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Topical Questions

Volume 560: debated on Monday 18 March 2013

The Government today published their response to Lord Heseltine’s comprehensive report, which reinforces the Government’s local approach to growth and the economy and would give more powers to councils and local enterprise partnerships. I have also announced today the revocation of the regional strategies for the east midlands and the north-east, showing that we are transferring power down to local communities from Whitehall and unelected regional quangos. Also, as religion comes within my Department, I would like to take this opportunity to wish His Holiness the Pope a long and fruitful ministry.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but may I suggest that a bit more clarity about the duty, set out by the Government, to co-operate with neighbouring authorities when identifying land for development would be helpful for local councillors? For example, if one council asks another for help or co-operation, but that council refuses, has the box been ticked or is there further recourse?

We will be issuing further guidance on the duty to co-operate. My hon. Friend makes an important point, because this is a new thing. This and other adjoining measures are designed to ensure that local authorities, in co-operation with their local enterprise partnerships, start to think strategically, and from small beginnings I expect this to grow.

All round the country, hundreds of thousands of low-income households are starting to receive letters from their councils telling them that they will be hit by the Secretary of State’s new poll tax, so taking money out of their pockets. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many people in his local authority of Brentwood are being affected?

I was giddy with excitement, along with my constituents, to learn that the right hon. Gentleman paid us a visit last Thursday to see the Labour group. There are two members on the Labour group; they are called Mike and Julie. We have to point out that each local authority has to come to its own decision and publish its own facts. We do not do this centrally anymore. We also need to understand that each local authority is responsible for its schemes.

The Secretary of State has imposed the tax, but he does not even know what is going on in his own local authority. I will tell him the answer to the question: Brentwood council says that 2,000 households will be affected. Last week on my visit I did indeed meet one of those affected. She was a woman who will be hit by the bedroom tax and by his new poll tax. She cannot afford it. She will probably have to move out of the area with her son, taking her away from friends, family, neighbours and the support that she relies on. She does not think it is fair, and I do not think it is fair. What has he got to say to her?

In the town hall, the Labour party has a very small room, and everybody heard what she had to say and everybody heard him planning this particular question. The figures he has produced are approximate, because nobody entirely knows yet. He knows that any figure with a nought at the end is an approximate figure—or he should know that. It is about time that he and the Labour party woke up to their responsibilities. If they are imposing a tax on the poor, it is entirely up to the local authorities to act. They have the power—indeed, a number of authorities have the power—to remove this completely, but they hide behind and seek to persecute and to tax the poor.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman knows plenty about a bedroom tax, because he has got plenty of spare bedrooms himself.

T2. What assessment has been made of the number of new homes that could be built if relatively small patches of local authority-owned brownfield land could be sold to provide private landlords for house building? (148162)

I thank my hon. Friend; she is absolutely right. She knows that the Government are keen to see building on brownfield land where it is not of environmental value. We have provided a number of separate funds to help to unlock that. The Residential Landlords Association is now coming forward with some other interesting, additional ideas for ways to move forward and we look forward to hearing those proposals.

Order. The hon. Lady does not get a second bite of the cherry. She has had one go. She may feel like another, but I am not sure the House will necessarily feel the same way. We are grateful to her; we will bear her in mind for another day.

T4. Oldham council estimates that more than 2,500 households will be affected by the bedroom tax, yet there are only 500 one-bedroom flats that families are able to move into. Knowing that, why did the Government make funding available for only 100 new affordable homes to be built last year? (148164)

Oldham should put in a scheme that protects those people from having to pay anything. I have to say that people in Oldham pay £900 a year per household to subsidise housing benefit. If they want to pay more to subsidise it, they can do.

T6. May I ask my dear chum the Secretary of State for his advice on the help available from his Department for community projects such as the Pickering “Slow the flow” defence project and the Filey swimming pool? Will he give me a teach-in on how we can apply for such help and the criteria that we would have to meet? (148166)

It is always a great pleasure to meet my honourable chum. Perhaps, shortly after these deliberations are concluded, she will join me for a warming beverage in the Tea Room.

T5. West Lancashire borough council has just entered into an agreement with One Connect, a joint venture between Lancashire county council and BT to provide specified services. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all councillors on both authorities will not be prevented from exercising their fiduciary duty to their council tax payers under the guise of commercial confidentiality? Will he investigate the openness and transparency of those arrangements in relation to the use of public moneys? (148165)

I think I have actually visited that site and that venture of co-operation. It is a very good thing, and I think it will help out the process. If the hon. Lady has a particular problem about a lack of transparency in relation to the importance of councillors ensuring that their constituents are treated fairly, I will happily look into it.

T8. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the progress on implementing the Government’s home on the farm policy, which will make it easier to develop housing on derelict farm sites to meet local needs? (148168)

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Department is having discussions with the National Farmers Union and with local authorities on ways of developing the scheme further. A number of neighbourhood plans have already produced some exciting ways of addressing the problem, and he can look forward to hearing further announcements on the issue in the near future.

T7. The Government talk about localism, but they still set the caps for the licensing of various shops in town centres, including bookmakers and sex shops. Will they consider abolishing those caps and allowing local people and local authorities to set the levels? (148167)

Does the Secretary of State agree that neighbourhood planning is an excellent example of localism and that its empowerment of local communities, through producing statutory powers enabling them to plan, makes a great difference?

As the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), has said, some 500 communities are already availing themselves of the opportunities provided by neighbourhood planning. We have made additional funds available to take the scheme forward, and he will be aware of the exciting developments that are really putting communities back in control of what is happening in their local areas.

T9. Contrary to the Minister’s answer, the national planning policy framework is proving to be an all-too-predictable fiasco—not least because we predicted it would be. The lack of sequential planning has put greenfield sites above brownfield regeneration, endangering cities and countryside alike. When will Ministers rethink this disastrous strategy, stop the sprawl, revive our cities and promote affordable homes? (148169)

The hon. Gentleman can use as much purple prose as he likes—his books are full of it, and very good they are, too—but that will not change the fact that the national planning policy framework is succeeding far better than any previous planning regime in getting local authorities to draw up local plans that put them in charge of making decisions about development in their areas. That is the truth, and he knows it.

I know that the Minister will want to avoid unnecessary job losses in front-line local government services, so what guidance will he give to local authorities on the retention of marriage registrars once the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill becomes law?

I am very happy to look at this matter. The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question and I am happy to have a discussion with him about it once the Bill becomes law.

The Secretary of State is on record as saying that councils that flout the law in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 should face justice, so why have 27 local authorities spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on flouting the law by employing private investigators to conduct unauthorised surveillance operations?

I believe the law has been changed. These powers can be secured only on application to a magistrate. If an application to a magistrate has not been made, the law has been broken and criminal sanctions will apply.

I spent Sunday afternoon at the launch of the Heseltine review under the auspices of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership, chaired by Andy Street, whom I know you know, Mr Speaker. It was a real pleasure to see the leader of Birmingham city council, whose name I have temporarily forgotten—no, it is Sir Albert Bore—a Labour councillor, support this. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a real step forward for the midlands, and will he soon go up to the midlands to help with this exciting project?

Obviously, I regret that my hon. Friend forgot the name of Sir Albert Bore—an important man in local government who I am pleased to say seems to have changed his tune. He was predicting disaster; he was predicting that all kinds of things would go terribly wrong—yet here we are, with him co-operating with the Government. That is a marvellous sign for the future.

Can the Minister confirm that in order to proceed with the mutualisation of the fire service in any region, there must be full agreement among all the employees in that region?

I can confirm that we are looking at how to work with Cleveland to deliver a mutual fire service, if it wants to do it that way. We are working through this at the moment and may be looking at consultation. We will go through that process and look at the feedback we get from it.

Will the Planning Minister instruct the planning inspectorate not to sanction on appeal entirely inappropriate housing development outside town and village envelopes using the five-year rolling housing supply targets where the local authority concerned is doing all it can and more to meet Government guidelines on the development of local plans?

What I can confirm is that the planning inspectorate will interpret the national planning policy framework and the policies contained in local plans and arrive at decisions that reflect the policies in both those documents. What I cannot do is give any particular instruction not to do something in a particular place, but national policy and local plans will be followed.

I noticed on Twitter that the Secretary of State shares my concern about the libel case brought by the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council against a local blogger, which was paid for by public funds. Now that the trial has concluded, will the right hon. Gentleman consider amending the guidance and, if necessary, legislating to ensure that senior public officials do not use public money to fund such actions?

This is a matter for the Welsh Assembly. We have taken regulations within England that say basically that the use by senior officers of libel provisions should be a shield and not a sword and that, should a chief executive or senior member seek to initiate an action, the full permission of the council is needed before embarking on such an event. The case also illustrates the need to ensure that new technology should be allowed in the council chamber.

I have been contacted by a Rochdale retailer who has just two instalments to pay on his business rates and should get until the end of the month to pay them. The council has involved the courts and the bailiffs are banging on the door, threatening to close the business down. Is this any way for a council to act to improve the high streets? Will the Minister have a look at this?

I will happily have a look at it. I have to say that the local authority should do what it can to help deliver further economic growth locally by working with businesses, but if the business rates were due, the authority would obviously have to go through proper due process. I will be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber about this matter.