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Topical Questions

Volume 583: debated on Monday 30 June 2014

I wish to make a short statement about the London borough of Tower Hamlets. In April, I instructed inspectors to launch an investigation into the mayoral administration of Tower Hamlets and to report by the end of June, or such later date as I agreed. The investigators, PricewaterhouseCoopers, have informed me that the council has considerably delayed the investigation by delaying the provision of key information or by simply not providing it at all. This is not acceptable. I am consequently extending the period for PwC to report. The costs will be met by the council. Whether the council likes it or not, this investigation will be thorough and comprehensive. I will update the House in due course.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the situation that he has set out.

I invite the Secretary of State to join Opposition Members in condemning companies, such as Wonga, that are sending people fake solicitors’ letters. What is he doing to ensure that no local authority is using debt collection agencies that are doing the same?

I do condemn that; it is an outrageous idea that people should be frightened in this way. I cannot imagine local authorities, which by and large always behave responsibly, doing something similar, but I will certainly make investigations to ensure that it does not happen.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree with me about the importance of co-ordinated responses? This year in Gloucestershire—including in my constituency—we had significant troubles with flooding and damage to roads, which necessitated responses from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport. May I ask him to make sure that his Department helps to co-ordinate that work to best support local authorities and the people affected by those difficulties? (904544)

I am pleased to report to the House that we were so impressed by what those in Gloucestershire did that we invited them to appear before the co-ordinating committee. There were many fine examples of working with all the various agencies of the state for the betterment of residents.

Last year, the Secretary of State told the “Today” programme that he was going to stop CCTV being used around schools to prevent illegal and dangerous parking. He said:

“No, they can’t use a camera…I think it’s kind of the easy answer…to say ‘it’s all to protect the children’”.

What on earth led the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that protecting the safety of our children was a bad idea?

There seems to be a bit of a delay; that was some time ago. We consulted, we listened to the consultation and where it is not possible to have an enforcement officer present at the school, we have no objection at all to cameras being used. What we have done is to stop councils going out and patrolling the streets with cameras in order to make money, rather than to protect children. I think we have passed the test of protecting children; what we have to do is to ensure that we pass the test of not persecuting the motorist.

As usual, there was a lot of bluster there. The fact is that the Secretary of State wanted to ban the use of cameras outside schools, but was forced to change his mind. He knew it was unworkable because the response to the consultation said:

“Schools…were opposed to a camera ban.”

Schools also said that cameras had a useful deterrent effect, that where they were not used dangerous parking was reported to increase and that parking was a significant safety issue. After two U-turns in a week, when is the Secretary of State going to realise that gimmicks in search of a headline are no substitute for policy that can actually be implemented?

The House always enjoys the right hon. Gentleman’s Lady Bracknell impersonation. He is saying that I am guilty of consulting on this issue, listening to the consultation and implementing what it wanted, but that seems to me to be a fairly reasonable way for a democrat to behave.

T5. Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the incoming Labour administration of Crawley borough council, which with a complete lack of vision and aspiration has cancelled the town centre regeneration project? Will he say what the Government are doing to help regenerate our high streets and municipal centres? (904547)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That decision is disappointing. A good town centre shows vitality and is the heartbeat of a community; it is good for the local authority, as well, as there are successful businesses paying business rates, something that local authorities should be keen on. Cheaper car parking to get more footfall is one way of achieving that. The Government have brought in the biggest discounted package in business rates for a generation—the £1 billion package that the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement—as well as town teams and the Portas pilots. Where Labour has not tried to stop them developing, as it has in Crawley, many people can now celebrate having good town centres through the Great British high streets campaign.

T3. May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the recent report on child sexual abuse by the all-party group on child protection? That report found that the information-sharing guidelines issued by the Department in 2009 are now out of step with the “Working Together” information from the Department for Education. Given that sharing of information is usually one of the things that has gone wrong when children die or are seriously injured, will he commit to reviewing the guidelines now, in line with the recommendations? (904545)

The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point. In this area, and also with Troubled Families programme and the better care fund, the ability to share information has bedevilled everything. I know that this issue is a high priority for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.

T6. What action can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that local authorities are able to move Travellers who are illegally pitched on to authorised sites in hours or days, and not weeks, as it is taking in south Gloucestershire? (904548)

As the House will know, we have made a number of changes, particularly on enforcement, on stopping duplication and on ensuring that enforcement action can be taken on caravans. Local authorities and the police have a lot of powers, but they have to act promptly. It is certainly my experience that, if action is taken promptly, the law is adequate.

T7. What is the Secretary of State going to do about providing the housing that is needed for people desperate to get on the housing ladder through either buying themselves a house or renting one? Is he aware that the public policy institute of the London School of Economics produced a report recently that said that the current situation was madness and that using 2.5% to 5% of the green belt could solve the housing shortage? (904549)

This Government are still picking up the pieces left by the previous Administration when it comes to housing. Whether it is by building affordable housing—and some 200,000 such houses have been delivered to date; through the new spend of some £23 billion, public and private, to deliver 165,000 houses; by building twice as many council houses as the hon. Gentleman’s Government did in 13 years; or, to pick up his point about brownfield and the green belt, through our £400 million package to promote the building of some 200,000 houses on brownfield land, this Government are responding to the needs of the people of this country.

T8. Stratford-on-Avon district council is about to submit its core strategy to the Planning Inspectorate for approval. Will the Minister confirm that, after submission but before adoption, the strategy will be given weight in planning decisions and provide protection for my constituents, while delivering much-needed housing? (904550)

I congratulate Stratford-on-Avon district council on reaching that important point and thank my hon. Friend for everything that he has done to help it get there. We recently clarified in guidance, not least as a result of his interventions and advice, that once a plan has been submitted to the inspectorate for examination, it can carry material weight in any decision about planning applications, even before it has formally been found to be sound.

T9. Story Homes has applied for planning permission to build 151 houses on a greenfield site outside the boundary of Lanchester village in my constituency. It is attempting to use the gap before the County Durham plan is approved to force the application through. The Minister kindly agreed to meet a Government Member and his local authority on this very issue. Will he extend the same courtesy to me? (904552)

Businesses on Worcester’s High street were outraged when, shortly after the floods, Labour hiked the parking charges, harming local businesses. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the new Conservative administration on Worcester city council on reversing those hikes as soon as it took power?

Can the little Liberal answer the questions that were asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), which he failed to do earlier? While he is running around the country trying to reinforce integration, there are people in charge of free schools—Christian and Muslim fundamentalists—who are trying to push their communities in the opposite direction. While I am at it, can I welcome him to the Dispatch Box? It just goes to show where unmitigated grovelling can get people.

It is right that an investigation takes place into what happened in Birmingham. However, whatever the governing structures and whatever the ethos of the school, some of the things that were said there were fundamentally wrong. Surely everyone in the House would agree with that.

Not only has Labour-run Northumberland county council not frozen its council tax; it has cancelled its monthly full council meetings on the premise of saving money. We know that it is to avoid protest about the teenage transport tax and the lack of a local plan. Does the Secretary of State agree that democracy, debate and scrutiny are key pillars of a council that should not be scrapped?

I think those Labour councillors will find that they can run but cannot hide from the electorate. Part of the process of being a local councillor is being accountable to the electorate. They should just stop hiding and face the facts.

Does the Secretary of State agree with his housing Minister, who said on “Panorama” last week that it is “perfectly legitimate” for landlords not to give tenancies to people who are claiming benefits?

May I clarify what I said? It is not appropriate for a landlord to remove somebody just because they are on housing benefit, but an individual can make a commercial choice about who they want to live in their accommodation. It seems that the Labour party, in its forthcoming manifesto, will prescribe who can live in an individual’s house. A private investor who has purchased a house should have the opportunity to choose who lives in that house.

At 2 o’clock this afternoon, Essex county council issued a statement saying that its audit committee will take no further action against Lord Hanningfield, the council’s former leader who spent £450,000 using the council’s credit card. Does the Secretary of State agree that there should be an independent inquiry into who knew what and when?

I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. Lord Hanningfield brought great shame on local government and the House of Lords. He should do what he can to repay the money.

I have not heard anything further from the authority since I met the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues some weeks ago.

The planning Minister is well aware of the problems in North East Lincolnshire council with delays in producing a local plan, and last week it lost yet another appeal, imposing unwanted development on the village of Humberston. Will the Minister meet me and representatives from the council to see what can be done to overcome my constituents’ concerns?

Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend again. He is right to say that North East Lincolnshire council is in the process of failing its local residents again and again in producing a plan, unlike North Lincolnshire, which has done so in very good time.

One stated objective of the Homes and Communities Agency’s programme for the allocation of economic assets is to

“align the assets with local economic ambitions and thereby to create more effective local economic development strategies”.

However, for Hythe marine park in New Forest East, the HCA seems minded to appoint a preferred bidder on the basis of just a moderately higher bid, without regard to those other important elements. Will the Minister comment on the need for the HCA to follow its own guidelines when appointing preferred bidders for something that will have such a major impact throughout the constituency?

I cannot wait to hear the reply, but I wonder whether we ought to have an Adjournment debate on the matter.

I have had the opportunity to visit HCA departments around the country, and there is some tremendous work delivering the houses that are needed. I take the point that my hon. Friend has raised. I will see the chief executive of the HCA this afternoon, so I will take a note with me.

I am in a generous mood so I will call Mr Davies and then I will give the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) a chance to do better the second time round.

The people of Micklethwaite in my constituency are grateful to the Secretary of State for twice rejecting an inappropriate planning development there. Unfortunately, the Labour council has now approved a very similar development, with grave concerns from local residents about the planning process, and what appeared to be a whipped vote. Will the Secretary of State look into that to see whether he can intervene, and whether any rules can be brought in to stop repeat applications for the same site?

There are already rules that enable councils to resist applications that are very similar to ones that have been rejected, and it is only a shame that my hon. Friend’s local authority did not see fit to explore what possibilities are open to it.

Mr Speaker, I know my place; regrettably, you appear to know it too.

Will the Secretary of State rule out levying business rates on farmland—as some have suggested—because that will hit farmers and will also hike the price of food for hard-working families?

And very good it was too. Let me be absolutely clear: we have no plans to impose taxation on agriculture by extending the rating system to agricultural land. We rule that out absolutely.