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Topical Questions

Volume 569: debated on Monday 21 October 2013

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.