeking to build 175,000 additional properties.

On the subject of being staggered, the House was certainly so when during the previous DCLG questions the Secretary of State compared himself to Bertie Wooster. Whereas the right hon. Gentleman’s aspirations may be to the Drones club and an agreeable weekend in Blandings castle, many of my constituents want no more than a roof, and many of them want a job. The 4G revenue can provide them with both. Why not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said, stand up to those bloodless mandarins in the Treasury and say, “The people come before some fiscal policy”?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made it clear where he does not want to be: on a bushtucker trial. I was surprised to see the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of admiration, table a take-out question from the Whips Office, and I am disappointed that he has not followed it through with a question that acknowledges the significant contribution that the Government are making to getting a roof over somebody’s head and getting them a job after the mess left by the Labour Government.

May I remind my right hon. Friend that the previous Government built fewer council houses in 13 years than the Thatcher Government built in 10 years? That said, it is quite a good question—can we not take on board what is being proposed?

My hon. Friend must also look at the figures. We do not yet know what will be available, but £600 million has been allocated. There will still be questions about what will happen to house building in the period after the current spending review, and we are looking at that at the moment. Clearly, we want to have more houses, and more affordable homes. That is what we are already delivering, and we want to deliver more.

The Secretary of State knows that millions are locked out of home ownership, that families are struggling to pay ever higher levels of rent in the private rented sector and that council waiting lists are lengthening by the day. Why will he not support the investment of the 4G windfall in a programme that the National Housing Federation has said would result in 100,000 homes being built and more than 500,000 jobs being created? Does he not agree with the director general of the CBI, John Cridland, who has said that that is exactly what the economy needs?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done more than anyone in this House to get house building going, with the additional money that was announced on 6 September, which will result in a further 10,000 affordable homes and bring a further 5,000 empty homes back into use, and with measures involving £200 million to get more privately rented accommodation, additional support for homeless people and so on. My Secretary of State can stand up and be proud of what he has achieved, unlike the Labour Government, who failed people in regard to house building during their 13 years in power.

Metropolitan Fire Services

15. What consideration his Department has given to the proposal by the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities for a flat-rate reduction for all fire services. (127627)

The Government are considering responses to the technical consultation on business rates retention. All representations, including those from the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities, will be considered before final decisions are made. Announcements on funding will be made in December in the usual way.

Why are fire authority areas with a higher incident rate, such as the west midlands, suffering the largest cuts per capita? Can the Minister explain that?

As I have just said, the funding decisions will be made in December in the usual way. Some Opposition Members do not support the idea of a flat line for metropolitan funding, and we are looking at that issue at the moment. The metropolitan brigades also have a higher per head grant in the first place, so there is full funding in there. I have already met a fair number of the metropolitan authorities to discuss this matter, and we will make our decisions and announcements in December.

The Minister will know that fire and rescue services around the country are increasingly being called on to deal with the impact of severe flooding each year. Many of them, especially the metropolitan authorities, are struggling to meet their statutory obligations as a result of the Government’s swingeing cuts to fire and rescue services. Is the Minister happy to leave people who are affected by flooding this year to their own devices, or will he ensure that funding is available to enable the fire and rescue authorities to carry out that non-statutory function?

I want to update the hon. Gentleman on a matter of fact. He might like to have a look at the figures, which show that the cut for fire authorities last year and the year that we are now in was 0.5%, as opposed to the swingeing cut to which he referred. Those authorities continue to do a fantastic job, as we are seeing. Problem with deaths from fire have fallen quite dramatically over the past few years, and the figures that he is citing simply do not add up.

Unauthorised Development/Illegal Encampments

My constituents believe that everyone should be treated equally before the law, and they will welcome the news that councils are to get greater freedom to move quickly to prevent long-drawn-out stalemates such as the one at Dale Farm. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his policy will result in a return to fairness in the planning system, unlike the policies of the Labour Government, which turned a blind eye to unauthorised development?

My hon. Friend is right. Dale Farm was a stain against the reputation of the planning system. We must never allow something like that to happen again. We have gone about this in a systematic way, trying to get a good balance to ensure that funds are readily available for authorities that wish to provide or should provide Traveller sites, but that resources and laws are there to ensure that those who wish to defy the law can be dealt with expeditiously—unlike what happened at Dale Farm.

Neighbourhood Plans

The Government have committed £50 million until March 2015 to enable local authorities to fulfil their legal duty to support neighbourhood planning. We are also providing direct support to front runners—£3.1 million this year to four organisations supporting neighbourhood plan areas.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I hear reports of delays in setting up the processes for neighbourhood forums, and I hear that not all planning officers are enthusiastic about neighbourhood plans. What more can the Government do to turn the Localism Act 2011 from a piece of legislation into a real change in culture and practice?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this to my attention. The fact is that the duty to support neighbourhood planning is the law of the land, and we expect all local authorities and all people who work for them to obey the law of the land. If there is any evidence to the contrary, I look forward to receiving it from her.

Homes for Social Rent (England)

Before I answer the question, I am sure the whole House would wish to join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his elevation to the Privy Council.

As I mentioned earlier, the total number of social rented housing stock fell by a staggering 421,000 units from March 1997 to March 2010.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his disarming answer. Many families in my constituency are stuck on the housing waiting list, and their plight has been made much worse by that sale of houses by Labour. Will he please push the Government strongly to increase their social and affordable housing programme to deliver for my constituents in Hazel Grove?

My right hon. Friend can be absolutely assured that the Department and I will continue to press the Treasury, but he will know that we have already delivered the funding for a programme that will deliver 170,000 affordable homes, and that we have recently announced further funds that will increase the number of affordable homes and the number of empty properties that will be brought back into use. I congratulate my right hon. Friend’s own council on receiving nearly £1 million through the new homes bonus, bringing more units back into use. Nearly £2 million, furthermore, awaits his local authority from the Homes and Communities Agency to do more good work.

Topical Questions

I would like to congratulate the Right Rev. Justin Welby on his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church of England plays a valued and important role in the culture and constitution of our country. The established Church is one of the foundations of the modern British nation. It is entwined with the political liberties and freedoms that the House so jealously guards. This Government value both the role of faith in public life and the spiritual and moral leadership offered by the Church—and we wish the new archbishop well in the coming years.

I am sure the Secretary of State will be aware that one consequence of the deep cuts many local authorities are grappling with, such as the £38 million that Leicester is losing, is that many voluntary and community organisations across the country face a deeply uncertain future. Given that this Government are supposedly committed to a big society, is he proud that many voluntary organisations could, because of his cuts, go to the wall?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but you will recall, Mr Speaker, that the Labour party tried to pull this last year, and went deep into voluntary groups, so we introduced our best value guidance, which makes it clear that there is a procedure to go through—and this year there is a right to bid. If I were a voluntary group in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I would be wanting to take over the local authority’s provision—with the money that goes with it.

T3. Does the Minister agree that we could amend the law to help small businesses by reducing the amount of time between a business rate being appealed against and a local authority going after the money? (127638)

I understand the concerns of businesses—particularly small businesses—and ratepayers who are waiting for appeals to be settled by the Valuation Office. My Department is talking to the office, and we expect to resolve more than 400,000 appeals over 24 months to catch up with the backlog. The delay in the revaluation scheme will actually aid that process.

After the Secretary of State’s shambolic performance in last week’s debate on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, it is clear that he cannot even tell his Hackney from his Haringey. Why did he use out-of-date figures in his ministerial correction the following day when naming Haringey as the worst planning authority, when in the year to June the council that actually had the worst record on deciding major developments within 13 weeks—according to his Department’s figures—was Kensington and Chelsea; or is he just determined to blame a Labour council, as long as it begins with the letter H?

This gives me the opportunity to apologise to Hackney. I of course corrected the record at the first available chance, and wrote to the mayor of Hackney apologising. However, it is with regret that I must tell the House that this is by no means an uncommon occasion. Between 2007 and 2010, there were no fewer than 300-odd apologies and corrections, perhaps the most interesting of which—I am sorry that the former local government Minister has gone—was when Labour mistook Newcastle-under-Lyme for Newcastle upon Tyne and handed £10 million across to the former. I am delighted to say that no money changed hands under my mistake.

That was all very interesting but there was no answer to my question about performance. Let us turn to another shambles.

The Secretary of State’s determination to change the protection of our beautiful national parks from intrusive phone masts and telecoms equipment has caused a great deal of concern. He told the House during the debate last week that clause 7 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill relates “exclusively to broadband”, even though the Bill says no such thing. Will he therefore now commit to introducing an amendment in Committee to make it clear that the authorities will still be able to object to phone masts of any height in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty?

Frankly, the right hon. Gentleman should know better. We replied to his question, and it is clear that such changes can take place only through secondary legislation. We have made it absolutely clear that we are only concerned with broadband, so his rather ridiculous posturing concerning 4G—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman has become obsessed with 4G. He wants money to be spent on this and spent on that—he should do a bit more work and apply himself a bit more.

T4. Cambridge is a rapidly growing city. Its population has grown by some 15,000 in the last 10 years, and more building is happening. However, the new Office for National Statistics population model, which incorrectly predicted a population decline in the last census period, continues, unbelievably, to project a decline. What advice can the Minister give me on how to ensure that his Department uses more appropriate population figures, particularly when considering funding? (127639)

The local government finance statement for 2013-14 will, as usual, use the most up-to-date and nationally consistent data available—not just the data on population, but all the data we use to inform the settlement. I am very aware from my conversations with the hon. Gentleman that there is real concern about the figures for Cambridge, and I am happy to meet him to see whether we can take the matter forward with the ONS.

T6. The chief fire officer in Cleveland is trying to force through the creation of a mutual-type organisation to deliver the fire service that could, in time, have to compete for the contract. Every firefighter I have spoken to tells me they are against this move and see it as a step towards privatisation. Can the Minister guarantee that any such mutual would not face private sector competition for the contract in future, and tell me whether such an organisation could be created without the backing of the employees who would apparently own it? (127641)

I am very disappointed to hear that the hon. Gentleman is against co-operatives and employee ownership. If the fire service does want to go to mutualisation and such a situation does exist, it would be a great thing for the employees to be part of it.

T5. Does the Minister recognise the frustration of high street traders in Dover and Deal, who have to pay high business rates while charity shops conducting business for profit get a complete exemption? The traders feel that that is an unfair competitive advantage and a distortion of the competitive playing field. Will Ministers examine the rightness and properness of the exemption? (127640)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is right that charities receive relief, but we have temporarily doubled small business rate relief, too. That means that approximately a third of a million businesses, including many small independent shops, are currently paying no rates at all. We have also given councils powers to grant their own discounts, and they can use those powers to provide additional relief to other shops on the high street.

Given that on 1 April next year a 10% cut in council tax benefit will be forced on local councils by the Government, and given the confusion on the transitional funding that could be available to help alleviate that, will the Minister give a clear set of guidance to local authorities, because some have already started consulting and might have to set their budgets before they know what they will be getting?

As I said earlier, the scheme that the Government have put in place is £100 million to help councils that want to help the most vulnerable and to make sure that it pays to work. The schemes that councils put in place are a local matter for them. This Government are having to deal with the economic mess we inherited from the previous Government and to get down the bill for council tax benefit, which went from £2 million to nearly £4.5 million under the Labour Government.

T7. Constituents of mine, especially those in the Harlow Hill area of Harrogate, have contacted me as they are concerned about over-intensive housing development. Please could the Minister outline what protections there are for residents in the national planning policy framework? (127642)

The national planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should meet the full objectively assessed housing needs for their area, but that they should choose where exactly that development should take place. The local plan must be consulted on, so my hon. Friend’s constituents in Harlow Hill have every opportunity to put forward their views about any development affecting them.

Going back to the issue of council tax benefit reduction, will the Minister confirm that Birmingham takes the biggest hit in the country—more than £10 million? The transitional grant will not go anywhere near compensating for that, so does he think that the council tax freeze that he trumpets does not apply to the most vulnerable and that their council tax should increase, or that Birmingham city council should squeeze middle-income earners in Birmingham to compensate?

I hope that Birmingham city council will do the right thing and look at its back-office costs and at cracking down on fraud and error, which were worth about £200 million last year alone. I also hope it will make sure that it follows this Government’s outlined scheme to have a council tax freeze for its residents last year, having had council tax double under the previous Labour Government.

T8. Community groups in Galley Common and Whitestone in my constituency are considering forming neighbourhood plans, despite the lack of interest, help or enthusiasm from Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council. Will the Minister join me in encouraging more communities across my constituency to go ahead to form neighbourhood plans and shape their local area? (127644)

I want to do everything to help the people in my hon. Friend’s constituency to adopt a neighbourhood plan, if they can. There is simply no excuse for Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council resisting or dragging its feet. It is remarkable that Labour’s Front-Bench team claims to support neighbourhood plans but Labour councils just try to get in the way.

The ferocity of the Chancellor’s cuts to Wirral council now looks clear, with significant job losses on the horizon. If this was our car factory closing, I would be standing here asking the Government to help, but these are the Government’s own cuts, trained on Wirral. So what can the Secretary of State do to help us?

The hon. Lady needs to understand that these cuts have been brought about by the failure of the last Labour Government, by the level of their deficit and by their inattention to the economy. We protected all local authorities last year—we protected them in terms of the income they received—and all the predictions by Opposition Members proved to be just hot air.

T9. Does the Minister share my concern that councillors are sometimes put off from declining planning permission because of the fear of bearing the full cost of an appeal? Does he agree that that is sometimes acting as a barrier to localism? (127645)

I reassure my hon. Friend that if councils go through the proper process of forming policies and a local plan under the NPPF, they have nothing to fear from appeals to the Planning Inspectorate, which upholds the decision of local authorities in 65% of cases and can award costs against applicants who conduct themselves unreasonably in launching such appeals.

In a recent survey, one in four tenants reported that they had been ripped off by letting agents. Do the Government recognise that and, if so, what are they going to do about it?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. He will be aware, however, that a number of letting agents have come together to form the safe agent scheme. We urge all people using such agencies to look out for that scheme, which gives an absolute guarantee that the funds are available to provide the necessary support.

All the money awarded for the building of a new free school in my constituency should go to benefit our children’s education, so is the Secretary of State surprised to learn that Enfield council is demanding tens of thousands of pounds of that budget for section 106 costs, providing no educational support?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point and I, the planning Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—and the Secretary of State for Education are looking into it as a matter of urgency.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Labour-run councils such as Lewisham and Lambeth are accredited living wage employers. In other parts of London, such as Croydon, local campaigns are under way to persuade councils to become living wage employers, too. Does the Secretary of State back those campaigns?

When the Conservatives took control of North Lincolnshire council in 2011, Labour said that 2,000 jobs would be lost. Instead, free car parking has been introduced, the number of apprenticeships has gone up, council tax has been frozen and a community grant scheme has been introduced. May I commend the leadership of North Lincolnshire council and invite the Secretary of State to pay us a visit?

I already feel the need to book my ticket to visit that fine council. My hon. Friend’s example clearly illustrates the reality of people dealing with budgets and looking after front-line services; the Opposition are the fantasists.