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Topical Questions

Volume 574: debated on Monday 20 January 2014

I would like to make a very brief statement about a recent development regarding my Department and officials at the European Union. The previous Labour Government signed up to a petty EU regulation that forced my Department and other Departments to fly the European flag outside our buildings. I can announce today that we have renegotiated this, and the burdensome law on flying the EU flag has now gone. This small step shows that our nation can and should claim powers back from Brussels. I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, for not flying the flag of Buckingham yesterday to celebrate your birthday. I hope you had a good day.

Remembering how British troops fought for the world’s freedom in the first world war is a very good thing. However, why did a Minister in the Secretary of State’s Department give £120,000 to a company run by a friend of hers, who also happens to be a Tory candidate, to organise just 50 school visits? There was no tender and no competition. If the Secretary of State has nothing to hide, will he publish all the documents and civil service advice about this work?

The hon. Gentleman is very good at smearing. This was properly conducted and, frankly, what a member of a company does in their spare time is not a matter of concern. I regularly deal with Labour councillors on a commercial basis and, frankly, I regard his attempt at smearing as pathetic.

T3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Enfield council’s proposal to use its public health budget for enhanced gritting is a gross misuse of public funds—the more so because in Enfield borough there is a 12-year life expectancy difference within less than 1 mile? (902020)

I am very surprised to hear that. I know my hon. Friend takes a great interest as a co-chair of the all-party group on primary care and public health. That issue goes to the very heart of whether we trust local government. A number of us have wanted the removal of ring-fencing, but using on gritting what should be used on public health is frankly ridiculous, and it brings local government into disrepute.

Last year, the Prime Minister was reported to have abandoned his support for new towns and garden cities. Last week, however, the Housing Minister said he was not aware of any report which was supposed to have been published, while the Deputy Prime Minister revealed that there is a prospectus and said that the Government should be honest about their plans to build new garden cities. Yesterday, the Secretary of State confirmed that there is a report, but that it seems to have nothing to do with his Department. Given that he is supposed to be in charge of housing and planning, why has he not asked to see a copy?

Of course there are reports. A report commissioned by the previous Government wanted to impose five garden cities, and when that failed, there was a report for 10 garden cities, but the truth is that Labour failed to build. We have been very straightforward about it: through local development growth, we will do our best to help those communities that want to have a garden city or volunteer for a garden city. Within my Department, there are certainly no plans to build on the floodplain or to increase London sprawl.

This is what the Secretary of State said yesterday. He said that

“I am told by my department that this report”—

confirming its existence—

“does not come from my department.”

He should clear it up by publishing the prospectus now.

Since the Secretary of State and I agree that identifying sites for new garden cities must be locally led, will he tell the House whether Yalding in Kent, Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire or any council in Oxfordshire has come forward to express interest in providing such a site? If not, will he confirm to the House that his officials are not currently looking at any of those areas as potential sites?

The only person who I think is looking at those as potential sites is Michael Lyons, who is working for the Labour party on these matters. Just to be absolutely clear, I cannot rule out some ambitious civil servant re-heating and re-badging an old Labour scheme to bring it to us. I want to be absolutely clear: no one is going to be forced to have a garden city against their will. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is a little confused. He seems to be mixing up a prospectus with this report, whether it exists or not, but the prospectus with regard to the local growth fund—an extra £1 billion has been put in—will of course be published in the spring.

T4. The Minister will be aware of last week’s article in The Daily Telegraph alleging a major relaxation of planning laws. This has caused some concern in my constituency, where substantial housing growth is already planned. What reassurance can he give my constituents that we will not have some planning free-for-all? (902021)

The Daily Telegraph is no doubt one of your favourite newspapers, Mr Speaker, as it is of mine, but it is in the business of selling copies, so it sometimes needs to entertain and provoke as well as inform. I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are not proposing any further major planning reforms, but simply a few minor tweaks to the administrative process of discharging planning conditions.

T5. Under the Bellwin scheme, the Government give emergency financial assistance to local authorities that are hit by natural disasters. In June and July last year, the Government provided 100% of emergency expenditure, but they are providing only 85% for the more recent floods. Will the Minister explain how the damage caused and the costs incurred more recently are different from what they were then? (902022)

So far, 37 authorities have indicated that they plan to make a claim through the Bellwin fund. As I said earlier, all the local authorities that have been affected are coming in to talk to us about the recovery process. I am sure that they will want to raise the issue of funding. The Bellwin fund is well tested, it works and local authorities know how it works. We will obviously work with any authority that needs specific help.

T6. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that planning inspectors will recognise the constraints that are on councils as they draw up their local plans, and that they will get the balance right between holding those councils to account and not subjecting them to undue delay? (902023)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I have been encouraging planning inspectors to recognise that perfection is not something that we mere mortals can ever hope to achieve, and that they should be pragmatic in recognising the way in which national policies can apply to local circumstances.

T7. On 8 January, I was told by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) in a written answer that he does not know“the net change in central Government support to individual local authorities”since May 2010.—[Official Report, 8 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 257W.] If he does not know by how much he has decided to cut the funding for particular local authorities, how can he possibly assess whether it is beneficial or detrimental? (902024)

The entire system of local government funding has been changed under this Government so that it is based on incentives rather than the begging bowl. Authorities that build houses will get more money and authorities that deliver economic growth will benefit from business rate retention. That is the way forward for local government—it is in control of its own destiny.

T8. I am working hard to promote right to buy in Stevenage, with some success. Sadly, Stevenage borough council does not support hard-working families in buying their own council homes. Will the Secretary of State consider making Stevenage a pilot area and contacting directly all tenants who are eligible to take up right to buy? (902025)

I will happily talk to my hon. Friend about that idea. I am shocked to hear that Stevenage is not playing its full part. Under right to buy, we will ensure that there are replacements on a one-for-one basis. Essentially, what Stevenage is doing is shooting itself in the foot.

T10. A disabled constituent of mine lives with her husband in a two-bedroom property. The second bedroom is used as a lockable safe room because her husband’s mental health condition leads him to become violent. She manages thanks to the discretionary housing payment, which is by definition discretionary and temporary. Why is she not exempt from the hideous bedroom tax, given her circumstances? (902027)

The hon. Lady is right that councils have the discretion to remove those demands from people in those particular medical circumstances. If she would like to write to me about the circumstances of that case, I will take it up with my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions.

T9. The Stanmore estate in Winchester was one of the first council estates in the country and was built in the post-great war building boom. Thanks to the changes to housing finance, Winchester city council is investing £60 million over the next 10 years to build 400 new council homes. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is very good for my constituents and that it is a genuinely affordable housing scheme? (902026)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the local authority. There is a certain irony in the fact that the two Administrations of the past 40 years who have built the greatest number of council homes are Margaret Thatcher’s Administration and this Administration. In the past few years, we have built more council houses than the Labour party built in 13 years.

The Government give private landlords £9.5 billion every year through housing benefit, and yet they spend only £1.1 billion on building affordable homes. If they spent all that money on affordable homes, they could build 600,000 homes every year. Why does not the Minister stop picking on and vilifying low-income tenants, and call time on profiteering landlords by capping rents and using the savings in housing benefit to build more council houses?

This Government have invested some £4.1 million into tackling rogue landlords. We have received a number of thank you letters from people on the Labour side, which is not in line with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Government are ensuring that tenants have decent homes. We support tenants and are not afraid of taking on rogue landlords.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Cherwell district council is willing to discuss with him the possibility of Bicester becoming a new garden city? Work has started on the eco town and the redundant Ministry of Defence land. It is probably one of the largest house building areas in south-east England, and we are certainly willing to enter into constructive dialogue about a new garden city with the Secretary of State.

Once I have been spared from my duties in the Chamber, I intend to go to the Tea Room where I shall expect an orderly queue of hon. Members lining up to volunteer.

In a recent debate the Secretary of State told me that in England landlords did not refuse housing to people on housing benefit, yet a big landlord was reported in the press as saying that he was moving completely out of letting to housing benefit tenants. Will the Secretary of State now carry out a proper inquiry so that he can give a clear answer to the point I raised in that debate?

With all respect to the hon. Lady, she was making exactly the same point about an article that had been in the Daily Mail that very weekend. I pointed out, with enormous respect, that there are a lot more private landlords than just that particular gentleman, and I do not think he represents anything that speaks of the sector as a whole. The short answer is no.

Lack of planning enforcement by local authorities causes disproportionate distress and aggravation to my constituents. Does the Minister agree that councils should have the ability to delay granting planning permission for new applications until all outstanding conditions on previous applications by the same developer have been complied with?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point and I would be happy to look into the specific case. Perhaps I can generally reassure her that, through the Localism Act 2011, she, I, and the rest of us have improved the enforcement powers of local authorities, and removed the restrictions that the previous Government had placed on the use of temporary stop orders in enforcing against abuse.

In 2015 Ministers will take on responsibility from the Department for Work and Pensions for hardship funding delivered by local councils. What discussions have taken place with Ministers at the DWP so that the vulnerable are not hit the hardest once again when the change takes effect?

The Department for Work and Pensions has transferred £175 million for the current year to meet those obligations, and £172 million for next year. The expectation for subsequent years is that local authorities will find those funds from within their own budgets. Of course, with the recovering economy, we hope there will be less demand.

Did the Secretary of State see last week’s report that showed that local authorities have lost £51 million over three years in overpayments to staff, with £16.7 million still to be recovered? Does he agree that local authorities need to raise their game in that area?

I am sure that is right. The amount available through preventing fraud, overpayment and mistakes is something we expect local authorities to tackle, just as we expect them to tackle their growing balance problem.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues. This Secretary of State’s Question Time is always a box office occasion, and I dare say colleagues will just have to wait until next time to renew the flame of their interest.