Skip to main content

Communities and Local Government

Volume 558: debated on Monday 4 February 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Tax Benefit

Spending on council tax benefit doubled under the last Administration, and welfare reform is vital to tackle the budget deficit we inherited from the last Labour Government. Replacing council tax benefit with local support schemes gives councils control over how to achieve a 10% saving, and a direct incentive to help local people into work.

At a time when the Government are giving massive tax cuts to the rich, will the Minister explain why council tax will increase for low-paid families, disabled people and single mums in St Helens?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make the case clearly to his own local authority, which is looking at a scheme at the moment that would not necessarily do the most to help local people into work. The whole point of what we are doing is that it will give local councils the power to be part of their local economy, to drive economic growth and to get people back into work.

One council told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee that the reduction would create additional financial pressures through administration and debt collection, as well as having an effect on services such as debt advice, welfare support and housing advice, and a huge effect on homelessness. Given that that was Tory-controlled Croydon council, does the Minister accept that even his own friends recognise that this is an ill thought out cut that will hurt the poorest?

Similarly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will talk to Corby council about coming up with a scheme that will help people back into work. Our scheme will give local authorities the power to look at what their communities need and to deliver for their communities. It will then be up to the communities to hold their councils to account, as I hope they will in Corby.

Manchester city council could more than make up the loss of council tax benefits from empty and second homes, but is instead planning to force thousands of people to pay extra council tax. Does the Minister agree that this is yet another example of Labour-run councils making the wrong choices and attacking the vulnerable?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Like the two Labour authorities that I have just mentioned, that is another that is not putting its local people first. It really needs to look at its schemes again and put local people first.

In December, the Secretary of State tried to justify his plan to increase council tax bills for people on low incomes, including his own constituents. He assured the House that he had intervened to

“protect people and ensure that nobody has to pay more than 8.5%.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 559.]

Is it still the case that no one in Brentwood will have to pay more than 8.5%?

The right hon. Gentleman gives me another chance to highlight that what we are doing is taking control of a situation in which council tax doubled under the last Government and council tax benefits rose from around £2 billion to £4.5 billion. That benefit has to be got under control as part of deficit reduction, and I wonder whether it would be part of the £52 billion of cuts from his own Government’s proposals that he has not yet even outlined.

Once again, we have no answer to a straight, factual question. The Minister is in denial. The answer is 20% in Brentwood. Why is that? It is because councils up and down the country, Tory and Labour, have been put in an impossible position by Ministers. Is it not the truth that

“the very lowest paid are going to be in a very difficult place”?

Those are not my words but those of the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association. While the Secretary of State has been travelling up and down the country lecturing councils about not increasing their council tax, he has all along been masterminding a council tax increase for those who can least afford it. Does he not understand that the public will see that happening in the very same month that the top rate of tax is cut, and that they will say, “This is unfair”?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman oversimplifies things. Local authorities have, as we have said, the right to look at their local communities and design schemes that they think are right for them, in contrast to the central diktat that the last Government used to impose. The authority that he has mentioned in Brentwood is a good example, because what he did not mention was the way it had changed the taper to ensure that it will pay to work.

Small Shops (Rates)

The Government have taken significant steps to help small retailers, including doubling the level of small business rates relief for a further year until March 2014. This will benefit 500,000 small and medium-sized businesses.

I am grateful for that answer. Business rates for shops are a particular concern for small shops in my constituency. Has my hon. Friend’s Department carried out any analysis to ascertain how many local authorities are using the powers provided in the Localism Act 2011 to give discretionary rate relief to small businesses? If not, what can be done to encourage them to use them more extensively?

We are collecting that information right now, and we will present it to the House shortly. What I can say is that we have given new powers to councils to be able to provide further business rate discounts, and also the flexibility to be able to use them when and where they think is best. I would strongly encourage councils, whether they be in my hon. Friend’s constituency or elsewhere, to use those powers so they can better help their high streets.

Small shops in Crediton, an important market town in my constituency, suffered greatly under the last Government’s planning guidelines, which pushed up car parking charges in the centre of town and pushed away trade. Will my hon. Friend outline the steps that the Government are taking to ensure that, under our planning guidelines, car parking charges will be pushed downwards, not up?

We have scrapped Labour’s red tape so that councils can be far more flexible about the way in which car parking charges and associated rules work. That will enable more people to be attracted into excellent towns such as Crediton in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Again, I urge councils to be more innovative in how they manage to make their charges for parking. I have seen a number of instances where simple changes can make a real difference to our local high streets.

Liz Peace, chief executive of the British Property Federation, said:

“The decision by Government to delay revaluation until 2017 is a real shot in the foot for the retail industry”.

Does the Minister agree?

No, I do not agree. As I have said to the British Property Federation on several occasions, we looked very carefully at the valuation office evidence that was presented to us. What it showed was that for every three businesses that might gain, eight could lose—including, potentially, a loss of £100 million to retailing in London. That is why we have taken what I think is the correct decision to defer that revaluation until 2017.

Undoubtedly, business rates can be a burden on many small shops, but has the Minister had any discussion with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions because, as a result of the freezing of the benefits uprating at 1%, £6 billion will be taken out of local economies the length and breadth of this country? That will hit small shops hardest, will it not?

Disposable income is very important—the hon. Gentleman is right—which is why I am proud that our Government are unlike the Labour party, which doubled council tax bills during its term in office. That hits the disposable pound, and it is a shame that the Labour party did not understand that while in government.

Fire and Rescue Service

4. What assessment he has made of the effect of spending reductions in each fire and rescue service area. (140752)

15. What assessment he has made of the effect of spending reductions in each fire and rescue service area. (140763)

16. What assessment he has made of the effect of spending reductions in each fire and rescue service area. (140764)

Fire and rescue authorities have been protected by back-loading grant reductions into years 3 and 4 of the spending review period. That has provided time to meet the reductions without impacting on the quality of local services. There is scope for fire and rescue authorities to make sensible savings.

In South Yorkshire, we are losing 140 firefighters, and we are currently advertising for contract part-time reservists, not full-timers. Will the Minister assure us that these actions and the restrictions on growth will not affect response times, which could put lives at risk?

As I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate, local response times and decision making over local things like that are a matter for the local fire service. I am pleased to say, however, that the fire service has been protected; indeed, South Yorkshire will receive an extra £2.4 million in capital funding.

Why are fire authority areas with higher incident rates suffering the largest cuts? The West Midlands fire service has been the hardest hit, with cuts of nearly 19%. Will the Government not have another look at that?

The West Midlands fire service also benefits from the de minimis changes in this year’s settlement. It is also one of the authorities that has gained most from the capital grant funding of £11.5 million.

Tyne and Wear fire and rescue service would have suffered a 16% reduction in grant funding over this coming year had it not been for the floor mechanism. Given the reliance on the floor, does the Minister believe that the formula accurately reflects the relevant needs and local risks? Will he review the formula now before it is locked in?

I believe that a report from the House of Commons Library stated that this year’s formula and settlement were fair to north, south, east and west. However, to offer some extra support to fire and rescue authorities, I have asked the outgoing chief fire and rescue adviser, Sir Ken Knight, to look at ways in which they can deliver savings and improvements without reducing the quality of their lifesaving work.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the introduction by Kent fire and rescue service of a new system in Medway that helps to reduce damage caused by fire?

I am happy to congratulate Kent fire and rescue service on its work. When I visited its headquarters recently, I observed some of the innovative work that it is doing in both protecting the front line and making savings by, for instance, sharing its call centre with the police. I hope that fire services across the country will learn from that innovative way of working.

The average spending power reductions are 14.5% for metropolitan fire authorities and 7.5% for combined fire authorities. That has resulted in fewer appliances, fire station closures, reductions in fire-prevention work, and an increased response time in certain areas. However, the fire Minister wrote to me last month that

“savings should be made without… affecting…frontline services.”

As Winston Churchill once said, “The truth is incontrovertible.” Will the Minister now accept the incontrovertible truth that his cuts are adversely affecting front-line fire and rescue services?

In the interests of absolute truth, let me reconfirm that the reduction in spending power for fire and rescue authorities was 2.2% for 2011-12 and 0.5% for 2012-13. As was said earlier, that moves to 4.7% in 2013-14, with the back-loading, and to just 3.3% in 2014-15. Those figures are slightly different from the ones given by the hon. Gentleman.

Social Housing (Under-occupancy)

5. What assessment he has made of the availability of accommodation for those who downsize as a result of the new under-occupancy rules for social housing. (140753)

I am sure that the 278,000 families in overcrowded social housing will welcome the increased availability of larger homes, given that some 390,000 families under-occupy their properties by two bedrooms or more.

According to the Department’s own impact assessment, more than 660,000 housing benefit claimants will be affected by these changes. It is ridiculous to assume that they will be able to find the money out of their own pockets, given all the other cuts that are being introduced. They will be forced to lose their homes. What assessment has the Minister made of the availability of smaller accommodation? Will those people not just be pushed into expensive private sector accommodation, meaning that the housing benefit bill will go up?

I have already pointed out that a large number of properties are currently under-occupied. The position will be helped enormously by a policy that is identical to the one adopted by the Labour Government in respect of the payment of housing benefit in the private rented sector. We are taking the advice of the Labour party, which said a year ago that housing benefit was “simply too high” and that we needed “tough-minded” reform.

In the light of the expected mid-term review statement on housing, will my right hon. Friend consider the capacity of councils to borrow—for example, to facilitate the building of one and two-bedroom properties where they are so much needed by councils and arm’s length management organisations?

As my hon. Friend will know, as a result of changes made by this Government to deal with the borrowing pressures placed on local authorities, they have been more able to borrow. The review that we are currently undertaking will include the issues that she has raised.

According to the Government’s impact assessment, most of the under-occupied properties are in the north of England and most of the overcrowded properties are in the south. Can the Minister confirm that part of his strategy is to move Londoners in overcrowded housing to the north?

No, it certainly is not. Having recognised that in some parts of the country there will be problems with the introduction of this policy, the Government have provided councils with large sums of money to help them with their transitional arrangements and ensure that everyone can have a decent home over their heads—unlike the last Government, who reduced the amount of social housing by a staggering 421,000 properties.

Last week, the Tory deputy leader of Cheshire West and Chester council wrote to Ministers outlining the consequences of this policy. Can the Minister now tell him and us: where are the homes for families deemed to be over-occupying because they have a special room for a disabled child? Where are the homes for foster carers who are deemed to be over-occupying because they keep a spare room for emergency placements? Where are the homes for families who have a son or daughter in the armed forces who are deemed to be over-occupying because they keep a spare room for when those people are on leave? The Minister knows that the homes are not there, so why does he not abandon this vindictive policy?

The Government are well aware of these issues, which is why we made an additional £25 million available to help in relation to the disabled people the hon. Lady talks about, and it is why we have made an additional £5 million available in relation to carers. While armed forces personnel are living at home, the home would have a £70 per week discount, whereas while the person is serving, the discount would be only 14%—a very much lower sum.

Refuse Collection (Derby)

I have had no discussions with Derby city council, but I am disappointed to hear of plans by the Labour council to charge residents for collecting their garden waste.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of Labour-run Derby city council’s proposed £40 brown bin tax?

There is a very good case for comparing that bin tax with what the neighbouring Amber Valley borough council is doing. That Conservative authority is about to introduce a new recycling service, which will be more convenient for households and will reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfill, and includes a free garden waste collection service. That is good practice and I encourage other councils to follow suit.

Planning

We have recently announced a significant package of improvements to support economic growth and the free school movement. We will continue to keep the use classes system under review.

I thank the Minister for that answer, although I was more after details on the regulations for changing a pub into a supermarket, a process for which there is absolutely no need for change-of-use planning permission. Does he have any plans to introduce planning permission for that, so that local people have a say in a change of use that significantly alters the communities in which they live?

All local authorities have the possibility of resorting to an article 4 direction to restrict the application of a change-of-use permitted development right in their area, and they can do so if they are concerned about the loss of pubs in the way that the hon. Lady describes.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that very clear planning guidelines are introduced for five-year housing supply, housing numbers and, above all, deliverability, because on the ground at the moment the methodology is arbitrarily decided on appeal? It is very unsatisfactory when local people and local authorities cannot make decisions that benefit their areas.

My hon. Friend rightly says that it is important that local authorities take an objective approach to the assessment of their housing needs and of the five-year supply. Lord Taylor of Goss Moor is conducting a review of the complete set of planning guidance, and high on his list of priorities is producing new guidance on exactly that question, certainly before the end of July.

Local authorities that refuse permission for yet another betting shop in their high street find that at the moment the refusal is often overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. Is the Minister examining the possibility of a separate use class for betting shops?

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is reviewing the whole situation for betting shops, but we have no specific plans to do as the right hon. Gentleman suggests at this time.

The Minister is right to say that local authorities can, and indeed should, introduce local planning policies to deal with the kind of problems that we have heard about. Will he therefore join my condemnation and that of the all-party save the pub group of the extraordinary decision taken by the British Beer and Pub Association to seek to overturn Cambridge city council’s elected policy for pubs, given that that is what the council wants to do and the people want it as well?

If the policy of the city of Cambridge is properly arrived at as an expression of local feeling, I am sure that it will be able to defend it from any challenge from whatever quarter.

Local Government Finance

8. What recent assessment he has made of the local government finance settlement; and if he will make a statement. (140756)

The local government settlement that we have confirmed today provides councils with an average of £2,216 per household, which will enable them to freeze council tax and deliver essential front-line services to their residents. The figure for Blackpool is £2,458, well above the national average.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. What role does deprivation play in reaching a local government finance settlement with individual councils, such as Blackpool, where deprivation is very high? Will the Secretary of State reassure me that those councils are not disproportionately penalised in reaching that settlement?

I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. The figures show that the scheme that gives the weighting for deprivation is essentially unchanged from Labour’s scheme, apart from one significant change. We have introduced banded floors—damping floors—that mean that those who are more dependent on grant receive more protection than those who are more prosperous. It is fair to say that the settlement is more progressive and gives greater weight to deprivation than Labour’s scheme.

When the Secretary of State first announced the settlement for next year he referred to a cut in spending power of 1.7%. Will he confirm that that should have been 2.6%, as he double-counted the council tax support money? Will he also confirm that the cash handed over to local authorities in the start-up funding assessment next year will be 8.4% less than this year’s formula grant, which it replaces? Will the Secretary of State stop pretending that cuts of that magnitude can be managed without hitting front-line services?

I am delighted to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the reduction in spending power is not 1.7% but 1.3%. That represents good news. Figures tend to move about—[Laughter.] That is why we have a provisional settlement. I do not know why Opposition Members are laughing; I respectfully remind them that in several settlements things changed dramatically and that one year Labour was forced to go out to consultation again.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the £1.3 million new homes bonus paid to Worcestershire is being funded by a £3.5 million reduction in its baseline funding and that Wychavon district council’s new homes bonus of £1.2 million over the past three years has been matched by a £2.2 million reduction in its baseline funding? Does he understand the inexorable logic of the position that including the new homes bonus in spending power perverts the purpose of the new homes bonus, which is to incentivise communities to accept new development?

My hon. Friend must accept that we took more into consideration than the grant going in and that we have moved on to spending power, which is what the Local Government Association and the Labour Opposition wanted to see. The local government spend is £114 billion. That is twice the size of the defence budget and more than we spend on the national health service. Even his own authority must play a part in reducing public spending to deal with the deficit we were left by the Opposition. The new homes bonus gives the authority an opportunity to make money.

I understand what the Secretary of State just said, but the obligation is not fairly spread across all local authorities in England. Will he reconsider central Government grant aid to local authorities and the relationship between that and the obligation to provide statutory social services, as the demand for such provision is steadily rising in inner-city areas while the grant is steadily being reduced?

That is of course why we have given additional sums to help those areas that are more reliant. That is why a place such as Newcastle will receive something like £600 per household more than somewhere like Wokingham. That is a sensible thing to do, and the right hon. Gentleman should support that, rather than decry it.

Local Government Finance

9. What assessment he has made of the effect of the local government finance settlement on local authorities in rural areas. (140757)

We have confirmed the increase in the sparsity weighting and top-ups that we proposed at consultation. Further, we are providing an £8.5 million grant to support the delivery to sparsely populated areas of efficiencies in services.

May I welcome my hon. Friend’s recognition of the fact that the provision of services in rural communities such as Maldon district where populations are sparsely distributed often costs more, but does he accept the disappointment that the local government finance settlement appears to do little to reduce the rural penalty? In fact, it entrenches it for forthcoming years.

We recognise the concerns of rural areas such as Maldon and similar areas where the costs that sparsity can bring are clear. The £8.5 million that we have announced in the statement today will go to 95 local authorities, all of which are rural. However, I would point out that in meetings that my officials and I have had with people from rural networks we have confirmed that the gap is narrowing thanks to changes that we made in the settlement. It is becoming smaller than it ever was under the previous Government, who put the finances in a situation that was detrimental to rural areas across the country.

Those newly announced funds are certainly welcome. Is the Minister aware that in his Department’s own analysis shire districts such as Watford borough council count as rural while unitaries, including Wiltshire council, are lumped in the urban category? Given that, how can he be sure of the boast that the proposed settlement is fair to urban and rural alike?

I am quite happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to go through the situation. We have confirmed with rural networks that across all types of authorities the gap between rural and urban has narrowed as a result of the statement.

Illegal Encampment

Councils and the police have a range of strong powers to take action against illegal encampments and unauthorised development. We recently reminded councils of the extensive powers at their disposal to deal with the problems swiftly.

Over the summer, a group of Travellers moved back and forth between several sites in Croydon, costing council tax payers and private landowners thousands of pounds. What else can the Government do to help councils tackle that antisocial behaviour, and in particular, will the Minister look at allowing councils to use their byelaws against encampments on private as well as public land?

Significant powers already exist, and the police have powers to deal with people who are causing a public nuisance by consistently making illegal encampments. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which gives the police considerable powers to deal with that. In addition, we are consulting on the introduction of a temporary stop notice with immediate effect, which will put considerable powers in the hands of the local council.

House Building

12. What steps he is taking to increase the number of housing starts; and if he will make a statement. (140760)

Over the past 15 years or more, this country has been building half the number of homes that we need. This Government are determined to reverse that trend, by reforming the planning system, expanding the private rented sector and by building 170,000 more affordable homes.

There are thousands on the housing waiting list in Rochdale, and homelessness is rising. Like Rochdale residents, does the Minister not regret his Government’s decision to cut the affordable housing budget by 60%?

In fact, the £19.5 million is an important investment, not least to try to reverse the fall in social housing under the previous Government of some 421,000 homes. We want to build those 170,000 homes, but there is a long way to go before we can clear up the mess that we have inherited.

May I draw attention to my interests as declared in the register?

Over the past few weeks, the Minister has answered some very interesting questions, and has provided data about the new homes bonus. He will have looked at the figures as closely as I have, and will therefore know that it is not only very expensive but a complete failure. Does he accept that the 17 local authorities that are receiving the largest amount of new homes bonus are granting substantially fewer planning permissions than they were—37% below the levels of 2005-06, and 6% below the abysmal levels of last year?

Some of the questions were from the right hon. Gentleman, though whether they were interesting or not is another matter. I would say to him, if I may, that he needs to understand that the principle of the new homes bonus is very simple: “The more you build, the more you get.” That is why we see that Manchester, Sheffield and Bradford have shown the way. They are willing to do that, which is why we recognise that there will be at least 400,000 additional homes as a direct result of the bonus.

Does the Minister agree that more authorities should take the approach of authorities such as Rugby borough council, which has allocated land in its local plan, with two sites coming forward, to enable the development of 7,500 new homes?

I very much welcome that. It is important that some authorities are being proactive in the way in which they handle their planning system and engage with the new homes bonus. We have a shared ambition to overturn something that has happened for the past 15 or 20 years. I wish sometimes that Labour would be a little more positive about it.

In the context of housing starts, does the Minister agree that planners and developers of grotesque schemes such as the proposed 1,600-homes estate in my constituency to be accessed by a 1 mile cul-de-sac should be forced to live there for a minimum of five years as a condition of any planning consent?

The safest answer for me to give is that that is a novel idea. I will reflect on it in due course.

The Secretary of State told the BBC that on house building “signs are encouraging,” boasting of building 132,000 homes. “Encouraging”? Far from encouraging, housing completions have fallen in both financial years since Labour left office, and housing starts have fallen to 98,000. Does the Housing Minister recognise those figures? He should, because they come from his own Department. Will he take this opportunity of correcting the misleading impression given by the Secretary of State? Does he accept that no amount of massaging statistics can conceal the fact that this is a Government who are presiding over the biggest housing crisis in a generation?

Gosh! What a lot of rhetoric, but not a lot of facts. The reality is that the net addition to the housing stock is up 11% on the last four figures that we have, at 135,000. That is the highest level in four years. Is there more to do? Absolutely. Do we want to make sure that we reverse the trend on affordable homes? Yes, but carping from the Opposition Benches will not help that process or the people whom the Opposition claim to represent.

Right to Buy

Last year we reformed the right to buy both to increase the discounts for tenants and to ensure that the receipts from sales are recycled into building more affordable homes. We are now actively informing and helping thousands of tenants to turn their ambition into reality.

I commend the Minister on the work that he is doing. Will he explain these benefits to his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly, who seem wedded to some sort of out-dated socialist-collectivist dogma which is denying the people of Wales the right to buy homes, which they could enjoy in England?

Unlike the Opposition, we believe that credit-worthy council tenants should be able to buy their home. That is why this spring in England we will have directly contacted 95% of the eligible families. These people have rights. We will make sure that they can put them into practice.

I notice in the Minister’s answer the absence of like-for-like, one-for-one replacements. Can he clarify that and give the House information—or put it in the Library—about the number of right-to-buy properties that have been sold and the number that have been built as replacement units?

I am happy to clarify the situation. In the last six months for which we have records, £86 million has been recycled from those sales back into affordable homes. I should have thought the hon. Gentleman would welcome that fact.

Troubled Families

We are providing local authorities with £448 million over three years, including funding for troubled families co-ordinators in all 152 upper- tier councils. My troubled families team works closely to support councils and has recently published reports on effective family intervention and the significant cost savings that this work can bring. This would not have been possible without the active encouragement of Members in all parts of the House.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my local council has been doing excellent work and that Barnet council has identified one troubled family who are benefiting by £400,000 a year from the public sector? What additional help can the Department give to good councils such as Barnet in tackling this problem?

When my hon. Friend was leader of Barnet council he was a very early adopter of this intervention model. As he rightly points out, it is not as though that money is spent terribly wisely; the majority is simply spent on reacting to the troubled family rather than positively getting them on side. Thanks to the work of my hon. Friend and of hon. Members all around the Chamber, we can jointly say that we have made significant progress on troubled families.

Does the Secretary of State agree, though, that those of us on both sides of the House who want this policy to come to fruition and to work well are finding it very difficult at the grass roots, especially in an area that I know well, education, with people in schools saying that it is still very difficult to get a link between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Work programme and the police—across the agencies and Ministries? Will he talk to colleagues in other Departments to try to help to make this a real success?

Absolutely. There is an intense understanding of the need for co-operation across Government. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular local authority in mind and would write to me or speak to me after questions, I will personally intervene.

Redundancy (Local Government)

18. What his policy is on redundancy payments to senior local government officers; and if he will make a statement. (140766)

Excessive payouts to senior local authority staff have been too frequent. Thanks to the Localism Act 2011, local taxpayers can now see and challenge how their money is being spent on pay and reward, including redundancies. We are also scrapping regulations that saw councils pay out inflated severance packages to chief executives in order to avoid a lengthy and costly review process.

When the chief executive of Tory Kent county council left after 16 months with a £420,000 pay- off, the then local government Minister, now Tory party chairman, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), described this as “disturbing” and said:

“I find dipping into the public purse to make such an eye-watering pay-off unacceptable”.

Yet shortly thereafter the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, hired this individual as director general of civil service reform. Does he think that this sets a good example?

Fire and Rescue Service

19. What assessment he has made of the local government finance settlement 2013-14 and its effect on fire services in Devon and Somerset; and if he will make a statement. [R] (140767)

Grant reductions to the fire and rescue authorities are back-loaded in the spending review period, allowing them to make sensible savings without impacting on the quality of local services. Rightly, operational activities are decided by each authority, subject to local consultation.

I declare an indirect interest in the interests of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). On 6 December, during a visit to Taunton, the Minister seemed impressed by Devon and Somerset fire service’s plan to make significant —I repeat, significant—savings through efficiencies and lower fuel costs by purchasing light rescue pumps, yet when push came to shove, the fire service, ravaged by cuts and trying to find innovative ways to reduce costs, was told, “Sorry, no, you can’t have those pumps.” Why did he change his mind in the space of a few weeks?

As the hon. Lady outlined, I had a very good visit to Somerset and saw some of the plans that people have for how they want to take things forward to save money, which is exactly what many fire authorities across the country should be looking at. It is also why Devon and Somerset will be receiving £2.7 million of capital money in 2013-15.

Local Government Finance

I published a document called “50 Ways to Save” with, as the title suggests, no fewer than 50 great ideas for sensible savings that councils can adopt. Our fair funding deal and council tax freeze will give all councils time to put these ideas into practice.

I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting God’s own county of Cheshire over the weekend. Will he share with the House what guidance his Department is giving to local authorities such as Cheshire West and Chester and Halton to help to identify wasteful spending?

It was indeed a pleasure to visit Cheshire over the weekend and see so many active Conservatives. We have set an example. My own Department’s procurement spend has come down by 54% and that of the Government’s procurement card has decreased by 87%, while spending on technology has dropped by 69%. We recognise that it is not our money, but the public’s money. Unlike the Labour spendthrifts, we have been prepared to deal with it face on.

The cross-party Local Government Association estimates that, over a five-year period, it costs local authorities more than £200 million to publish statutory notices in local papers as the Government force them to do, instead of online, which would be more convenient for local people to access. Why will the Secretary of State not allow local authorities to make that sensible saving?

This is something that we are actively considering, but we need to bear in mind the importance to the local economy of local newspapers. We have made clear to local editors that the days of those statutory notices appearing in newspapers are numbered.

Topical Questions

A written statement has been laid detailing the final local government financial settlement. Despite the need to tackle Labour’s deficit, last year councils were still spending £114 billion. The overall reduction in spending power this April, taking into account the new health funding grant, is just 1.3%. Our decentralising reforms mean that an estimated 70% of council income will now be raised locally. Councils are now in the driving seat to help firms and support local jobs.

My right hon. Friend has often said that planning laws should treat all applicants in the same way. That being the case, will he undertake to write to the planning department at Swale borough council to make clear its responsibilities to determine applications from both the settled and the Traveller communities in the same way, and to refer the planning officers to the document in which that policy is set out?

Of course. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is responsible for planning, will have heard what has just been said. We have been clear that we want to ensure that the Traveller community gets a fair deal. Indeed, we have been doing all kinds of things relating to commercial dealings, education and health, and it is massively important that the community is treated with exactly the same level of respect as the rest of the population.

Will the Minister tell the House how many additional affordable homes he expects communities to approve for a share of community infrastructure levy receipts? How many affordable homes are likely to be lost as a result of the changes that the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will make to section 106 agreements? Will the Minister produce figures to show the net impact of these totally contradictory policies?

The hon. Lady asked three questions, so I will not necessarily answer all of them in full. First, she will be well aware that the measures in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill tackle those affordable housing developments that will never happen in current market conditions. We believe that some homes are better than an unrealistic target of homes that will never come through. Secondly, she will also be aware that, as well as the Bill’s measures, we announced an additional £300 million to support further affordable housing. There is no question but that the combination of those measures will produce a net increase, both in market homes and affordable homes.

T2. Last week Warwickshire county council unveiled Operation Footfall, an initiative that will give local business groups the opportunity to bid for up to £30,000 to develop ideas to encourage people to shop in our town centres. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the county council, and will he detail what support the Government are giving to improve our town centres? (140775)

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Warwickshire county council in that context. We have a settled programme looking at making sure that we strengthen the way in which the planning system works and ensuring that the business rates are reduced for the smallest of firms. However, I think that the key issue, rather than the individual programmes, is the question of how we ensure that high streets today adapt to the new world of online shopping. Consumer habits have changed. We are standing ready to work with our high streets to make sure that they can adapt in that new environment.

T4. On Saturday, I met the Newcastle youth council to discuss its report, which I shall pass to the Secretary of State, on the impacts of his £100 million of cuts to the council budget. Its members explained that many children cannot understand the magnitude of the cuts and have offered to give up sweets or donate their pocket money to save local libraries, swimming pools and youth services. Does the Secretary of State understand the magnitude of his cuts and their impact on young people in Newcastle? If so, what is he going to do about it? (140777)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but perhaps she is not aware that the spending power reduction in Newcastle is lower than the national average and that there will be £2,516 per dwelling. I am sure that she will also welcome the additional £2 million of new homes bonus that has gone to her local authority.

T3. I expect that my right hon. Friend will agree that local authorities need to balance their budgets by making efficiency savings, rather than by imposing council tax rises on hard-pressed taxpayers. Does he also concur that billing residents in Lincoln for flights to China, external consultancy fees for possible Traveller sites and self-aggrandising pseudo-green energy summits will not inspire much sympathy if families in Lincoln see an increase in their rates? (140776)

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. In these difficult times, when councils are expected to play their part in reducing Labour’s deficit, it is difficult to look electors in the eye and explain why councillors have been using this money for self-aggrandisement. I hope that the councils to which he referred will take heed.

T5. Some 8,000 families are on Luton borough council’s housing waiting and transfer lists, yet the Conservatives’ policies will force thousands of low-income Londoners to seek homes elsewhere, with Luton a primary target. Does the Minister accept that the Government’s policy is not only unjust, but a recipe for social chaos? (140778)

I do not accept that. We have made it clear to councils that out-of-borough changes are not desirable. It is not right, as happened in the ’70s, for large groups of people to be dumped a long way from their homes. That is why we changed the law last year so that councils have to take into account the suitability for each individual. Dumping is something that we will challenge. The law is clear and the hon. Gentleman has my support on the matter.

T6. Given that the number of empty homes fell by more than 21,000 in 2011, which is the biggest drop since 2004, does my right hon. Friend agree that local solutions, supported by central Government, provide the best means of tackling the long-standing problem of empty homes? (140780)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the success that our empty homes policy has already had. She is right that local decisions are the best way forward. That is why we have given local councils the ability to increase the council tax on empty properties, introduced the new homes bonus and increased the flexibility in a range of other areas to get even more empty properties back into use. Local decisions are undoubtedly the best way forward.

T8. During the inquiry of the Communities and Local Government Committee into welfare reform, a housing provider in one of the universal credit pilot schemes reported that it would lose one proposed new-build property a week from its development programme because of welfare reform. Has the Minister assessed the impact of welfare reform on the ability of social housing providers to build new homes, and can he tell us how many proposed new homes will now not be built? (140782)

The hon. Lady is in a rather difficult position, given that she supported a Government who caused us to lose 421,000 social homes and who saw the benefits bill, the housing benefit bill and the council tax bill double. Labour Members now say that we need to take tough decisions. That is what we are having to do to sort out the mess created by the Labour Government.

T7. Recent figures reveal that councils have increased their reserves by £4.5 billion over the past five years and that those reserves now stand at almost £13 billion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that councils that have reserves should not be hoarding cash while complaining about the changes to Government grant, but should be using that cash to protect front-line services, keep council tax down and support the hard-pressed council tax payer? (140781)

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point, although the situation has moved on since he got that figure. It is now £16 billion, which represents the largest ever council reserves, not including schools, so it is difficult to say that local authorities are hard-pressed. We need them to use their balances sensibly while taking measures to get costs out of their base.

T9. Two elderly constituents who live in a retirement complex recently received a bill for £200 from their managing agent completely out of the blue. Managing agents of leasehold housing are completely unregulated, so those elderly constituents have nowhere to turn either to appeal or to demand a review. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that managing agents of leasehold housing are brought under the regulation of the Financial Services Authority? (140783)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important issue. Many Members of all parties are concerned about managing and letting agents. As she will know, a detailed investigation is being carried out, and as I have said before from the Dispatch Box, the Government are listening. After we have seen that report, we will bring forward recommendations.

The iconic Silverstone circuit is adjacent to the village of Silverstone in my constituency. Silverstone has grown by several hundred houses over the past few years. A further application for more than 200 houses is being strongly fought by local people, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has called it in for review. I appreciate that he cannot comment on individual cases, but will he take into account the real conflict between the development of that nationally important circuit and having yet more housing on its doorstep containing people who do not like the noise it generates?

My hon. Friend is quite right that I cannot comment on planning, but she has made her point most forcefully.

The Government’s own research suggests that more than 42% of people affected by the bedroom tax will not be able to make up the financial difference and will instead go into arrears. I asked the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions this question last Monday and did not get an answer. Perhaps the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can answer instead. Given the Government’s own research, how many people does his Department expect will now lose their homes?

One would think that the Labour party had not been committed to doing precisely this when it was in government, and that it was not prepared to make such sensible decisions. A few moments ago the Under-Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), clearly demonstrated the number of houses that have more than two bedrooms empty and rightly pointed out that exactly the same arrangements existed for the private sector under the Labour Government. We are introducing uniformity between the private and public sectors.

On the important issue of social cohesion, does the Secretary of State agree that there is no room in any community in the United Kingdom for sharia law-controlled zones?

Of course sharia law should not have control, but it is important for us to recognise the significant number of Muslim organisations that have rightly condemned the patrols in question. We need neighbours to feel that they can walk the British streets safely no matter what their background or sexual orientation.

Last year, the then Housing Minister proposed outlawing council tenants from sub-letting, with up to two years in prison or a £50,000 fine. Now the Government are advising people to sub-let to cover the bedroom tax. Do the Government actually know what they are doing?

I am sorry that the Labour party does not understand this issue. As the Under-Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), rightly pointed out, a substantial number of households have two or more spare bedrooms. Is it right that the 250,000 people who are living in overcrowded accommodation should simply allow that to persist? Why did the Labour party not do anything about that in 13 years? That was an abject failure on its part.

There is concern that the local government finance settlement penalises councils such as Bristol by using old data for the allocation of local authorities into damping bands. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that further?

At the moment, people from some eastern European countries are entitled to housing benefit and council tax benefit, but not to income-related jobseeker’s allowance. Following the localisation of council tax benefit, will those people be entitled to that benefit or will it be a matter of discretion for each local authority?

Has my right hon. Friend seen the recent Ofcom report that criticises the London borough of Tower Hamlets for what is described as political advertising? Under those circumstances, will he revisit the strength and effectiveness of the local authority publicity code?

I was shocked to read that report and I am very unhappy with what is going on in the borough. I will look as a matter of urgency at putting the publicity code on to a statutory basis.

According to a recent survey, more than 500 families in social housing in my constituency would like to move to a smaller home when the bedroom tax is introduced. Given that those properties simply do not exist, does the Minister have any advice for my constituents, or will they simply have to join the 3,500 local families who face paying £12 or £22 extra in rent?

The Government have already put in place a number of measures to help people such as those the right hon. Gentleman describes. HomeSwap Direct is now available, and there is additional funding in local authority budgets to assist those who wish to move into the privately rented sector, with still more money for areas where rents are increasing.

Will the Minister explain to me and the communities of south Worcestershire why the Planning Inspectorate measures the existence of a five-year supply of land for housing not on the basis of planning permissions granted, but on completions achieved?

Planning permissions that have been granted and are still viable will count towards any local authority’s five-year housing supply. They are withdrawn only in exceptional circumstances when it is clear that they can never be fulfilled.

Last month at the Come Together conference in Liverpool, political and faith leaders from across the country called on the Government to think again about the unfair distribution of local government cuts. Places such as Liverpool will lose £252 per head while the Prime Minister’s local authority of West Oxfordshire will lose just £34 per head. Will the Secretary of State listen to the message of the Come Together conference and look again at how the cuts can be redistributed fairly?

Liverpool has received a very generous settlement—far more generous than the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The hon. Lady must understand that the level of grant allocated to Liverpool far exceeds the money that is being taken away. She will recognise that under this system, with the city deal and the extra help and considerations, Liverpool has a far better deal than it would have had under Labour.

Does the Secretary of State share the dismay of the residents of Otley, where the Labour-controlled town council has introduced a record-breaking 14.5% increase in the precept to pay for swanky new town council offices?

The good people of Otley live very close to Harrogate but no one would describe them as moneyed folk. I suspect that they are feeling pretty angry about that increase, and that they will punish at the ballot box those councillors who put self-aggrandisement above the needs of the population.

Does the right hon. Gentleman know that Newport council, and Leicester council on which our friend the late David Taylor served, were selling council houses in a fair, sustainable way for more than a decade before the dawn of Thatcherism? Does he acknowledge his debt to those pioneering Labour authorities?

That interesting view no doubt has some weight in a parallel universe. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will support the Government’s push to increase the sale of council houses to their tenants. I look forward, for the first time ever, to hands across the Chamber.