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Topical Questions

Volume 576: debated on Monday 3 March 2014

I am sure the supplementary question will be very good, Mr Speaker.

I would like to update the House on the Government’s ongoing work on flood response and recovery. The Somerset levels continue to face significant flooding, and the threat from extreme high levels of groundwater will remain for some months in parts of the country. However, across the country local recovery efforts are well under way. I can reassure the House that the Government are determined in their efforts to support all those affected to get back on their feet. The Government have today announced a £2 million package to encourage holidaymakers, from home and abroad, to see for themselves that areas affected by flooding are now open for business.

Will the Minister explain why hard-pressed councils, both Labour and Tory, are having to spend £3 million to stop families going hungry? Should the Government and the Secretary of State not be ashamed of themselves?

We have made a number of changes. First, we have given local authorities the freedom to be able to do that. Under the previous regime they did not have that freedom. Secondly, rather than pretending that food banks do not exist, we have allowed local authorities and various Government agencies to signpost them.

T4. We heard how much success there has been in neighbourhood planning across the country, but a great many communities that are a lot smaller than average would love to indulge in some sort of neighbourhood planning. Will the Minister consider introducing neighbourhood planning-lite for such communities? (902776)

We have, I think, now reached the point where there has been enough experience of neighbourhood planning with enough different kinds of communities for us to learn lessons and to ask whether there is not a version of neighbourhood planning that might be more easily accessible and quicker for some communities. We are doing that work, and we are very keen to hear from any hon. Members and communities with their thoughts on how we can achieve that.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Leeds city region will become a combined authority in April, but at present York cannot formally join because its boundary is not contiguous. On 28 October 2013, I asked the right hon. Gentleman if he would respond to the city region’s proposal to deal with this. He described it as wholly sensible and said:

“I am confident we will have a resolution before Christmas.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 690.]

However, in a written answer last week the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) said that

“we are now considering consulting before the summer on a Legislative Reform Order”.—[Official Report, 24 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 120W.]

Given the clear assurance that the Secretary of State gave me, will he gently say to his hon. Friend that he should get a move on?

I did not specify which Christmas I meant. However, I gave the right hon. Gentleman an undertaking, and it was a proper undertaking. Various legal obstacles were put in our way, but we intend to consult, and, subject to the position being legally satisfactory, there will be a resolution. Given that I gave an undertaking from the Dispatch Box to resolve the matter, I will not lightly do otherwise.

I am grateful for that assurance. I hope that the Leeds city region will now see things speeding up.

Let me turn to the profoundly unfair way in which the Secretary of State is treating local government. He tells us—and we heard it a moment ago from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)—that spending power per household is the proper way in which to compare council funding. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, as a result of the plans that he has set out, within four years local spending power will be higher in Wokingham than it will be in Leeds, Sheffield or Newcastle, although they face much greater pressures? Most people would say that that is unfair and impossible to justify. Why does the Secretary of State think that areas in greater need should receive less?

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that it was on the urging of the Labour party that we adopted the spending power regime. He will also recall that we moved from a need element to a consequence element. Those who are prepared to have houses built and to provide additional facilities to improve their tax position will benefit. We have moved from a system of the begging bowl to a system in which consequences follow economic and entrepreneurial activity.

T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that Rugby borough council is not just freezing council tax but reducing it by 3%, while Warwickshire county council is raising it by 1.9%. However, the county council has chosen now as the time to present proposals for a unitary authority. Given those contrasting approaches to the setting of council tax, can the Secretary of State suggest any reasons why my constituents would consider the unitary proposals to be a good idea? (902777)

I said before the last general election that any authority official who came to me with a proposal for a reorganisation would be met with a pearl-handled revolver that I kept in my desk. It sounds as though it is time to oil the thing again.

We have no intention of carrying out a reorganisation. Any spending on a reorganisation is a fundamental waste of taxpayers’ money.

T2. When his party was in opposition, the Prime Minister described homelessness and rough sleeping as a disgrace. Last week the Department published figures which showed that since 2010, rough sleeping had increased by 37%. How would the Minister describe that record? (902774)

There are neighbourhood plans in Chalford, Dursley, Eastington and nearly a dozen other areas in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that a good neighbourhood plan is an appropriate protector against inappropriate developments?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I look forward to visiting his constituency with him in the near future to see the planning work being done in some of his communities and by his local authority.

T3. The Secretary of State recently announced that in response to the recent floods in the south and south-west of England, the Bellwin formula threshold would be ignored, and the Government would pay 100% instead of the normal default of 85%. On 19 February, the Prime Minister announced that people who had been forced out of their homes would be exempt from council tax for the duration. I have a huge amount of sympathy for those people who have been affected by flooding, but, in the interests of fairness, will the Secretary of State confirm that the same proposals will be extended to cover the authorities and households that were affected by flooding in the north of England in 2012? (902775)

The sums relate to those affected in the north of England and the rest of the country just before Christmas of last year. I concede that we have made a fundamental change to the system. It probably was long overdue. We will be consulting about the long-term. For the sake of clarity, I should say we have not changed the threshold; all we have done is disregarded the amount paid for the education authority and for fire, which means the threshold effectively drops.

T10. May I again thank the Secretary of State for coming to Pagham last week?On another matter, many park home residents, including many in my constituency, are frequently charged unreasonable management fees by unscrupulous site owners. This Government tightened the legislation to give extra protection to residents so far as pitch fees are concerned, but there is less protection in respect of management fees, which some site owners are now using instead of the pitch fee to extract unreasonable sums of money from their residents. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State look into this issue to see what further protections can be introduced to protect park home residents from predatory site owners? (902782)

The Government have introduced a whole range of guidance and rules associated with protecting residents on park home sites, including stopping owners of sites undermining sales on sites, and making sure fees on a site can be introduced only after the exchange of a statutory form; the individual tenant can then seek an arbitrary intervention if they need to. Other steps, such as to do with the rules associated with a particular site, can be taken only after consultation with the tenant. One of our interventions serves as an example: up until now a tenant could not purchase gas bottles from anywhere but on-site; they can now purchase them wherever they want to.

T6. In Redcar and Cleveland, between 2003 and 2007 the Tory and Liberal Democrat council raised council tax by 25%, and they raised the chief executive’s pay by £60,000 from £83,000 to £143,000 in just four years. Does the Secretary of State support local Tory and Lib Dem councillors doing that? (902778)

I would take the same position if it were a Labour council: it is a matter of local choice. What we have done is create a situation where those kinds of choices have to be made before the electorate, and the electorate have to come to a view on them. Prior to that, councillors in what would formerly have been described as smoke-filled rooms could decide these things among themselves without any transparency before the electorate. I think the hon. Gentleman should trust the people.

Adult victims of human trafficking are looked after centrally through an excellent scheme run by the Salvation Army. Unfortunately, child victims of human trafficking are left to local government to look after and are quite often re-trafficked within a week of being rescued. Will the Secretary of State look at the possibility of removing that role from local government and bringing it under a central plan, as we do for adult victims?

I will take on board what my hon. Friend says, but may I just reassure him that this Government have allocated £4.1 million to tackling rogue landlords, and human trafficking is one area in which the authorities are intervening, so work is being done on that?

T7. Residents, constituents and firefighters from across Newcastle are writing to me shocked and angered by the proposed closure of Gosforth fire station. Before the Prime Minister was elected to office, he promised that front-line services would not be impacted, but this Government are cutting Tyne and Wear fire authority’s budget by 23% by 2017. How on earth does the Secretary of State believe it can lose a quarter of its funding without that having an impact on front-line services?


This body has had a cut of a couple of per cent. in spending power for each of the past couple of years, and has built up its reserves and been able to spend that on extra training facilities when the Government already have a training facility. The hon. Lady should put pressure on that fire chief to make sure he is making his decisions based on local risk. The local risk decision is one that only the local fire service can make.

My constituents in Shipley are sick to the back teeth of Labour-run Bradford council imposing decisions on them against their wishes and their interests, particularly in planning. It is perfectly clear that the council cares only about its heartlands in Bradford, rather than Shipley. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) is, helpfully, now a Minister in the Department. Not long ago, he said that we should look at having a local authority for just the Keighley and Shipley constituencies, thus taking us out of the Bradford district. I agree with that, and I am sure my constituents do wholeheartedly, so how can we make progress on that, particularly given his elevated position?

It looks like I am going to need more than a revolver. We have no plans to break up the Bradford metropolitan authority, and it always struck me that, no matter whether someone was Conservative or Labour, Shipley by and large ran Bradford.

T9. Given the financial realities faced by local councils, many valued facilities such as libraries, community centres and swimming pools are being closed. The Localism Act 2011 gives an opportunity for groups to register such facilities as community assets, but that often just buys time, with more obstacles being placed in the way. What assurances can the Secretary of State give to streamline the process of community asset transfer, so that these vital community facilities do not close? (902781)

I had the opportunity of being briefed by the hon. Gentleman on this local issue. When local councils are transferring an asset it is immensely important that they do not see this as primarily a commercial issue and go for the maximum amount. He has within his constituency a way of ensuring that the two swimming pools are kept open and run efficiently, and that the green belt, which he mentioned earlier, is not threatened. That seems to be a very logical thing to do.

Reigate and Banstead borough council is very close to approving a core strategy, after five years and three iterations, that is, frankly, in violation of the national planning policy guidance on the green belt. Will my right hon. and hon. Friends examine this situation as a matter of urgency?

I would, of course, be happy to meet my hon. Friend to investigate any concerns he has. It is very important that these plans are produced after full local consultation and where the local council is in the driving seat.

Does the Minister accept that a basis for funding fire services that does not take into account the specific risks in an area such as Cleveland, which has the highest concentration of COMAH—control of major accident hazards—sites, means that the funding settlement is neither fair nor safe?

No, I would not agree with that. Local risk is something that local fire chiefs will base their budget plans on, and those will be approved by the fire authority. Again, I remind the hon. Gentleman that Cleveland’s fire authority cannot be short of money because it has managed to increase its reserves in the past couple of years.

Why does the Minister think Wiltshire council is yet to adopt a local development framework for the north of the county? What advice would he give to bring some order to planning and development around Chippenham and Corsham?

It is probably fair to concede that for a council that has recently become unitary this is an intensely complicated process. Nevertheless, that council knew that it was taking on the responsibility and it now needs to get a move on and complete the plan.

The only sport that is equally participated in by girls and boys is swimming. I do not know whether the Secretary of State can swim, but unfortunately many young people in this country still grow up unable to swim, which poses a threat in later life. Can he tell me how many swimming pools in this country have been closed since this Government came to power? If he is not able to give me a precise number now, perhaps he could write to me later.

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, I will write to him, if figures are available. Diligent Members of Parliament can certainly take actions to save valuable swimming pools if they get cracking.

It has to be said that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is hiding his light under a bushel, because I am advised that he is a most accomplished swimmer. As he has chosen not to inform the House of that fact, I am generously doing so on his behalf.

Residents in the village of Eastry in my constituency are concerned about an unauthorised Travellers’ development that has just appeared. What actions can councils take on the matter, and can their powers be strengthened?

Obviously, the local council should be looking through its local plan, if it has one. The policies were published last August, with a guide to local authorities about their powers. I encourage them to use them, as they are simple and clear for both residents and councillors. I am also happy to meet my hon. Friend if he wishes to have a further conversation on this.