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Topical Questions

Volume 555: debated on Monday 17 December 2012

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the fire and rescue service, protecting front-line fire engines and fire stations, but cutting waste, inefficiency and out-of-date practices.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.