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Easter Recess (Department's Work)

Volume 579: debated on Monday 28 April 2014

I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose for recess.

Supporting communities recover from the floods

One of our continued priorities is to ensure that those affected by flooding are given the help and support they need to help rebuild their lives.

On 11 April, my Department announced that the Government will further extend the council tax discount to all flood-hit households for as long as they are unable to return to their homes. This extends a commitment we made in February 2014 to fund a three-month council tax discount. This is expected to amount to £6 million of support, £2 million more than was originally set aside.

To date 48 local authorities have reported that they have offered the discounts to affected residents with a further 63 actively planning to do so. This is part of wider efforts that are ensuring Government Departments, local authorities and agencies are working together to do everything they can to help communities recover from the extreme weather during winter 2013 to 2014.

Protecting tenants and leaseholders

All tenants and leaseholders have a right to fair and transparent treatment from their letting agent and we are determined to secure a better deal for tenants in the private rented sector without introducing excessive red tape that would push up rents and reduce choice.

On 15 April, my Department announced three approved “redress schemes” that all letting and property management agents will be required to join later this year. They will ensure tenants and leaseholders have a straightforward option to hold their agents to account. The Property Ombudsman, Ombudsman Services Property and the Property Redress Scheme will offer independent investigation of complaints about hidden fees or poor service. Where a complaint is upheld, tenants and leaseholders could receive compensation.

On 26 April, my Department outlined how the new powers to protect the rights of park home owners and stamp out unscrupulous site owners have been brought into force.

Helping the most vulnerable people into work

The Government are determined to test different ways of delivering support to the most disadvantaged people who want to work, but lack the basic maths, English and other skills that are vital when applying for jobs.

On 16 April, my Department, together with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, announced support for STRIVE (Skills, Training, Innovation and Employment), a scheme that will give the most vulnerable homeless people the right skills and training to get into work. STRIVE, run by homelessness charities Crisis and St Mungo’s Broadway, will work alongside Jobcentre Plus to identify those who would benefit most from the scheme.

Reforming public sector pensions

On 24 April, the Fire Brigades Union called further industrial action over May bank holiday weekend. The Government have tried and tested contingency arrangement in place.

The Government have met with the FBU on many occasions, most recently during April, and have remained in ongoing communication to find a solution. The Fire Minister wrote to the FBU before action was called saying proposals are still under consideration and stressed the importance of maintaining an open dialogue on this and other matters. In choosing to take its members out on unnecessary strike action, the FBU Executive Council has signalled clearly that it has no desire to progress the proposals we were considering and has effectively drawn that discussion to a close. This can only further damage firefighters’ standing with the public.

The deal on the table gives firefighters one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector, and the proposals protect the earned rights of a higher proportion of members than any other public sector scheme. Nearly half will see no change and even firefighters who are not protected will see no change until 2015. Under the new scheme, a firefighter who earns £29,000 will still be able to retire after a full career aged 60, get a £19,000 a year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension. An equivalent private pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.

The focus will now be on implementing the proposed final agreement in time to take effect from 1 April 2015.

Defending the independent free press

The coalition agreement stated the coalition Government’s clear intention to protect the independent free press by tackling unfair competition from local authority newspapers. Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public, and municipal state-produced newspapers suppress that. “Town Hall Pravdas” not only waste taxpayers’ money unnecessarily, they undermine free speech. The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 contains measures to ensure compliance with the provision of the existing local government publicity code.

On 17 April, formal letters were issued to five London boroughs, triggering the first legal steps we can now take to require compliance with the publicity code for local authorities. The action is being taken against the municipal newspapers of Greenwich Time, Hackney Today, the Newham mag, Waltham Forest News and (“Tower Hamlets”) East End Life.

These councils were the ones most clearly in breach of the code, given their weekly or fortnightly publication of hard-copy, delivered, free municipal newspapers. We are prepared to take further action against any council that clearly breaches the code—whatever the political colour.

Empowering people to improve local neighbourhoods

Community budgets are a way for local public service providers to work together to meet local needs. Community budgets allow providers of public services to share budgets, improving outcomes for local people and reducing duplication and waste.

On 14 April, my Department announced a further 123 communities will take control of neighbourhood schemes to boost employment, combat crime and improve the health of residents through the “Our Place” programme. The announcement signals a major expansion in the programme which is a neighbourhood level way of working that brings together councillors, public servants, voluntary and community organisations and local residents —to tackle local issues and improve the way an area works.

Supporting vibrant high streets

This Government are taking action to support healthy and vibrant local high streets. We are undertaking a series of measures designed to get empty and redundant buildings back into productive use and make it easier for valued town centre businesses like shops, banks and cafes to open new premises, while ensuring that councils have powers to tackle the harm to local amenity caused by a concentration of particular uses.

In the March 2014 Budget, the Government announced their intention to create a new wide “retail” use class, excluding betting shops and payday lenders. In the light of the localised concern that have been expressed about the clustering of betting shops on some high streets, we propose that any changes to the new use class for betting shops and payday lenders will require planning permission. A consultation paper on the broader planning use class reforms will be published in due course.

On 24 April, a new advisory board met together for the first time to look at how digital technology can help create the sustainable and thriving high streets of the future. John Walden, chief executive of Home Retail Group, will be the chairman of this new Digital High Streets Advisory Board. The group will work with the Government and others with an interest in revitalising UK high streets and report to the future high streets forum.

Backing locally led housing development

There is genuine enthusiasm and ambition for housing growth in communities across the country, but we need to ensure new locally-led developments are well-designed, and bring together high-quality homes, jobs, and green spaces in communities where people want to live raise their children. Over the Easter recess, we published three documents:

Large sites infrastructure prospectus—This £1 billion fund provides a programme of support over a six-year period designed to address these barriers and help accelerate and unlock housing developments of at least 1,500 housing units that have slowed down or stalled completely.

Local Growth Fund (Housing Infrastructure) prospectus—This sets out the detail on how to access the £50 million part of the Local Growth Fund in 2015-16. It is designed to help speed up and restart housing developments between 250 and 1,499 units that have slowed down or stalled.

Locally led garden cities prospectus—This invites local authorities to put forward their ideas for how they wish to develop garden cities, how they wish to make use of the existing central Government funding and support, and what other freedoms, flexibilities and support they need to make ambitious new garden cities a reality. As an indication we would expect developments to be at or above the 15,000 homes level.

My Department has also advertised for the position of chairman of the new Ebbsfleet Urban Development Corporation which will take forward the new garden settlement in that locality.

Delivering infrastructure in Enterprise Zones

In a further boost to infrastructure, on 22 April, I announced £120 million infrastructure investment plan to bring businesses and jobs to the Sheffield area. The Sheffield Enterprise Zone will turn £25 million of Government funding into £94 million more of private sector investment so they can lay down the infrastructure needed for its premier sites at Markham Vale and Rotherham to attract new businesses to the area.

Regenerating urban estates

The Government are keen to support the regeneration of England’s most run-down estates, and in turn, delivering thousands of new homes. Some £150 million was set aside in this year’s Budget can be used to kick-start and accelerate the regeneration of such deprived housing estates.

Despite record numbers of people living in London by 2021, the inner boroughs will still contain 1.7 million fewer people than they did in 1939. A new research study by estate agents Savills indicates that rediscovering just half of this former housing capacity would supply the whole of London’s projected housing needs for the next 17 years.

In due course, the study will consider how to rebuild estates to deliver more homes and commercial space on the same amount of land. The homes would be a combination of five to six storey homes and blocks of flats. This approach can also increase the value of the land, attracting more private investment which, over 10 years, could lead to several hundred thousand new homes in London. Later this year, the comprehensive study will consider the best way to get started, while fully involving local communities in the design and planning process, and identify the barriers that may need to be overcome.

Remembering our brave heroes

An entire generation of men fought for Britain’s freedom in the first world war. For hundreds of those men their bravery was of such an exceptional nature they were bestowed with the highest military award, the Victoria Cross. As these men were honoured then for their extreme bravery on the battlefields, they should be honoured still.

On 24 April, I announced over £100,000 to the Victoria Cross Trust for a project to ensure that the gravestones and final resting places of our brave solders are venerated memorials where communities can pay their respects and learn about their local heroes.

The project aims to restore all the graves in need of repair. Headstones will be cleaned or replaced so that the final resting place of those who received the highest military award for valour are a truly fitting tribute to their sacrifice. The campaign is being supported by The Sun newspaper and in addition to the £100,000 being provided by the Department, we will also match any money raised by readers’ donations up to a maximum of £200,000.

Last year my Department announced a national campaign of commemorative paving stones to be laid in the place of birth of first world war Victoria Cross recipients across the country so that communities will have a permanent memorial of their local heroes.

Learning the lessons from genocide

We have a tradition in the UK of remembrance. While we are quite rightly marking the centenary this year of the start of the first world war, we should also commemorate and remember acts of genocide in more recent times.

The Srebrenica genocide on 1995 was the worst attack on citizens suffered anywhere in Europe since 1945. On 11 April, the Government announced it will fund 750 young Britons to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina to learn lessons from the 1990s Bosnian war and, on their return to the United Kingdom, pledge an action towards rejecting hatred and intolerance at home. On 12 April, I also addressed Kwibuka20, an event in Birmingham remembering the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Genocide requires constant vigilance; it requires prompt action at the first sign of hatred. Sparks of intolerance can only exist at the will of our own complacency.

Celebrating England's local tradition and identities

On 24 April, my Department announced that the proud history, unique culture, and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities. The decision to acknowledge the unique identity of the Cornish now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For the first time the Government have recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish, building on the existing recognition given to the Cornish language.

England’s traditional counties date back over a thousand years of English history, but many of the counties have been sidelined by Whitehall and municipal bureaucrats in recent decades, including the municipal restructuring by Edward Heath’s Government in 1972. By contrast, this Government are championing local communities continuing to cherish and celebrate such traditional ties and community spirit.

To mark St George’s day, on 23 April, my Department announced a new initiative to support the “tapestry” of traditional English counties, including getting rid of a Whitehall ban on the names of traditional counties being displayed on street and road signs. We have also published a new online interactive map of England’s county boundaries.

Planning guidance has been changed to allow for councils to put up boundary signs marking traditional English counties—for example, the likes of Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Westmorland and Middlesex. In addition, the Government are shortly to propose changes to highways regulations to allow traditional county names to appear on boundary road signs. The current rules prevent unitary councils like Blackpool from having a road sign saying “Lancashire”, or Poole saying “Dorset”—since they confusingly are not considered to be part of an “administrative county”.

No council is being forced to make any change or put up unnecessary street clutter, but the intention is to free councils from Whitehall red tape, support local tourism and to cherish local ties and traditions. Local communities will be able to lobby their councils for the restoration of traditional boundary signs, including campaigns by public subscription.

This is part of a series of steps to champion England’s national identities; the Government have previously changed Whitehall rules to allow local and county flags to be flown without planning permission, and supported the Flag Institute in encouraging a new wave of county and community flags to be designed and flown by local communities.

I am placing in the Library copies of the press notices and documents associated with these announcements.