Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 558: debated on Monday 4 February 2013

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.