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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 579: debated on Monday 7 April 2014

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Discretionary Social Fund

1. What representations he has received from local authorities on the local administration of the crisis loan and community care grant elements of the discretionary social fund. (903538)

Crisis loans and community care grants were abolished in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 because they were failing to help those most in need. The Department for Work and Pensions has passed the funding to councils to help provide assistance for vulnerable people in their area, and they have held numerous discussions about this.

Manchester city council has stated that the removal of local welfare allowance funding by the Government in 2015-16 will disproportionately impact on the most deprived. It will also break the new burdens principle for local authorities. What advice would the Minister give to struggling families who rely on this vital lifeline?

Some local authorities are in fact underspending this year. Centrepoint’s research, which is often referred to, shows that many authorities are spending less than half their allocations. The research does not say that anyone has suffered at any time as a result of the current situation.

The Minister rightly points out that many councils are underspending, but I am sure he is aware that in councils such as Blackpool, this measure has driven efficiency and innovation in the provision of services to the most vulnerable. Deleting this line from the local government settlement risks ending that innovation and harming the most vulnerable in my constituency. May I ask him to think again about this change, please?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about how councils are working efficiently to look at new ways of delivering. In doing that, they are transforming services to ensure that the most vulnerable are the most protected, through the wide range of support that is available through local authorities.

Trafford Council’s “Trafford Assist” programme has been very successful in bringing together sources of support and sources of advice, but the council is worried about how it will be able to sustain the service when the funding closes at the end of the year. Will the Minister have urgent conversations with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the two Departments between them can make sure that this lifeline funding will continue?

I have met various local authorities through the consultation on this year’s settlement, and I will meet them again next year. The DWP has also spoken to local authorities. We must ensure that we do not replicate the previous, poorly targeted system. There is a whole range of support out there, and local authorities are doing very well in pulling together that support to ensure that the most vulnerable have the right care for them.

Social Rented Housing

We will deliver 165,000 new affordable homes in the three years from 2015. That will be the fastest rate of delivery of affordable homes for at least 20 years. This is on top of the 170,000 new affordable homes that we are on target to deliver by the end of this Parliament.

I asked the Minister about social rented housing, not just affordable housing. The truth is that this Government do not want to build social housing; they want to decimate it. Will he tell me why the number of social rented homes being built in London last year was roughly one tenth of the number being built in the capital in 2009?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. The last Government allowed the stock of social housing in both categories to dwindle completely. We will be the first Government to leave office at the end of a Parliament with a greater stock of affordable homes, including council houses, than there was at the start, including in the borough of Lewisham and many other boroughs around the country. Today the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have published the prospectus allowing for £300 million of extra borrowing capacity for local government to build new homes.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Crawley borough council which is building hundreds of social and affordable houses in the new Forge Wood neighbourhood? This is in stark contrast to what happened under the previous Labour administration.

I will certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Crawley council on its record. I stress yet again that this Government are committed to building new affordable homes, including social homes—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) shakes her head, but I remind her that the latest statement on housing policy from her own party says that it wants 100,000 new affordable homes, of which half would be shared ownership, 35% would be affordable and only 15% would be social rented homes. She should have a word with those on her own Front Bench.

This Government’s first decision on taking office was to cut the affordable homes programme by 60%, and they have also watered down section 106 agreements for social homes. Was it a surprise to the Minister that last year they built the lowest number of homes for social rent for more than 20 years, or was that in fact the Government’s plan?

I do not recognise those figures. This Government are committed to a very ambitious programme of building affordable homes, including social homes, with 170,000 over the course of this Parliament and 165,000 already planned for the first three years of the next Parliament. That represents the fastest rate of building in 20 years. As for section 106 agreements, the hon. Lady well knows that they are a matter for local government to negotiate at local level, subject to local market conditions.

It is a shame that the Minister does not recognise the Government’s own figures. The truth is that this Government are not building social homes: Labour councils across the country are out-building Tory and Lib Dem councils. Those Labour local authorities are being prevented from building even more social homes because one in four tenants affected by the bedroom tax is in arrears for the first time. Does he recognise that the bedroom tax is not only cruel but counter-productive? Is his party now against it? If this Government will not scrap it, we will.

There are several questions wrapped up in one there. The spare room subsidy is not a tax, although clearly there are a range of opinions on that issue. The housing benefit bill had reached £23 billion by the time Labour left office and that was an unaffordable forward commitment for any party, including the hon. Lady’s, which promised in its last manifesto to tackle overspending on housing benefit. All taxpayers would want to make sure that that money is spent wisely and not on subsidising spare bedrooms for people who do not need them.

Revenue Support Grants

3. What assessment he has made of the effect on local authorities of recent changes in the proportion of local authority funding that comes from revenue support grants. (903540)

7. What assessment he has made of the effect on local authorities of recent changes in the proportion of local authority funding that comes from revenue support grants. (903545)

Revenue support grant is provided to councils in addition to retained business rates. Authorities now keep nearly £11 billion in business rates, and a share of growth in business rates in their area. This provides a direct financial incentive to help deliver growth, in contrast to the old system.

The Minister likes to talk about these changes in terms of benefiting councils, but the reality on the ground is that many local authorities find themselves losing out. His focus on spending power per dwelling hides the fact that many places have large families living in large occupancy dwellings. Will he explain why Luton borough council is having its spending power cut by a half?

Let us look at the hon. Gentleman’s local authority directly. Average spending power per household in this country is £2,089 whereas in Luton it is £2,211. That is above the average, so I suggest to the residents of Luton that they elect a council that can run things efficiently and effectively.

Despite having higher levels of deprivation, local authorities such as my own are seeing deeper cuts than those in the well-off areas. By 2016, spending per household in the north-east will have fallen by £296 compared with the average of £233. Does the Minister not recognise that that will mean that existing inequalities between the regions will be even worse?

I dispute that directly, because the hon. Lady’s local authority’s spending power is £2,355 per household per year, which is well above the national average of £2,089, so it comes from a much higher position which recognises its local needs.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that despite cuts in central Government funding many Conservative-controlled councils, such as my own North West Leicestershire district council, have continued to freeze or indeed cut council tax?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some excellent councils across the country have even cut council tax this year, and the council tax freeze means that those areas have, under this Government over the past four years, seen a real-terms cut in council tax of about 11%.

In the north-west, Cheshire West and Chester council is working with Labour councils such as those in Knowsley, Halton and Wirral to share services in order to reduce costs and improve the services offered to local people. Is working with other councils not one way in which some councils that we have heard about today can improve their services and reduce costs?

My hon. Friend gives a very good example of how authorities can work together, and we are seeing that around the country. Another Labour authority in High Peak is sharing with Conservative-led Staffordshire Moorlands, under an arrangement set up under the Conservative administration. That is another one of many examples of authorities sharing management and sharing chief executives, and saving about £600,000 a year. That is a substantial percentage of the money for those local authorities and this is a good way forward. The transformation network and community budgets show that this can be done.

Newcastle has four times as many looked-after children as Wokingham, but because of the unfair way in which this Government have distributed the cuts, even on the Minister’s own measure of spending power per household, Newcastle will have less funding than Wokingham by the end of this Parliament. How can he tell us that that is fair?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the 10% most deprived authorities have an average spending power of £3,026 whereas the figure for the least deprived 10% is only £1,952. That demonstrates clearly that the areas with the need actually have the money they need to look after their local requirements.

Business Rates

10. What steps he is taking to help shops in England and South Basildon and East Thurrock with their business rate bills. (903548)

We are providing a £1 billion business rates support package. This includes a £1,000 discount for smaller shops, pubs and restaurants, and a 50% discount for businesses taking on long-term empty shops. It also doubles small business rate relief for another year, helping more than 500,000 small businesses.

I very much welcome the Government’s attempts to ease the plight of those shopkeepers and high street businesses, but does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that rather than promote the availability of this scheme when sending out business rate bills, Enfield’s Labour council felt it wise to spend its time issuing press releases, trying to claim credit for the Government’s very welcome policy?

I suppose that is a kind of halfway house, which is a bit of shame because about 2,000 businesses in Enfield should benefit from the scheme. Clearly, if those businesses are not aware of the possibility and do not apply, they are shelling out money unnecessarily, and the people who will suffer will be the people of Enfield.

I, too, welcome the support the Government are giving to small shopping centres such as Corringham in my constituency, which has set up an excellent traders and residents association to help develop local trade. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now that local authorities have some control over local business rates, they can be much more innovative in the way they support small town centres?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One reason why it will be possible for more money to go into small shopping centres is the excellent campaign that my hon. Friend has successfully won, after a four-year struggle, for the Visteon pensioners. The whole House is grateful to him for the work that he has done there. We estimate that within South Basildon and East Thurrock, something in the region of 1,500 businesses will benefit from this support. It is a very welcome boost, and I am glad that my hon. Friend is making the point.

I am not sure how similar Wirral is to Basildon and Enfield, but I bet that our small businesses have all suffered similarly over the past three years. Will the Secretary of State therefore go further and properly tackle the burden of business rates, as Labour would?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to say this. Labour’s policy has been described as robbing Peter to pay Paul. It has been attacked by the Institute of Directors, which says that the main corporation tax rate is paid by medium-sized businesses. As the hon. Lady is concerned about SMEs, she should not forget that the “M” stands for medium-sized businesses. The institute says that it is a dangerous move for Labour to risk our business-friendly environment in such a way.

Business rates are an important part of encouraging and maintaining shops. One problem is where town centres, such as Runcorn in my constituency, need to be reconfigured. The borough council needs extra resources to be able to do that. What are the Government doing to help local authorities reconfigure town centres and therefore to promote more shops?

As my hon. Friend the Planning Minister has reminded me, we are in the middle of a consultation to help with regard to the designation of certain planning use classes. If the hon. Gentleman wants to invite his council to make a contribution to that, it would be most welcome.

19. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how many businesses in Chelmsford will benefit from this rate reduction? Does he agree that it is a significant step forward in helping to regenerate businesses, cut unemployment by expanding the work force and encourage small businesses to thrive? (903559)

I reflect that truly the lamb will lie down with the lion, Mr Speaker.

About 800 businesses will potentially benefit from the change, which will make a significant difference to employment prospects. My right hon. Friend’s constituency, which borders on mine, is an excellent place to go to shop and this will help that process along.

There is no more innovative local authority than Manchester city council, as I am sure the Secretary of State will agree. As the MP for a city centre with many small businesses, I find that this is the single biggest issue raised with me. Business rates have gone up by more than £1,500 over this Parliament and are set to go up a further £270 this year. Would it not be much better if the Secretary of State were to freeze business rates for small businesses, as the Labour party has pledged to? That will help them stay in business, which many of them are unable to do at the moment.

It was always a matter of regret to me that Labour made rate relief very hard to claim for small businesses, but we have managed to remove some of the complex nature of the claims process. With enormous respect, I remind the hon. Lady that this package for the high street is worth more than £1 billion —and £1 billion, even in today’s money, is a lot of money.

My “block the bookies” campaign in Peterborough, in which I encouraged Peterborough city council to use article 4 to prevent the proliferation of pawnshops and licensed premises used as betting shops, has been very well received. What support will Ministers give local authorities across the country to support independent retailers and prevent the proliferation of even more unwanted betting shops?

Article 4 has been remarkably successful in both protecting local pubs and regulating unwanted additional shops on the high street. I remind my hon. Friend that in the Budget the Chancellor announced that we will review use class and issue a consultation in the not-too-distant future. I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute to that consultation.

Housing Projects (Planning)

5. If he will take steps to ensure that the views of local people are given priority in planning decisions on large-scale housing projects. (903542)

Every area of the country needs more housing, and the views of local people are crucial in determining where and how those needs should be met, not least through local plans.

We need new homes in North East Derbyshire. The issue is that local people want to have a say in where those houses go, but their opinions and the decisions of the local planning authority are being overruled by the Government’s planning inspector. This is the opposite of localism, so what is the Minister doing to make sure that local people’s concerns are not being ignored?

The opposite of localism was the situation we inherited in 2010, when only 35% of local authorities even had a published draft local plan. Now 55% of local authorities have a sound local plan and more than 75% have published a draft plan. That is the way for local people to decide locally, rather than the regional strategies that the hon. Lady supported. That is the way to ensure that local decisions inform development.

Although I understand what the Minister is saying, I, like the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), feel that where there is no local plan in place, as is the case in Wiltshire, the Government planning inspectors tend to use the old figures and the old central procedures in such a way that opportunistic developers, such as those who are trying to get 350 houses and a Tesco store outside Royal Wootton Bassett in my constituency, are now lodging applications with them that they would not otherwise be allowed to lodge. Will the Minister therefore allow the emerging core strategy to be used as part of how the inspector decides whether such applications are allowed?

In responding to concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and a range of honourable colleagues, the Government made it clear in the planning guidance that was finalised two weeks ago that when a local plan has been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for examination, it can absolutely be grounds for refusing an application if that application is substantial in the context of the plan. I hope that that is a power that authorities will be able to make use of.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that local people should be consulted when planning will touch on their lives, but there is a danger, is there not, that in view of the dreadful housing and home shortage in our country, the views coming from Government Members this afternoon suggest a degree of complacency that is quite unbelievable. When will he get rid of the nimby influences in his party and start building homes?

We are, of course, building homes at a faster rate having recovered from the most appalling recession which decimated our housing industry, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that every area needs homes, and the right way for local people to express their opinions about development is by creating neighbourhood plans and local plans. Neighbourhood plans are the best possible way for local communities to express their views, and I am delighted that all 12 neighbourhood plans that have gone to a referendum have been passed, so local support for development can be won.

18. With large-scale applications for such things as fracking, which presumably will not, by definition, be in local plans, at what point will local people have the chance to give their views, especially if there are to be large-scale lorry movements to take water in and out following the application?

(903557)

We recently published guidance setting out exactly how and when notification should be given of any proposal for fracking. Such notifications will ensure that local people know when there are proposals for fracking in an area so that they will have the opportunity to respond to the consultation.

It is no surprise that the Planning Minister is getting grief from his Back Benchers about development being approved on greenfield and green-belt land. According to the Department’s figures, the amount of brownfield land changing to residential use has declined dramatically from 70% under Labour to just 53% under his Government. Does the Minister still stand behind his stated policy of using

“every inch of previously developed land to meet…housing need”,

and if so, what is going wrong?

What is so puzzling about the hon. Lady’s question is that she cannot explain why every attempt that we have made to make it easier to convert existing property—offices, shops and agricultural buildings—into housing has been opposed by the Labour party. Labour Members cannot have it both ways: either they want to maximise the number of houses derived from existing property or they do not; but they cannot preach one thing and do the other.

The community in the Headingley and Hyde Park area of Leeds was dismayed last week when councillors disgracefully voted in favour of the development of a supermarket and housing on a playing field, which could have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure the Olympic legacy. An asset of community value application was in place, so what advice can the Minister give the community on urgently challenging the decision and stopping the development going ahead until the ACV application has been heard?

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on any particular application. Of course, I do not know precisely where that decision is, but he is always entitled to write to me or the Secretary of State to ask us to call in a decision, especially if it is more than locally controversial or challenges an important national policy area, such as the protection of playing fields.

Recyclate

6. What estimate he has made of local authority revenues from the sale of recyclate in the last year for which figures are available. (903543)

We do not hold this information centrally, but there are clear opportunities for councils to make money from selling recycled materials. The industry is now worth about £11 billion, and this income could be used to keep council tax down or to support more regular rubbish and recycling collections.

Will my hon. Friend further encourage local authorities to declare on their council tax bills how much money they make from selling their recyclate, not only to incentivise more recycling but to get local authorities to be much smarter with their waste?

My hon. Friend has rightly run a superb campaign to push this agenda, and she makes a good point. Councils can already declare on their council tax bills how much they make from selling their recyclate. Transparency can incentivise more recycling among residents when they see how their recycling is used, and encourage local authorities to seek better deals on recycling.

Assets of Community Value (Pubs)

8. If he will grant additional planning protection for pubs that are listed as assets of community value. (903546)

We have made it clear through the national planning policy framework that local planning policies and decisions should guard against the unnecessary loss of valued community facilities such as pubs.

The Minister has said that pubs are valued community assets and part of our national heritage, but even if a community has declared its support for a local pub by listing it as an asset of community value, the owners can still demolish it, or convert it to a supermarket or betting shop. What will the Minister do about that, because surely it is at odds with his localism agenda?

Various proposals are in place to give added protection to pubs, such as the scheme for assets of community value. If a pub is to change hands in a sale, that gives the community an opportunity to protect those assets. Local authorities can use the national planning policy framework to supplement their local plans, and Cambridge and the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea are doing just that.

In my constituency, the Chesham Arms was listed as an asset of community value, but the owner tried to convert it into offices, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) has described. When is the Department going to make sure that its policies do not clash in that ridiculous way to undermine what was a good policy on assets of community value?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has said that the assets of community value scheme is a good policy. Its purpose is to protect the community when there is a sale of a building of importance to the local community; it is not a planning policy to protect against change of use. Local authorities need to use the planning tools at their disposal for that, such as their own local plan or an article 4 directive, which several local authorities, including Lewisham and Camden in London, have done successfully.

Schools (Brownfield Sites)

9. What steps his Department is taking with the Department for Education to encourage the development of schools on former brownfield sites. (903547)

The national planning policy framework makes clear the importance of planning for new school development. We have put in place new development rights to make it possible to convert a range of existing buildings into schools without the necessity of applying for planning permission.

I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Commerce road in Brentford and the new ISIS housing development last week. Given that I represent a London constituency and one of the fastest growing boroughs where school places are desperately needed, will the Under-Secretary encourage the working partnership between the developer and Transport for London to try to create a new site for a primary school in Brentford?

I know that my hon. Friend has been tireless in promoting this scheme and, indeed, has managed to secure a visit from one of the Mayor of London’s deputies to discuss the possibility of transferring a site from Transport for London for school use. I will absolutely back her in that, and I am sure that she will quickly make progress.

Kettering Borough Council Budget

11. What assessment he has made of the wider applicability of the key elements of Kettering borough council's budget for 2014-15 which (a) freezes council tax, (b) cuts car parking charges and (c) maintains grants to the voluntary sector. [R] (903549)

I commend Kettering, particularly for freezing council tax for four successive years. It proves that councils can run their services efficiently and encourage growth without increasing taxes on local people. Kettering is providing an example in this for other councils to follow.

In these difficult times, when value for money is more important than ever and people are concerned about how far their household budgets have been stretched, is not Kettering borough council’s response exactly the right one— cutting waste to boost efficiency, cutting car parking charges to boost town centre trade, and freezing the council tax so that people can keep more of their hard earned money?

As I said, I think that Kettering is a splendid council. It is a place we should all pop in to see on any journey that we make, as it shows how local government should be run. May I particularly commend the council for its foresight on parking, not only reducing parking charges but introducing bays so that people can pop in and shop for a very limited sum of money? I should like to see that throughout the rest of the country.

Rent-a-Room Scheme

12. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing the amount of housing accommodation by extending the scope and level of the rent-a-room scheme. (903550)

I meet ministerial colleagues regularly to discuss the Government’s policy on housing. The rent-a-room scheme allows hard-working householders to earn an additional £4,250 a year tax free. The average yearly rent for a lodger is below this threshold at £4,168.

I wrote to my hon. Friend recently about the usefulness of the scheme, which was introduced by the previous Conservative Government, in bringing more accommodation into general use. Does he agree that it is disappointing that the threshold has been increased only once from £3,250 in 1992 to £4,250, since when rents have gone up substantially? Will he agree to have a conversation with the Treasury specifically about making it more up to date?

There is a challenge around the arguments that an increase in the threshold would raise rents for people in that area. I suggest that my hon. Friend and I meet, and perhaps together go to speak to the Treasury.

Will the Minister consider making it a legal requirement to install smoke detectors in all private rented accommodation?

A consultation finished on 28 March to discuss that and carbon monoxide detectors. We will share our deliberations on the matter shortly.

Council Tax Freeze

13. What estimate he has made of the average saving to families paying band D council tax from the Government’s council tax freeze policy. (903551)

Our council tax freeze schemes could be worth up to £1,075 for an average band D household in England over the lifetime of this Parliament.

Despite the efforts of the Conservative administration in South Ribble, who have frozen council tax again for the fourth time in five years, my constituents are still facing a rise in council tax because of Labour-controlled Lancashire county council’s decision to increase its part of the council tax by a referendum-dodging 1.99%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this rise is unjustified and that Labour politicians in county hall are the same old Labour, raising taxes for hard-working local people?

South Ribble deserves a lot of praise for freezing council tax four years on the trot. That is very welcome indeed. It is strange that a number of authorities, the majority of them Labour, have come in at 1.98% or 1.99%. In a way, that undermines their claim that local government funding is inadequate. If it was inadequate, I am confident that they would have gone for a larger increase in council tax.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a disgrace that the last authority, with a Conservative administration in county hall, is being investigated by the police? There has perhaps been a misappropriation of funds, which the police are looking into, and serious problems with the accounting at county hall. The Labour administration which has come in is having to pick up the pieces.

Very tangentially related to the question of a council tax freeze, but the intellectual ingenuity of the Secretary of State is such that I feel sure he can respond both pithily and in order.

I am grateful for that vote of confidence, Mr Speaker. That view might not always be shared throughout the House. Clearly, investigations are taking place, but that in no way undermines the enormous achievement of delivering a low council tax, improving many services and getting a lot of people off the dole during the four years that Conservatives ran that council.

Public Health

14. What recent estimate he has made of the cost to local authorities of their public health responsibilities. (903552)

English local authorities receive the public health grant, which is now £2.79 billion for 2014-15. Public health is a key part of the Government’s broader work promoting integrated health and care services, which includes the new £3.8 billion for the better care fund.

I trust the Minister is aware of a recent British Medical Journal report called “Raiding the public budget”. It reported that local authorities are diverting public health funds to meet shortfalls in other council budgets. Has the Minister discussed this with local authorities and with his colleagues in the Department of Health, and does he share the concerns of the former south-west director of public health that this is “robbing Peter to pay Paul”?

Local authorities across the country know what this is about. They have a vested interest in getting it right, and some of the examples out there are a salutary lesson to every authority that such behaviour would not be tolerated.

Youth Work

16. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent changes in local authority spending on youth work budgets. (903554)

Local government accounts for a quarter of all public spending, so it must clearly share the burden of reducing the deficit that this Government are trying to bridge. We expect councils to make sensible savings, such as cutting waste and bureaucracy, not taking the lazy option of cutting front-line services, such as youth work.

But youth services up and down the country are being destroyed, even though local authorities have a statutory duty to provide or procure youth work. So what is the Minister doing to ensure that local authorities fulfil their statutory duty?

I understand that several local authorities are being innovative in their approach to discharging that statutory duty—for instance, placing their youth service in a social enterprise, where it might be provided more efficiently, or working with volunteers. My Department has a multi-million-pound programme in place via Youth United to find many hundreds of volunteers who are needed to run many of the youth services that flourish in all our constituencies.

Private Rented Sector

We are making significant reforms to the private rented sector. These include increasing supply through the £1 billion Build to Rent fund and £10 billion guarantee scheme, and providing £6.7 million to address rogue landlords.

The regulatory regime for private sector housing will go some way to protecting tenants, but also give investors in rented housing the confidence and security to invest. Will he provide an update on the consultation process and confirm that additional protections for landlords and tenants could be included if a well streamlined form of regulation could be found?

First, may I reassure my hon. Friend that the £1 billion Build to Rent fund is over-subscribed by £2.8 billion? There is a confidence to participate in that, but it is right that the Government ensure that we protect both landlords and tenants. There is a redress scheme that will become law soon and a tenants charter, and we are really encouraging councils to go out there and pursue those rogue landlords, a small number of individuals, who are undermining this part of the sector.

Social Housing

As my hon. Friend will know, as a former Minister in this Department, the Government have one of the most ambitious programmes of delivery for affordable and social homes of any Government, and I pay tribute to his party in setting that programme in train.

I thank the Minister for that somewhat disarming answer. Will he join me in congratulating Stockport Homes on opening its 4 millionth social and affordable home for rent? Does he see that as a really stark contrast with the performance of the Labour Government in reducing the housing stock by more than 400,000?

I was delighted to join my right hon. Friend in his constituency just before Christmas to open a street of new social homes in Stockport. It is certainly the case that this Government, at the end of this Parliament in 2015, will be the first for generations to leave more social and affordable homes in stock than we found five years ago in 2010.

Self-build Projects

We support people who want to build their own homes. This includes £30 million for development finance, making more land available through the planning system, consulting on a new Right to Build, and providing £150 million to create up to 10,000 serviced plots throughout the country.

TV programmes such as Kevin McCloud’s “Grand Designs” have inspired many thousands of people to build their own homes, including me. The problem is that such people have to get their hands on a plot, which is not so easy. How many local authorities is the Minister aware of that have carried out an assessment of need for self-build in their local areas in accordance with the national policy planning framework?

I have seen my hon. Friend’s house; it is quite spectacular, and I congratulate him on it. The Government do not record which authorities have come forward, but the National Self Build Association monitors which authorities have looked at self-build. There are 60 councils at this moment in time and there are lots more considering how to put self-build into their draft plans.

The hon. Gentleman has won ministerial plaudits for his talent and conscientiousness as a builder, and I am sure he will be deeply obliged to the Minister.

Community Pubs

We are providing £200,000 of funding to help communities diversify and own their pubs through Pub is the Hub and the Plunkett Foundation, both of which do fantastic work. The Right to Bid also provides protection for pubs as community assets. We have doubled the small business rate relief until 2015, scrapped the previous Government’s beer and alcohol duty escalators and cider duty proposal, and reduced beer duty in successive Budgets for the first time.

Will the Minister join me in thanking Arkell’s Brewery for fully passing on the beer duty cuts to landlords and customers, helping to protect the 52 pubs and 1,412 jobs in my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Across the industry, that duty cut has been passed on to the consumer, and that is a really good thing for the industry to do. I encourage all people to visit their good local pubs and enjoy the benefits.

Topical Questions

On Friday I instructed inspectors to launch an investigation into the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. Local government has a proud record of probity, scrutiny and accountability, and that is a reputation worth protecting. There are allegations of mismanagement of taxpayer-funded resources, divisive community politics, and systematic undermining of vital checks and balances. Serious questions have been asked. Its residents deserve frank and honest answers, and I am determined to get to the truth.

From 2015, there will be no support from Government to local councils to fund their welfare assistance schemes. What advice would the Secretary of State offer to struggling families, women fleeing domestic violence, and homeless young people, who depend on this lifeline?

This fund, which is currently under-claimed, was there to give local authorities time to adjust in making the necessary savings. It is up to local authorities to fund the scheme, and most will do so excellently. As the economy improves as people find jobs, the savings will not only be justified but easy to fulfil.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that Bournemouth has been severely affected by river flooding and sea storms. Will he ensure that there are no delays in the funding that has been promised so that new flood defences can be in place before next winter? (903530)

The Environment Agency, with the help of the Army, now has a full set of flood defences that need attention. If my hon. Friend has a particular problem with regard to funding, I will happily meet him after questions.

On Tower Hamlets, it is clearly in the public interest to establish the facts, so anyone who has any information should bring it forward, and of course the audit must be open and transparent to command public confidence.

It is reported in The Guardian that this week the Prime Minister intends to announce a clampdown on fixed-odds betting terminals, with a range of regulatory and planning powers to curb the clustering of betting shops. What planning changes is the Secretary of State considering to protect communities from too many betting shops and too many FOBTs?

I am most grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support with regard to Tower Hamlets. He is absolutely right: this has to be completely in the open. At a reception relating to flooding this lunchtime, I was approached by someone who had dealings with Tower Hamlets and is indeed handing over information. It is important that we get to the bottom of this.

With regard to fixed-odds terminals, it was announced in the Budget that we would be carrying out a review of use class, and we are about to start the consultation. The right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in planning, is most welcome to make a contribution to that.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but it sounds to me as though, once again, No. 10 has taken over responsibility for his policy. He says that there will be a consultation, but how open will it be? I ask because when we proposed that communities should be given more powers over fixed-odds betting terminals and the proliferation of betting shops, the Planning Minister, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), said he was against that, telling the House that

“we need no more planning changes to enable councils to do what they want to do to protect their local communities.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 412.]

Does the Planning Minister still stand by that statement?

The Planning Minister is absolutely right. [Interruption.] I beg your pardon—may I be allowed to reply? Article 4 is pretty adequate, but we have noticed that local authorities seem reluctant to use it. Why should electors suffer because of the inactivity of their local councils? We are looking most carefully at this, and it was in the Budget. The right hon. Gentleman was there—I saw him—and he should have paid attention to what the Chancellor said.

T4. A number of houses in my constituency were built by a small building company where serious breaches of building regulations have recently been discovered. This shoddy building work was signed off by independent building control inspectors over whom my local authority appears to have no influence. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that local authorities are given powers to force independent building control inspectors to ensure that there is proper compliance with building regulations? (903531)

Approved building inspectors do, of course, have that duty to inspect buildings as they are constructed, often through spot checks. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific allegation, I suggest that he write to me so that my officials can look at it and advise him on the course of action that may be available.

T2. Nine in 10 disabled people are cutting back on household bills in order to pay the bedroom tax, and many are now falling into rent arrears. If the Secretary of State were in their position, would he fall into debt or cut back on heating or even eating? (903529)

There is no evidence of any increase in arrears. A number of things can be considered, including taking in a lodger, obtaining a job and getting help from local authorities, which have, by and large, dealt with the issue in a reasonable way. The Labour party lumbered the taxpayer with an enormous bill as far as the growth in housing benefit was concerned, and it is entirely wrong to pretend that it would not have introduced similar constraints.

T5. Will the Secretary of State look at his policy to give powers to local authorities to help increase the number of family-owned small businesses and reduce the number of nationally owned betting shops and payday lenders in our town centres? (903532)

This question gives me an opportunity to clarify, for the sake of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), what the Budget made clear, which is that the Government are going to consult on the creation of a single retail use class in town centres that will not include betting shops or payday lenders. If the consultation is followed through, it will diminish the ability to convert units into betting shops or premises for payday lenders. That would, I hope, produce the kind of effect for which my hon. Friend is looking.

T6. Several weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State if he was prepared to backdate the changes to the Bellwin scheme, to ensure that those who suffered flooding in the north in 2012 and 2013 are provided with the same support as those affected by flooding in the south this winter. Is he prepared to make those changes and end that double standard, or is there still no support for those in the north? (903533)

Those in the north affected by the tidal surge and other flooding that occurred this winter will, of course, receive exactly the same treatment as those in the south.

T8. Work recently started on a new crematorium in my constituency that was turned down by the local council but approved by the Government inspector. Is it not time to look again at when inspectors should be allowed to overturn local decisions and make it the exception rather than the rule? (903535)

My hon. Friend has been a vocal advocate for his constituents on particular applications in his area. As a result, we have clarified in recent planning guidance the time that a plan can be deemed to be sufficiently advanced but not yet sound, in order to enable a local authority to make a decision to refuse an application even if it does not have a sound plan. We believe that that is a step forward that gives councils the ability to make those decisions in such circumstances.

T7. I recently visited Crownhill fire station and members of its watch would like a Minister to answer a question about the tapering arrangements for their pension scheme. One firefighter has served since he was 18 years old. He is now 39 and will miss out because the scheme starts for those aged 40, so he will have to work for 42 years rather than 30 years. The watch want to know whether any consideration has been given to the scheme in operation for the police, which takes into account length of service rather than age. (903534)

My understanding is that, at the time that arrangement was made with the police, the Fire Brigades Union did not go down that road. More firefighters are protected by the scheme we have put in place than any other scheme in the public sector, and conversations with the FBU remain ongoing.

T9. This winter, my constituents struggled not only with the destruction of river flooding, but with the revolting effects of foul-water flooding and inadequate drainage. We have a severe housing shortage, so it is right that we should be building houses, but this must not make the situation any worse. What steps is the Minister taking to strengthen consultation with water companies during the planning process, and will he meet me and local representatives to discuss the matter? (903536)

I am sure everybody in the House can imagine just how horrible it must be for their own home to be affected by their drains backing up. Of course it is important that every local authority consults, as they are statutorily required to do, with water companies when they draw up their local plans. I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and any of her constituents to discuss any particular case.

The welcome written statement released today says Ministers “have long been concerned” about Tower Hamlets. Will the Secretary of State agree that Tower Hamlets was an improving and in many ways well-run council between 1994 and 2010, and confirm that the period under inspection is from 2010 and therefore that the concern of Ministers and others is a relatively recent phenomenon?

There have been some worries about the running of the council; the hon. Gentleman has raised them with me privately. Now that the investigation has started, it must be on the basis that everyone is innocent until the allegations are proved, so it is probably not sensible for me or others to speculate about the strength and nature of the claims until we receive the report at the end of June.

A few years ago, Essex county council grabbed highways maintenance from Colchester borough council. Today, we have potholed streets and broken pavements, and the street lights are turned off at midnight. Will the Secretary of State support me in getting highway powers restored to Colchester borough council?

It is always a pleasure to visit Colchester, and it is a double pleasure to visit my hon. Friend. I am sorry that the lights are being turned out in Colchester. If we talk together with our friends at the county council, I am sure that some kind of devolution could take place.

On Tower Hamlets, local residents from all communities are deeply concerned that the actions of those under investigation do not damage the reputation of the area and its diverse communities, and they all want transparency and accountability in the use of public funds. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that swift action will be taken to restore public confidence, and will he explain what led him to decide to bring in investigators and refer files to the police?

I certainly listened very carefully to the views of the two Members of Parliament in Tower Hamlets with regard to what has been going on. A series of dossiers from whistleblowers made me decide that the allegations were so serious that they needed proper investigation. At the end of that process—I notice that the mayor has welcomed this investigation— I hope that we can move on constructively. Nevertheless, we cannot leave such allegations just hanging in the air.

In a written answer, my right hon. Friend stated that 60 local authorities had used the powers available to them under the Localism Act 2011 and granted business rate relief last year. Those authorities included Birmingham city council, which granted relief of £438,000, but none of the four local authorities in the black country—just half a mile away—have used the powers. What can the Minister do to encourage local authorities to use the powers available to them to encourage local businesses?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and in directly asking the question she has done a good job in highlighting this issue to such authorities. All local authorities have the power to do this: on top of the £1 billion business rate package put forward in the autumn statement and confirmed in the Budget, it is a good opportunity for local authorities to support local business and to develop local business growth, particularly around high streets and town centres.

If a council gave planning permission for 2,600 homes on sites with a £10 billion development value and not one was an additional home for social rent, while selling off council homes on the open market when they became vacant, with more than 10,000 families in housing need in the borough, would that worry the Secretary of State?

I would never presume to comment on a particular application, or the measures contained in a particular application, that a directly elected local council has seen fit to approve.

Last week, Malvern Hills district council approved planning for 67 homes adjacent to my constituency, despite objections from me, from Wyre Forest district council, from Stourport town council and from Astley and Dunley parish council. Those homes have a significant impact on resources for Stourport-on-Severn and Wyre Forest, yet section 106 payments and council tax will be going to Malvern Hills district council. Does the Minister share the frustration of Stourport residents? What steps is he taking to ensure that residents are properly heard when decisions are made that have asymmetric cross-border implications?

I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, with any other representatives he would like to bring.

Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that, despite North Lincolnshire Homes urging it to change its policy better to support tenants in difficulty, Conservative North Lincolnshire council has spent only 17% of its discretionary housing payments? Consequently, local people who have been hit by the Government’s bedroom tax and are unable to move continue to suffer.

Right across the piece, local authorities vary in how much they have used discretionary housing payments. I am surprised to see how underspent that particular budget item has been under both Labour councils and some Conservative councils.

The Minister said earlier that local plans and examinations can be considered as part of any appeal. Constituencies such as mine, however, are not quite at that stage. My council and local neighbourhood forum are still developing their plans, but they are seeing developers use this interim period to get permission on important strategic sites. What assurances can he give my constituents, who have put a considerable number of hours into this work, that their efforts will not be in vain and that they will not see important sites swallowed up on appeal?

I know that my hon. Friend’s authority is working to deliver a very ambitious plan, which takes time and needs to be underpinned by the necessary evidence. No application should be granted if it is in conflict with the sustainability policies in the national planning policy framework. Even in the absence of a local plan, there are all the protections of the national planning policy framework on transport, environment and other sustainability issues to ensure that unsustainable development is not allowed.