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Topical Questions

Volume 579: debated on Monday 7 April 2014

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.