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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 571: debated on Monday 25 November 2013

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rent Arrears (Social Housing)

Tristar Homes, which serves people in my Stockton North constituency, has 1,725 tenants classed as under-occupying their current property. Two thirds of those tenants have accrued rent arrears, many for the first time, and 85% are seeing their debt grow. What is the Minister’s estimate of the total arrears nationally in the first year of the bedroom tax—in other words, the spare room subsidy—as a direct result of it and the assault on some of the poorest people in our community? How much does he believe the measure will save his Government?

My information about Tristar is that the figures the hon. Gentleman quotes are a significant reduction on earlier in the year—that is the information the Department has. On financial savings, it is far too early to say. The Department for Work and Pensions will undertake a review in the early part of next year.

In the north-east of England, 39,000 households are affected by the bedroom tax—or, as the Government would like to call it, the spare room subsidy. In Gateshead, more than 3,000 households in the local authority’s housing or the housing associations’ housing are affected. The local authority alone has accrued £152,000 of additional arrears. When will the Government realise that the policy is hurting but certainly not working?

The figures I gave in the earlier answer were for the year before the spare room subsidy withdrawal—they are the most recent comprehensive, across-England figures we have. Through the Homes and Communities Agency, the Department has surveyed all the large housing associations. They tell us that, at the moment, rent collection levels are in excess of 95% and well within their published business plans.

Will the Minister confirm that, of the £68 million of discretionary housing payments made available to councils last year, £11 million went unspent?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on discretionary housing payments for last year. Of course, last year those payments were in place to deal with differences in the private rental sector. I wish Opposition Members would remember that the Labour Government introduced tight controls on the funding of spare bedrooms in the private rental sector. Some 43% of people in my constituency rent in the private rental sector. I do not recall much protest from Labour Members at that time.

Following on from that answer, am I right in thinking that the rules on housing benefit for those in social housing are now broadly the same as the rules on housing benefit for those in the private rented sector, and that the latter rules were introduced by the previous Government? Is there any reason why those on housing benefit in social housing should have different rules from those on housing benefit in the private rented sector?

My hon. Friend has neatly followed the logic of what I said in my previous answer. There is a logic behind the reforms that this Government have introduced. Throughout the entire 13 years that the previous Government were in office, they had tight controls on the private rental sector and tightened them further. I do not recall a single Labour Member describing that as Labour’s bedroom tax on the majority of people, certainly in city centres like mine and that of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who rent in the private sector. The rules are now aligned.

Rehousing and eviction costs often dwarf the arrears built up as a result of the bedroom tax, so how surprised is the Minister that many councils in Wales—including my own in Carmarthenshire—refuse to operate a no-evictions policy for the most vulnerable?

As much as I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he of all hon. Members—he is a Plaid Cymru Member—will understand that I cannot answer for what the Welsh Government are doing in Wales.

May I try to bring the Minister up to date and talk about this year, and give him another chance to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham)? According to the National Housing Federation, more than half of all tenants affected by the bedroom tax were in rent arrears within three months. Does the Minister believe that those families went into arrears because they could not afford the rent, or because they simply were not bothered?

There could be many explanations of why people fall into arrears—they are not a new feature under this Government. Rent arrears, whether in the council or housing association sector, were a feature under the previous Labour Government too. Behind each individual case, there will be a reason why people have fallen into arrears. Perhaps people think that some Labour councils are adopting a policy of hoping this policy will go away. I think perhaps they are misleading their tenants on that basis. They should be helping their tenants to adapt to the change in circumstances.

Sustainable Development

I thank the Minister for that brief answer. He visited north Leeds and Wharfedale—and we were pleased to have him—an area facing the prospect of hundreds of new homes at a time when there are already congested roads and not enough school places, doctors and dentists. What more will he and the Department do to ensure we have genuine sustainable development that includes all those things before houses are built?

I understand that the local plan submitted by Leeds council is now under examination. That process will test whether the provisions for infrastructure are adequate to support the level of development the council has decided it needs. He and his constituents will have every opportunity to put their case as to why they need investment in more infrastructure to support proposed development.

I am sure the Minister will agree that one of the important principles for achieving sustainable development is the brownfield first policy contained in the core planning policies and principles of the NPPF. I think the Minister is also aware that developers are using paragraph 47 of the NPPF to claim that brownfield sites are not deliverable because they are not viable, which is causing authorities to look at more and more greenfield sites for their five-year housing supply. Does the Minister agree that that effectively undermines the brownfield first policy in the NPPF? What is he going to do about it?

I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, who is knowledgeable about all these subjects, but I do not share his concern that the position is somehow being undermined. The NPPF is clear that brownfield land that is of low environmental quality should be preferred. That is a better policy than that of the Government he supported, which favoured all brownfield land, including back gardens, and led to garden grabbing on a scale we had never before seen.

Given the Minister’s comments, does he agree that Telford and Wrekin council should not be building on greenfield sites in Wellington or Newport in my constituency, but should be building on the preferred brownfield sites in both those towns?

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on particular proposals by a particular council, but I can say that every council will want to look at all brownfield land—

I apologise, Mr Speaker. I hope my hon. Friend will not mind having to look at the back of my head while I answer his question. His council will of course be looking at every brownfield site to identify those ready for development. It may be the case that in some circumstances some brownfield sites require huge investment in either infrastructure or decontamination and are therefore not appropriate for development, but the preference will always be to use brownfield sites.

May I press the Minister on that? Do his criteria for sustainable development include building hundreds if not thousands of one-bedroom apartments for students, as is the case in my constituency, and none for elderly people? What kind of policy is it when students are looked after, but elderly people have nowhere to go?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is the responsibility of his council to assess all housing needs for students and other people, and to make adequate provision. That is what councils should be doing through their local plans. I am sure he is influencing his council strongly on its plan.

Neighbourhood Plans

3. Whether parish councils are able to draw up a neighbourhood plan if they take a different view from their local planning authority on local planning issues. (901200)

Neighbourhood plans are not simply a re-statement of a local authority’s local plan. Neighbourhood planning gives parish councils, town councils and other community groups a real say over development they want to see in their area. Many communities across England are already developing planning policies on issues that are important to them.

I thank the Minister’s colleague the Planning Minister for his recent visit to Broughton in my constituency. The village of Cranford finds itself next to the site on which 5,500 houses are to be built in an area called Kettering East. How might the parish council best protect its village by adopting a neighbourhood plan?

Obviously, we cannot comment on particular planning developments, but while a neighbourhood plan may deal with the housing issues, it cannot countermand the aspirations of the authority’s local plan. It can differ, however, on how those housing policies can be met.

Parking Charges

4. If he will take steps to reduce excessive parking charges and address aggressive parking enforcement. (901201)

Yes, councils should be treating motorists fairly and promoting their town centres, not treating car parking charges and fines as a way of raising revenue. We will consult on a range of proposals later this year.

Stevenage borough council is ripping off local people by taking more than £3 million a year in car parking charges, which is preventing the regeneration of Stevenage town centre. To make matters worse, it uses more than £1 million of profits for unrelated services, which I believe the High Court considers to be illegal. What actions will the Secretary of State take to protect local people from Stevenage borough council?

I am sorry to hear of the state of affairs in Stevenage. We shall certainly be looking at the rules on charging and the parking review grace periods in which parking offences can be ruled unacceptable. We shall be consulting on how this might be done appropriately and soon be laying orders on the collection of fines from closed circuit television.

Health care professionals such as midwives provide an invaluable service and allow people to stay safe and independent in their own home. As part of the consultation he mentioned, does the Secretary of State agree that we should consider allowing them to park in all residential areas without fear of a parking fine?

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. Of course, a number of local authorities already consult and have a working arrangement with the local national health service. Clearly, district nurses and doctors want to go about their business without the fear of fines, and I also think it appropriate that ambulances should be able to attend without the fear of parking fines. I think this should be done, and I will certainly include it in the consultation.

In his consultation on parking fines, will the Secretary of State consider the work of Slough Labour council and its “free after three” parking plan, which I think is beginning to revive our high street?

Hammersmith and Fulham has increased its take from moving vehicle penalty charge notices by 400% in four years. It raises £2.7 million from one box junction alone, and it says it does this to increase parking revenue, not to improve the movement of traffic. What will the Secretary of State do about Tory councils that rip off motorists?

I am shocked to hear this. Hammersmith and Fulham is an exemplary council: not many councils in this country have consistently reduced council tax by 3% every year. I do not think, therefore, that its population is being ripped off, but I shall certainly take a most careful look at the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

The Secretary of State should acknowledge that across the country Tory councils are charging more—[Interruption.] I know Conservative Members do not want to hear the information from councils themselves showing that the three highest in the country are Tory-run and that in London Tory councils take twice as much off residents for parking as Labour. May I invite him to join me in congratulating Labour councils on backing their town centres?

In his previous existence, the hon. Gentleman would not have had the temerity to cite that set of figures, which can be achieved only by counting off-street parking, which means the more off-street parking a council provides—the friendlier it makes it for motorists—the worse those figures appear, so frankly I regard them as bogus. They reflect the anti-car policies of the Labour party, which consistently cut the number of parking spaces and instructed local authorities to increase car parking charges.

Article 4 Directions

5. What assessment he has made of local authorities’ use of article 4 directions to limit excessive occurrence of particular use types on high streets. (901202)

Local authorities are required to notify my Department of article 4 directions before they are brought into force. In the year to 31 October 2013, 97 article 4 directions have been made by 43 local authorities.

Today the Treasury has finally moved on payday loans, which is welcome, so why is the Department making it easier for payday lenders, betting shops and fast-food takeaways to open up without planning permission? Does he recognise the concerns of the Local Government Association and others that article 4 directions are

“ineffective, inefficient and heavily bureaucratic”?

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman has shown a consistent interest in this area. Article 4 directions apply to different parts of the sectors that he has outlined and local authorities can use licensing and a range of other powers to keep things under control. I would suggest that the right hon. Gentleman discuss the matter with his Front-Bench team, which seems happy to be entertained by the gambling industry rather than do something productive about it for the benefit of our high streets.

Does the Minister agree with me that it should be the public’s demand for a particular product or service that determines the exact number of a particular type of outlet on the high street?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The high street will be driven by consumer use, but it is also quite right for local authorities to use the powers they have to make sure that their high street or town centre is vital and vibrant for the benefit of their communities.

20. There are 40,000 empty shops on UK high streets, and the Minister and his Department are doing the best they can to stack them with payday loan companies, loan sharks and betting shops. What single policy has his Department implemented that has helped to reverse this trend and get proper shops in our high streets? Is there one single policy? (901217)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to consider the fact that, unlike the previous Labour Government, we have trebled small business rate relief, as well as giving power to local authorities. I strongly suggest that authorities use the powers they have to discount business rates, as well as utilise the 333 town teams working hard for their communities around the country. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not want to give these people the credit for the hard work that they are putting in.

The Minister will no doubt be aware that the most recent issue of Planning magazine reported its survey results showing that a lack of resources in council planning departments was seriously holding up decision making. Why, then, is the Minister exacerbating the situation by forcing councils to bear the brunt of expensive article 4 directions time after time after time? Why will the Minister not give councils and local communities real powers to shape their town centres instead of burdening them with costly bureaucratic hoops to jump through?

I would gently say to the hon. Lady that, as I said in response to the main question, 97 article 4 directions have gone through this year alone, while local authorities have their local plan as well as article 4. The clue is in the title: the planning should be plan-driven. There are also town teams, Portas pilots and, as I said, more than £900 million-worth of business rate relief for small businesses, as well as the power to discount more locally. I suggest the hon. Lady get behind the town teams that are working so hard instead of putting them down.

Wind Turbines

6. What planning guidelines he has issued on the minimum distance required between wind turbines and housing. (901203)

We are not encouraging local councils to set fixed separation distances between turbines and housing. Distances play a part, but so does the local context, including factors such as topography.

I thank the Minister for that answer. On Friday, Prince Charles visited the heritage village of Kirkleatham in my constituency, which, along with the lovely conservation villages of Wilton and Yearby, forms a triangle with sides between 700 metres and 1,400 metres. Does the Minister think it right that a London-based company wants to put two wind turbines bigger than the London Eye in the middle of this triangle? Will he give local communities power over such decisions, and will he issue guidelines similar to those in Scotland?

I cannot comment on individual applications, but the national planning policy is clear that any application should be approved only if the impact is, or can be, made acceptable.

Do the Government intend to give local communities any new powers to block such developments if they consider them unwelcome?

Regulations laid before the House this morning demand that developers have conversations with communities before applications are made. That is important, but having a strong local plan is also helpful.

There is best practice throughout Europe in this regard. The Danes, for instance, have an exclusion zone for dwellings that measures 10 times the radius of the blades. Surely there is some way of introducing localism-related legislation to deal with the position here.

As I said a moment ago to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), it is important to have a local plan. Determining where renewable energy supply facilities are to be established will give some protection to communities.

Local Government Finance Settlement

We will announce the provisional local government finance settlement for 2014-15 and the consultation after the autumn statement and in line with our usual timetable.

Is the Minister aware of the devastating impact that his Department’s £329 million cuts are having on my local council in Liverpool? By 2016-17, there will be a £17 million shortfall in funds for services that the council is legally obliged to deliver, and zero spending on discretionary services. This is a crisis waiting to happen. Will the Minister please tell the House where Liverpool should find the money?

I strongly suggest that the hon. Lady use her persuasive powers to make the council put its huge balances to good use. It receives one of the highest grants in the country and has a spending power of £2,700 per household, which is £500 per household more than the English average, and is even more than the metropolitan average. I suspect that the best thing that the hon. Lady can do is tell the council to be sensible about how it spends money, which means not increasing council tax to punish the hard-working people of Liverpool.

Council tax benefit support grant is a key part of the money that central Government give to parish councils. This year, Labour-run Northumberland county council has said that it will not pass the grant on to the local town and parish councils. Does the Minister agree that that is specifically wrong?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. We made it clear this year that councils should pass the money down to parish councils, and my hon. Friend is right to put pressure on councils that do not do what they are supposed to do.

17. Ministers have been saying the same thing since 2010, but what this Minister has not said is that the decisions made by him and his colleagues have been hitting the poorest areas hardest with the biggest cuts in council funding. Why must five years of a Tory Secretary of State mean that the cuts in the budgets of councils in the south-east will be half the size of the cuts in inner London or in the three northern regions? (901214)

Our banding floors protect the councils that are in the greatest need. For example, funds for the right hon. Gentleman’s own council, which still has a spending power of about £2,100 per household, are being reduced by just 1.5%, the English average being 1.3%. That is line with what the Government expect local authorities—which take up 25% of public spending—to do to clear up the mess of the deficit and debt left by the last Labour Government.

New Homes Bonus

Will the Minister say something about why the scheme that his Prime Minister set up has been such a disaster? Just 1,427 homes have been built under this scheme, although we need 800,000 homes in London, because there is a huge demand problem. The average London deposit now costs our young people £100,000.

I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand the scheme. It has delivered some £1.3 billion to local authorities, including about £5.5 million for his own authority.

May I put it to my hon. Friend that although I think everyone understands that there is an acute shortage of housing in many parts of this country because of the lamentable failure of the previous Government to build sufficient houses and because of what most people regard as excessive immigration, in the charming market towns of Louth and Horncastle in my Lincolnshire constituency there is the deepest cross-party concern about developers’ proposals to put up about 1,000 new houses in and around those two market towns? What everybody is asking is where are the jobs, the school places, the ambulances, the hospital beds and the policemen to be found for such a project, which will in fact destroy these happy communities?

With all respect to my right hon. Friend, I am afraid the new homes bonus is not about encouraging people to build homes. The way to address the issues he raises is to get a strong local plan, and I suggest that he takes the challenge that he has just given to the House to his local council.

I am somewhat bewildered that the Housing Minister thinks the new homes bonus is not about incentivising councils to build new homes. In fact, contrary to that, his predecessor said at least 400,000 additional homes would be built as a direct result of the new homes bonus. The truth is there has been a 26% drop in the affordable homes supply and £1.3 billion has been spent by this Government under the new homes bonus to deliver fewer than 1,500 homes. Does the Minister think spending nearly £1 million per home is good value for taxpayers’ money?

The bonus itself is not for building homes. This Government have built 400,000 houses. This Government are absolutely committed to building affordable houses and have already reached 50% of our affordable housing target—over 99,000 houses—and will deliver 170,000 by the end of this period.

Calderdale Council

10. What assessment he has made of the effect of changes in the level of his Department’s grant on the operations of Calderdale council. (901207)

Calderdale has had a reduction in spending power of 1.5% this year, which is only slightly above the England average. Like all councils, Calderdale can now benefit from increases in local growth through business rates retention and the new homes bonus.

There are many areas in Calderdale that are suffering as a result of this Government’s cuts. Will the Minister meet me and a delegation from Calderdale council to listen to our concerns about the funding shortfalls and look at ways to address the problems, to the benefit of the people of Halifax?

When we do the finance settlement statement we have a consultation, but I am very happy to meet at a time that suits both the hon. Lady and the council to discuss the situation, and hopefully we can touch on why it is putting up council tax by 2% and punishing hard-working people by raising their cost of living. This Government have worked hard to freeze council tax and we are proud of doing so.

Unauthorised Development

11. What recent guidance he has given to local authorities on tackling unauthorised development. [R] (901208)

Councils should take swift enforcement action to tackle unauthorised development. Previously, some councils have been unclear about the powers available to deal with this issue. In August, we sent all councils a guide on the full range of power available to tackle unauthorised occupation on private and public land.

I am very grateful for that response. On the subject of authorised sites, local residents, including Travellers, in the village of Burn in Selby recently fought a successful campaign to prevent the expansion of an extremely large site in the village. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he would not recommend that any Traveller site should dominate in size any neighbouring community?

I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on a particular site. However, it is immensely important to ensure that where a Traveller site is placed next to a village, the numbers there should not dominate the area. The coalition Government have made a number of changes to policies, and we may be bringing forward further policies to make it easier for local communities to be able to live side by side.

In May 2012, the Government allocated an additional £1.8 million to local councils to deal with the growing problem of beds in sheds. Can the Secretary of State outline how this relationship is working with the Home Office and how many beds in sheds have been discovered?

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the numbers, because they are constantly changing. As he is aware, this issue relates to four or five specific London boroughs, and in conjunction with the Home Office we have taken enforcement action. It is important to emphasise that the people occupying such places are often very vulnerable, are often being abused by employers and often have dubious immigration status. Part of the process is to offer some help and assistance to them. As I say, on the numbers, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to write to him separately.

Help to Buy Scheme

13. How many people in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport constituency have been accepted to be considered in principle for a Help to Buy mortgage to date. (901210)

Up to September, Help to Buy had already helped 44 households to complete their purchase of a new home in Plymouth. Across England, it has generated more than 18,000 reservations for new homes.

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent reply. How does his Department propose to promote the Help to Buy initiative with those council and housing association tenants who qualify to buy their homes under Mrs Thatcher’s excellent right to buy scheme?

We have increased the discount available to those exercising their right to buy, and I am delighted with the results. Since April 2012, almost 13,500 families have been helped to buy their own home through the scheme. The level of discount assists potential buyers outside the Help to Buy scheme, which is designed to help those with lower deposits.

Social Homes Supply

14. What recent assessment he has made of the supply of one-bedroom social homes; and if he will make a statement. (901211)

There are more than 1 million one-bedroom social homes in England. In the last three years, this Government have delivered more than 150,000 new affordable homes. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that under the previous Administration, the supply of social homes shrank by 420,000.

I want to look forward, Mr Speaker. In north Lincolnshire, at the current rate of availability it will take six years to re-house everybody who is currently liable to the bedroom tax. Does the Minister agree that Conservative-controlled North Lincolnshire council should make sure that everybody who has indicated they want to move but cannot do so is eligible for a discretionary housing payment?

The key is in the title—it is a discretionary housing payment, so it will be up to each local authority to assess who should be eligible. This Government are on course to deliver 170,000 new social homes by the end of this Parliament, and this will be the first Administration in decades to leave more social housing in stock at the end of their first period in office.

My understanding is that the discretionary housing payment expires next year. In addition to the lack of housing build over a number of years, there is a chronic shortage of one-bedroom and two-bedroom houses in rural areas. This issue needs to be addressed, and the recent “Rural Communities” report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee asks for a stay and a continuation of the discretionary payment until such time as there is a housing supply in rural areas.

As is customary when a Select Committee makes a report, the Government consider it and respond. As that report is from the EFRA Committee and it involves policies that are partly under the remit of this Department, but also the Department for Work and Pensions, I am sure there will be a comprehensive reply to it in due course.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In advising local authorities on how they should bring forward plans for new housing, would the Minister advise them to follow the guidance in the national planning policy framework on meeting the identified needs of their area, whatever those needs might be, or would he advise them to give priority to one-bedroom housing because of the demand for it as a consequence of the bedroom tax?

I would expect every local plan, whether in Greenwich, Bristol or elsewhere, to take local needs into account. Yes, changes might well be needed in housing stock as a result of welfare reform changes, but we all know that there is a shortage of one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties as a result of our ageing society and of more people living on their own. That shortage needs to be met right across society.

Localism

16. How many planning applications opposed by local authorities and local communities have been approved on appeal since the coming into force of the Localism Act 2011. (901213)

In both of the past two years, 35% of planning appeals were allowed. Funnily enough, in 2009 under the last Labour Government, 34% of planning appeals were allowed.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but my question was specifically about the situation since the introduction of the Localism Act. Developers are putting in large-scale planning applications in rural areas such as mine, and the local residents campaign against them. The council then rejects an application but, on appeal, it is given the go-ahead. What account is taken of local people’s wishes when such appeals are heard?

I am sorry if I have not made this clear. Since the Localism Act, 35% of all such appeals to the Planning Inspectorate have been allowed, compared with 34% under the Labour Government before the Act, so there has been no substantial change. It is a fact that, under the Act, local opinion is extremely important. There has been almost no change in the percentage of appeals that succeed, and only 1% of all planning applications are allowed on appeal, so there has been no substantial change in the role of local opinion in determining planning applications since the Localism Act.

24. But does not the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) have a point? I spent Saturday morning with residents of the conservation village of Norton St Philip, who are feeling absolutely besieged by up to seven planning applications for large-scale developments in the village, all because Mendip district council has failed to secure a local plan. If those applications are rejected because Mendip summons the nerve to do so—particularly those on a site that includes the historic site of the battle of Philip’s Norton—will the appeals process back them or attack them? (901221)

I shall try again to explain this, because I have clearly failed to do so. I apologise for not being clear. If the hon. Gentleman’s local authority rejects a planning application and the decision is appealed, and if the authority does not have a local plan in place with a robust five-year land supply, the planning inspector will consider whether the application meets the requirements in the national planning policy framework. I reiterate that planning inspectors are backing local authority decisions just as often as they did before the Localism Act was passed.

The Minister will know the intensity of feeling among local people when an application is approved on appeal. Even more worrying is that some local authorities are now rolling over to some applications because they cannot afford the expensive appeal procedure. Will he therefore consider giving extra support to small local authorities that are inundated with planning applications?

Local authorities should be making the decisions that they feel are right for their local communities and that meet their local policies and those in the national planning policy framework. An appeal might be lodged following their refusal of an application, but if they feel that their decision was right in the first place, they will be able to ask for costs against the developer that has submitted the appeal. They should not feel too worried about the cost of fighting an appeal if they are certain that their decision is good in law.

Private Rented Sector

18. What steps he is taking to encourage the delivery of more private rented sector accommodation. (901215)

This Government are committed to a bigger and better private rented sector which is why, following the Montague review, we have put in place the £1 billion build to rent fund and the £10 billion housing guarantee schemes, to deliver the rented sector that my hon. Friend supports.

Many of my constituents enjoy the flexibility of living in the private rented sector, but if we are to keep the cost of renting down and ensure that those who want to rent a home can do so, action needs to be taken to increase supply. Does the Minister agree that initiatives from this Government, such as the Build to Rent fund and the Montague report, will ensure the provision of much-needed private rented homes?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point. It is important that we expand the rented housing sector, and we are doing so. The huge amount of money that we have put in—bearing in mind the limited resources that this Government have to spend—is bringing dividends. We have 14 applications at the moment, which will deliver 2,800 extra houses. I look forward to visiting his constituency in the near future, where I hope to see some of those new houses.

SME Business Rates

Thanks to this Government’s tax cuts, small business rate relief has been trebled—it was worth about £900 million in the past year—and more than a third of a million small firms also now pay no business rates bill at all.

That is interesting, as business rates have risen by an average of nearly £2,000 this Parliament. A future Labour Government would give small firms and businesses a rates cut and would then freeze rates the following year. Will the Minister inform the House how much business rates are set to rise by in 2014 under this Government’s plans?

Let me give a slight correction, because obviously business rates have only moved with inflation; there has been no real-terms increase in business rates at all under this Government. We have also trebled small business rate relief, so helping small businesses in a way that the previous Government simply did not do. As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt realise, there will be a decision on the business rates for next year in the Chancellor’s autumn statement in December.

22. Labour Members welcome the fact that the Government followed our lead on payday loans, but will they follow us on another policy and give 1.5 million small businesses a cut in business rates? (901219)

As I said, we have trebled small business rate relief, providing £900 million of help this year, with a third of a million businesses paying no business rates at all. That is an awful lot more than the previous Labour Government did.

Topical Questions

I would like to bring the House up to date on the progress my Department has made on the issue of troubled families, and in doing so I recognise the support that this work has received from Members from right across the House. Our dedicated programme is on track and is working, with the lives of 22,000 families already turned around and councils continuing to work with 62,000 other families to reduce youth crime, tackle truancy and help to get jobless adults back to work. Those results show that these problems can be dealt with through a no-nonsense, common-sense approach, bringing down the cost to the taxpayer at the same time.

People buying homes in Kingswood in Hull under the coalition’s Help to Buy scheme, advertising for which is plastered all over the area, were shocked to hear the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister with responsibility for tackling flooding, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), confirm to me last week that the Government’s new flood insurance scheme excludes homes built after 2009 to discourage home building in flood-risk areas such as Hull. Does this Secretary of State think that it is advisable for my constituents to buy homes under the Government’s Help to Buy scheme, given that they will not be able to get affordable flood insurance?

In terms of building houses and the Help to Buy scheme, it has to be a viable proposition. I will certainly liaise with the hon. Lady, because I know Hull very well, and will look specifically into her worries about this matter and liaise with my colleagues in DEFRA.

T2. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), has visited Mid Suffolk district council and seen the huge efficiency savings it has generated by sharing services and cutting management by 50%. Will great performance on saving money be recognised in the coming financial settlement and will particular regard be paid to rural district councils in respect of that? (901239)

Having reduced my own Department’s spending by 60%, I regard 50% as a good start. The advantage of that is seen not just in the settlement but in the good running of the authority, so I commend my hon. Friend’s authority for its magnificent work.

The Secretary of State has rightly talked about the importance of local authorities keeping down council tax in these tough times for many people—although he has imposed an increase on those on the very lowest incomes—but when it comes to business rates, which he set, he pursues a completely different policy. In the past two years, he has been quite happy to see struggling businesses hit by increases in business rates of 5.6% and 2.7%. What does the Minister say to owners of small businesses who feel that that is both damaging and unfair?

The right hon. Gentleman’s question gives me a chance once again to re-establish the fact that the Government have made no real-terms increase in business rates; there has only been an inflationary change. Moreover, we have helped small businesses by trebling the small business rate relief from £300 million to £900 million a year.

That answer will not reassure the owners of small businesses. The Minister talks casually about an increase in line with inflation, but the takings of many of those businesses have not gone up in line with inflation because of the state of the economy. They will also not be reassured because, as things stand, next April will see a further rise of 3.2%. Since he has not been able to tell the House what further help he will give to small businesses, is it not time that the Government looked at our plan, which is a commitment to cut and then freeze business rates over a two-year period? That could help 1.5 million small businesses, which is many more than he is helping at the moment, and save them an average of £450.

I appreciate the fact that the Opposition are talking about business rates, but they have not mentioned that they plan to put up corporation tax, which this Government have reduced to its lowest level to make us more competitive than at any time under Labour. The right hon. Gentleman also still misses the point. Small businesses benefit from small business rate relief, which we trebled from £300 million under Labour to £900 million. Furthermore, a third of a million businesses do not pay business rates under this Government and have not seen the increase that he outlined.

T3. Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Council of Europe’s framework convention for the protection of national minorities. Will the Minister update the House on when the Cornish, with our own language and distinct identity, history and culture, can expect to be included within the framework? (901240)

As a Welshman, I entirely sympathise with what my hon. Friend says about our Celtic cousins. We had a good meeting on the Cornish language and I have written to colleagues reminding them of the Government’s responsibilities in that area. As for the Council of Europe framework, the UK will make a submission in May 2014 and will invite Cornwall council and others to contribute to it.

T4. A recent survey by Community Care has found that many local authorities are raising their thresholds for intervention in cases of child protection, and many social workers fear that they are not able to provide the appropriate level of support and intervention to children in need. Given that we are continually concerned about cases of child abuse, and that every Government have rightly said that they are committed to ensuring that such cases do not occur again, will the Government look seriously at providing extra funding to local authorities, which will have to make cuts next year and the year after, so that we do not see more child deaths? (901241)

Even in difficult times, the Government have managed to increase funding to vulnerable areas. If the hon. Lady has an authority specifically in mind—[Interruption.] I do not call £3.8 billion from the health budget to deal with vulnerable people a trivial sum. I am surprised that Labour Front Benchers mock that. I know that this is a reality, but if the hon. Lady has specific authorities in mind that are increasing the threshold, given the effect that that has had on a number of authorities where things have gone terribly wrong, I will look into it for her.

T7. What steps is the Minister taking to implement existing planning permissions, particularly on brownfield sites? (901244)

I have good news for my hon. Friend. Of those units that already have planning permission, building has started on 49% of them. Now, 72% of the rest are moving towards making a start, up from 58% at the end of 2011. That means that only 23% are now on hold. We have made funds available through the Get Britain Building investment fund and the local infrastructure investment fund to help get stalled sites moving.

T6. Some moments ago, the Housing Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) that the new homes bonus is not a payment for building new houses. Will he explain what it is for? (901243)

T8. It has been widely reported in the press that Ministers have been instructed by a higher authority to get rid of the green nonsense, or words to that effect. Could that welcome advice be imparted to the local authority leaders who insist on employing an army of climate change and sustainable development advisers at great expense to council tax payers? (901245)

The Government do not keep a register of unusual posts in local authorities. Although we are committed to sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint, and although it is up to local authorities who they employ, I would expect them to be sensible about that in these difficult times.

Let me tell the Secretary of State that since April the arrears of those tenants in Wythenshawe in my constituency who are affected by the bedroom tax have increased by £500,000 and that more than 1,000 families have fallen behind with their rent for the very first time. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to my constituents for the hardship that policy has created?

Why did the right hon. Gentleman never raise that question when the problem affected private tenants in his constituency? Why was he so callous about their plight? We have put aside sums of money to deal with the hardship, but only a handful of local authorities have applied for it as they are more content to use the poor as a battering ram against this Government. He should be ashamed.

T9. Houses in multiple occupation can play a vital role in helping hard-working young people who are just starting out on their own. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that there is discretion so that council tax is levied on the entire houses that these young people live in rather than on the individual rooms they occupy? (901246)

My hon. Friend’s arguments are very persuasive. Indeed, he has spoken to me about this subject. I am prepared to consider the technicalities of it.

I am sure that the Secretary of State expects all councils to secure the best return for asset sales. Will he therefore condemn Liberal Democrat-controlled Stockport council, which, in July, flogged off the listed North Reddish schools for a paltry £205,000 only for the new owners to have put the same buildings on the open market in recent weeks for £750,000?

T10. Given that large numbers of local authorities, such as Plymouth city council, have transferred their housing stock to housing associations, how does my hon. Friend the Minister propose to make those housing associations more accountable to their tenants rather than just being answerable to their board and to the Homes and Communities Agency? (901247)

We have done it already. In the Localism Act 2011, we changed how housing associations were regulated, giving back power to tenants to hold their landlords to account.

Will the Secretary of State reassure local authorities that they will not need to spend millions of pounds of much-needed funds on duplicating IT equipment because of the end user devices security guidance issued by CESG? Will he look into that and reassure local authorities that they will not need to spend that money?

This is something that we are looking at, and I am happy to keep the hon. Gentleman up to date with progress.

My constituents are rightly concerned about opportunistic developers. Does my hon. Friend agree that if a local authority’s core strategy has passed its examination hearings and its site allocations process is out to consultation, at this advanced stage it would fly in the face of localism for a planning application to be approved at appeal?

After a local plan in draft form has been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, it is clear in planning guidance that the policies in it can carry weight in decisions on applications that come forward.

Earlier the Minister said that the bedroom tax was about aligning rules in the social and the private sector, and the Secretary of State indicated the same. Do they not understand that the demographics of the social and private sectors are very different, and that social housing houses some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, including the 400,000 disabled people affected by this? Does the Secretary of State not think the policy should be aligned with fairness by abolishing the tax?

The hon. Lady needs to look at the matter carefully. Exactly those kinds of people are housed in the private rented sector.

My right hon. Friend will know that there appears to be a growing desire on the part of developers to carpet rural Lincolnshire with wind turbines, most recently at Temple Hill in my constituency. What advice can he give those of my constituents who for very good reasons properly oppose the siting of these turbines in their local communities?

Although I cannot comment on individual cases, we have put regulations before the House today which demand that developers speak to local communities. Also, as I have said before, communities should make sure that their local council has a robust local plan.