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Topical Questions

Volume 553: debated on Monday 12 November 2012

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 Why did he use out-of-date figures in his ministerial correction the following day when naming Haringey as the worst planning authority, when in the year to June the council that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.