Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 566: debated on Monday 8 July 2013

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Empty Buildings

Among the measures that we have introduced in addition to the powers available to councils, we have provided £235 million in grant and £130 million in new homes bonus, we have revised and are further reviewing permitted development rights, and we have offered councils increased flexibility over council tax levels for empty homes.

High street premises in the Cradley part of my constituency have been allowed to fall into a very poor state of repair, which is not conducive to their being brought back into use. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage local authorities to use their existing legal powers, such as serving section 215 orders, in order to oblige freeholders and landlords to maintain their properties to an acceptable standard such that they might stand a better chance of being returned to productive use?

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing on this issue and on her support for the Cradley action group. As she rightly says, empty commercial properties such as the 19% in her council area have a corrosive effect, and I urge her council to use its existing extensive powers. I hope that our recent changes to permitted development rights will make it easier to convert disused commercial buildings in her area into homes.

I welcome the steps that the Government are taking in this important direction. In Macclesfield, local businesses and the council are working closely together through the intown living initiative to make more empty space above shops available for residential use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such steps not only make empty space productive and usable again but breathe new life back into our high streets?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his local council on the work they are doing to bring empty properties back into use. A reduction of 33% in empty homes since 2010 is a great achievement. He is right—tackling empty spaces above shops will certainly contribute to regenerating town centres. Two weeks ago I announced £450,000 in grant for his council area, and I hope this will help.

I congratulate the Minister on what he is offering to help bring empty properties back into use, but in Castle Point we also have a notable number of derelict smaller sites. What advice or support can the Government give to help councils bring forward these sites as well?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her successful defence of the local green belt, and her council on a 23% reduction in empty commercial properties. She is right that we need to see small derelict plots developed before there is encroachment on the green belt, and I am confident that together with the vigorous use of existing council powers, the new permitted development rights and the community right to reclaim land will help her achieve that objective.

Does the Minister agree that in order to renovate and reoccupy unused properties in areas such as Redditch, we need to encourage local councils to use the incentives provided by Government?

I certainly do. My hon. Friend is exactly right. Our new homes bonus for bringing empty properties back into use has certainly helped as there are fewer empty homes in her area than in 2010, but I note that Conservative-controlled Wychavon council is using the new powers that we have granted to allow a 50% premium on council tax on long-term empty homes, but that Labour-controlled Redditch council is apparently not doing so. Perhaps she could urge the council to reconsider.

One of the difficulties in this area in Ripon and other parts of North Yorkshire is getting landlords to engage—communities are often frustrated by being unable to contact the landlord and not knowing who they are. What advice can the Minister give?

My hon. Friend is right. Notwithstanding the excellent work of communities in Ripon and Bentham and their Portas town teams, it is a frustrating and challenging issue. In some cases, the right to reclaim land will help, but local councils are best placed to compile a public register of high street landlords. Spurred on by him, I will now consider how we can give still further assistance.

My local Labour council is working exceedingly hard to tackle some of the 2,500 empty properties in Hyndburn and also those in Rossendale. Does the Minister think that the introduction of a decent housing standard would make those properties more attractive to people to rent, rather than the dilapidated state that some are in at the moment?

I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the positive discussions he and I have had on the matter. I remind him that I have agreed to look at the issues he has raised, and we have already given £1.6 billion in grants to help bring council homes up to a decent standard.

Already there is vigorous use. I remind the House that some two thirds of assets in this country are owned by local councils. We are now consulting on the need to get councils to declare a list of all their assets. We have also given additional powers on the right to reclaim that should enable local communities, and indeed individuals, to put pressure on people who own derelict sites to bring them back into use.

Back in 2011 the Pensions Minister told the House that the bedroom tax would help tackle overcrowding, but research by the National Housing Federation now shows that, as a result of those changes, houses across the country are lying idle. Is that what the Government meant by tackling empty homes: creating more of them?

What the Government intend by what the hon. Gentleman describes as the bedroom tax is a means of ensuring the effective use of existing homes, as over 1 million bedrooms are empty and a quarter of a million families are living in overcrowded homes. That is why we are tackling the issue, together with our plans to provide new affordable homes, something that the Labour party signally failed to do when it was in power.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), is not the problem that no real research was done before the introduction of the bedroom tax? The position is very different up and down the country, and in some areas it is clear that an inadvertent consequence might be more empty homes. If that proves to be the case, will the Government change their mind?

I must say to the hon. Lady that clearly very detailed research was done and we had a number of pilots across the country. It would be very helpful if she would assist the House by indicating whether the Labour party, which has been so opposed to the measure, now intends to reverse it.[Official Report, 18 July 2013, Vol. 566, c. 18MC.]

On my high street, some business rates are five times the level of the rent being sought by landlords. Will the Minister consider revaluing business rates, and doing so before localisation so that poorer areas do not lose out?

We have no intention of having a revaluation at the present time. That would cause huge disruption to businesses up and down the land. However, we have doubled the support we give to small businesses. In addition, we have provided financial support to those councils that wish to reduce business rates in their area.

In the early 1990s, when the Government Chief Whip was a most distinguished Housing Minister and I was an insignificant housing officer, the then Government introduced with great fanfare something called LOTS—living over the shop—which had certain similarities to what we have heard about today. It was an unmitigated disaster. There are good reasons why people do not want to live above undertakers, butchers and off-licences. I urge the Minister to look at some of the previous attempts to resolve this and to realise that it is not as simple as it looks.

The hon. Gentleman could never be described, even back in the ’90s, as insignificant. We have indeed looked at all previous attempts to make use of spaces above shops, and all of them have failed, which is why we have now put direct funding in, through our Portas team pilot areas, to look at innovative new ways of dealing with this, and not least, as he will understand, the issue of security.

Extremism and Integration

Like the rest of the House, the Government believe in challenging the forces of hate and the politics of division—from Islamic preachers of hate, to English Defence League thugs, to violent Trotskyite protesters. We are championing what we have in common and what unites us as a British nation across class, colour and creed.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. It has been said that

“extremism breeds not within communities, but in their gaps and margins. In places where the webs and safety nets of community that sustain dignity, self-worth, autonomy and solidarities fail.”

What steps are being taken to tackle that?

It is most important for us to concentrate on those things that unite us. Very early on in this Government, we took a decision to separate the Prevent strategy from integration. My Department’s role has been to try to ensure that those parts that we can celebrate, as British citizens together, work together.

In particular, we have carried out a number of initiatives, including working with inter-faith groups, schools and detached youth workers. I have been grateful for the co-operation in individual constituencies from both sides of the House in respect of our ability to recognise that people of good will can celebrate the differences that exist.

A recent report by Teesside university, following the atrocity in Woolwich, showed that between 22 May and 25 June this year there were 241 anti-Muslim attacks. What support are the Government giving to local community groups under the Prevent strategy to deal with that hate?

The most important thing that we did was establish a way of recording anti-Muslim attacks. We took on board what had been happening with anti-Semitic attacks and took some of it across. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that those statistics include things being said on Twitter as well as actual attacks against individuals, and it is important that we have a degree of grading.

In the aftermath of the tragic and unjustified recent murder of Drummer Rigby, there were a number of attacks on mosques. I talked to the imams of just about every single one, and they wanted to be clear that the attack was not in their name. They condemned it and were looking towards greater integration within society.

Councils increasingly have to translate their documents into other languages. How does that help the integration of communities in our country?

I do not think that it does, and I say that as a sinner repented. I was leader of Bradford council and we did translate. I realised that that attempt to integrate was a process that further isolated. The one thing that does unite us is our language of English. We should do everything we can to ensure that people learn English.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in some areas of the country, including Bradford, extremist groups are targeting young people and offering to keep them safe from on-street grooming, purely as a way of promoting their disgusting, far-right views? Will he tell us what his Department is doing to support local councils to tackle the problem?

I thought it significant that the Friday before last, throughout the country, mosques read a sermon explaining the difficulties of grooming and ways in which we can tackle it. A number of councils right around the country have been helpful in tackling the issue. We have been in close contact to ensure that the true voices of the community are heard, and not that perversion.

Families in Temporary Accommodation

4. What recent estimate he has made of the number of families with children living in temporary accommodation. (163428)

On 31 April this year there were 40,450 families with children in temporary accommodation. Under the previous Government the number reached 74,180.

We are talking about this Government’s abysmal record. Some 76,000 families are living in temporary housing. Of those, the number in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has gone up from 630 three years ago to 1,970 at the end of March this year. These figures show that the Government are not even following their own guidance, which says that B and B accommodation is not suitable for families with children. The truth is that this Government are failing families with children up and down the country as regards providing decent housing.

I reject that argument. After all, the number of families in bed and breakfast for more than six weeks, to which he referred directly, has gone down by 14% in the past six months. However, we are not complacent; there is a lot to do. It is appalling for families who find themselves in those circumstances. This Government are determined not to reach the peak, which was treble the current level under the previous Labour Government.

Over 80% of the families who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer than six weeks come from 15 council areas. What more can the Department do to encourage councils to share best practice in how to deal with this?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the problem is concentrated in certain areas. For example, the numbers in temporary accommodation in the past 12 months halved in Leeds but rose in Birmingham. We need to focus on this. We are therefore putting £1.8 million into the bed-and-breakfast taskforce to really get under the skin of why there are these local variances and to make sure that we tackle the problem at source.

Mr Speaker, may I first echo your congratulations to the British and Irish Lions and to Andy Murray? They are remarkable sportsmen with their team at its very best.

On his appointment, the Housing Minister released a manifesto for housing entitled “Mark’s Manifesto”. In a gripping read, he said that it was wrong that tens of thousands of people should be without a home and that the Government had

“acted to cut the number of households in temporary accommodation.”

Yet only this morning a study for Centrepoint by Cambridge university has pointed to a “severe” shortage of affordable housing, leaving the most vulnerable in the cold, and said that the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen by 10% over the past year. Can the Minister explain why?

There has been a rise in temporary accommodation in the past 12 months, but the numbers as a whole show that the number of families in temporary accommodation is half what it was under the previous Labour Administration. We are trying to tackle this at its root source. That is why we need to be clear about what Labour would do. Labour has a poor record on this, but will not say what its prognosis is.

On facing up to one’s record, the truth is that the only thing that this Government have cut is the budget for affordable homes, as the National Housing Federation has said. Homelessness and rough sleeping are up by a third since the general election, eight times more families are living in bed and breakfasts than three years ago, and the number of affordable housing completions fell by 29% in the past year. Why does the Minister not accept responsibility for presiding over the biggest housing crisis in a generation, forcing thousands of decent families into temporary accommodation and costing the taxpayer £1.8 billion?

We got the lengthy rhetoric, as usual, but no analysis or thought. The reality is that we are building more affordable homes—170,000 in this Parliament, and we plan to build 200,000 in the next Parliament. Labour’s record is that it managed to oversee the loss of 420,000 social homes in 13 years; no wonder Labour Members do not want to talk about it.


6. What steps his Department is taking against aggressive bailiffs engaged by local authorities. (163430)

On 14 June the Government fulfilled a coalition pledge to provide more protection for the public against aggressive bailiffs and unreasonable charges by publishing guidance to local councils on good practice in the collection of council tax arrears.

Is not the need for this underlined by the experience of my constituent Mr Benvenuti of Deal who had a £65 parking ticket, which he appealed against but heard nothing about, turn into a £524 demand from a bailiff following a phantom visit? Is it not right that the Government are taking action on this matter?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am sure the residents of Lewisham will have been listening carefully to how Lewisham has been spending their money. That is why it is important that councils look carefully at what they spend and how they spend it, and that it is appropriate to the issue they are dealing with at that point.

Following changes to Office of Fair Trading rules, Carmarthenshire county council has, as I understand it, been able to employ bailiffs who have operated without a credit licence. What protection does the Minister believe council tenants should have when faced with unscrupulous debt collectors? If they are not regulated, how are their activities to be policed?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question. We have produced clear guidance, but that is a devolved issue for the Welsh authorities.

Council Meetings (Reporting)

7. What steps he has taken to increase the right of bloggers and journalists to report council meetings. (163431)

It is right that journalists and taxpayers are able to use modern media to scrutinise councils. Accordingly, we have legislated to ensure that that happens.

I am grateful for the steps my right hon. Friend is taking to allow local authorities to encourage journalists and bloggers to report council meetings, as they do at Crawley borough council. Will he condemn councils such as Tower Hamlets that still seek to ban such practices?

Frankly, I cannot understand it. Margaret Thatcher introduced a right for the press to be able to scrutinise local authorities, and had modern media existed all those years ago they would have been included in that. Why should councils not show the good things they are doing for their communities?

I fully support the point made by the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) about Tower Hamlets council meetings being broadcast and reported. However, Mr Speaker, you sometimes have difficulty controlling proceedings here on a Wednesday and they have been broadcast live on television for many years. What evidence does the Secretary of State have that it will improve the conduct in Tower Hamlets, which is what we all want to see?

We have legislated to ensure that cameras should film Tower Hamlets cabinet meetings, but we have not said that they should film the main council or committees. If councils continue to refuse to do this—only a handful are doing so—we will take the necessary measures, because the public have a right to know.

Spending Review

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on local authority services of the decisions announced in the spending review 2013. (163432)

The spending round announcement is a fair deal for councils and taxpayers. We are putting in place powerful incentives to enable local government to transform local services, including £3.8 billion to drive the integration of health and social care, while still helping to pay down Labour’s deficit.

I think that Telford and Wrekin council is acknowledged by the Department as a good council. It has made £50 million of cuts since 2010. The spending review indicates that it will have to make further cuts of £10 million a year for the next two years. We are committed to driving forward and finding efficiencies, but will the Minister issue some further detailed guidance on the pooling of health and social care money? It is really important for care, particularly that of elderly people.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. This is a very important step forward and a huge opportunity for people to see better care as well as better savings for local authorities. We will continue to work with local authorities and the team at the Department of Health to ensure that the integration is smooth and that we get the benefits experienced in, for example, the tri-borough, which has taken this on and saved hundreds of millions of pounds and, importantly, is giving its residents a better service and a better quality of life.

Following the spending review, is it not obvious that we need a fairer local government settlement? We must close the gap between urban and rural areas and redistribute central Government funding to rural areas, which have suffered for too long with higher costs and lower central Government support.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As Members will recall, in this year’s assessment we recognised sparsity and went further by making available just over £9 million more to cover it. I will continue to talk to the rural authorities group over the summer to ensure another clear and fair settlement when we get to 2014.

Has the Minister thought about what his reaction will be when a council announces that it cannot fulfil its statutory obligations with the resources available to it?

Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that they balance their budgets, and they have been doing that. It is particularly interesting and impressive that since 2010 public satisfaction with local authorities has increased. It is also important that small district councils in particular, which are working with silo expensive management teams, look at sharing management to make sure that they spend the money on front-line services looking after residents, and not on bureaucracy.

In the Jackanory world of the DCLG, it announced that local government spending would fall by 2.3% after 2015, but will the Minister admit that important resource spending, even on his figures, will fall by 8.5%, rising to 10% when the new homes bonus is top-sliced, and that when predictions for business rates are taken into account, some councils could lose up to 19% of their grant without the compensating growth, hitting the poorest again? Does that not mean that the most vulnerable are paying the price for this Government’s economic failure?

I am sure that the hon. Lady remembers that we have put protections in place for the most vulnerable—councils have a duty to ensure that they look after them. In fact, about 40 authorities actually had an increase this year, because we have moved local government financing from the old Labour style of a begging bowl and “If you do badly, you get more” to a reward-based system whereby if an authority builds houses, it gets money, and if it brings about business growth through business rates retention, it gets more money. Councils can provide better services, work together and be more efficient in that way.

The High Street

Our high streets need to adapt to changing consumer habits. Ministers and officials are therefore working with a wide range of civic and business leaders, including Mary Portas, to strengthen local leadership, reform planning and parking policies, help small shops and boost local markets.

I recognise the Minister’s good intentions in deregulating classes of use for high street shops, but so that high streets like those in Stirchley and Cotteridge in my constituency do not become swamped with bookmakers, payday lenders and fast food outlets, will he look again at the calls of Mary Portas and others for a special restriction on such development?

The key is understanding that alongside the planning regulations, there are established licensing arrangements to ensure that the kind of changes that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about—I respect the natural concerns of the community—cannot happen.

Even before the credit crunch, many of our high streets had shops that were struggling on the margins. At the moment, communities around the country, but particularly in areas like the north-east of England, are hard-pressed by cuts to local government expenditure, by job losses, the suppression of real incomes, cuts in benefits and fuel price rises, all of which have been sucking disposable income out of local economies. Is it any real surprise that there is a crisis on our high streets when many people have much less to spend in real terms?

With respect, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that this Government are ensuring that those on the lowest incomes are being taken out of tax altogether. That is very important, and it will help them and their high streets in Gateshead.

High street shops are an important source of employment for local people, especially young people. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that his focus on the high street will benefit young people across the country?

Absolutely. It is important to remember that in many of our towns, that job is often the first one that young people get. That is why we are cutting the business rates for the smallest firms and ensuring that from next April, the payroll taxes for many of those firms will be reduced. That will help young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Is the Minister aware that towns such as Huddersfield and cities such as Leeds need massive investment? What is the point of spending more than £50 billion on High Speed 2 at a time when, if there were a poll in all the big cities in this country, people would want to spend the money not on that but on regeneration of our cities and towns?

I thought the Labour party wanted us to invest in infrastructure—that is what it spent most of the spending round debate talking about. I am committed to ensuring that our high streets can compete, which is important. High street innovations, empty properties being brought back into use and helping small shops will all help Huddersfield and elsewhere.

Inspired by the Portas report and supported by the Government, we in my constituency have launched the In Our Towns project, which is encouraging small towns such as Painswick, Stroud and Dursley to support each other in developing high streets successfully. Does the Minister think that is an example of excellent local work, and do the Government support it?

I am well aware of the fantastic work to which my hon. Friend refers, and in which he played a part. Local leadership, a clear plan, understanding how to compete, and Government helping small businesses with the right planning policies will turn these towns around.

Community Rights

10. What steps he is taking to promote the take-up of the new community rights in the Localism Act 2011. (163434)

Community rights are being promoted through local, national, social and consumer media, ministerial visits, conferences, workshops, and external partners such as Locality, the Campaign for Real Ale and Supporters Direct.

Will the Minister impress on local authorities the importance of their using their new powers and rights to resist unwanted wind farm developments such as the one at Relay Park and that in Kingsbury in North Warwickshire, which will tower over homes in Tamworth and cause property blight?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government recently announced that they will issue new planning policy guidance stating that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities. We intend to make pre-application consultations with local communities compulsory for more significant wind applications.

Local authorities can be in an invidious position when it comes to the community right to bid. If they agree a proposal, the owner of the asset may pursue legal action if the bid affects the value of the property. If they turn down a proposal from a community group, that group may pursue legal action. What protections will the Minister offer local councils such as Trafford in such circumstances?

I am delighted that a large number of community rights to bid have registered for local community assets, and I urge more people to do so. The hon. Lady will be aware that the right to bid is just that and should not alter the price because the community are not guaranteed to be able to buy that particular asset. It will go out to public tender, and anybody can apply.

My right hon. Friend had the opportunity to visit St Eval on his recent visit to North Cornwall, and he knows that that community is hoping to bid for assets although it was not able to meet the Ministry of Defence deadline. Will he keep under review the correlation between sources of public funding that are available to such groups, so that the timetables can align and they do not miss the opportunity to bid?

I certainly will, and I congratulate the people in St Eval for the enormously good work they are doing defending and providing real facilities for their local community. I will, of course, keep under review the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

Empty Retail Premises

In addition to the range of tools to tackle this issue that I mentioned earlier, we have cut red tape to help landlords make better use of their empty properties, and we have doubled small business rate relief for three and a half years.

I thank the Minister for his reply and for the initiatives the Government are taking. He will be aware that our provincial towns are scarred with empty shops as a result of changing shopping patterns. Are the Government considering further measures in partnership with the private sector and local authorities to deal with that problem?

Indeed we are, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome our support for pop-up shops, including in the headquarters of our Department, as well as the financial support we are offering councils. We have set up two bodies—the future high streets forum and the industry-led distressed retail property taskforce—both of which will come forward with new ideas to help us develop the additional measures that he rightly says are needed.

On 3 June the planning Minister said that if local authorities fear that changes to use class orders are linked to more pay-day loan companies than retail on our high streets, they should use article 4 directions to limit the potential impact. On 17 June, he said they should not. Which is it?

The article 4 direction is available to all local councils and has been used successfully on a number of occasions. I remind the hon. Lady of the important review being carried out on betting shops to look at the ridiculously high—in my view—level of stakes and prices that currently exist.

While welcoming the small business rate relief, what discussions has the Minister had—or will he have—with the Treasury and local authorities to introduce more flexibility and try to support our streets that need regeneration, whether they are high streets or out-of-town activities?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the finest minds in my Department and the Treasury are discussing this very issue at the moment.

Planning Appeals

12. What proportion of appeals from housing developers have been upheld by the planning inspector since May 2010. (163436)

Since 1 May 2010, there have been 1,712 appeals in England against local authority decisions on major housing schemes in England. In just under 60% of those cases, the local authority decision was upheld by the inspector.

It has been known for me to stand up and criticise the Government occasionally in the Chamber, but I also believe that credit should be given where it is due. At the risk of you thinking that I am going soft in my old age, Mr Speaker, I want to congratulate the Planning Minister and the Secretary of State on their fantastic decision to reject the planning application at Sty lane in Micklethwaite in my constituency, endorsing the decision by Bradford council planning committee and the inspector. It has been greatly welcomed locally and I want to pass on my thanks to the Minister. Does he agree that the best way to stop this community being put in the same position in the future is for the local authority to remove this site from the local development plan?

This is an unfamiliar position, but I simply point out to my hon. Friend that the credit belongs entirely to the Secretary of State, who is not used to being thanked for planning decisions.

Planning law going back decades allows pubs to switch to supermarkets without requiring planning change of use. That allows big developers, such as supermarkets, to muscle in where they are not wanted, such as on Albert parade in Eastbourne, where Sainsbury’s is replacing a local pub. Will the Minister give me an undertaking to revisit this anomaly in the planning laws?

The good news is that there is no need to revisit the issue, because the local authority in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has produced an innovative policy for its local plan, which has been held up by the courts as sound and will put in place a process to protect pubs that are under threat from speculative development so that further use as a pub can be properly considered.

Council Savings

We have published “50 ways to save”, an excellent practical guide to councils on how to make sensible savings. We have also provided £27 million through the transformation challenge award and the efficiency support grant to encourage and incentivise authorities to make efficiencies and improve services. That will increase to £100 million as a result of the spending review.

Tory Cheshire West and Chester council and Labour Wirral metropolitan borough council have announced proposals to merge their back-office functions such as IT, legal services, human resources and finance, saving some £69 million. Do not such schemes show that it is possible to make huge savings in local government without impacting front-line services?

My hon. Friend is right, and I was delighted to visit Cheshire West and Chester recently and see some of the plans. It is a really good example of how big authorities can do things. Just last week, I saw at the excellent Staffordshire Moorlands and High Peak councils, small authorities with £10 million budgets, that shared management is saving some 20%, according to the chief executives, so it can be done at all levels.

The problem is that some of the most deprived councils, such as Halton in my constituency, are starting at a massive disadvantage. They are having to make deeper cuts because their cut, in terms of funding per head, is twice that of Cheshire East, and a lot higher than in Cheshire West and Chester. Should not the Minister be looking at fairer funding settlements?

The hon. Gentleman must look at where we start. That is why it is important that all authorities, ranging from £2,800 to £1,600 spending power per household, need to look at what they can do to be efficient, sharing management, services and procurement benefits to ensure that they are giving good service to their residents and spending taxpayers’ money—let us not forget that—well in the first place.

Derby City Council

We published the local government finance settlement for 2013-14 in February. Derby city council has an overall spending power figure of £2,021 per dwelling.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the decision by Labour-run Derby city council to reduce neighbourhood funding to wards with Conservative councillors is irresponsible and shows that that left-wing Labour council is stirring up a class war for politically motivated reasons? Allestree, Mickleover, Littleover, Oakwood and Chellaston have lost up to 90% of their funding, but Labour wards have received increases of up to 54%.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We have devolved power, so it is very much a matter for local authorities how they distribute the money they spend, but I am sure that—with her making such a strong case—residents in Derby will look carefully at what the council has done and take a view on that when it comes to the next elections.

Gypsy and Traveller Pitches

19. What the total departmental expenditure on financing sites for Gypsy and Traveller pitches in (a) Kettering borough, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England was in the last 10 years. (163443)

We have taken firm action against unauthorised sites. We believe in fair play and supporting those who play by the rules. The total allocated funds for Traveller sites in England has been approximately £175 million, of which almost £120 million has already been spent. Approximately £3.4 million has been spent in Northamptonshire, including about £850,000 in Kettering.

As the law now stands, Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege of being a member, has to identity sites for up to 37 Gypsy and Traveller pitches by 2031. The consultation has caused huge and understandable upset and concern throughout the borough. Will the Minister, who has proved both responsive and sensitive to such issues, be kind enough to agree to visit the borough of Kettering to see how these issues might best be resolved?

I thank my hon. Friend, who no doubt will have noted the statement we laid before the House last week. I appreciate that planning for Traveller sites can be contentious and raises a number of complex issues, so I am happy to visit him in Kettering to see them at first hand.

One-bedroom Homes

There are 1.1 million single-bedroom properties in the social rented sector. Overall, the social rented sector shrank by 420,000 homes between 1997 and 2010.

In South Tyneside there are 1,026 households currently living in two-bedroom properties who are affected by the bedroom tax, but just 122 one- bedroom homes are available—more than eight households per vacancy. How can the Minister justify a policy that punishes tenants for under-occupancy when the vast majority are simply unable to move?

May I take the opportunity to welcome the hon. Lady? I think that this is the first chance we have had to debate since she was elected in May. She was a keen fighter on what she calls a bedroom tax. The question Government Members have is this: if the Labour party is so opposed to this measure, why is her party leader refusing to repeal it?

Topical Questions

To change the civil service culture of more regulation and more spending, I have today announced a new scheme where civil servants will be rewarded with high street vouchers for saving taxpayers’ money. I am sure the whole House will want to congratulate firefighters on their excellent job of tackling the Smethwick blaze last week. Given its exceptional scale, I can announce that we have activated the emergency response Bellwin scheme, so we can give West Midlands fire service the support it needs.

The new homes bonus is an effective tool in encouraging local communities to create new homes, but it benefits equally authorities that initially opposed new housing, after development consent is granted on appeal. It is important to support communities that, through their local plan, demonstrate a positive attitude towards development, so does the Secretary of State agree that such authorities should receive an enhanced level of new homes bonus?

My hon. Friend introduces a whole new concept of worthy and unworthy councillors, and that is perhaps a step too far. I am comfortable with the thought that when people object to me as Secretary of State, I can point to my hon. Friend who is a much harder man.

I join the Secretary of State in commending the fire service for how they dealt with that very difficult fire.

Thousands of people on low incomes are now getting council tax summonses because of the Secretary of State’s new poll tax. The Sunday Mirror reports that Peterborough city council, for example, has issued double the number of summonses for non-payment compared with last year. Why does he think that so many people are finding it so difficult to pay the bills that he has imposed on them?

Let me be absolutely clear: these are local authority schemes. In some parts of the country, people on low incomes are not receiving anything additional. These are schemes put together by local authorities, and it is up to local authorities to defend them.

It will not quite do for the Secretary of State to introduce the legislation, cut the money, and then attempt to pass the buck to local authorities up and down the country. The truth is that he is out of touch with what is happening to people on low incomes.

Let me try another question. One of those summonsed is a single parent called Charlotte, who has been asked to pay £141.66. She told the newspaper:

“My priority is finding money to get food for my child.”

What choice does the Secretary of State think she should make?

We have placed before local authorities discretionary help to use in such circumstances. The most interesting thing is this: that money has gone unclaimed. This is a local authority scheme, and it is up to the local authority to defend it.

T2. It is good news that East Sussex county council has begun a £6 million investment in Hastings library, bringing in the new children’s library, bringing the registrar down into the library and buying the new building next door. Does that not show that a well-run county council, such as Conservative-led East Sussex county council under Councillor Keith Glazier, can achieve investment in vital libraries where it needs to? (163451)

I had the opportunity to meet Keith not so long ago. It is clear to me that East Sussex county council is revitalising a part of the country that has been neglected for such a long time, and it should be congratulated on that.

T4. When asked about the mutualisation of Cleveland fire authority, the fire Minister told the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government on 15 May: “they are not progressing with it.”However, the latest freedom of information request to the authority was refused on the grounds of “commercial interest” and because matters are “still subject to consideration”. Who is telling the truth, and are the Government still funding this process? (163454)

I think the point I was making before the Select Committee was to clarify the fact that this Government will not be doing anything to allow for privatisation of the fire service, despite the claims of the hon. Gentleman’s shadow fire Minister, who is trying to scaremonger.

T3. Independent analysis by Ernst and Young of the four community budgets pilots show that savings of between £9 billion and £20 billion are possible over five years if the scheme is rolled out across the country. What plans does my hon. Friend have to do just that? (163452)

My hon. Friend is quite right: the community budgets pilots have shown huge potential savings to this country and, as I said earlier, better services for residents. We are now rolling out the new network. Last week we announced the first nine authorities to take part. They are looking at bringing together the public sector not just to save money, important though that is, but to give better services in this country—something that the previous Government continually failed to do.

T7. In North Tyneside, the new Labour administration has inherited a £21 million budget deficit from the former Tory mayor. With Government cuts, that comes to £44 million. As the Secretary of State finds his Department £271 million in the red, has he any tips that could help North Tyneside council to balance its books? (163457)

T5. In the spirit of reducing red tape, will my right hon. Friend look again at the rules that the Homes and Communities Agency issues on the minimum size of houses that attract affordable housing finance? Frankly, these houses are rather large. One of two particular cases was that of a property built 6 inches too narrow, which was not allowed to be taken into social housing because of that mistake. (163455)

Let me assure my hon. Friend that we have recently undertaken a review of housing standards, not least to try to reduce the plethora of different standards, which are burdensome and expensive. Space and room size have been considered. We will be consulting on the outcome of the review in the near future.

T8. The Department’s affordable rents policy is putting housing benefit expenditure up. Over at the Department for Work and Pensions, Ministers are trying, unsuccessfully, to cut housing benefit. Meanwhile, the cuts in housing benefit that they are making have resulted in an 86% increase in homelessness applications in my borough of Westminster. Does the Department ever speak to the Department for Work and Pensions, and if so, could they not possibly agree on a single policy, rather than two contradictory ones? (163458)

We have a clear policy, which is to ensure that we reverse the loss of social housing that we saw under the last Labour Government and that the social housing sector is managed better than it was in the past. Labour needs to realise that there are a million spare bedrooms in the social housing sector and a quarter of a million families in overcrowded accommodation. They would love the luxury of a spare bedroom. We are prepared to make those reforms; the hon. Lady’s party is not.

I don’t know why the hon. Gentleman has resumed his seat. I was merely looking at him and listening attentively, as always.

Anything to catch your eye, Mr Speaker. My constituents welcome the scrapping of the last Government’s guidance on diversity and equality in planning, but many residents in places such as Nazeing are concerned that Travellers can apply for retrospective planning permission. Will my hon. Friend come to my constituency, meet with local residents and reassure my residents who feel the planning system is biased against them when it comes to Travellers?

One knows when one has been Tangoed. I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, but I can give his constituents this reassurance: in the Localism Act 2011 we abolished the ability to have retrospective planning appeals and enforcement at the same time. I think that will help the residents of Nazeing.

I should just say to the Secretary of State that I thought the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) was the man in the mustard suit, but the Clerk, who is the fount of all wisdom, advises me that its colour is tangerine.

T9. Despite the Government’s rhetoric on early intervention, Sunderland council’s early intervention grant is 47% lower than it was in 2010, while the Secretary of State’s council in Essex has had a cut of just 36%. Can the Secretary of State tell us by how much more the Government will cut Sure Start and other early intervention programmes over the next two years, and whether these disparities in cuts will be reversed or entrenched? (163459)

The hon. Lady should look to the extra money with regard to troubled families—Sunderland has done a remarkably good job in identifying the families concerned—and the fact that we have recently announced an extra £200 million to extend that programme.

Does the Secretary of State agree that local authorities should seek and welcome further cuts by reducing the amount of times grass is cut and encouraging wild flowers in appropriate locations?

That can also be a cut the other way, as I recall a local authority that did what my hon. Friend said, but when it came to cut the grass again, it found it had grown so high that it was not able to use its machinery.

As the Member of Parliament for Smethwick, I welcome and endorse the Secretary of State’s remarks about the superb performance at the Smethwick fire by the West Midlands fire service and its firefighters, and I also welcome the extra payment under the Bellwin scheme, but is the Secretary of State aware of reports that during the first night of the fire only one West Midlands fire engine was available for the whole of the West Midlands county? Will he therefore reconsider the general cuts to West Midlands and other metropolitan authorities?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and the Secretary of State and I both spoke to the chief fire officer last week. The fire service did a fantastic job, but it is very disappointing that the chairman of the fire authority tried to play political games in the aftermath of this tragedy, because it is simply not true to say that only one vehicle was available. The mutual scheme between the different authorities, including Staffordshire, Herefordshire and others, worked extremely well, and a large number of engines were still available for use, and he should be getting on with doing his job instead of playing politics in that fire authority.

Does my right hon. Friend think it might be a good time to review the rules on the declaration of councillors’ interests, given that it is now compulsory for all Labour council candidates to be a member of a trade union?

I am shocked to hear that information. People will now wonder whether councillors are working for their residents or their trade union bosses, and I shall review the situation as a matter of urgency.

May I give the Minister another chance to answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and give him another example? Fifty-one per cent. of council tenants in my constituency are in rent arrears because they cannot afford to pay the bedroom tax. There are no smaller properties for them to move into, so what are they supposed to do?

Let me repeat to the hon. Lady the information we gave earlier: we have already provided £350 million in discretionary housing payments to local councils. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are saying from a sedentary position that it is all gone, but may I remind them that last year more than £11 million of discretionary housing payment was not used by local councils? They could use it more efficiently.

Sandymoor free school in my constituency has had its planning permission refused by Unite-backed Labour councillors who are acting against the local authority planners’ recommendation for approval. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter urgently so that the school can continue serving my constituents without local authority and trade union interference?

The destructive hand of Unite appears to be going now through the planning system. We look at these things in a quasi-judicial way, and I will look at any application for an appeal with a completely free mind.

I may have missed the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about what Charlotte should do, so perhaps he could just tell me: should she feed her child or should she pay her council tax?

The hon. Gentleman has to face up to the fact that these are local authority schemes, there is a hardship fund in place, and we expect local authorities to deal with these matters and not to send their spokesman here to shroud-wave.

We need more social housing and more affordable housing, but does the Secretary of State understand the anger in north Leeds at the fact that Labour-run Leeds city council is bringing forward plans to concrete over much of our green belt with hundreds, if not thousands, of new homes?

The protections in the national planning policy framework for the green belt are very, very clear and very, very strong. Only in exceptional circumstances can development take place on the green belt, and the local authority will need to consult extensively with the local community to gain its support for any proposed change in the green belt.