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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 563: debated on Monday 3 June 2013

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Derelict Buildings

1. What recent steps his Department has taken to encourage the sharing of best practice between local authorities on using their powers to repair derelict buildings. (157158)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State apologises for his absence today; he is at an important trade mission in India. However, his thoughts and those of the whole House will be with the family and friends of Drummer Lee Rigby.

Local authorities have powers under planning, environmental and local government legislation to intervene to bring derelict buildings back into use. Our best practice guidance sets out those powers, and we believe that local authorities should use them proactively.

Will the Minister join me in urging councils to use their full powers, especially section 215 notices, to tackle the problem of derelict buildings, given that many of them are not currently doing so? Will he also publish a full list of English councils showing their use of section 215 notices over the past three years?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing to encourage councils to do more to tackle the blight caused by derelict and empty buildings in town centres such as Wisbech in his constituency. As I said, we have published the best practice guidance relating to section 215 notices, and we will certainly do more, if we can, to encourage councils to use those powers. I will also look at his suggestion.

Planning Permission

2. What assessment he has made of the effect of the introduction of the flexible use class of planning permission on the high street. (157159)

The rise of internet shopping and the changes in people’s working patterns pose immense challenges to the traditional high streets. Our recent relaxation of use class restrictions will support innovation and promote imaginative new uses for existing buildings.

We have been working hard in my constituency to improve our town centres by knocking down derelict buildings, encouraging more civic events and attracting new businesses, but we need more powers and tools at our disposal, not fewer. These changes will make it easier for clusters of businesses such as betting shops and payday lenders to open. Why are the Government ignoring public opinion and not allowing local communities to have the powers they need to shape the decisions that affect their local high streets?

First, the relaxation relates to temporary use for only two years, so it is more about innovative models of business than about established businesses that would have substantial start-up costs. Secondly, local authorities already have powers, known as article 4 directions, to set aside any permitted development that they think inappropriate for a particular part of their area, and I encourage them to use them.

High street businesses rely on footfall; indeed, that is their lifeblood. Does my hon. Friend believe that his planning reforms will give sufficient help to the high street businesses in my constituency to increase their foot traffic and ensure that they thrive?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We in this House and the people in the town halls cannot entirely predict what will work in the different town centres of the land. The best way to do this is to make it easy for new businesses to set up and pull in the people who will then benefit the existing businesses in our town centres.

Given what the Minister has just said, will he explain why he has taken away from local councils and local communities the power to shape their high streets? Who does he think will benefit from the deregulation of use classes?

Labour through the ages—including, indeed, the father of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)—famously believed that the Government could run the economy and decide how we should be competitive. Government Members believe that it is business and entrepreneurs who can decide how best to achieve thriving high streets and town centres, which is why we are determined to make life easier for them, as Mary Portas recommended in her review.

I am not sure the Minister answered my question, so I will answer it for him. The people who are likely to benefit are payday loan companies, whose presence on our high streets has already increased by about 20% in the past year. Why does he think that those companies need a further helping hand, rather than our communities who are crying out for the powers to diversify their high streets according to local needs determined by them?

It is classic, is it not? “Determined by them” means determined by public servants and councillors, not by entrepreneurs and the people they want to attract as customers. There is still, as there has always been, an ability to suspend a permitted development that is not right for an area. That is why Barking and Dagenham council is consulting on an article 4 direction, which we welcome. That is exactly the right use of the law, which existed under the Government whom the hon. Lady supported.

Council Tax Benefit

3. What assessment he has made of the average change in income of working families as a result of changes to council tax benefit. (157160)

The impact assessment for the Government’s policy framework for localising council tax support is available on the Department’s website, but it is very important to note that the design of local schemes, and the assessment of their impact, is the responsibility of the local authorities.

The changes to council tax benefit and the subsequent cuts have come in at the same time as the freezing of child benefit and working tax credit, the linking of benefits to CPI rather than RPI and, of course, the introduction of the bedroom tax. How can the Government justify this multiple attack on low-income working families on the same day as bringing in a tax cut for millionaires?

Unfortunately, we have to bear in mind the background to this, with spending on council tax benefit doubling under Labour and currently costing taxpayers £4 billion a year—around £180 per household. Welfare reform is vital to tackle the deficit left by the last Labour Government. Under the last Administration, more was being spent on this than on defence, education and health combined. That simply has to stop. The reforms we have put in place to localise council tax support give local authorities the power and the incentive to deliver local growth and get people back into work.

Does the Minister accept that many of the families who have to pay extra council tax are the very same families who have to pay the bedroom tax? Many of those families will simply not be able to meet the extra demands placed on them. Given the limits faced by local authorities on the amount of the discretionary housing benefit they can award, does the Minister accept that local authorities and housing associations will eventually be placed in the inevitable position of having to take enforcement action against families whose only crime is that they simply cannot afford to pay?

Actually, I do not accept that. With the greatest respect to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, I think that the important point of these changes is that they incentivise local authorities to see economic growth and get more people into work. It is against the local authorities’ interests to penalise people. They should be wanting people to get into work to drive economic growth. This change gives them the incentive to do that, and through the Localism Act 2011we have given them the freedom to do just that.


With £19.5 billion of public and private investment, our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes by March 2015. In addition, the introduction of self-financing for local authority housing provides authorities with flexibility to increase supply.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but will he consider also instructing the Homes and Communities Agency to allow councils and registered social landlords to switch grant funding from sites where progress has been delayed to other sites where the prospect of an early start on the ground is better, so that we can have the social and council housing that we so desperately need?

I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome the funds made available for 717 new affordable homes in his area. I know he is concerned about the Trumpington Meadows development. The Homes and Communities Agency is in discussion with the developers and we entirely accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that, in the appropriate circumstances, the HCA could transfer the funding to another developer in the nearby locality.

Stockport Homes is rated as one of the best housing organisations in the country, but it is not going to be allowed to bid for funds from the 2013-17 affordable homes guarantees programme, which I understand will be open only to those classified as being in the private sector, such as independent housing associations. This will adversely affect the building of badly needed affordable homes in Stockport. Will the Minister meet a delegation of all Stockport MPs so that we can discuss our concerns with him?

I would be delighted to meet such a delegation. I remind the hon. Lady that on 26 June a further announcement will be made under the spending review, when further funds will hopefully be made available that might help her constituents.

As a member of Kettering borough council, may I share with the Minister the fact that the council has one of the best records in the whole of the east midlands on the delivery of affordable housing? For seven of the last eight years, it has provided an additional 100 affordable homes a year, and in three of those years, a level twice that.

I am delighted to congratulate people in Kettering and the neighbouring area on that. I hope that the new homes bonus is providing an additional incentive, and we have of course recently brought on stream the £10 billion loan guarantee scheme, which will help to provide funding for further such homes.

The all-party Treasury Select Committee, the Governor of the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund have all expressed concern that the Government’s policies will not build the homes our country needs. With the comprehensive spending review but three weeks away, the shadow Chancellor persuasively argued this morning that the Government should reject the economic illiteracy of austerity, which is pushing up the costs of failure through additional borrowing and soaring housing benefit bills. Does the Housing Minister agree that the time has come to invest in badly needed social and affordable homes to rent or buy, creating jobs and apprenticeships, bringing down the costs of failure and getting our economy moving?

I think that the whole House will have been somewhat amused by the cheek of the hon. Gentleman, given that under his party’s Administration we saw a reduction of 421,000 in the number of affordable homes. This Government have introduced measures to reverse that trend, and we hope to announce further measures in the near future.

Fire and Rescue Services

5. What plans he has to enable external organisations to have greater involvement in the operation of fire and rescue services. (157162)

The hon. Gentleman may have not realised, or may have forgotten, that the last Government’s Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 allowed external organisations to become involved in the provision of fire services. For my own part, I am helping fire and rescue authorities to explore the best way of delivering their services to meet the needs of their communities.

What the Minister said in his letter to the Regulatory Reform Committee rather conflicts with the answer he has just given. The fact is that, as part of his drive to make further savings, he wants to remove—as he said in his letter—the legal obstacles to the privatisation of the emergency fire services. Given that West Midlands fire service is already two years into a programme to cut its budget by nearly a quarter, and has lost nearly 10% of its firefighters, my constituents will regard with alarm—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but we need a question with a question mark: one sentence.

Will the Minister assure my constituents that these moves will not result in a privatised, non-publicly accountable emergency fire service?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Hansard reports of what has been said over the last few months, he will see that I have made clear on more than one occasion that we will not privatise the fire service, notwithstanding the scaremongering of members of his party. He should also note—if he is not already aware of it—that West Midlands fire service is currently advertising for firefighters.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, rather than carping at chimeras and imagined proposals for privatisation, Opposition Members might do better to study seriously a report by Sir Ken Knight—arguably the most distinguished and experienced operational commander of his generation—which sets out serious and important proposals for efficiencies in the organisation?

It is somewhat surprising—although I suppose that it ought not to be—that the Opposition seem to have wanted to create a campaign to prevent something that was never going to happen in the first place.

My hon. Friend is right about Sir Ken Knight’s report. It is very well written, and there is much in it for us to note. I look forward to the responses that we shall receive from the sector itself and from authorities more generally. We have already held a teleconference on the report, and I shall return to the subject more formally later in the year.

20. Given the Minister’s statement to the Communities and Local Government Committee on 15 May that Cleveland fire authority had decided not to proceed with mutualisation, will he confirm that documentation relating to that mutualisation will not be blocked by a section 35 exemption, but will be available to the public via freedom of information requests? (157179)

What I actually said was that the Government supported mutuals and co-operatives. What Cleveland fire authority does is a matter for the authority itself. I note that the Labour party does not support mutuals now, which is surprising given that a Labour authority wants to mutualise. I commend the authority for having looked at new ideas, but it really is for Cleveland fire authority to decide how it should proceed.

It seems from the Minister’s answers that either he is in denial or he does not understand the measures that he is seeking to introduce. As for the Ken Knight review, on page 74 he explicitly recommends privatisation. [Interruption.] I am afraid he does. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) ought to look at the report. [Interruption.] I have read it.

Will the Minister now concede that procurement law requires any fire and rescue authority that opts to mutualise its services to re-tender those services periodically and open them up to the private sector?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not here for the debate on Cleveland fire authority, when we said explicitly that we were not going to privatise the fire service. We cannot allow something to be introduced that would allow that. We have been categorical about that. To be clear, he should take care to read Sir Ken Knight’s review, which is superb and has given us a lot to discuss but does not make a single recommendation.

Portas Pilots

7. What assessment he has made of progress made by the Portas pilots and their effect on high streets. (157164)

This Government believe our high streets need to adapt to changing consumer habits, especially online shopping. The Portas pilots are test-beds for developing new ideas. They are part of a comprehensive approach designed to strengthen local leadership, reform planning and parking policies, help small shops and boost local markets.

Ministers must acknowledge the huge discrepancy between the £20 million Ministers have spent on the Portas pilots and the fact that the Government have increased business rates for retailers by over £500 million in the past two years. With a recent survey showing that the UK has the highest business rates in the European Union, is it not time that the Government stopped treating the high street as a cash cow to milk to exhaustion?

Nothing has changed in rating policy. Ever since 1990, business rates have gone up by the retail prices index—it was the same under the Labour Government. It is right to say, however, that they are fixed overheads. That is why, unlike the Labour party, we have doubled the threshold for small business rate relief and taken a third of a million small businesses out of business rates altogether. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

I am a fan of Mary Portas and her recent TV programme showed that Mary and some traders have great vision. However, all too often, the local authority and some traders could not agree on how to proceed. Can we time-limit grants and, if they are not spent, transfer them to areas that will spend them quickly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key—it was referred to by the planning Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—is the strength of local civic and business leadership. That is what we are seeing in the pilots. On the grants, the key is ensuring that the money is spent wisely, not quickly, but I take the point about disputes that block activity on the ground.

I very much welcome the Minister’s strong support for the Portas principles and that of the planning Minister. Does he agree that one sure-fire way of wrecking high streets is to allow local authorities to allow out-of-town shopping centres?

Absolutely. That is why we have strengthened planning policy so that town centres come first. Indeed, only last week I was briefly in Cricklade in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which has an excellent range of shops.

Council Tax

The Government have protected pensioners from any change as they have fixed incomes and cannot reasonably be expected to go back to work. Pensioners who have saved and worked hard all their lives deserve dignity and security in retirement, and we are pleased to be able to introduce that protection and to freeze council tax.

Is not keeping council tax down the best help local authorities can give to pensioners? Does the Minister agree that freezing council tax, which some councils, including Kent, which I represent, have done in the past few years, is the best way to help people on fixed incomes?

My hon. Friend is right. Good councils such as Kent county council have worked hard to drive down their core costs while still investing in their communities and freezing council tax. That is good for all residents on all levels and I congratulate councils such as Kent on doing that.

Adult Social Care

9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on local authority budgets of increased demand for adult social care. (157166)

In recognition of the pressure that local authorities face, we prioritised adult social care at the last spending review and provided an extra £7.2 billion to protect access to services that support vulnerable people. It is for local authorities to choose how best to use the available funding.

In asking my question, I should point out that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The LGA believes that local government is facing a financial black hole and that the Government’s severe cuts to local authority budgets are a false economy, as those unable to pay the escalating charges for social care are more likely down the line to require costly hospital or residential care. Before making cuts to local government budgets, did the Secretary of State have any meaningful discussion with the Secretary of State for Health on the potential implications for health service budgets?

There are constant discussions between the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the Department of Health. As a result of those discussions, we have now not only introduced the £7.2 billion, but are encouraging much closer working between health and social care and are putting in an additional £300 million over two years to facilitate that joint working.

I am also a vice-president of the LGA.

Given the pressures that we know are falling very heavily on our councils, particularly along the south coast, what plans does the Minister have to showcase best practice as councils begin to bring health and social care funding together, particularly in terms of early cost-effective interventions?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Many local councils are now working much more closely and effectively with the health services in their area. They are providing greater focus on preventive care and a joined-up approach to the commissioning and delivery of services. Colleagues in my Department and the Department of Health will be working closely to make sure we promote the sorts of successes we are seeing around the country.

19. Councils across the country are facing budget cuts of 28%, and my council in Oldham is facing a cut of up to 50%. The impact on social care budgets is devastating, as one quarter of local authority budgets are made up of adult social care. The King’s Fund has said that the amount of money the Government have found for social care is absolutely inadequate. On that basis, will the Government support Labour’s call to use £1.2 billion of the NHS under- spend to invest in social care, and make sure that the people who need care are getting it? (157178)

What we are doing is looking at the great success of those local authorities that are coming together to work more effectively to drive down costs. There are very good examples, including west Cheshire, where integrated health and adult care could save £26 million over a five-year period. This integration is delivering better quality care at lower cost.

Local Authority Budgets

Order. That grouping was not requested and has not been granted—but leave it to the Chair and we will see how we get on. The hon. Gentleman can start by answering Question 10.

Of course, and apologies, Mr Speaker.

We have published “50 ways to save”, a practical guide to councils on how they can make the most of their budgets through saving money—making sure the pennies get taken care of, so the pounds do as well. We have also developed the transformational challenge award to encourage councils that are looking innovatively at how they can work together, such as St Edmundsbury borough council, which I visited this morning and is saving almost £1 million a year through shared management with its neighbours.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he also agree that councils should review their portfolio of literature requiring translation, as in the last three years over £40 million was spent on that in England, and my council spent £1 million?

The people of Wirral have had many words to say about the level of cuts to our local authority budget that we have had to face, but “sensible” has not been one of them. May I therefore ask the Minister what conversations he has had with Treasury Ministers about the forthcoming spending review, and what he is going to do to help out areas such as Wirral and the Liverpool city region that took very serious cuts last time?

We will have the spending review in just a few weeks’ time, of course, but the hon. Lady needs to look at the starting point as well and understand that the amount of money spent per household in Liverpool was among the highest in the country. All authorities, however, should be making sure that they have got the right management cost structures and are spending money on front-line services, not back-office costs.

22. In this year’s budget Medway council is using half of its unallocated reserves for a new development fund to support future regeneration. What are the Government doing to encourage local authorities to use their reserves to support local communities? (157182)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Authorities that are looking carefully at what to do with their reserves are doing the right thing. It is right that they should keep reasonable reserves, but they should not be at too high a level, as they are there to be used. It is absolutely right that authorities look at using their reserves to invest in their communities, to the benefit of their communities both now and in the future.

Right-to-buy Scheme

Since we reinvigorated the right to buy last year, sales have more than doubled, to the highest level in six years. We believe it is vital to ensure that all eligible tenants know exactly how to exercise their right, which is why this month we are writing directly to more than 500,000 households right across England, including in the metropolitan city of Leeds.

Enabling families on the estate I grew up on to be the first generation to own their own home really did open up social mobility. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that certain councils have refused to promote the new right-to-buy scheme to their tenants? Does he think that has something to do with the fact that those councils are run by parties that are against home ownership as an aspiration?

My hon. Friend puts his finger exactly on the point: some Labour councils and, indeed, some trade unions, which, as we know, bankroll the Labour party, are bitterly opposed to the idea that people should be able to buy their own home. I can tell him that this Government are determined to ensure that eligible tenants who want to exercise their right to buy will be able to do so, and never mind the politics on the other side of the House.

The Government said that the proceeds of these right-to-buy sales will be used to build new affordable homes, but the problem surely is that these are not going to be affordable homes and one direct consequence will be a big increase in the housing benefit bill if any houses actually get built for that kind of rent.

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but some 844 dwellings have started or been acquired already, and those are affordable homes to rent. So she is wrong on the facts and the Opposition are wrong on their ideology against the principle that people should have the right to buy their own home.

The right to buy is a very important policy that can hugely enhance social mobility but, unfortunately, in some areas of the country that went through stock transfer early it does not reach our constituents and benefit them. May I encourage the Minister to examine ways of improving the right to purchase and the discounts available under the scheme, and to work more closely with registered social landlords to make sure that my constituents can also benefit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, in the sense that the protected right that was there is an important issue. We are keeping it closely under review, but I would welcome, as would my colleagues, any input on a local basis.

Consumer Trends

The rise in online shopping means that high streets must change if they are to compete. The Government are actively helping high streets to adapt, but we need councils, landlords and businesses to play their part. That is why we have established the joint future high streets forum so that, together, we can better understand this complex challenge and so reinvigorate our town centres.

Chester is bidding to be the city of culture 2017, and we are using our bid to encourage people to use our culture, heritage and festivals, and thus breathe life back into the high street. Does my hon. Friend agree that making shopping an enjoyable experience that is also informative and entertaining is one way of encouraging shoppers back to the high street?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who points out that town centres have to adapt so that they are about not just shopping, but hospitality and culture. It is terribly important to get that balance right. I wish to put on the record my encouragement for Chester’s bid to be city of culture, for I know the support he is giving to it.

Amid the adverse effects of e-commerce, one positive recent trend has been the growth of click and collect, with Royal Mail now having announced its own version. What can be done to encourage such schemes and bring a bit of footfall back to the high street?

Again, my hon. Friend is right in what he says. We must be careful about assuming that online retailing is wholly negative for town centres, as it can be a great opportunity. That is why we have asked the Post Office to be part of the future high streets forum; it has a tremendous retailing network and we want to tap into that expertise.

Land and Building Reuse

13. What steps his Department is taking to support the reuse of brownfield land and empty buildings. [R] (157172)

We are investing £235 million to bring back more than 15,000 empty properties into residential use and we have made it easier to convert empty offices into homes. As a result of those and other measures, there are over 40,000 fewer long-term empty homes than there were when the coalition Government formed.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A small number of commercial buildings in the town centres of Selby and Tadcaster have been unoccupied for several years. What are the Government doing to help the local residents and councils to bring those buildings back into use?

I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend is doing to encourage bringing empty properties back into use. I am sure that he will be delighted with the changes to permitted development that we announced very recently. They will make it much easier for what he wants to be achieved.

What steps is the Minister taking to encourage the adoption of community land trusts and mutual home ownership models to bring back into use empty properties and brownfield sites?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that those models are a good vehicle for achieving our objective in this area. We are doing all we can to encourage them, just as we are encouraging other voluntary organisations to become actively involved in the programme that we have introduced.

Residents in Pool in Wharfedale, Yeadon, Otley and Adel are dismayed at proposals to build on green-belt land introduced by Leeds city council. Considering the number of brownfield sites and empty homes in the Leeds area, does the Minister understand that concern? Will he ensure that any housing plan from this Government will concentrate on houses to deal with the affordability crisis, not on expensive houses in greenfield areas?

The national planning policy framework makes it absolutely clear that brownfield sites, unless they are of exceptional environmental value, should be treated as a priority over greenfield sites, but, ultimately, it is for the local authority’s planning department to determine where those houses should go. We are certainly doing all we can to encourage the use of brownfield before greenfield.

On Friday, I met residents around the Barlow Fold site in Rossendale, which is a playing field given to local residents by the Barlow family for recreation. Can the Minister advise me what steps I can take to stop the borough council and Calico Homes acting in concert to develop that greenfield site, which is vital for the local community, when there are more than 30 brownfield sites in a similar area?

I encourage my hon. Friend to make use of the community rights that are available to ensure that that land has been registered as a community asset and encourage residents in the area to make use of the opportunities provided by the neighbourhood planning facilities that we have now made available.


14. What steps he is taking to ensure that all tenants have the option to sign up to longer-term tenancies. (157173)

The initial fixed term under an assured shorthold tenancy is usually six months, but there is nothing to stop a landlord and tenant agreeing to a longer tenancy if that suits them both. I am encouraged to see that Build to Rent investors are keen to promote longer tenancies.

In Brighton and Hove, we have an acute housing crisis with a private rented sector that is twice the national average at 21% and a generation of families living in uncertainty with short-term tenancies. Does the Minister agree that longer-term tenancies should be much more widely available and will he consider measures to incentivise landlords to offer longer-term tenancies through changes to capital gains tax and national insurance contributions, which have been proposed by a number of housing charities?

We are already considering the proposals the hon. Lady mentions. May I remind her that only 9% of tenancies are ended by the landlord, and that is usually because they want to live in the property or to sell it? The majority of landlords want to keep their tenants rather than face empty properties, but we need to get the balance right between the rights of landlords and those of tenants while maintaining the confidence of mortgage lenders.

Hackney has more people renting privately than owning homes, so this is a big issue. Mortgage lenders are one of the bars to tenants, so what is the Minister doing to discuss that issue with the Treasury and other interested Departments? I should draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we need to increase the availability of privately rented accommodation and that is why the Government have introduced £1 billion of funding through various schemes to provide support for that. I suspect that further announcements will be made in a relatively short time.

Neighbourhood Planning Referendums

In all three referendums, residents have voted overwhelmingly in support of neighbourhood plans. More than 90% of voters said yes in Eden and Exeter St James and 76% in Thame.

I welcome the Government’s use of referendums in neighbourhood plans, which contrasts with the heavy-handed, top-down regional planning strategies of the last Government. Will the Minister confirm that my constituents in Adur, who face excessive house building on our diminishing green spaces—including, often, on floodplains between the downs and the sea—will be able to influence our draft local plan through the use of referendums, and that the planning inspector will be sympathetic to this manifestation of the localism promoted by the Government?

I am delighted to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that a plan cannot be found sound unless it has undergone a great deal of consultation by local people; an inspector will expect that to have happened before they examine the plan.

Further to that question, will the Minister help my communities, who are very excited about this neighbourhood planning idea? Once the local plan has been submitted, can they still work on developing their neighbourhood plan?

Yes. It does not really matter what state the local plan is in; it is always possible for communities to work on neighbourhood plans and we strongly encourage that. Whether the neighbourhood plan is made before or after the local plan, it simply has to be in conformity with the core needs identified in the local plan; it can move ahead independently of it.

House Building

First, I commend the right hon. Gentleman on his clear, common-sense leadership during the recent events in Woolwich.

The Government closely monitor the rate of house building. We are on target to deliver 170,000 affordable homes by 2015, and we completed 58,000 of them in 2011-12. We assess that to be one third higher than the annual average delivered in the 10 years leading up to the last election.

May I draw attention to my interests, and thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks?

The National Audit Office, in a recent report, described the new homes bonus as not only badly modelled, but largely ineffective, yet it is hugely expensive, having already led the Government to commit more than £1 billion, with that commitment rising to over £3 billion in the short term. When will the Government reconsider this measure, which appears to have little or no effect and comes at vast cost?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that the National Audit Office also said that it is too early, in the process of the programme, to tell whether there is an impact. He knows that well from his experience as a Minister. It made some suggestions on how the technical modelling could be improved, and we are always open to such suggestions. On the question of a review, it was always our intention, over the coming year, to look to review the programme, as we do all programmes. I remind him and the House that the programme has enabled councils to be rewarded for delivering in the region of 400,000 more homes.

In support of Government schemes to increase house building, what action is being taken to press Government Departments and public bodies in general to dispose of surplus sites and property? In my experience, the NHS is by far the worst offender.

The hon. Gentleman has been a powerful advocate for the hospital site in Colchester about which he and I had a meeting. We have been able to organise the disposal of land for some 33,000 homes. There is much more to do in the health service, across the defence estate, and elsewhere, but this is an important priority, and I understand the point that he raises.

21. Does the Housing Minister think that there is any connection between my Conservative council spending £860,000 last year on keeping 365 families in bed and breakfast, the fact that it sells off 10% of council homes that become vacant, and the fact that it has planning policies that forbid the construction of any additional social homes? (157180)

The hon. Gentleman is nothing if not parochial. He is one of those people, I am afraid, who cannot see the good side in any affordable housing programme. [Interruption.] I am well aware of his connections with Hammersmith and Fulham; we are constantly reminded of, and excited by, that prospect. We are delivering on the completion of 170,000 more affordable homes; the Labour Government presided over the loss of 421,000 homes.

May I invite my hon. Friend to take a joined-up, common-sense approach to the house building programme, and to invite water companies to be statutory consultees, so that they can assess the automatic right to connect for substantially new housing developments?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Clearly, we need to be careful about how that is applied, and the method by which we consult, but common sense is always something that this Government take pride in.

In his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), the Minister challenged the NAO report. Is he going to do what the NAO report specifically requires, which is to publish urgently accurate ways in which he intends to conduct a review of whether the system works?

Topical Questions

My Department has been making progress in accelerating housing supply, supporting local government and introducing new protections for tenants of mobile homes. A detailed written statement is being provided for the benefit of Members.

The whole House will have been shocked by the appalling murder of Drummer Lee Rigby and the impact that this will have had on his family and on the local community. The Prime Minister will shortly outline the Government’s further actions to tackle extremism, but the response to that attack has brought communities and the nation together. The public are firm in their support for the armed forces and we have seen British Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder with other faiths in their condemnation of this brutality. This Department and this Government will continue to challenge the politics of division, for we are stronger as a community and as a nation when we stand together.

I think the whole House will want to associate ourselves with the Minister’s comments.

However, the Minister’s response to my earlier question was disappointing. I am sure I am not alone in that view, and that millions of carers and people who need care will be disappointed. Given that the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has said that the pressure on adult social care will get much worse with another £800 million being taken out of the system over the next 12 months, why are the Government so complacent, and why are they not prepared to commit to using the underspend from the NHS—£1.2 billion—to invest in social care? That is needed now.

With respect to the hon. Lady, we have, as part of the £7.2 billion funding for adult care services, transferred some £2 billion or more from the health service budget to make sure that that joined-up thinking takes place. When one looks at the evidence, it is clear that 78% of the savings made are not on front-line services, but are efficiency savings.

T3. The localism agenda is welcome, but what can my hon. Friend say to communities in my constituency, such as Collingtree, whose preference for the location of 1,000 new homes is being undermined, or Helmdon and Sulgrave, whose recent judicial review overturned a wind farm proposal, yet the developers are straight away having another go? (157185)

On wind farm developments, the Government will be making announcements shortly. On housing developments, the key is for every local community to produce a plan—either a local plan or, even better, a local plan and a neighbourhood plan. That is the way for local communities to get control over the developments that take place in their area.

May I join the Minister in condemning the cowardly killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, and express from the Opposition Benches our deep condolences to his family and his friends on their terrible loss? I echo the Minister’s remarks about my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford). I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the phone conversation that we had the following day, and he and the Government have the full support of the Opposition for the efforts that he and all of us must make to counter the causes of that kind of hateful extremism. Will the Minister tell us what steps he and his colleagues in the Department now propose to take to do this?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those remarks. When people see the House of Commons in unity in this purpose, it is a very important signal that we can and should send. We, with the rest of Government, have been actively involved from the moment this dreadful news broke, looking specifically at local programmes and we will clearly be working with the new taskforce that the Prime Minister will comment on shortly. That will be not only about looking at radicalisation, but how we strengthen communities further. I cite to the right hon. Gentleman the excellent work of Show Racism the Red Card, which has helped some 9,000 young people learn why inclusiveness is crucial.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Getting people to meet one another is the best way to counter extremism, but, as we know, some people have used this tragedy to try to stir up trouble, and we have seen a number of shameful attacks on mosques that have caused great fear in the Muslim community. This clearly must be one priority for the Government’s extremism taskforce that met for the first time this morning. Will the Minister tell us what specific action was proposed at that meeting to stop such attacks happening?

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, it would be unwise of me to pre-empt the statement that the Prime Minister is about to make on behalf of the Government, but we are actively engaged in ensuring that communities—those of faith and those not of faith—come together in a range of different activities, so that we can make sure that we bring our communities locally, but also the country, together more closely.

T4. The Government are consulting on the draft environmental statement for HS2, a project that will adversely affect local communities along the proposed route. The Chilterns, a supposedly protected area of outstanding natural beauty, will be adversely affected, both in my constituency and, I believe, in yours, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister therefore outline his Secretary of State’s strategy for defending those communities and their local environment, and tell us what role he will play in the development of the environmental statement? (157186)

As I think my right hon. Friend will know, a consultation is in hand, and this is something that must be dealt with not only by a single Department but right across Whitehall. I would certainly welcome any local comments that she feels would add to that deliberation.

T5. Businesses, newspapers and all local authority leaders are joining forces to launch the NEvolution campaign in a bid to win greater financial freedoms to support the regional economy. In the absence of the Secretary of State, will his Ministers pledge their help and backing to this ground-breaking campaign? (157187)

It was interesting to hear what some of the local authority leaders had to say when I met them. It is great to see anything that is developing more local accountability and, therefore, driving local economic growth. We supported that through the Localism Act 2011 and the changes that we made this year in the business rates retention scheme.

T6. My hon. Friend may be aware that the urban planning design of Milton Keynes is being exported to China, which is looking to model two new cities on our successful design. Will he continue to work with UK Trade & Investment to help us to explore further export possibilities? (157188)

I think that we all want to applaud British design, particularly in the development of new towns and garden cities, especially the great city of Milton Keynes. This is something that we should take pride in, and I am sure that the good people of Milton Keynes will do so.

T7. The Minister may have read my Select Committee’s recent report on greater independence for local government. Ministers and politicians of all parties work hard to devolve power, yet the Whitehall culture always seems to suck power back into the centre. What does he propose to do about that as some good advice for future Governments? (157189)

We have had a number of conversations on the issue since the report, the launch of which I was pleased to attend. It contained many interesting points. A big issue is for local government itself to take advantage of the powers given by the Localism Act, particularly the general power of competence to drive the agenda locally. From the centre, we are working on the whole place community budgets and the new network to make sure that we get government working across the public sector, particularly driven by the local areas and by local people for local people.

T10. Will Ministers confirm that it remains the Government’s policy that the development of brownfield sites will take precedence over building on green fields? (157192)

T8. Following briefing that new legislation will require private landlords to check the immigration status of tenants, and a reported row between the Communities Secretary and the Prime Minister, in which the latter apparently turned puce, a Whitehall source said that the Government would just be targeting the regulation at high-risk areas. How would the Minister define a high-risk area of private renters? (157190)

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but all that press speculation is nonsense. The Government are clear. We want to make sure, as good landlords already do, that no one is living in the private rented housing sector in this country illegally. We are going to put forward some straightforward but effective measures. We will of course consult on them, and they will build on the important work that we are doing already to crack down on the minority of rogue landlords who exploit the vulnerable through programmes such as beds in sheds.

Firefighters in Bradford on Avon and Chippenham now expect to work to the normal pension age of 60, but they are concerned that they may fail the VO2 max capability test before that time. Where that is the case, at what age will those firefighters be able to draw their pension?

The vast majority of firefighters will be able to regain any lost fitness levels through remedial fitness training, but alternatively they can access their pension from the age of 55 with an actuarial reduction.

T9. Do Ministers share my concern about the impact of welfare changes on housing associations? The Wythenshawe community housing group in my constituency estimates that rent arrears will go up by about £1 million this year following the introduction of the bedroom tax. Do Ministers agree that when universal credit comes in, any claimant already in rent arrears should have their housing costs paid directly and immediately to their landlord? (157191)

I do not share the right hon. Gentleman’s fears, but I am always happy to listen to individual circumstances such as the one he refers to. Where we are reducing the spare room subsidy, we are doing it for an important reason—there are currently 1 million spare bedrooms in this country, and we have a quarter of a million people living in overcrowded accommodation. It cannot be fair to allow that situation to persist.

The Planning Minister is aware of an unacceptable planning application in Micklethwaite, in my constituency, which has already been rejected by the local council, the planning inspector and the Secretary of State, but which through legal proceedings has gone back to the Secretary of State for redetermination. A decision was expected by now. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect that decision from the Secretary of State, and, even better, confirm that he will once again reject that unacceptable proposed development?

My hon. Friend has been indefatigable in his representations on the issue. He knows all too well that I cannot say anything about it, but he has made his representations here, in his constituency, in the Tea Room and almost everywhere else.

If a fire brigade is “spun out”, to use the Government’s terms, what procurement route could be taken to prevent tendering to the private sector within a three to nine-year window? If the Minister cannot say, why are he and the Government actively funding the process as a stepping stone from mutualisation to privatisation?

I can only repeat what I said earlier and what I said to the hon. Gentleman in the debate on the matter in the House. We will not allow any change that allows for privatisation of the fire service. I am disappointed that the Labour party seems to be working against the mutuals and co-operatives that the Labour-led Cleveland fire authority is putting forward.

Despite a 3.7% increase in Bury’s council tax, taxpayers were denied a referendum because of the small print in the rules governing when a referendum must be held. Will the Minister confirm that those rules will be looked at again to make them clearer, so that council tax payers know for certain when they will and will not be given a referendum?

My hon. Friend asks a very reasonable question. He is absolutely right that we had that situation with a few councils, and we are looking to deal with it as part of the audit Bill that will come before the House later this year.

We look forward to the Prime Minister’s statement on Woolwich, but when the extremism taskforce is put together, will the Minister look at the lessons learned from Bradford and west Yorkshire following the 7/7 bombings? I know he will be pleased that the whole Bradford community has condemned without fail what happened in Woolwich, and that is a great thing. Some great lessons were learned in Bradford and some great work was carried out, and perhaps we can share some of it with the new taskforce.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we can always learn from problems that have occurred in the past. The Prime Minister’s statement will make clear the whole Government’s approach, but this Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that we have genuinely inclusive communities.

Will my hon. Friend look again at how inflated claims for compensation in the case of article 4 directions can deter their proper use by local authorities, as in the case of the Porcupine pub in Mottingham, in my constituency?

My hon. Friend knows a lot more about article 4 directions than I do, from his experience as a Minister in the Department, and he will know that we are undertaking a review of how they work so that they are properly usable by local authorities.

If the Government are serious about increasing housing supply, will they look again at lifting the current cap on council borrowing for house building, and at providing direct capital spending to allow councils to build a mass programme of affordable housing?

We are looking at the point the hon. Lady has raised, and an announcement will be made on 26 June.

The Minister was right to remind the House that under the previous Government, house building dropped to its lowest level since the 1920s. Given that in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Belgium more than 50% of new homes are self-builds, what steps is the Minister taking to remove barriers to self-builders in this country?

We are ensuring not only that plots are available, but that finance is available. That is why we have in the pipeline nearly 800 plots available for my hon. Friend’s constituents, and indeed nationally.

One of this Government’s first acts was to get rid of proposals to have a register of private landlords. In many discussions I have had with residents—including at the Hackney housing summit that I hosted recently—it has become clear that there has been a real need to improve landlords, but without knowing who they are we cannot do that. Will the Minister look again at the issue? Again, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The simple answer is that no, we will not. The hon. Lady will be well aware that when her party proposed such a register, the impact assessment showed that it would cost £300 million a year, and that money would be put on to the rent of people seeking to live in those properties.

How many of the savings made in the Minister’s Department have received positive representations or support from the Labour party?