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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 555: debated on Monday 17 December 2012

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Town Centres (Regeneration)

The Government are determined to help our high streets both adapt and compete. That is why we have established over 300 town team partners, provided £10 million to get empty shops back into use and have now extended the business rate relief for small shops, helping half a million enterprises.

The Make it Macclesfield forum is taking forward important regeneration initiatives and, nearby in Poynton, our active town council has introduced a shared spaces scheme. We are fortunate to have such strong local leadership, as well as the invaluable contribution from many small businesses. Will my hon. Friend tell us what steps he is taking to help more small businesses start up on our high streets?

We want to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start up, and that is why today we have opened a new shop in the Department in Victoria street for six businesses to trade, rotating every fortnight. Working with PopUp Britain, we want this shop to be an exemplar for others right across the country. I would say to local government leaders and to landlords, “Let’s take this examplar and roll it out across the country”. I am happy to invite my hon. Friend to see it for himself—and, indeed, the Opposition Front-Bench team, as I hope they will be able to apply this principle and follow our lead across the country.

Wirral council has done a huge amount of work to regenerate Bromborough village and New Ferry town centre in my constituency. It wants to continue doing this into the future, but its ability to do so is severely constrained by cuts. It is the season of good will, so may I ask the Minister to set a new year’s resolution and treat Wirral council better next year than he has this year?

It is a little early for new year’s resolutions, but I am always happy to take a collaborative approach to this issue. It is about funding, but it is also about ensuring that there is innovation on the ground, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) said, it is about strong local leadership, too. I hope that that is what we will see in the Wirral.

I hope there is plenty of passing trade for the pop-up shop at the Minister’s Department. I am pleased to report that there has been plenty of passing trade for the pop-up shop in Chippenham’s Emery Gate centre—it is a worthwhile initiative and I am glad that the Minister supports it. Does he agree that key is the importance of support from the landlords in these shopping centres to ensure that they play their part in helping to have a vibrant town centre from which they ultimately will benefit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I have written today to the British Property Federation to make sure that they understand we mean business on this, and we want make sure that it is able to follow our lead. I look forward to a positive response.

Will the Minister tell us what, if any, business rates the pop-up shop tenants are paying on that property and why it is that the postponed revaluation, which has helped to keep business rates artificially low in places such as Victoria street in London has been used to subsidise artificially high business rates in places such as Rochdale?

The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. With the small business rate relief, the smallest businesses have been removed from paying it, as the Chancellor announced only last week. On the revaluation, what is clear from the Valuation Office is that while it is true that possibly 300,000 businesses might benefit, it is also true that potentially 800,000 people would lose out. That is the problem.

Rural Economy

Following the rural economy growth review, the Government have committed £165 million to growth in rural communities, including £60 million in small grants to farms, forestry and micro-enterprises and £15 million to promote rural tourism. The Government have also dedicated £530 million for superfast broadband in rural areas.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the retained business rate provides a great opportunity for district councils to help businesses, building on the success of Gloucestershire county council in investing money in broadband and promoting careers advice throughout the county, and does he also agree that more would be helpful?

I congratulate my hon. Friend. Following the agreement on broadband that was reached with the European Commission, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire have been allocated £18.1 million. My hon. Friend has made a good point: this gives councils an opportunity to receive money as a right rather than approaching the Government with a begging bowl.

What is the Government’s policy on allowing existing businesses in the rural community to expand their premises?

Our policy can be seen in the national planning policy framework, and also in local plans. A number of local authorities have pioneered the use of redundant farm buildings. Decisions are made on an entirely local basis.

Neighbourhood Planning

This year we awarded £3.1 million to four organisations to help communities to make progress with their plans. We fund the new burdens that local authorities may face, and my Department works closely with many neighbourhood planning areas. As a result, communities are making progress, and the first neighbourhood development plan passed an independent examination last week.

In Erewash, interest has been expressed in the establishment of a neighbourhood plan forum. What further guidance can my hon. Friend offer to ensure that local communities have the information that they require in order to start their projects?

We want to encourage as many communities as possible, both urban and rural, to embrace neighbourhood planning. Only this morning I met a dozen neighbourhood planning groups in London, and I shall be visiting more groups throughout the country in the new year. Local authorities are responsible for providing information and support, and my officials are available at any time to answer questions and offer guidance to anyone who is interested in going down this road.

May I return the Minister to the issue of support for town centres? Does he accept that by including business and commercial projects in the major infrastructure regime, we risk repeating some of the planning mistakes of the 1980s, and allowing a free-for-all for developments on the edges of and outside town centres at the expense of the viability of our town centres?

I do not accept that at all. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have specifically said that we will exclude retail developments from the category of business and commercial schemes that might be subject to the major infrastructure regime. Town Centre First means something to this Government, unlike the last one.

My constituents Andy Faulkner and Deborah Robinson are members of a committee in the village of Yapton, in my constituency, which is putting together a Yapton neighbourhood plan. They are worried about whether the huge effort and time spent by volunteers, and the expense involved in putting the plan together, will prove worth while. When a decision is to be made on a planning application, what weight will be given to the Yapton neighbourhood plan when it is in final draft form but the local plan has not yet been finalised and confirmed?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question, because it is useful to be able to clarify the position for not just Yapton but other communities. It is important for people to understand that the weight given to an emerging neighbourhood plan is in no way contingent on the status of the local plan, and that there is nothing to prevent them from making progress as rapidly as possible.

As a result of huge cuts in local authority budgets, councils’ spending on planning has fallen by 16% and the reduction is likely to reach 25% in the next few years. How will the Minister ensure that funds are available for neighbourhood planning in all areas—including those that are disadvantaged—from 2013 onwards, so that the Government’s commitment to localism is not watered down further ?

I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the Department is offering local authorities £30,000 for every plan produced in their area. Some £5,000 of that becomes available when a neighbourhood forum is designated, and £25,000 becomes available once a plan has been examined, to pay for the cost of examination and the referendum. There is currently a limit on the number of plans that can receive this funding in any given area, but I hope to be able to adjust that limit to ensure we do not constrain further support for neighbourhood plans.

Council Tax

Under the Labour Government, council tax more than doubled. Under this coalition Government, we have frozen council tax, delivering a cut of 4.4% in real terms for hard-working families and pensioners.

In the last two Parliaments I received many letters from pensioners complaining that their council tax was taking up to a third of their income. Under my right hon. Friend’s policy, I have not received so many letters of that nature. Pensioners and others appreciate the falls in council tax. I thank my right hon. Friend for the fact that, under his policy and the careful stewardship of Central Bedfordshire council and Studham parish council, my own council tax fell this year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I suspect his experience is shared by other Members, but I have to tell him that the situation is worse than he thought because, even in opposition, Labour is planning to clobber pensioners. My Department has been almost swamped by demands from Labour councils to have the right to be able to tax pensioners on council tax benefit, as they attempted to tax the poor.

It is possible that in the next financial year more councils, including Conservative-controlled ones, will decide to increase their council tax. Councils are worried that although help has been made available for a council tax freeze, the Government may decide not only not to continue with it beyond 2013, but to withdraw the help made available for previous years, thus creating a black hole in council finances. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance that the money made available in 2013 for the council tax freeze will be made available to councils on a permanent basis?

It is in the base. It goes into the base next year, and I can give a guarantee to the extent that I can guarantee anything with regard to financial support for councils, but if the hon. Gentleman is expecting me to project levels of council tax support beyond the millennium—perhaps well into the next millennium— I have to tell him that I cannot do so. It is wholly erroneous to suggest this is just for one year, however.

19. On neighbour- hood plans, residents of Coton park, a recently completed urban development in Rugby, are enthusiastically setting about preparing their neighbourhood plan as a front-runner under the new national planning policy framework. However, they have had some concerns about the funding of their work, in particular the costs of holding the referendum. Will the Secretary of State provide some reassurance to my constituents? (133616)

With regard to the neighbourhood plan, £25,000 is paid out on completion of the process, which will help towards the costs of the referendum.

Bed-and-Breakfast Accommodation

5. What assessment he has made of progress by his Department in reducing the number of families with children being housed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. (133598)

It is unacceptable and illegal to place families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation except in an emergency and then for no more than six weeks. Numbers peaked in 2002, with nearly 7,000 families affected, and I am sure the hon. Lady will be delighted to know that the figure is now less than a third of that.

Next week, while the Minister is no doubt opening his Christmas presents—which I am sure he will get—there will be thousands of children in pokey bed and breakfasts with their parents, because they have nowhere else to go. He cited some statistics, and I would like to cite some more. The number of families in this situation has risen from 630 in March 2010 to 2,020 in September this year, a jump of more than 200%. Is the Minister proud of that record, and will he ensure that that number is lower by next Christmas?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to express concern about those children and those families. That is why this Government are taking action, with £400 million being provided to help councils deal with homelessness and an additional £350 million to help with the changes in welfare. Those measures will help tackle the appalling situation, but it is better under our Government than it was under hers.

Is not part of the difficulty the fact that families who get into debt and cannot pay their rent are deemed to be intentionally homeless? They therefore receive limited help from local authorities and can find it difficult to get other landlords in the private rented sector to offer them accommodation if they have failed to pay their rent to a previous landlord.

My hon. Friend is right to say that debt is very important. That is why some of the £400 million to which I referred is being made available to improve the level of debt assistance that is given to people. My hon. Friend is also right in that we need to ensure that much more privately rented accommodation is available. That is why we were recently able to announce an additional £200 million and £10 billion of loan guarantees to help improve the situation.

20. There are 2,000 households with children in bed and breakfasts, 880 for more than six weeks. There is room at the inn, but no cooking facilities for Christmas, and the price is an increase in housing benefit. What do the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions say about that? (133617)

The hon. Lady fails to acknowledge the significant reduction in the number of children in those circumstances under this Government. I nevertheless accept it is important that we do everything we possibly can to assist these families. That is why we are taking action with the relevant council and why we are making £390 million available to assist with the changes in welfare benefit, which her Government never did.

Wind Turbines

6. What consideration his Department has given to introducing a minimum separation distance between wind turbines and residential properties. (133600)

We have been clear that wind turbines should not have unacceptable impacts on local communities, but we have not set minimum separation distances nationally, because to do so would cut across localism.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will know of the concerns of many in my constituency and across Lincolnshire about inappropriate onshore wind development. It is fair to say that the localism agenda the Government have pursued has done much to involve local people in the planning process, but there is considerable support in Lincolnshire and across the country for minimum separation distances, which do a lot to encourage public support for onshore wind and allay people’s concerns. I hope that his Department will seriously consider the issue, so that he can come back to the House and tell us what he is going to do.

My hon. and learned Friend and I represent neighbouring constituencies and like him I believe that a minimum separation distance might be appropriate in our flat fenland landscape. That is why, before my appointment as Planning Minister, I supported Lincolnshire county council’s wind energy position statement and urged my planning authority to reflect it in its local plan. However, not all of England is like Lincolnshire—sadly for the rest of England—and a top-down national policy that ignored local variations in topography and local opinion would be wrong.

It is interesting to hear of the Minister’s interest in the noise and disruption allegedly caused by wind turbines. Would he therefore apply the same rule to the fans in energy from waste plants such as the one in Plymouth, which is 200 metres from people’s homes? Will he explain why the Department chose to call in two other applications for waste to energy plants but not the one in Plymouth?

The rule I would apply is that wherever possible it should be left to local authorities to make those decisions. However, there are a few cases where applications have significance beyond local authority boundaries and it is therefore impossible for one local authority to decide. In the case the hon. Lady mentions, I would imagine that that criterion was not fulfilled.


The latest statistics show that homelessness is just half what it was in 2003 at its peak. However, despite the tough financial climate, we are investing £470 million to ensure that England continues to provide vulnerable people and vulnerable families with a strong safety net protected in law.

I really wonder whether the Minister has ever seen the fear in the eyes of a woman who can no longer pay her rent, does not know where the family will go, and does not know if her children can stay in the same school and if she will lose her job. Statutory homelessness has risen dramatically over the period of this Government. The Secretary of State warned the Prime Minister that it would go up by tens of thousands as a consequence of Government policies. What has the Minister got to say to that?

The right hon. Lady is right to make it a personal issue, because it is a personal issue, which is why last week I spent time with rough sleepers, who were out on the streets at night, to see for myself exactly the point she raises. I say to her that we are dealing with homelessness at its root, which means we are making sure we have a proper safety net that we have strengthened by making it easier to take people into settled and not temporary accommodation. It is why we are making sure that more people are going into work, so that they do not find themselves in difficulty, and we are making sure that we expand the private rental sector and build more homes. Sadly, I have to say that we saw the number of social homes in this country fall by nearly half a million under the last Labour Government.

As a member of Kettering borough council, may I share with the Minister the good news that in 2011 in the borough of Kettering, in a population of 90,000, there were only 76 valid homelessness applications? That is half the number of the peak in 2007 and is largely due to the very good efforts of John Conway and the housing team at Kettering borough council in providing support to tenants to prevent homelessness in the first place.

I strongly endorse Mr Conway’s work. The key word is prevention: that is the challenge and it is why, working with the charities, we are acting to prevent homelessness by dealing with its root causes and some of the issues behind it.

I draw attention to my interest as declared in the register.

In essence, the Minister’s reply repeated the response given by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) to an earlier question about bed and breakfast by quoting a figure from the period of the last Labour Government and comparing it with a lower figure from the present. Frankly, that is statistically unworthy of a Minister. Will the Minister and his colleagues now recognise that there was a dramatic reduction in homelessness and in the placing of families in bed and breakfast under the Labour Government and that, in both cases, that trend is now reversing? Will he accept responsibility for the problem?

I have some respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but the reality is that we saw half a million social homes lost under the last Labour Government and the lowest rate of house building in peacetime since the 1920s. The responsibility rests with those on the Opposition Benches.

My local authority has significant numbers of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, some for more than six weeks. Is not the key to solving the problem to get our mortgage market working, both so that more people can get buy-to-let mortgages to increase supply in the private sector and so that more people can buy their own home and councils do not face competition in securing private lets?

My hon. Friend makes an eloquent point; it is about both supply and demand. If we get housing supply and demand right, that will start to deal with the huge problem we inherited. My hon. Friend is absolutely right on mortgages too. I am pleased to say that the Council of Mortgage Lenders pointed out that repossessions are at their lowest for five years.

With housing starts down and private rents up to record levels, England is now gripped by the biggest housing crisis in a generation. Homelessness, which fell under Labour, is once again soaring: homeless families in bed and breakfast, homeless young people in hostels and too many homeless sleeping on our streets. Does the Minister not accept that the most potent symbol of failure is the fact that 75,000 children will wake up on Christmas morning in temporary accommodation or bed and breakfast, without a roof over their head that they can call their own?

The hon. Gentleman refers to the Shelter campaign about 75,000 people not having a roof over their head at Christmas time. He is right to do so, because the campaign also says that the answer is more affordable homes. We are committed to doing that, and we are committed to making sure that we expand the private rental sector. This is a problem that has been around for two or three Governments and we want to make sure we deal with both the surface problem and the issues behind it.

Local Authority Funding

We have consulted widely with the local government sector and have given close consideration to the wide variety of responses that we received. We will publish the settlement for 2013-14 shortly.

Wigan metropolitan borough has faced cuts of £108 per person, with more to come, despite high levels of deprivation and a high number of people with life-limiting illnesses. West Oxfordshire, on the other hand, has had cuts of £34 per person, despite much lower levels of deprivation and health issues. Does the Minister think that this is fair?

Putting aside the baseline from which councils start, we have to bear it in mind that metropolitan areas such as Manchester have had a city deal worth about £1.5 billion, the new homes bonus, enterprise zones and £25 million in Growing Places funds. Local authorities should look at everything they are doing. There is £60 billion of procurement across local authorities. They can look at integrated shared management services. They should be cracking down on fraud and error, which last year alone cost £200 million.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House in outline how the business rate retention scheme will offer strong financial incentives for councils to go for economic growth?

My hon. Friend is correct. The new scheme that changes local government finance from next year will give them two key advantages. First, they will have the ability to achieve growth in their income if they see economic growth. Secondly, and more importantly for their communities, they will have the opportunity and the incentive to be part of driving local economic growth and to see new businesses come in and more residents in employment.

The Minister will, I hope, know that population is a key factor affecting the total resources allocated. Can he confirm that he will use the population projections based on the 2011 census, not earlier estimates or projections?

Does the Minister accept that too many central initiatives do not reach rural areas, and that if we are to ensure that people in rural areas have access to services, we need to ensure that that is put right?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that rural areas—I represent a rural area in Norfolk, as he knows—have different issues from metropolitan and urban areas. It is important that those local authorities have the flexibility and the powers, which they now have under the general power of competence, to make decisions about what is right for their local community, bearing in mind its make-up and style.

In the debates on the Local Government Finance Bill, the Government voted down all attempts to have levels of need considered when funding is allocated to local authorities, yet the result of their current policy is that the 10 most deprived authorities in this country face cuts in spending power eight times greater than the 10 least deprived authorities. When the Secretary of State announces next year’s settlement, will he attempt to rectify this injustice or will he, like the Chancellor, make the poorest and the most vulnerable pay the price for the Government’s disastrous economic policy?

I am somewhat surprised at the hon. Lady’s question, bearing in mind that this Government inherited a problem with a number of authorities that had been left on the cliff edge by the previous Government. It is this Government who brought in the transition grant for those authorities. There are still 12 of them left; after the finance settlement we will see what the new position is. It is a disgrace that the Opposition can sit there and comment about the authorities that they left hanging out to dry facing that financial cliff, which this Government have helped to fix.

Fly-tipping and Graffiti

10. What advice he has given to local authorities in respect of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 on the use of surveillance cameras to identify those committing fly-tipping and graffiti offences. (133605)

The Protection of Freedoms Act introduced new measures to stop the abuse of surveillance by town halls, delivering on promises made, as I am sure my hon. Friend will remember, by both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats before the general election. Surveillance is now restricted to serious crimes and requires a magistrate’s warrant. Guidance has been produced by the Home Office.

Could the Secretary of State advise us on how local authorities can best tackle fly-tipping and graffiti offences which, in the eyes of many people, are serious antisocial offences that cause nuisance to neighbourhoods?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. If graffiti and fly-tipping are so serious, his council can go to a magistrates court and obtain a warrant so that surveillance can take place; otherwise they would have to pursue the normal process of dealing with fly-tipping and graffiti.

Community Pubs

Within the past fortnight I have been pleased to announce £150,000 of extra funding for Pub is The Hub, which helps preserve and expand traditional rural services for pubs and helps them innovate and remain sustainable. Other support measures include the new community right to bid, the national planning policy framework and the doubling of business rate relief until 2014.

I draw the Minister’s attention to Amber Taverns, based in my constituency, which has turned around literally dozens of inner-city urban pubs facing hard times by focusing on a competitive beer price, free sport and a good environment that attracts local people. Does not that show that the pub can and does have a future?

Absolutely. I congratulate Amber Taverns on the work it is doing to support the development and enhancement of community pubs in the north of England. Such companies—there are others across the country—are clearly demonstrating that, through innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, pubs absolutely can and should continue to thrive, and indeed are thriving, in the heart of our communities. I look forward to meeting representatives of Amber Taverns and seeing their work at first hand in the near future.

Urban community pubs are also of great importance. What cross-departmental work is the Minister doing to ensure that supermarkets do not use alcohol as a loss leader?

The Prime Minister has already announced the consultation on minimum pricing for alcohol, and I am sure that he will report back on that in due course.

Talking of supermarkets, the Minister will be aware that supermarkets are deliberately targeting pubs, often sold to them by indebted pub companies, without the community having any say whatsoever. As someone who believes in the pub and in localism, he cannot accept that. Will he meet the all–party save the pub group to tell us how he plans to change that?

Surely the Minister must agree that the Government’s counter-productive austerity measures are only making matters worse. They have sucked demand out of the economy by cutting too far and too fast, exacerbating the decline of the pub trade. To make matters worse, his predecessor scrapped the community pubs initiative, which was worth £3.5 million. Does he not understand that the public want real action, not warm words and crocodile tears, from Ministers, who have abdicated their responsibility to the local communities they are supposed to serve?

I was waiting for the hon. Gentleman to talk up the great British pub, which is a superb facility for local communities, but clearly he does not share that view. When he stands up to talks about cuts, he might want to think about outlining the £52 billion of cuts Labour projected it would make in the Department, even though it is yet to support a single thing the Department has done to reduce the deficit.

National Planning Policy Framework (Older People)

13. What guidance the national planning policy framework contains for the consideration of the needs of older people. (133608)

The national planning policy framework requires councils to use their evidence base to ensure that their local plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the area, including the housing needs of older people.

The broad conclusion of a conference I chaired recently on the national planning policy framework and older citizens was that, with real strategic vision, older people’s lives could be improved and considerable savings could be made in both the NHS and social services. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a delegation of representatives to discuss that further?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and others to discuss that. He is right that imaginative housing schemes for older people can save money for the NHS and social services. They can also make it more attractive for older people to move out of their family homes, thereby helping to meet the pressing housing needs of young families.

Green Belt

The Government attach great importance to the green belt, which prevents urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. Subject to the strategic environmental assessments, we are abolishing the last Government’s top-down regional strategies, which threatened the green belt in 30 towns and cities across the country. In addition, our new planning guidance on Traveller sites makes it clear that such sites, whether temporary or permanent, are inappropriate development on the green belt.

Villagers in Affetside in my constituency are worried that their concerns about a proposal to erect a 113-foot-high wind turbine in their village may not be listened to. Can my right hon. Friend give them, and others in a similar position who are facing the imposition of these giant wind turbines within the green belt, any further reassurance?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and of course his constituents will be listened to. It is immensely important, though, to understand the wise words uttered by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), a few moments ago. Planning is essentially a plan-based operation, and we look to local planning authorities to determine where a wind farm or a single turbine might go and, in particular, where they might not. If they do that, I think that my hon. Friend’s constituents will feel much more relaxed about the issue.

Developers in my constituency tell me that they can make far more money building on the green belt than on brownfield sites. Is not the reality that decontamination of brownfield sites in boroughs such as Sefton is needed to protect the green belt and boost the economy?

This is a continuation of a question that the hon. Gentleman asked me in the Select Committee. The truth is that we are making money available to ensure that contaminated brownfield sites can be dealt with. He is making an enormous mistake in suggesting that all brownfield sites are undevelopable; that is entirely wrong. Some brownfield sites are green and some greenfield sites are brown.

What overall impact does the Secretary of State estimate that the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will have on the green belt given the national planning policy framework that is now in place?

The green belt remains very safe and sound in coalition care. The position is clearly laid out in the national planning policy framework, and the Bill does not affect the green belt one iota.

Land for House Building

15. What estimate he has made of the amount of open land required for house building in the next 20 years; and if he will make a statement. (133610)

This Government do not set top-down Whitehall housing targets. It is for elected local councils to determine, through their local plans, where development should and should not go and how best to meet housing need,.

The Labour party in government believed in effective levels of urban density and city centre development. Rather than abusing the National Trust and other big-society opponents of sprawl as Luddites, why do not Ministers end their assault on the English countryside, start working with developers to ensure that the 400,000 homes with planning permission are actually built, and end the homelessness crisis now?

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is a historian, and he should know from the previous Government’s record that at that time we saw the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s. It is important to get the affordable homes built, sometimes making sure that we use empty homes and sometimes that we build on brownfield—and yes, we will occasionally want to make sure that greenfield land is used where that is appropriate.

Wiltshire council, Swindon borough council and the local parish councils of Purton and Lydiard Millicent have, over very many years, strongly and unanimously opposed the application to build 700 houses on green fields at Ridgeway farm in my constituency, yet last week the inspector allowed it under the regional spatial strategy figures. Given that it is not in the green belt—we do not have green-belt land in Wiltshire—what can local people do to prevent unwanted developments of this kind on greenfield sites across my constituency?

My hon. Friend will know that I cannot refer directly to individual cases and he will understand the quasi-legal reason for that, but I would say that a robust local plan is absolutely the right way to do this. Sadly, under the previous Government we did not have that; we just had regional plans instead.

Social Housing

17. What estimate he has made of the number of people living in social housing who have an income of over £100,000 per annum. (133613)

We have estimated, based on data taken from the last three English housing surveys, that between 1,000 and 5,000 social tenant households earn over £100,000 per annum. We have consulted on proposals to charge these households a fairer rent and will respond to this consultation by the end of March.

My right hon. Friend will realise that speaking from a position where I am privileged to represent more council tenants than any other English MP, I recognise that council tenancies are very valuable and appreciated. However, given the length of the queue, a lot of people feel that it is wrong for those with an income in six figures to have the privilege of security of tenure and not to pay a higher price for that privilege. May I encourage him to see whether he can find a solution to this long-running problem?

My right hon. Friend first raised this issue on the Floor of the House in 1988, and I am sure that, 24 years later, he is delighted that the coalition is listening to him. He is absolutely right: we have to make better use of affordable housing. That is why we have consulted on the issue and why we are going to build more affordable housing.

I suppose that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) deserves credit for consistency. I cannot think of many things that I was saying in 1988 that I am still saying today, but there you go.

Nor can I, Mr Speaker—I am trying to think of something, but I cannot.

My local council thinks that £40,000 should be the cut-off figure and that that will solve the housing crisis. However, it has just responded to a freedom of information request from me by stating that, in the past five years, it has let just under 8,000 properties and that only nine of those can be identified as for people on incomes of more than £40,000. Is this not just a smokescreen to cover up the fact that council properties are being sold off when they become empty, knocked down and not replaced, and that measures such as the Growth and Infrastructure Bill are actually reducing the availability of affordable accommodation? This is a piece of nonsense and propaganda.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about nonsense, he should remember that, under the Labour Government, 421,000 affordable homes went out of use. Under this Government, the right to buy is being strengthened so that there is a one-for-one replacement. In addition, we are building more affordable homes and more homes for rent.

Housing (Armed Forces and First-time Buyers)

21. What steps he is taking to support (a) first-time buyers and (b) former members of the armed forces with housing. (133618)

We announced an extra £280 million on 6 September to extend the Firstbuy scheme. This means we will help some 27,000 first-time buyers into home ownership by March 2014. Former members of the armed forces have priority to access this scheme up to 12 months after discharge.

Will my hon. Friend update us on how local government housing associations are prioritising former armed forces personnel and their families, who have served their country so well?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I suspect he knows, we have changed the law so that ex-service personnel who have urgent housing needs are always given additional preference for social housing by local councils. I think that will make an important difference.

In Northern Ireland, the military covenant would need to be in place to ensure that ex-service personnel would have the opportunity to get housing. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that that happens?

I shall certainly make sure, as the record of the House will show, that my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are made aware of that. As the Minister responsible for housing in England, I suspect it would be wiser for me not to cross the Irish sea.

Topical Questions

While the irony of your earlier remarks sinks in, Mr Speaker, I will inform the House, ahead of Wednesday’s local government settlement, that it is clear that every part of the public sector needs to do its bit to pay off Labour’s deficit. My Department is cutting its running costs by 44% and will shortly publish best-practice guidance for councils on how they, too, can make sensible savings. A written statement published today outlines how Sir Ken Knight will undertake a review into savings in the fire and rescue service, protecting front-line fire engines and fire stations, but cutting waste, inefficiency and out-of-date practices. Finally, the pop-up shop, which opened in my Department today, shows how councils can use their property assets to better effect, both to support small firms and to save taxpayers’ money. Truly—Napoleon was right—we are a nation of shopkeepers.

Could the Secretary of State tell the House why the Government are holding back £300 million- worth of early intervention funding over the next two years? If, as rumoured, it is for payment by results, how does he expect cash-strapped councils to be able to afford the vital prevention and early intervention work and programmes when they have to manage a cut of more than 40% in budgets over the lifetime of this Parliament?

I will make a statement covering this issue on Wednesday. The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is important to understand that part of the settlement has meant the rolling up of a number of previously ring-fenced grants. This one has been retained. The money that has been held back will be applied to local authorities. I can tell the hon. Lady that her figure is not entirely right; I think she might be pleased by the settlement.

T5. Research has shown that trade unions receive a subsidy of £113 million at taxpayers’ expense. We all believe in trade unions and think that they are a force for good, but does my right hon. Friend agree that local taxpayers will be surprised to hear that their council tax is subsidising trade union activity in local authorities? (133624)

I am glad that my hon. Friend is a massive fan of trade unions. Indeed, I believe that the trade union movement has done many marvellous things for this country. One thing that has been great is its independence from employers, and I am desperately worried that the taxpayers’ money that is subsidising trade unions might impinge on that independence. I will shortly be issuing guidance to local authorities about how we might strengthen trade unions by removing some of their funding.

How many people who go out to work of a morning does the Secretary of State estimate will see their council tax rise next April because he has decided that people on low earnings should pay more council tax?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong in his premise. It is his party that says that pensioners should pay. It is his party that is seeking to tax the poor. It is my party and the Liberal Democrats that are offering some support. The right hon. Gentleman had better look after his own party before he comes here and lectures us.

The Secretary of State, of course, did not want to answer the question. The answer is that nearly 800,000 people who go out to work every morning face a potential rise in their council tax bill next April, when people who are on the top rate of tax will get a tax cut. If we look at what is happening in his own back yard, Brentwood borough council has just published a case study on its own scheme, which I have here. Under its proposals, a working mum who works more than 24 hours a week could see her council tax bill rise by more than £600 a year. Why is he so hellbent on penalising people who go out to work?

That, of course, was before we intervened and offered our process, which will protect people and ensure that nobody has to pay more than 8.5%. What does the right hon. Gentleman say about his own councils, which are looking to make people pay 30% on council tax? He has been singularly neglectful in his duty. He knows that his Government, had they been successful at the last election, would have made £52 million of cuts. So far, he has not accepted a single one of our cuts. The right hon. Gentleman is inconsistent in his consistency.

In answer to Question 1, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing referred to PopUp Britain and pop-up shops. Was that just a bright idea within his Department, or did he get professional advice from people who are actually in business?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am glad to say that the sponsors for PopUp Britain included Intuit and the John Lewis Partnership.

T2. When I worked in the homelessness sector under the last Government, statutory homelessness fell by 70%. Last week’s “Panorama” programme showed the heartbreaking human cost of this Government’s appalling record on homelessness: homelessness is up, rough sleeping is up and more families are stuck in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer. What are this Government going to do about it? (133621)

We are taking a proactive role to ensure that rough sleeping in particular does not happen. That is what “No second night out” is all about. In London, where it has been trialled, 70% of people spend just one night on the streets. We need to tackle those numbers, but it is wrong to simply say that everything is gloomy; there is good action, there are positive ideas from councils and we have to work together.

If the Secretary of State decides to designate a local planning authority, under proposed new section 62A to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, planning applications can be made directly to him. What mechanisms will be in place to ensure that the influence of local people through consultation is not reduced if the voice of local authorities is excluded from the process?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, because that is an important point. In the very few cases in which planning authorities are designated as poorly performing, it will be possible for major applications to be referred directly to the Planning Inspectorate. After relentless questioning from her Liberal Democrat colleagues in Committee, I came to understand that it is particularly important that the Planning Inspectorate is given clear guidance that it should consider using local hearings, so that people can put their views across, rather more regularly than it does for appeals, when local views have already been taken into account. I have already started discussions with the Planning Inspectorate to ensure that that happens.

T3. The Secretary of State is leaving the financial settlement for local government until the last minute, and there is great unfairness among the most deprived councils in the country. For example, in Stoke-on-Trent we are having to pay an extra £130.75 per person because of cuts, whereas in the Secretary of State’s own constituency the sum is £29.40. Will he take that into account in the financial settlement before he finalises it, so that there is fairness for local councils? (133622)

Of course there will be fairness in the system, but we need to understand that one reason why the hon. Lady’s authority is facing a larger cut than mine is that it receives a much larger amount. I think Labour expects my authority not only to contribute to the pot but to have its entire grant removed, and then it expects us to increase taxation. I remind her that it was Labour that left a number of vulnerable authorities dangling over a cliff edge and the coalition Government who put money into pulling Labour’s irons out of the fire.

Villagers in Martley in my constituency are keen to develop their own neighbourhood plan, but the district council has told them that their alternative to a greenfield site might mean that both sites end up being developed. Will the Minister please clarify the situation for my constituents?

It is obviously difficult for me to talk about an individual case, but I would be happy to hear more about it from my hon. Friend. It is important that neighbourhood plans strengthen the powers of local communities to determine where development should and should not happen. If the neighbourhood plan is in general conformity with the local plan, the neighbourhood plan’s policies will take priority and will help protect her constituents from unwanted development on speculative sites.

T4. In towns and cities across England, local authorities are being forced to close museums, shut care homes and end library provision, but the Government found £250 million to empty the bins more regularly. What kind of abysmal, philistine, reactionary Government put dustbins above library books? (133623)

The people who are putting dustbins above those things are people who care about the general service provided to the electorate. The hon. Gentleman is a bit of a luvvie, so no doubt he is looking intensely at the drop in culture, but that is a matter for local decision, and he is wholly wrong. People should look at how an authority can get more money in by exploiting and using its cultural heritage. Frankly, he is just lining up a bunch of luvvies. He should listen a little bit more.

A proposed housing development in Micklethwaite in my constituency was rightly rejected by Bradford council, the appeal was rightly rejected by the planning inspector and that decision was upheld by the Secretary of State. The courts have sent it back to him for redetermination. May I urge him to stick to his guns and reject that unwanted planning application? If he wants to come back to Micklethwaite to reacquaint himself with the area and see how inappropriate the application is, he will be welcomed by local residents.

I know Micklethwaite well, but we will consider the matter in a quasi-judicial way. We will ensure that the views of the residents of Micklethwaite and the council are given due weight, and I hope to announce my decision in the near future.

T7. The Home Secretary recently refused to give me any information about the impact on local services, such as housing and community services, of the ceasing of the restriction on migration from Bulgaria and Romania. Does the Secretary of State have an estimate of how housing and other community services will be affected by that change? (133626)

As far as I am aware, we have only anecdotal evidence, which is not sufficient for someone of the hon. Gentleman’s stature.

My constituents in Sandbach are furious that the Hind Heath road planning application, for 269 houses on prime agricultural greenfield land, has been granted on appeal. The pressures on road surfaces and infrastructure will be unsustainable, and the decision flies in the face of localism, as the area was not classed for development under the Sandbach town plan. Will the Minister explain how development on such a wholly unsustainable site can be justified and what can be done to ensure that further, similar applications by developers are not granted across my constituency?

My hon. Friend has been a tireless advocate for the residents of Sandbach. She will understand that I cannot comment on particular cases, but I think it is fair to say that her local authority has been a bit backwards in coming forwards with a local plan. However, I am glad to say that, under its energetic new leadership, it has recently published a draft plan for public consultation, which will provide her constituents with a defence against speculative development.

T8. The Secretary of State will know that 17 fire stations in London have been earmarked for closure, including Downham in my constituency. Given those front-line cuts to emergency services, is it right that Boris Johnson’s 10 closest advisers have a combined salary packet of more than £1 million? (133627)

There is an integrated risk management plan for London. It is good that the London fire commissioner has said he is committed to maintaining the current standards for the time it takes for fire engines to get to incidents. Therefore, it will be a local decision based on local need, taking into account clear local risks.

At this Christmas time, when many robins feature on Christmas cards, and given that the Secretary of State is Parliament’s pre-eminent ornithologist, can he tell the House what his Department is doing to protect Britain’s declining common bird population?

I think I am more of an undignified twitcher than an ornithologist. Clearly, there is the wildlife directive and we look to ensure the protection of various species, but we have to understand that in the nature of the way that agriculture and the like are changing, the patterns we have seen traditionally among British birds are likely to change in the decades to come. That will be to the benefit of some species and to the detriment of others.

Ministers have sent out a strong message to London councils that they should not be placing homeless households far outside the capital and away from their community network support and children’s schools. On Friday, however, I met a gentleman in employment who is being placed in Milton Keynes. Will the Minister tell me if it is acceptable for the gentleman to be placed in homeless accommodation and immediately lose his job, and if anyone is in charge?

We have recently introduced new rules that make it absolutely clear that local authorities have to ensure that the accommodation they provide is reasonable, and that they must take into account issues such as jobs and education.