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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 569: debated on Monday 21 October 2013

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Planning

2. What steps his Department has taken to make the planning system more accessible to local people. (900550)

For the first time ever, people who are not councillors or planning officers can get involved in drawing up a plan for their community that has full statutory weight. More than 540 communities have been designated as neighbourhood planning areas and a further 210 have applied.

Constituents in Skipton, the gateway to the Yorkshire dales, continue to be frustrated about the overturning in Bristol of planning decisions have been taken locally in Craven. What advice can the Minister give to my constituents?

The best defence and the way to guarantee that the local authority representing local people is in the driving seat is for that local authority to get on and complete its local plan. That is sometimes a difficult process, but that is the best thing to do—to get on and complete that local plan.

Does the Minister agree that for far too long under the previous Government planning seemed to be done to communities, rather than by them? Last week I attended and spoke at the public inquiry into the potential development of the Tiffey valley, which South Norfolk district council, with a five-year land supply, is defending. What assurance can my hon. Friend give me that under the Localism Act 2011, which we all supported in this House, councils that have a land supply and are seeking to implement a town plan will receive the Government’s support?

It is true that we have finally, after a certain amount of effort, managed to scrap the regional strategies that the previous Government used to impose entirely unwanted plans on local communities. The best way to ensure that local decisions will be supported and will stick is for local authorities to have a clear plan which sets out how they will meet their objectively assessed needs. That means that they can pick and choose where and how those needs will be met.

Planning guidance about a material change of use from a residential house to a children’s home necessitating a planning application is unclear. Last July, in response to my Adjournment debate, the then Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, and now the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), said that he would continue to keep under review the planning guidance in relation to that. Has there been any progress? As the Minister will appreciate, many local people would welcome the opportunity to contribute to a planning application because of the safeguarding issues surrounding children.

We have no further plans at this point, but I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to explore the issue further, if she would appreciate that.

In last week’s debate on high streets, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) said that on her high street Nos. 14, 37, 38 to 40, 44, 48 to 50, 52, 60, 70, 72, 93 to 95, 175 and 206 are all betting shops, payday loan outlets or pawnbrokers. Does the Minister honestly think this is what local people want? Will he explain to the residents of Deptford and elsewhere why his Government are making it harder, not easier, for communities to stop such premises taking over their high street and town centre?

Local authorities have a range of powers under planning rules and licensing to restrict the growth of these various uses. However, the hon. Lady must say why the Government whom she supported did more to relax licensing laws to encourage the growth of gambling, and only now in opposition seem to have changed their mind about this business.

Local authorities whose local plans have been found wanting find themselves under siege from opportunistic developers. The result is planning applications in places such as Evercreech which are the reverse of what local people want. Can the Minister say that emerging local plans will have a material impact on planning decisions, and can he make sure that local authorities resubmitting plans get to the top of the list to stop this happening further?

The best way to stop this happening is for local authorities to get their plan right the first time, but if revisions have been made, once the plan has been through the public consultation phase, it does not have a huge number of unresolved objections and it has been submitted to an inspector, it certainly can start gathering weight. The precise position is set out in the revised planning guidance that is currently open for consultation.

Is not the relaxation of planning laws over recent months making matters worse for local communities trying to deal with the growth of payday lenders, bookmakers and unwanted fast food outlets, are not the Government adding to the problem?

No, that is not the reality, as is almost always the case when the hon. Gentleman asks a question about planning law.

First-time Buyers

The Government are committed to supporting people’s aspirations to own their own home. In just six months, our Help to Buy scheme has helped over 15,000 households reserve a new home for themselves and their families. The scheme is proving extremely popular with first-time buyers.

May I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), for all his hard work, commend him for the gracious way he has handled himself and thank him for his generosity towards me?

I welcome the Minister to his new post. Many critics of Help to Buy point to the possibility of a housing bubble, but they clearly have not visited the north-west, where house prices have fallen over the past year. Why should first-time buyers in Blackpool North and Cleveleys be prevented from getting on the housing ladder because of metropolitan snobbery and petty envy?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I agree that at the moment there is a huge media focus on London and the south-east. As a northern MP, I know that if we remove London and the south-east from the national figure of 3.8% for price rises, we get 2.1% for our part of the country, but several other parts have seen no increase at all, so we need to stick up for the Blackpools, Burnleys and Bradfords as well.

The average earnings for my constituents working full time last year were under £23,000, so they know all about why it is right to cap benefits in order that people who work hard are not undermined by those who live off the taxpayer. Meanwhile, the average home in Norwich North sells for around £145,000. Does the Minister agree that Help to Buy can help make the dream of home ownership a reality for those people?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Since the housing crash in 2008, many families in her constituency have struggled to get on the housing ladder, and the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme, in particular, helps people like those she has mentioned. The tremendous response that RBS, for instance, has had, with some 10,000 inquiries in the first four working days, demonstrates that the Government are on the side of hard-working people and will support people such as the constituents she mentioned.

I welcome the Minister to his new responsibility. Last week the Communities and Local Government Committee had the Department’s permanent secretary and officials before us. We asked about the impact of the Help to Buy scheme on new house building. They said that the equity share element would add a maximum of 5,000 new homes a year, but they could not give us any assessment at all of the impact of the mortgage guarantee element. Is that because the Government, like everybody else, now believe that the scheme will have a minimal impact on house building but a significant impact on house prices?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and look forward to working with the Select Committee. The Government have delivered 334,000 houses so far, 84,000 of which are affordable homes, and put a range of mechanisms in place to deliver houses. That is what is really important to people out there.

23. The Government are absolutely right to help first-time buyers, but of equal importance are those who wish to move up the housing ladder but cannot do so without the first-time buyers entering the market. Does the Minister agree that the second-hand market is therefore as important as the sale of new homes, and what will he do to support it? (900572)

New build is really important, but my hon. Friend is right that we must also stimulate the existing housing market. The mortgage guarantee scheme covers existing housing, so I suggest that he goes out to promote it to residents in his beautiful city of Carlisle.

One of the real problems for first-time buyers is that simply not enough homes are being built to meet demand. In Lewisham, of the 15,000 homes that have been granted planning permission over the past six years, more than 9,000 are yet to be built. Is it not about time that developers were told, “Use it or lose it” when it comes to planning permissions?

I want to promote investment in the housing market and to give developers confidence. The reality is that we have delivered 15,000 new homes through our Help to Buy scheme, and 1,000 of those were in London alone.

Social Enterprises (Funding)

4. What steps he is taking to encourage local communities to fund social enterprises through crowdfunding and other new forms of finance. (900552)

I follow my ministerial colleague in thanking my immediate predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), for the smooth handover into this post; it is always a good idea to be nice to the Chief Whip.

My Department established the community shares unit in October 2012, with £590,000 of funding over three years. Since then, communities have raised £16 million from 70 share offer launches. That is a significant increase on the £3 million raised the year before.

I welcome the Minister, who was a very good member of the Education Committee under my chairmanship, to his new job. Is he aware that crowdfunding is how we could get a real renaissance of communities up and down the country? It is in peril at the moment because in the private and social enterprise sectors it is threatened by inappropriate regulation from the Financial Conduct Authority.

I am told that the hon. Gentleman has kept a list of all those members of his former Committee who went on to become Ministers. He will have satisfied himself of the causal link.

Mr Speaker, there are many distinguished alumni of that Committee, and I greatly enjoyed my three and a half years under the hon. Gentleman’s chairmanship.

The hon. Gentleman is chair of the Westminster crowdfunding forum. At the moment, the sector is completely unregulated; I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has recently raised concerns in The Sunday Times. If he has specific concerns about the heavy hand of regulation, he should write to me and I shall raise the matter with colleagues at the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office.

Localism

5. What steps he is taking to promote the take-up of the community rights introduced by the Localism Act 2011. (900553)

The provisions of the Localism Act 2011 have been able to be adopted for the past 12 months, and there have already been more than 1,000 such uses. We continue to promote use of the 2011 Act through local partners and the media. In addition, I am discussing the potential for cross-Government working, combining community rights and volunteering.

A play park in East Looe in my constituency has been identified for possible housing development. It is the only green space in the area where children can play and where wildlife can live. What steps can the residents take under community rights to protect their long established and important local amenity?

My hon. Friend and other coalition colleagues across Cornwall will be pleased to know that Cornwall is a hotspot for use of the 2011 Act. In my first couple of days in office, officials showed me a map revealing that the 2011 Act had been incredibly popular, with more than 50 assets so far having been registered as being of community use. Through local plans across Cornwall itself, or through neighbourhood plans, local communities should be able to identify areas for special protection and use a local neighbourhood plan to attract sufficient homes, jobs and other essential services. My advice to my hon. Friend is that she should perhaps use a neighbourhood plan.

When the Secretary of State visited ex-Ministry of Defence sites in Lincolnshire, he saw first hand the poor state they can be left in when the transfer of community assets is done badly by the MOD. What discussions has the Department for Communities and Local Government had with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that in future there is better transfer of assets, such as those in the Kirton-in-Lindsey area in my constituency, and that we do not have continuing sores in our communities, as has been the case in parts of Lincolnshire as a result of heritage?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue; he will understand that I have not been aware of it in my first couple of weeks in office. I understand that the Secretary of State is aware of it and has already corresponded with the Ministry of Defence about it. I am sure that we will be in touch as soon as we hear an answer from ministerial colleagues.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating my parish council in Chalfont St Peter on taking advantage of the Localism Act and producing a fantastic neighbourhood plan, which has been published this month and will be consulted on until 29 November? Does he agree that an important part of localism is getting local people to respond to such plans? Will he give some encouraging words from the Dispatch Box to residents in Chalfont St Peter, to ensure that we get maximum feedback on that excellent local plan?

One of the areas I was really pleased to find that I had responsibility for when I took up this post was neighbourhood planning, because my own constituency has made good use of it. The residents of Chalfont St Peter should be congratulated on embarking on this process. I am sure that any assistance that the Department can give and any guidance that is available will lend a hand.

Empty Buildings

With the new homes bonus we provide £235 million in grant and £130 million to local authorities for homes brought back into use. We have revised and are further reviewing permitted development rights. Since 2010, over 40,000 homes that were long-term empty have been brought back into use.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that bringing empty homes back into use is important not only as a sustainable way of increasing the local housing supply but because it can alleviate the negative impact that neglected empty homes can have on communities in constituencies like mine and similar areas?

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. Derbyshire has benefited from £600,000 of empty homes funding, and I am sure that that will make quite a difference to her constituency. The substantive point is that this not only gets housing back into stock but means that streets and communities are not blighted. It is a win-win for just about everybody.

But what about the 300 empty homes in Wirral since the advent of the bedroom tax, including a block in my constituency that now looks set to be demolished without any plan for a replacement? This threatens dereliction in parts of Wirral. Is the bedroom tax not causing empty homes and risking antisocial behaviour, and is it not a false economy, never mind bringing empty homes back into use?

The hon. Lady exaggerates. The spare room subsidy is a reasonable and effective way we can ensure housing for people who need it where there is a shortage of housing. It is absolute nonsense for Labour Members to complain about empty homes: on their watch, we lost 420,000 houses in this country, and that is a disgrace.

On our high streets 40,000 shops—one in seven—are sitting empty, partly because of very high business rates. Will the Secretary of State support our proposals to give local retailers an average saving of £450 a year by freezing business rates?

Under the previous Labour Government, business rates shot up. We have offered local authorities and small businesses a complete removal of business rates through discounts. Under Labour, it was much more difficult to obtain those discounts. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman has got a cheek to make that suggestion.

Council Tax Support

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effects on people on low incomes of council tax support schemes. (900555)

These are local schemes and it is therefore for local authorities to ensure that the effect on low-income council tax payers is proportionate and fair. This coalition Government have made a £100 million transition grant available to help councils to develop well designed schemes and maintain incentives to work.

That is a pittance. Last week the Minister said on the BBC that he was making sure that councils have the ability and the money to protect the most vulnerable people from his council tax benefit changes. How many of the vulnerable—the disabled, carers, war veterans and war widows—have been affected by the policies he has imposed on the nation?

As I said, these are local schemes. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that under Labour spending on council tax benefit hit £4 billion a year, costing hard-working families almost £180 a year and costing more than education, defence and health combined. This Government are dealing with the mess of the economic deficit and debt left by his party’s Government.

Does the Minister believe that disabled people being summonsed to court, three-bedroom houses that cannot be let and poor people having to choose between paying their council tax bill and eating constitutes a success? If so, what would constitute a failure?

Failure would be going back to the policies of the old Labour Government, when council tax and spending on council tax benefit doubled, costing hard-working families about £180 a year each. That is exactly why this Government have put in £100 million to help councils have the time and space to develop good schemes to protect the most vulnerable, which they have a duty to do, and it is also why we have protected pensioners.

Local Government (Savings)

I published “50 ways to save”, a practical guide for councils, which describes how they can make the most of their budgets to deliver savings, protect front-line services and keep council tax down.

East Hampshire district council has saved more than £5 million since 2010 by joining forces with Havant borough council and establishing a joint senior management team. What other such opportunities might exist elsewhere and what guidance has been given?

I commend East Hampshire and Havant councils for their excellent work together. To be frank, this is the future, whether we are talking about a relatively small district, a county or a unitary authority. It makes sense to work together on joint procurement, joint use of offices and shared services. That is probably one of the reasons why the recent BBC ICM poll shows that in many areas resident satisfaction in services such as rubbish collection, schools and libraries is improving.

The Prime Minister says that we are all in this together, but between 2010-11 and 2012-13 his local authority of West Oxfordshire—one of the least deprived in the country—is losing only £34 per head, compared with Hackney, the most deprived area in the country, which faces a massive cut of £266, and my constituency, which faces a cut of £234. Does the Secretary of State think that is fair and will he reassure the House that the local government financial settlement for 2013-14 will narrow the gap?

If the hon. Gentleman is going to ask a Whips’ question, he should at least try to memorise it. He will know that the top-spending authorities, which are largely Labour authorities, are getting something like an extra £700 per household. To compare a tiny district council with his own is utterly ridiculous.

Through the Secretary of State, may I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) for visiting Kettering borough council last week? Would the Secretary of State like to take this opportunity to congratulate the council, which for the past three years has frozen council tax, has not cut any front-line services and has maintained all its grants to the voluntary sector?

That just shows what a committed Conservative council will do, compared with Labour authorities, which seem to be interested in shroud-waving and cutting front-line services.

Liverpool city council will have seen a real-terms Government grant cut of 56% between 2010 and 2017. That £329 million reduction means that come 2017 we will have a shortfall of £17 million for mandatory services. Why are the most deprived areas being hit the hardest?

We are funding hard-hit areas to a greater extent. Something like the amount of money paid per household in Liverpool will be well above the amount that is paid in more prosperous parts of the country. I do not recall the hon. Lady saying that kind of thing when we put together the multi-million-pound city deal for Liverpool.

Local Authority Recycling Sites

We do not hold that information centrally, but I was pleased that the recent ICM poll for the BBC, which the Secretary of State has mentioned, showed that resident satisfaction with both recycling and refuse collection has risen while council tax has been kept down.

The main recycling facility at a supermarket in my town centre has been removed by the council, so my constituents have to drive to Aldridge or Bloxwich to recycle paper, cardboard and bottles. What steps can the Minister take to support the council to return the facility to the town centre?

As the hon. Lady knows, we are very keen on weekly waste collection. I was pleased to see the satisfaction with recycling go up. I am sure that, with her efforts, a good local consensus will be found. I am delighted that she is singing from the same hymn sheet as the Secretary of State.

May I commend Hambleton and Richmondshire district councils for their responsible recycling? What conversations has my hon. Friend had with Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on reducing the amount of packaging? Seldom do I find myself agreeing with Jeremy Clarkson, but on this occasion he may be right.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. My colleagues at DEFRA are very focused on that issue. Somebody once made the fair point that recycling should be a last resort, because we should deal with packaging as a first resort.

Fire and Rescue Service

11. What assessment he has made of the current dispute in the fire and rescue service; and if he will make a statement. (900559)

I welcome the fact that Saturday’s industrial action was called off, as I am sure do Members across the House. That was a direct result of my Department’s facilitating constructive discussions between the employers and the Fire Brigades Union. I hope that that will provide the basis of a lasting agreement which ensures that hard-working firefighters have one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector, while being fair to taxpayers.

Like the Minister, I welcome the fact that the firefighters’ strike that was planned for last Saturday was called off. I hope that the decision to conduct further talks will result in fruitful negotiations and sound guarantees for the firefighters. Will he tell the House why industrial action had to be called before he would agree to talks through ACAS?

If I may correct the hon. Lady, it was my suggestion to involve ACAS. I cannot say why the Fire Brigades Union called the strike action in the first place. We said that it was unnecessary and we still believe that it is unnecessary. We hope that the Fire Brigades Union and the employers implement the principles that they agreed with our facilitation to ensure that nobody is left without a job or a pension at the age of 55.

I congratulate the Minister and his officials on the sensitive way in which they have carried out the difficult negotiations. Will he confirm that, subject to the sensible resolution of details between the employers and employees, the cost envelope and principles that have been agreed will not only protect firefighters in cases of genuine ill-health retirement, but allow them in cases of full service to retire on one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. As he will know from the excellent work that he did in negotiating with the Fire Brigades Union for the first two years of this Government, the issue of fitness and capability is for the employers to resolve, not the Government. I am pleased that we were able to facilitate the parties in coming together and I hope that they will come to a conclusion that ensures that firefighters have one of the best pension schemes in the public sector.

The Minister responsible for the fire service has not been doing his job. First, he wanted to privatise the fire and rescue service; then he imposed reckless cuts on it. Now he is suggesting that the fitness standard should be lowered so that front-line firefighters can be forced to work until the age of 60. Does that not display contempt for these courageous public servants who risk their lives to keep us safe? Does he not agree with me that it would be more appropriate if he did his job? If he had done it properly in the first place, the dispute could have been avoided.

The hon. Gentleman does himself a huge disservice in the way that he puts the question, for a couple of reasons. Putting aside the fact that the retirement age of 60 came in under the Labour Government in 2005, the issue about fitness and capability is, as I have said, for the employers and the Fire Brigades Union to resolve. I am delighted that we have brought them together.

Everyone appreciates the work that is done by the fire and rescue service. However, is there any reason why firefighters should have a public pension that is more generous than those for the armed forces and for police officers?

My hon. Friend is quite right. He reminds me that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) also made a point about privatisation. As has been made clear a number of times from the Dispatch Box, that is a fallacy that he made up. I know that he continues to perpetuate it, but it is a complete fallacy and is not what this Government are doing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) is right that firefighters will end up with one of the best schemes in the public sector and that the age is being brought into line with the police and the armed forces.

Adapted Housing (Disabled People)

13. What estimate he has made of the average cost of adapting properties for disabled people who move home because of the under-occupancy penalty. (900561)

We have provided local authorities with £25 million of discretionary housing payments this year to assist under-occupying disabled people who live in significantly adapted accommodation and who are affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy to remain in their homes.

Does the Minister agree that it makes absolutely no sense to move people who have had their homes adapted to other homes where they are in danger of having to incur further costs on the public purse? I have heard from people who received a discretionary housing payment in the first round, and they are now being told that they will not get one. Will the Minister assure my constituents, and those across the country, that they will not be forced out of their homes when they have a disability?

The fund is discretionary so it is up to local authorities—including those in Scotland—to decide how to spend the money. We would obviously expect them to take into account the public money spent on that property previously, and consider what is in the best interests of the tenant.

I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities.

More than half of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled, and nine out of 10 disabled people who are not receiving discretionary housing benefit are cutting back on food or bills and having to choose between heating or eating. Does the Minister advise them to put on another jumper, skip a meal, or move to a non-adapted property that then has to be adapted at huge cost to the taxpayer?

I, too, welcome the hon. Lady to her post.

I would not presume to advise an individual at all; each individual must make up their own mind about how they will adapt to a change in circumstances. I advise local authorities, housing associations and local advice bureaux to work holistically with each tenant affected by the policy, and to consider what advice and support can be given so that they can transition to the new arrangements.

Under-occupancy Penalty

14. What assessment he has made of the availability of smaller properties for people affected by the under-occupancy penalty. (900562)

18. What assessment he has made of the availability of smaller properties for people affected by the under-occupancy penalty. (900567)

The Department and the Homes and Communities Agency publish information annually on the number of social rented properties by size, and during the year the number of properties available for letting will vary.

I welcome the Minister to his new position, but I must say that that answer was rather vague. It has been reported that there are enough one and two-bedroom social housing properties for only 4% of those affected by the bedroom tax. Does the Minister expect the other 96% of those affected to go into private lets? If so, will that not send housing benefit payments shooting upwards, rather than cutting them?

Clearly, the implementation of this policy will take a while, and each tenant must weigh up their own circumstances and consider how they adapt. As I said previously, I expect local authorities to work with all housing providers in an area, including the private sector—in my constituency more people rent in the private sector than in the public sector—and consider the best use of stock and what assistance is most appropriate for the individual.

In Hackney, 3,581 households are affected by the bedroom tax, and since April only 70 have been helped into smaller accommodation. The scale of the problem is such that to meet demand we need just under 2,000 one-bedroom properties, and just over 1,200 two- bedroom properties. The Minister may say that we should look at other solutions, but what solutions does he suggest for a borough such as Hackney?

I do not have information for the hon. Lady’s constituency, but across London 78% of people on housing benefit are unaffected by these changes, and many of the balance will be affected only by one bedroom. As I said, I expect local authorities, including Hackney, to look across all housing providers in the area and consider best use of the stock. The hon. Lady’s constituency and mine are not utterly dissimilar, and there may be people living in overcrowded accommodation in the private sector who could move into houses that are freed up in the social sector. Then everyone would be better off.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government will save money with their bedroom tax only if families who are hit are unable to move? Will he be clear: will the bedroom tax be a success if people move, or if they cannot?

Each circumstance is different. As I said to the hon. Lady’s London colleague, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—I am sure this is also true in West Ham—there may be people living in overcrowded conditions in the private sector who desperately want bigger accommodation that is available only in the public sector. That is the housing casework that has come to me over the past eight and a half years of representing an inner-city constituency. We are spending huge amounts supporting people in overcrowded conditions, and across the private and public sectors we are not making best use of the housing stock available.

Section 106 Agreements (Schools)

19. If he will make it his policy that planning authorities ensure that section 106 agreements produce adequate funds to finance the building of schools forming part of the planning approval when granting consents for major residential developments. (900568)

The national planning policy framework is clear that development should be sustainable, and that local authorities have a responsibility to make plans to provide the necessary infrastructure to meet the needs generated by new development.

I am most grateful to the Minister; he could not have been more clear. With that in mind, will he agree to meet me and representatives of the Essex education committee so that we can avert a monumental planning blunder? Consent is about to be granted, or could be granted, for 1,600 homes when the section 106 agreement is seriously deficient.

I know that my hon. Friend has already met the Secretary of State about this issue and has also asked for the application to be called in by the Department. That means that one of us has to be able to decide the issue. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I do not take up the offer of a meeting, for fear that no Minister will be left to decide.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) will be pleased to have exhausted the ministerial team.

Local Authority Performance

20. What representations he has received on the effectiveness of independent assessments of the performance of local authorities. (900569)

My hon. Friend may well know that we have reduced burdensome top-down assessments of the performance of local authorities. We have abolished the unnecessary and invasive comprehensive area assessment, and strengthened local accountability through transparency measures, making councils accountable to the local people who elect them. The recent BBC ICM poll suggests that residents are currently happy with council services.

Councils across the country have reason to be grateful to the Secretary of State for getting rid of the costly and bureaucratic comprehensive area assessments, and for replacing them with an optional system of councils inviting local government leaders to conduct a review. In that regard, has the Minister seen the very positive outcome for Conservative-controlled Rugby borough council? Its report was overwhelmingly positive and the leader was described as providing a

“strong and progressive focal point”.

Getting rid of comprehensive area assessments has saved the public purse around £28 million a year. On top of that, work going on now means that there is a constructive, involved approach from the sector—opening up and looking more sensibly at what works—rather than a tick-box culture. I am delighted that such a good Conservative authority is showing so highly in the process.

The Minister will be aware that the Local Government Association has independently assessed that Tory-led West Somerset council will not be financially viable in future. How many more local authorities does he believe will not be financially viable in future as a result of his Government’s cut to local services?

The hon. Gentleman gives a good example of where the sector and the LGA are working closely with the council to help it to work its way through shared management, particularly shared senior management, and shared services, which will bring the kind of savings needed—it is a small district council serving just 35,000 residents—and take things forward in a prudent and sensible way. That is the sector helping itself rather than the old tick-box culture that cost everybody so much.

Localism

22. What steps he is taking to promote the take-up of the community rights introduced by the Localism Act 2011. (900571)

Will the Minister explain how his Department is providing information, guidance and funding to help community groups in my constituency to exercise their rights?

Yes. The Department has so far made £60 million available to communities to support them in taking up their community rights. I advise the hon. Gentleman to advise his constituents to look at the booklet we have published, “You’ve got the power”, and—more likely—at the website, mycommunityrights. org.uk.

Topical Questions

I welcome the hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Front Bench to their new responsibilities. I hope they will be very happy.

In the past week, we have announced a series of measures to help families in housing. Local people and armed forces rather than foreign nationals will be given priority in council house waiting lists; fraudsters who illegally rent out their social homes for profit will face new criminal sanctions; private tenants will be better protected from the small minority of rogue landlords and letting agencies; and family-friendly tenancies will be supported as part of the move to expand the provision of quality rented houses. The Government are on the side of hard-working people, backing those who do the right thing.

Everyone in Bolton is working hard, despite difficult circumstances, to revitalise our town centre, but one of our biggest problems is expensive car parking. While the council is doing its bit to help, what can the Secretary of State do to encourage local authorities to deliver free car parking schemes, so that town centres can compete with out-of-town shopping?

What an excellent question. I agree entirely that local authorities have a responsibility. When my own local authority introduced half an hour free parking throughout the borough, it made an enormous difference. Expensive parking is cutting off the nose to spite the face. The more people come into a town centre, the more profitable it becomes and the better it is and the more people feel it is like home.

T2. My constituency is home to a great many members of the armed forces. As is well known, levels of home ownership are below average among this group, not least because credit is difficult to obtain for a whole slew of reasons particular to the profession. Will the Minister update the House on the progress made in addressing this problem? (900574)

As a former soldier, I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question and applaud him for his interest. Every day, a military family is taking up home ownership as a consequence of the Government’s intervention. To date, 780 families have taken advantage of First Buy and our home loan equity plan.

In April, the Secretary of State imposed a council tax increase on more than 2 million people on low incomes, because of his changes to council tax benefit. In response to a survey from my office, 112 councils revealed that 156,000 people, including the disabled, carers, veterans and war widows, have already received court summonses. Citizens Advice is seeing people who are having to choose, as it puts it, between staying on the right side of the law and feeding themselves. Since the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the position they now find themselves in, what advice would he give them about what they should do?

My advice is, “Don’t use bogus statistics and bogus surveys.” The official statistics show clearly that the numbers of summonses and collections are in a much better position than they were under Labour. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there were 3 million summonses a year under Labour. Collection is up and defaulting is down.

Once again, the Secretary of State does not want to take responsibility for the change he introduced. He should be very careful before he accuses local authorities of producing bogus statistics. I have here the reply from Brentwood council, which has issued 250 summonses; I have here the reply from Epping Forest council, which has issued 337 summonses; and, as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) is sitting there looking at the floor, I will tell him that South Kesteven has issued 585 summonses. Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State is in denial about the facts and the hardships that his tax rise is causing to people who, remember, are on the lowest incomes, which is why they receive council tax benefit?

The right hon. Gentleman should be careful. I was not accusing councils; I was accusing him. He talks about Brentwood council: its statistics show that there is virtually no change from the previous year. He is trying to make bricks out of straws. He had a campaign and it was not very successful. A lot of local authorities are doing well and are protecting the poor and the vulnerable. By and large, it is Labour authorities that are letting the side down.

T4. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his initiatives to ease the cost of parking on our high streets. Does he agree that one of the simplest ways for local authorities to operate is to offer 30 minutes of free parking on roads outside shops, as that will revitalise our neighbourhood centres? (900576)

My hon. Friend will recall that under the previous Government, councils were urged to put up car parking charges and to make it difficult for people to bring cars into town centres. As I said earlier, I know from personal experience that the policy he suggests makes a difference. If we are to protect our town centres, particularly our smaller shops, this is exactly the kind of measure that needs to be introduced, and those councils that do not do so are failing in their duty.

T3. The Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) was just not good enough. When more than one in 10 small businesses now say that they spend the same or more on business rates as on rent, why will he not do more to help struggling small businesses on our high streets by implementing a cut and then a freeze worth up to £450 to the average business, as the Opposition would do? (900575)

The small business discount has trebled under this Government. Also—this is a new thing we have introduced—local authorities now have total discretion over what discount to offer, and we will come up with half the money, so frankly the hon. Gentleman’s council needs to sort itself out.

T6. I welcome the £190,000 transitional funding to Swindon borough council last week, which recognised, yet again, the innovative ways in which Conservatives are transforming public services. Does the Minister welcome the innovative steps under way in Swindon to ensure that parking facilities and charges are delivering that much-needed town centre regeneration? (900578)

It was a pleasure to visit Swindon recently to see the great partnership work it has got going across the public sector. It was a good example of how to move forward in a new and modern way, reducing costs and getting better results for residents. To hear that it is also looking at sensible schemes to make it easy and affordable for people to park and get back into their town centre reconfirms how good a Conservative council Swindon now is.

T5. According to Government figures, my council, North Tyneside, one of the poorest areas of the country, is facing a 2% cut in spending power this year, while the Prime Minister’s council, West Oxfordshire, one of the richest parts of the country, will have an increased spending power of 3%. Will the Secretary of State explain to people in North Tyneside how this is fair? (900577)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on having the dexterity to put her own council’s name into the handout, but before she arrived, that question had already been answered.

T8. Following analysis by SPARSE Rural, it has come to light that Cheshire West and Chester council received £273 core Government funding per head; that neighbouring Liverpool council received £635; and that Manchester city council received £584. Will the Minister commit to investigating whether Cheshire West and Chester council is getting the support it needs to provide the services it is bound to deliver? (900581)

I admire my hon. Friend’s work in championing his area, and I am pleased he highlighted how Liverpool council has among the highest spending powers per head in the country. I am happy to meet him and representatives from his council, but I would point out, as we said in a debate a couple of weeks ago, that an independent report in the House of Commons Library this year showed that the funding settlement was fair not just to north and south, but to rural and urban areas.

T7. The Secretary of State likes to talk the talk when it comes to parking charges, so will he explain why three of the highest-charging councils are Tory controlled? (900580)

By which I think the hon. Gentleman means the amount of money they receive. I suspect that under any system, no matter who ran it, Westminster might get rather a lot of car parking.

T9. What recent consideration have Ministers given to allowing authorities such as Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset to share transit sites for Travellers, given the lack of space in the conurbation and the great need for the police to be able to invoke section 62 powers when, for example, play areas become unavailable for use by local children during the school holidays? (900582)

The hon. Lady was kind enough to raise this matter with me a few weeks ago. There was some suggestion that there was a prohibition on adjoining local authorities’ sharing facilities. Having checked with the planners in my Department, I am happy to report that there is no restriction. We would very much welcome the idea of local authorities working together on this important and sensitive issue.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the quality and management of private sector tenancies of his decision to abandon the national register of landlords?

One of the things we were concerned about was that we might repeat some of the mistake’s that Labour made over rent controls and the placing of a lot of burdens on landlords. The last thing we wanted was to see a great plunge in the availability of properties for tenants. So, by and large, I think that this has been a very good thing.

The Planning Minister told us earlier that local councils getting their local plans adopted was the best thing for them to do, but is that sufficient to enable them to defend those policies against the increasingly confident threats from developers to overturn them on appeal on the ground of a lack of a five-year housing supply?

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that it certainly is sufficient. One of the decisions that I have most enjoyed taking in this job has been to support the decision of a local authority, which had well in excess of a five-year land supply, to refuse an application for speculative development in an area where it did not want development.

The National Audit Office has warned that 12% of councils are unlikely to be able to balance their books in the future. Do Ministers agree with that figure and, if not, what is their estimate of the number?

In talking to local authorities, we have found that satisfaction with them is up and that they have coped extremely well with the changes that have come through to deal with the awful deficit left by the last Labour Government.

The Leeds core strategy is currently being examined, with the council proposing what it admits is a hugely ambitious target of more than 70,000 houses and with the developers pushing for even more. Such huge targets would see up to 80% of new homes in my constituency being built on greenfield or green-belt sites. What appeal mechanisms exist for my constituents, should the inspector approve such unrealistic targets?

Local authorities have to assess their housing need objectively. They can sometimes exaggerate or underplay it unrealistically, but any local plan has to go through an intense process of local consultation before it can be adopted. That will give my hon. Friend’s constituents every opportunity to say what they think of those assessments.

The Minister will know that the Williams review made it clear that it is possible for firefighters to serve in front-line roles until the age of 60, but only on the basis of a much-reduced level of fitness. Does he agree with that assessment?

The Williams report made it clear that if firefighters keep up their fitness throughout their careers, as they have a duty to do—alongside the fire service’s duty to have a proper programme in place—they will be more than capable of maintaining full fitness until the age of 60. I was pleased by the principles agreed between the Fire Brigades Union and the employers to have a process by which firefighters can maintain their fitness in a proper way, and we will keep an eye on the progress of those negotiations.

The Secretary of State has rightly introduced discretion for councils to reduce rates where possible, particularly for hard-pressed retailers. Will he please put his considerable weight behind our campaign to persuade Enfield council to make the right choices and give relief to our hard-pressed retailers by using that discretion?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as he did last week in our debate. He is right to suggest that councils seeking to develop their town centres, their businesses and their local economy should look into the discretion we have given them that allows them to discount local business rates in whatever manner they see fit.

May I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? Will the Secretary of State tell the House what his Department’s latest assessment is of the expected level of house price inflation over the coming year?

Surveys show that members of our fire and rescue service are among the most highly regarded of our public servants. Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way for them to maintain that enviable public perception is to continue to take part in negotiations and to continue to reject strike action?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The best thing would be to have no more strike action, and for the employers and the Fire Brigades Union to deal with the issues they are discussing so that we can reach a point at which we can deliver one of the most beneficial pension schemes in the public sector.

Rochdale council’s leadership has only postponed its decision to increase some chief officers’ pay by over 30% and intends to bring it back. Does the Secretary of State share my view that such an inflated increase in pay is not acceptable at this time?

I am embarrassed that my Chief Whip is present when I want to compliment the hon. Gentleman and say that he is almost a lone voice for sanity on this matter. These clearly considerable sums of money, notwithstanding the increased responsibility, are entirely wrong and I would expect the decision to be taken to a full council for a recorded vote. Let the people decide who is most sensible in running their council.

As the Secretary of State will know, Britain’s common bird population is in decline. Will he agree to meet Britain’s new home builders to try to get them to build provisions for wildlife into future designs, thereby restoring Britain’s bird population?

I have had a number of meetings, as recently as last week, with various wildlife groups to discuss how to build into development an understanding of the needs of wildlife. My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point about the bird population, which, outside my day job, I enthusiastically follow.

Tenants in Nottingham who have been forced to downsize from a two-bed social home to a one-bed private sector home can expect to pay an extra £24.83 a week in rent. The Secretary of State’s bedroom tax is a costly mess; why does he not scrap it?

We do not scrap it because we need to save money right across government. One of the major problems of implementing this policy is the lack of house building—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Lady is from the 2010 intake and that Labour Members of that intake like to think that 2010 is year zero, but during the 13 years when some of her colleagues were in power, not enough affordable housing was built. That is the problem.

More green belt and green space is under threat in my constituency than ever before, and local people marched in protest yet again at the weekend. Will Ministers tell them why local councillors are being told to pay absolute attention to econometric models and unelected inspectors and not to local people?

My hon. Friend knows that local authorities have to assess their housing needs and then work out how they are going to meet them. It is for local authorities to decide whether they can protect the green belt while nevertheless releasing some small portion of it to meet that housing need, but only after full consultation with local people.