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Departmental Work

Volume 561: debated on Monday 15 April 2013

I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House of Commons rose on 26 March.

Abolishing regional planning

Planning and house building works best when it is locally led and people have more control in shaping and deciding on development in the places they live. The last Administration’s top-down approach of imposing regional strategies, based on artificial government regions, coincided with the lowest peacetime levels of house building since the 1920s.

The coalition Government announced their decision to revoke the final three regional strategies for the west midlands, north-west and south-west through a written statement on 27 March, Official Report, House of Lords, column 109. This means we have now delivered the coalition agreement to abolish these unpopular and counter-productive regional strategies giving every community more control over local planning.

We are determined to help put communities back into the driving seat of local development and local plans agreed by communities and councils are now at the heart of determining where homes should go. Already, 500 communities across the country are backing neighbourhood plans for their area, showing that people welcome development when they are given the opportunity to be involved and shape it in the best way for the local area.

Tackling unauthorised development

We are determined to ensure fair play in the planning system and to tackle intentional unauthorised development. On 29 March, my Department confirmed that restrictions will be lifted on the use of temporary stop notices, enabling councils to act immediately and safeguard their local area from caravans being placed on unauthorised sites. The associated secondary legislation has been laid before the House.

Individuals who have gone to the effort of buying land are quite capable of applying for planning permission, and it is only right that planning permission should be secured before development is undertaken. It is not fair that some people try and sidestep the planning system, which is why we have already given local councils stronger powers to deal with retrospective or vexatious applications. But we are going further and, subject to parliamentary ratification, are giving councils greater freedom to take swift and effective enforcement action against unauthorised caravans backed up with the potential for heavy fines.

Helping aspiring self-builders

On 28 March, my Department announced a comprehensive range of measures designed to help people aspiring to build their own homes to get their projects off the ground. Currently, only those planning to use the new powers under the community right to build have access to a dedicated fund, to build up their development proposals and submit a community right to build order. To ensure anyone has access to this financial support regardless of the route they take for planning permission, we are expanding the scheme to enable all community groups, including self-builders, the ability to access £14 million of available support funding to help them initiate their local projects, even if they do not plan to use the community right to build.

This is in addition to the £30 million custom build fund, over half of which has already been earmarked to support 15 different projects across England. My Department has also confirmed that locality will work with the National Self Build Association, the UK Cohousing Network, the National Community Land Trust Network, Self-help Housing and the Confederation of Co-operative Housing to encourage more local projects.

On 15 April, we published a consultation paper on further reforms to the last Administration’s community infrastructure levy. The changes will make the levy fairer, faster, more certain and more transparent. The consultation includes a proposal for a new exemption for self-build homes. This will cover new homes built or commissioned by individuals, families or groups of individuals for their own use and that will be owner occupied. This delivers on the commitment given by the Minister for Housing in May 2013 and will make an enormous difference to people looking to build their own home.

Safeguarding community assets

Localism is about giving power back to communities, as they know best what their local needs are. Communities, and voluntary and charity groups are now taking action to use the new rights we have created through the new community right to bid in the Localism Act to help save local shops, pubs, libraries, and parks, influence how planning decisions are made and how local public services run. I was delighted to see that the residents of Nunhead had successfully used the community right to bid to save their local pub the Ivy House from closure.

We want to see more communities using the community rights to save their treasured assets and I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to my Department’s support for the Campaign for Real Ale’s community pubs month which launched on 1 April and is calling on people to list their local pub as an asset of community value.

Boosting coastal communities

Following huge success last year, on 3 April my Department opened applications for a second round of coastal communities funding. The funds available have been increased by over £4.1 million to £27.8 million so more communities can win awards to boost their economic development. The fund for the projects is raised from the Crown Estate’s marine assets and reinvested in coastal areas.

In 2012, 26 projects in England from Scarborough to Swanage, and from Torbay to Tyneside, received funding to develop their areas, helping to create and safeguard 5,000 jobs, 1,400 training places, 400 volunteering opportunities and support 250 new business start-ups. The money was also used for a variety of projects including rejuvenating heritage areas and leisure facilities as well as helping businesses embrace digital technology and promote innovation. The projects also attracted additional funding from public and private co-sponsors of over £16 million.

Clamping down on criminal landlords and housing fraud

We want to ensure fair play in taxpayer-funded social housing and to crack down on rogue landlords who cash in on renting out homes to illegal immigrants. On 27 March, my Department gave a £790,000 funding boost to four London boroughs to further support ongoing efforts to tackle criminal landlords who trap vulnerable tenants in so-called “beds in sheds”.

So-called “beds in sheds” are often rented to immigrants, including some with no right to be in the UK, at extortionate rates. Over the past year locally-led efforts, backed with Government cash, have led to councils working more closely with the police and Home Office immigration law enforcement to flush out these rogue landlords, and to get a better sense of the scale of the problem.

On 3 April, 2013 my Department announced £9.5 million for 62 councils to help them to combat social housing fraud and ensure homes go to those who truly need them. Social housing fraud can cost the taxpayer £900 million a year and we are giving councils more powers to take action. Due to come into force this summer, the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act 2013 will mean perpetrators could face a fine and a custodial sentence of up to two years, while councils will be able to recover the proceeds of sub-letting social homes.

Helping the disabled live independent lives

On 28 March, my Department confirmed £180 million of disabled facilities grant for 2013-14 to help councils fund the adaptations disabled people need to live independently in their own home. The grant can be used for adaptations that provide better freedom of movement into and around the home or to provide essential facilities helping people stay in their homes if their circumstances change, providing the support that disabled or vulnerable people need to live independently and comfortably, whether they are homeowners, social tenants or living in rented accommodation.

Tackling the digital divide

People who live in council and housing association homes currently make up over a quarter of people who do not use the internet. On 4 April, my Department alongside the Department for Work and Pensions announced £400,000 of funding for innovative programmes to provide low-cost internet access and improve tenants’ motivation to go online. Successful bidding landlords will have to match Government funding with their own money, pound for pound, therefore doubling the total pot to £800,000.

Providing a safety net for the homelessness

This country has one of the strongest safety nets against homelessness in the world, backed with £470 million Government funding. It is vital this continues to protect the most vulnerable in society. On 9 April, my Department launched a £1.7 million gold standard scheme helping councils across the country learn from each other to deliver the best possible service, and ensuring that those facing the threat of losing their home get the support they need.

The peer-led scheme will provide a host of free training and support to enable councils to reach gold standard status, a benchmark of their achievements and work to support people and guard against homelessness. The first 10 councils to receive gold standard status will then offer advice and a critical eye to other councils looking to achieve the same.

Supporting fiscal decentralisation

At the beginning of April, the new system of local government finance began. The local funding settlement used to be the end game, but this year it is just the starting point. Councils can earn more of their keep through rate retention by bringing businesses and jobs in to their area. This could deliver an estimated extra £10 billion to the wider economy by 2020. The new homes bonus and the localisation of council tax benefit also provide strong incentives for councils to promote local economic growth and to support local firms and local jobs.

Freezing council tax

This Government are determined to back people who work hard by supporting residents through much needed cost of living assistance. Official statistics published on 27 March confirmed that the average band D council tax level for 2013-14 has changed by a mere 0.8%, which is equivalent to a real terms’ cut of 2.3%. Our three-year council tax freeze deal has been worth a 9.7% real terms reduction to taxpayers’ cost of living. This is in stark contrast to under the last Administration when council tax bills more than doubled.

From this April, council tax payers can also now request to pay their 2013 bills over 12 months rather than 10, helping people balance their monthly budgets, and meaning taxpayers’ money says in their bank accounts for longer.

The Greater London Authority reduced its council tax precept across London by some 1.2% in 2013-14, entitling it to a council tax freeze grant. The authority’s precept has fallen from £310 a year on band D bills in 2008-09 to £303 in 2013-14. This is a significant cut in real terms.

In its calculation of unadjusted relevant basic amount of council tax, there was a technical administrative error by the Greater London Authority. The circumstances are unique to the Greater London Authority and arise from the City of London having its own police force and not contributing to the cost of the Metropolitan police force. For a relatively small number of residents in the City of London, the increase in the unadjusted amount was not offset by a substantial reduction in the costs of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. The position in respect of council tax payments across Greater London remains as set out in council budgets, precepts and the bills dispatched to residents.

A technical direction has been issued today under section 52ZR of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 to resolve this issue this year. This does not affect the overall level of council tax set by the Greater London Authority, nor does it affect the validity of council tax bills or the collection of council tax by billing authorities in London. In issuing this direction, we also intend to amend the Greater London Authority Act to ensure that any such future recalculations would comply with the 1992 Act. Nevertheless the Greater London Authority’s unadjusted council tax position for 2013-14 will be taken into account when proposing council tax excessiveness principles for 2014-15.

Abolishing taxpayer-funded pensions for councillors

In the written statement of 19 December 2012, Official Report, column 105WS, we announced proposals to abolish taxpayer-funded pensions for councillors. We stated that Ministers in this Government take a fundamentally different view to the last Administration. We do not believe that taxpayer-funded pensions are justified. Councillors are volunteers undertaking public service; they are not and should not be employees of the council dependent on the municipal payroll.

On 10 April, as required by statute, we published a formal consultation paper. A range of options are outlined for comment. The Government’s preferred option is the abolition of such taxpayers-funded pensions. Having reflected on feedback since the original announcement, this preferred option would include the abolition for councillors, elected mayors and the London Mayor and Assembly. This would avoid a “two-tier” system in local authorities.

Stopping propaganda on the rates

In March 2011, reflecting a coalition agreement pledge, we introduced an updated local government publicity code, to tackle the growing practice of “town hall pravdas” and similar dubious propaganda at public expense.

It has become clear that some councils are disregarding this code, intentionally seeking to undermine local newspapers and publishing political propaganda at taxpayers’ expense. On 8 April, my Department published a consultation on proposals to legislate strengthening these council publicity rules. Localism and robust local democracy requires a strong, vibrant and independent local press which are essential in holding local councils to account. It also needs a level playing field to prevent an incumbent council abusing taxpayers’ money to suppress legitimate scrutiny.

Saving taxpayers’ money from shared services

On 4 April, we announced that we will be moving into shared central London headquarters at 2 Marsham street alongside the Home Office. Marsham street was previously the home of my Department’s predecessor, the Department of the Environment.

The current costs of running Eland House are £20 million per annum and the move will save my Department £8 million a year. We believe in making sure taxpayers get value for money. By sharing services and streamlining our property portfolio this move will allow us to continue the best practice that we have recommended to local government.

Flying the flag

As part of my ongoing programme of championing flag flying, during the recess my Department flew the NATO flag to mark the anniversary of the North Atlantic treaty. Last year, we amended national planning rules to make it easier to fly flags, including local and military flags. Previously, the NATO flag could not be easily flown without paying for a planning permit from the local council.

Following the sad announcement of the death of Baroness Thatcher, it was particularly apt that both the United Kingdom’s Union flag and the NATO flag flew side by side at half mast. NATO has kept the peace in western Europe since World War II and protected us from oppressive totalitarianism. As championed by Margaret Thatcher, transatlantic co-operation and NATO’s nuclear shield continue to defend the liberties and freedoms that we take for granted today.

Copies of the associated documents and press releases have been placed in the Library of the House.