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Department's Work (Christmas Recess)

Volume 556: debated on Monday 7 January 2013

I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 20 December 2012.

Helping hard-working families with council tax

On 1 January, my Department highlighted new legislation that takes effect in April 2013 which allows local taxpayers to choose to pay their bill over 12 months rather than 10, if they wish. This new right will make it easier for those on fixed incomes to manage their bills, and would lower the average band D council tax instalment by an average of £24 per month for 10 months.

This builds on the support that the coalition Government have already announced for local authorities and police and crime commissioners in England to help them freeze council tax for a third year and assist in keeping the cost of living down. The Government have set aside £450 million in the autumn statement. Taxpayers living in an average band D home in England could save up to £72 compared to a 5% increase, while the cumulative effect of the three years’ worth of freezes is potentially worth over £200 to band D residents. I hope hon. Members will encourage their local authorities to take up this year’s freeze offer.

Tackling council tax fraud helps reduce bills for law-abiding citizens. I intend to lay and publish this week draft affirmative regulations, including setting out the powers which local authorities will have to combat fraud in the council tax system and to prosecute those who commit criminal acts. These regulations will ensure that local authorities continue to be able to tackle fraud when council tax benefit is replaced by local council tax reduction schemes in April, and are consistent with those that prevent fraud in the welfare benefit system. Reflecting the coalition Government’s commitment to civil liberties, we have scaled back existing state powers which we believe to be disproportionate.

A fairer and simpler planning system

The coalition Government believe in fair play, with everyone abiding by the same rules. On 21 December, we launched a consultation on proposals to give councils greater freedom to prevent unauthorised traveller sites and the small minority who abuse planning rules. Under proposals, councils would be given greater freedom to determine whether to use temporary stop notices in relation to caravans that are in breach of planning control, and are used as a person’s main residence. This would be backed up with the potential for fines of up to £20,000 on a summary conviction or an unlimited fine on indictment. Subject to the outcome of the consultation, proposals will allow councils to act quickly to stop unauthorised sites before they become established, saving on the costs of enforcement and preventing long-term harm to the environment and local amenity.

The coalition Government are committed to making the planning system simpler, more efficient and more effective. On 21 December, my Department launched a consultation to consider the recommendations of the external review group on planning practice guidance led by Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, to rationalise the volumes of unwieldy and contradictory advice. The goal is to make practice guidance easier to understand for both practitioners and the public. This does not involve any change to planning policy, which is laid out in the national planning policy framework.

On 27 December, my Department outlined our response to the consultation paper on streamlining information requirements for planning applications. This will encourage a more proportionate approach to the information that applicants are required to provide with outline planning applications, reducing administrative costs to both applicants and councils, while ensuring that all interested parties continue to be well informed of the details of any proposed application.

A fairer deal for taxpayers on local government pensions

On 21 December, my Department published a consultation seeking responses from interested parties on draft regulations for the new local government pension scheme to come into force in April 2014 relating to membership, contributions and benefits. This represents a key step in the process of reform that began with the commitment given in the coalition Government’s programme to review the long-term affordability and sustainability of public service pension schemes.

Figures for the last financial year show that the local government pensions scheme cost £7.5 billion. Employers—i.e. taxpayers—contributed £5.9 billion towards maintaining staff pensions. The cost to the public is equivalent to £320 a year for average band D council tax. Yet, for the first year, the cost of local authority pension taxpayer-funded contributions has actually fallen, and these further reforms will protect taxpayers’ interests while protecting those on low and moderate incomes.

Cutting intrusive red tape

On 21 December, my Department wrote to local authorities to make clear that equality impact assessments are not a legal requirement. Indeed, they can be resource intensive and take staff away from planning and delivering important public services. We also reminded councils that statutory guidance makes clear that councils do not need to undertake unnecessary lifestyle or “diversity” questionnaires of their local residents and suppliers. I will shortly be giving guidance to my Department’s arm’s length bodies on the same issue.

On Boxing day, the media reported how residents in Stockport, Cheshire East and Manchester were being asked about their sexual preferences when they responded to a consultation on a proposed road improvement. This is a typical example of how the public sector wastes money on pointless and intrusive bureaucracy.

A helping hand on housing

On 20 December, my Department launched the new £200 million build to rent fund which will boost the construction of new homes specifically for private rent. By financing the construction of rental homes until they are built, let out and managed, the fund will give developers the freedom to build homes specifically for that market with confidence. An expert taskforce will also work to boost investor awareness of the fund and offer practical support to those interested in this new market. The prospectus for the fund has been published on the Homes and Communities Agency’s website.

Over Christmas, Ministers highlighted the help available to those sleeping rough through the new StreetLink hotline and website. StreetLink, run by charities Homeless Link and Broadway with funding from my Department, offers a valuable alternative to a cash handout for people sleeping rough. This will support the “no second night out” initiative as it is extended across the country. In London, where “no second night out” has been adopted, already 70% of rough sleepers have not spent more than one night on the streets.

On 2 January, my Department highlighted new deregulation that will cut red tape and costs for homeowners and businesses alike. Changes are being made to the building regulations regime in England to deliver an even better and more cost-effective way of ensuring our buildings remain safe and sustainable. The changes will deliver savings of around £50 million per year to business and will come into force from April 2013. Changes to remove the requirement to notify simple and low risk electrical works will mean that householders keen to improve their home no longer need to pay £240, or more, to their local council to have simple electrical jobs checked.

New Years Honours

I wish to congratulate to all those working in the local government, housing, fire and voluntary and community sector that were recognised in the new year’s honours list acknowledging their valued contribution to society.

I have placed in the Library of the House a copy of the associated documents and press notices relating to these announcements.