I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 18 July 2013.
Supporting local high streets
High streets are the hearts of our communities, hubs of local businesses and drivers of growth.
In order to remain so in the 21st century, high streets must become thriving centres of culture, entertainment and social activity: not just the place to shop but the place to be. They also have to be distinct to be successful and that character can only come from within the community.
This Government are determined to support those local efforts so businesses can flourish and communities prosper by creating the conditions for that to happen following some of the recommendations in the Portas review. Already we have increased the business rates discounts for small shops, introduced planning reforms for the high street; committed new Government investment and set up 350 town teams, which are seeing some great results. Since the summer recess we have taken a number of further steps.
On 23 July my Department announced proposals to bring property owners into the business improvement districts scheme so they can play an active part in regenerating trading areas. To boost the scheme a new £500,000 loan fund will enable the set up of more business improvement districts. Business improvement districts mean local companies can pool funds, deliver projects to improve town centre safety, support local traders, establish parking initiatives and help maintain the high street.
Today, I am announcing that starting this month dedicated teams of local experts will train and mentor towns on how to adapt their high streets to changing consumer behaviour. The training is to be targeted at the leaders of every town team across the country.
encourage towns to carry out high street health checks;
agree what the town centre “offer” will be to residents and visitors;
explain how to make best use of planning powers and new community rights to take over closed pubs or shops; and
detail how neighbourhood planning should be used to decide what local areas should look like in the future.
On 6 August the Department published plans to extend permitted development rights to ensure better use is made of existing buildings. The proposals will allow local people to transform empty premises not in prime retail locations, or disused agricultural buildings into much-needed homes, nurseries and free schools.
New planning guidance published on 28 August calls for councils to deliver more town centre parking spaces, tackle the blight of ugly street clutter and reduce aggressive “anti-car” traffic calming measures like road humps.
The new practice guidance, covering design, town centres and travel plans, will state that councils should reflect the important role appropriate parking facilities can play in rejuvenating shops and high streets. It also sets out how town hall planning rules should not be used to tax drivers or justify development of crude traffic calming measures, such as poorly-sited bollards and road humps.
This Government are working to ensure that town hall parking policies and practices also support local high streets. The Government have scrapped Whitehall rules that previously told councils to increase parking charges and adopt aggressive parking policies. On 31 July my Department released statistics revealing that councils are forecast to make £635 million profit from parking charges and fines in 2013-14 and called upon councils to take a fairer approach to charges.
Across the country, assisted by internet “matching”, households are renting out their spare or unused dedicated off-street parking space in and near town centres, train stations and sports grounds. This provides a small income for hard-working families, more cheap parking spaces for people to park their car and takes pressure away from on-street parking.
In August my Department announced new guidance (published 9 August) on change of use making it clear that the public should be able to rent a single parking space without planning permission, provided there is no public nuisance to neighbours, or other substantive concerns. We will be making further announcements on car parking in due course.
Small firms and shops are at the heart of our high streets and local communities, and we are supporting them to help the economy grow. On 14 August my Department released new figures showing that the level of small business rate relief has trebled since the general election, because of Government initiatives. Rate relief in England has risen from £333 million in 2009-10, to £507 million in 2010-11, to £784 million in 2011-12 and now to £900 million in 2012-13.
Fairness in the fire service
Members will be aware that the Fire Brigades Union has announced a “yes” vote in its ballot on potential strike action over reforms to the firefighters’ pension scheme. The union has not yet set out whether it intends to commence industrial action, but we have been working closely with local fire and rescue authorities, who have a statutory responsibility for contingency planning, to make sure preparations are robust. We are satisfied that they are.
We all hold our brave fire men and women in the highest regard. The offer to firefighters is one of the most generous available in the public sector. A firefighter who earns £29,000, and retires at sixty after a full career, will get a £26,000 a year pension, which includes the £7,000 state pension. A firefighter would need to double their level of contributions to get the same pension from a private provider.
The normal retirement age has been sixty since 2006, one in three firefighters already has a retirement age of 60. An independent review, commissioned with the agreement of the fire brigades union, found that 100% of firefighters who remain physically active can still be operational at age 60.
The retained fire service, many of whom will not take part in this strike action, play a vital role in protecting the community across most of England, and it is only right and fair that their efforts are recognised.
On 23 July my Department announced proposals to correct a long standing anomaly that discriminated against retained firefighters employed between 2000 and 2006. Providing similar pension terms for retained firefighters to those enjoyed by whole-time firefighters employed at the same time will introduce fairness into the system and provide a level playing field. Subject to the consultation, legislation will be laid in Parliament to give effect to the new pension arrangements.
Supporting hard-working families staying together
Many hardworking families benefit from living in properties with self-contained annexes that allow them to house or care for extended family members. The current council tax system unfairly penalises those with family annexes with a second bill for the annex on top of their main property.
On 26 August my Department announced plans to remove this unfair council tax surcharge to help support extended families. Proposals include a new national discount for all family annexes (not just those for older people), as a quick and easy way to remove this council tax surcharge from the system, saving an average £485 a year on a typical £2,427 combined yearly bill.
With both an ageing population and young people finding it difficult to get on the housing ladder, the Government want to remove barriers to extended families living together. Ministers believe the tax cut will ultimately save taxpayers’ money by helping reduce adult social care costs in the long-term. It will deliver against the Government’s commitment to help more people live independently. The reforms will also increase housing supply and support the construction trade.
My Department has also consulted on the intention to remove the community infrastructure levy on self-build properties, which include all extensions, family annexes and home improvements. In addition the Government are considering the removal of section 106 levies on such annexes and extensions.
Protecting local services
Councils make up a quarter of all public spending and they have a vital part to play in tackling the inherited deficit from the last Administration. New statistics published by my Department on 29 August show councils have trebled their cash reserves over the last 10 years and by over 20% in real terms since 2010-11. Reserves now stand at over £19 billion—an increase of £2.6 billion in the last year alone.
Local authorities should consider whether such substantial reserves are needed. While it is sensible for local authorities to maintain a healthy cushion, such substantial reserves are completely unnecessary and should be tapped into to ensure councils can protect front-line services and keep council tax down for hardworking people. Councils should also be making creative use of reserves to address short-term costs, such as restructuring or investing now to realise savings in the longer-term.
Supporting coastal towns
This Government are committed to supporting our seaside towns and on 23 August, the coalition Government announced that next year’s coastal communities fund will be worth £29 million, an increase of 5%. This will help coastal towns make the most of their potential by diversifying their economies and industries so they can become year-round success stories.
The projects approved in the first year alone are forecast to deliver over 5,000 jobs and create 500 apprenticeships.
Colleagues will also want to join me in welcoming the first steps towards the reopening of Hastings pier after it was saved from disrepair and abandonment by a local community group. Hastings and the pier charity have benefited from £14 million Government, lottery and council support. While attending a ceremonial opening I was able praise the Hastings pier charity behind the campaign to save it.
The Localism Act 2011 has created new powers that give communities like Hastings the ability to list local assets and protect them from sell offs. These rights are helping to save many treasured assets across the country. Some members will be interested to note that over the summer months fans of Manchester United and Liverpool footballs clubs successfully listed their team stadiums.
Protecting Community Pubs through Community Rights
This Government are doing everything they can to support and safeguard community pubs from closure. On 12 August my Department announced that 100 pubs had been listed as assets of community value, giving communities the opportunity to buy their treasured local pub if it comes up for sale using the community right to bid.
The great British pub is recognised around the world as a quintessential part of British culture and it will now form part of the Great Britain campaign, which promotes the best of Britain to the world.
Increasing housing supply and building more homes
The tough decisions have been taken to tackle the deficit by this Government and their programme is now delivering a sustainable increase in housing and providing real help to hard-working people.
In the last two years almost a third of a million additional homes have been delivered, and 150,000 more affordable homes have been built. Figures released on 13 August show that since the launch of the Help to Buy equity loan scheme in April 2013 there have been 10,000 reservations for new build homes—this is giving confidence to house builders to deliver and build more new homes.
In addition figures from 15 August show there were 29,510 new homes started between April and June this year—6% higher than the previous quarter, and a third higher than the same time last year. This increase was seen across the country, with 178 of the 326 councils in England reporting an increase in house building starts over the year.
Latest figures on the Right to Buy released on 22 August show a total of 2,149 properties were sold between April and June this year, four times more than the 443 sold during the same period in 2012. The total of new homeowners under the reinvigorated Right to Buy now stands at over 8,000. Sales have generated £129 million in gross income, which will be recycled back into the development of new affordable homes for rent.
We know how important housing affordability is for many people and on 27 July my Department announced a multi-million pound boost to build thousands of new affordable homes across the country. Sixty-nine different housing associations and developers will each receive a share of £220 million to deliver almost 14,000 new affordable homes outside London. Work on the new properties will be started by March 2015 and completed by 2017.
On 5 August my Department announced the extension of the £17 million Right to Build fund to include any community project. Communities who want to make a change in their area, such as creating a new playground, renovating an empty home or making plots available for house building will be able to access the money they need to develop plans and make it happen. The fund is available for communities outside London until March 2015.
This country has some of the strongest protections for families in the world to guard against homelessness, and the Government have invested £470 million. The law is clear that families must only be placed in bed and breakfast accommodation as a last resort, and then for no more than six weeks.
On 1 August my Department announced £1.9 million for seven councils to help them support the housing needs of the most vulnerable of families.
Ending the scourge of bin blight
On 16 August my Department announced measures to tackle “bin blight”—the daily obstacle course of wheelie bins and recycling boxes clogging up front yards, gardens and driveways. New guidance on both housing design and planning will require suitable provision to be made for proper waste storage in new homes. This will help avoid bins dominating residential streets or contributing to increased odour and roadside litter, and problems with rats, mice, flies and urban foxes.
These actions build on this Government’s decisions to abolish bin taxes, stop unfair bin fines being issued on family homes and scrap Whitehall directives demanding fortnightly bin collections. My Department’s £250 million weekly collection support scheme has protected the weekly bin collection for 6 million families and supported 41 innovative reward schemes showing recycling can be increased without using punitive fines and taxes.
Improving housing standards
On 30 July my Department published new “Part L of the Building Regulations” as set out in the written ministerial statement in the House of Lords, Official Report, column WS165-66—this will mean a 6% cut in carbon emissions for new build homes, and a 9% cut for non domestic buildings.
The measures, which include energy saving features such as better fabric insulation and more efficient heating and lighting, will come into force in April 2014.
On 20 August my Department published proposals to scrap burdensome and confusing locally applied housing standards. Essential safety and accessibility rules will not be changed, but a mass of additional housing standards that councils applied locally created a patchwork of different standards which will now be reduced from over 100 to fewer than 10. This will help free up the industry, support growth and get high-quality homes built.
Involving local people in planning decisions
Planning always works best when local communities have the opportunity to influence the decisions that affect their lives. To achieve this my Department is streamlining the planning system to make it simpler, more accessible and more efficient.
To address local communities concerns that insufficient weight is being given to environmental considerations like landscape, heritage and local amenity when determining wind farm applications my Department published on 29 July new strong planning practice guidance to make it clear that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities.
An effective planning system needs to be supported by practical guidance. On 28 August my Department launched a new online resource that will make planning guidance much more accessible and easier to keep up to date.
It also includes a new affordability test for determining how many homes should be built; advice for councils to open up planning hearings and plan positively for an ageing population; and guidance on new neighbourhood planning and protections for local green spaces.
On 9 August my Department outlined strengthened powers councils can use to take decisive action, including pre-emptive injunctions, to protect vulnerable land in advance from unauthorised encampments; possession orders to remove trespassers from land; police powers to order unauthorised campers to leave land.
As part of the Government’s commitment to protecting the nation’s green spaces, these powers will protect green belt land and the countryside from illegal encampments. New temporary stop notices now give councils powers to tackle unauthorised caravans, backed up with potentially unlimited fines. This Government have strengthened councils’ powers so they have the confidence to take decisive action.
Strengthening community bonds
This Government have continued to support local efforts to bring communities closer together.
On 27 July, as the holy month of Ramadan drew to a close, mosques across the country opened their doors and welcomed those from all faiths and none to join in the fast-breaking meal of the iftar—the special daily meal that is consumed at the end of each day when fasting finishes. The aim was to dispel any myths about the practices of Islam and to bring communities closer together. The Prime Minister and other Ministers attended “The Big Iftar” events across the country and I can report to members it was a fantastic way of enabling people of different religions, and those of no faith, to visit a local mosque and learn about their role in the community.
It is also our duty as citizens to remember the British and Commonwealth troops who lost their lives fighting in the great war and this Government are determined to make sure their bravery for king and country is not forgotten.
On 5 August my Department announced that special commemorative paving stones will be laid in the home towns of all those in the United Kingdom awarded the Victoria Cross for valour “in the face of the enemy” during the conflict. A national competition will be launched to design the paving stones so people from all comers of the United Kingdom can get involved.
The Government will be setting out more of their plan to commemorate the 100th anniversary shortly. This will include the most appropriate way to commemorate Commonwealth and overseas Victoria Cross winners. No hero will be forgotten.
On 23 August I endorsed the Flag Institute’s new guide for communities to design their own flags. The new guide outlines how community groups, councils, sports clubs and other organisations can design and register an official flag. My Department flew some of the nation’s newest flags—East and North Ridings of Yorkshire—in celebration.
The Government have relaxed the rules on flying flags without official permission, enabling communities to express their pride in local identities, heritage and traditions without falling foul of petty bureaucracy.
Tackling antisocial behaviour
The public should be able to enjoy public spaces, their parks, streets and town centres, without nuisance or annoyance. Spitting on Britain’s streets is not socially acceptable.
On 19 July the London borough of Enfield was given provisional approval by the Secretary of State, following their application, to make byelaws that prohibit antisocial spitting across the borough due to the significance of the problem in the local area.
Standing up to unnecessary EU red tape
A proposed EU regulation seeks to impose the EU flag on standardised birth certificates, marriage and death certificates on UK citizens. While the European Commission has suggested that this would be “voluntary”, on the 9 August Ministers warned of the risk of “mission creep” and “state building” as happened with driving licences. There is simply no need for the EU flag to be on these documents.
More broadly, this Department has a track record of pushing back against heavy-handed requirements to display European Union symbols. We also have a proactive policy of promoting and championing the United Kingdom’s national and traditional identities.
Planning for shale gas
The coalition Government believe shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs. Effective exploration and testing of the UK’s unconventional gas resources is therefore key for understanding the potential of this industry. The Government are creating the right framework to accelerate shale gas development in a responsible and sustainable way.
As the shale gas industry develops, the Government want to ensure an effective, locally-led planning system is in place. On 19 July a written ministerial statement was made in the House of Lords, Official Report, columns WS149-150, setting out the publication of planning practice guidance for industry, minerals planning authorities and local communities on how shale gas (and other onshore oil and gas) developments should proceed through England’s planning system. Alongside its publication, the Government indicated that they were minded to amend existing secondary legislation in relation to application requirements and fees for onshore oil and gas development. Today, I am publishing for comment a limited number of proposed changes relating to making a planning application.
All the associated documents and press notices have been placed in the Library of the House.