Skip to main content

Communities and Local Government

Volume 585: debated on Monday 8 September 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fire Service Pensions

Since taking office I have had several meetings with the Fire Brigades Union, the Retained Firefighters Union, the Fire Officers Association and the women’s committee of the FBU. Further meetings are in the diary. It is only through such discussions that we will bring the dispute to an end.

I welcome the Minister to her post, although I notice that she failed to answer the question—that is a great start to her ministerial career.

The Minister has made positive comments during her visits to fire stations throughout the country. The Government commissioned the Williams review on the impact of medical retirements for firefighters aged between 50 and 60, and especially the impact on women. Do the Government accept the need for minimum fitness standards?

There need to be minimum fitness standards. That is a priority for me, and it is key to bringing the dispute to an end, so we need to consider carefully how firefighters who wish to maintain operational roles can be appropriately supported to maintain their fitness standards. I have asked the chief fire and rescue adviser to chair a working group to examine these issues in detail, and I expect that group to meet later this month. I also requested, and have had, a meeting with the FBU women’s committee regarding its concerns about fitness.

As the number of fires has gone down, firefighters’ roles have changed. For example, Cheshire fire and rescue works with the Prince’s Trust to support young people into work, and it is fitting fire alarms in old people’s homes and working to reduce antisocial behaviour. Is it not right that as the role of firefighters expands, we look at their terms and conditions to ensure that there are the right skills in fire services so that they can move forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some of the best ideas for developing roles in the fire service have come from firefighters themselves, and they are at the head of the queue of people who want to remove the obstacles to change and reform. I am pleased that the review has already received a very large number of replies to the consultation, and some great ideas have emerged from that.

I welcome the Minister to her position. I hope that she will bring a bit of common sense and rationality to this long dispute over pensions, but does she not agree that morale is very low among all those working in fire and rescue services across the country, not just because of pensions, but because of the age issue that has already been mentioned and the reductions in numbers in front-line fire services? We have to recognise that there is support for these men and women across the country.

I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome. I take issue with her claim that morale is low. I have made going out and seeing firefighters and chiefs a priority in the short time I have been in office—in fact, just this weekend, I was up with the west midlands service. I asked them about morale and was told that morale is good. Clearly, everyone will benefit from the dispute being brought to a close, but actually morale is good and we need to keep it good, to keep firefighters engaged with the reforms the service needs.

I welcome the Minister to her place and thank her for visiting my constituency on Saturday. We had what I think were constructive discussions with local firefighters, as well as celebrating the launch of the Haden Cross community fire station. Does she agree that the new fire station is a splendid example of a station that will serve the people of Halesowen and Rowley Regis and allow firefighters to do an effective job for my community?

I was pleased to be part of that wonderful community event. It is a fantastic new facility, not just supplying state-of-the-art services to the fire and rescue services and as a base for other blue light services, but available for use by the local community as well. I had a wonderful day and I look forward very much to going back and doing more with that fire service.

Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House echoes your sentiments about our colleague, Jim Dobbin.

I too welcome the Minister to her post. The Government’s dispute with firefighters has now been ongoing for 1,091 days and there have been 31 strikes. Can she explain why her predecessor and colleague failed to bring the dispute to an end and what she will now do differently?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome. Resolving the dispute is a key priority for the Government. I have some advantages that my predecessor did not have: when he entered office, we did not have the Williams report, the Knight review and other such reports that enable me and others to make evidence-based judgments. Everyone wants the dispute to be resolved. We are now in a position to have constructive talks, and we have been doing so with the FBU; and we have further meetings in the diary—we meet next after the trades union conference. I am optimistic that the dispute will be resolved soon.

Private Rented Sector

We will soon publish a model tenancy agreement to encourage longer tenancies. Our £1 billion Build to Rent fund will deliver up to 10,000 new homes for private rent, and our housing guarantee schemes will attract long-term investors into the market, which in itself will increase choice, quality and stability for renters.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but the fact remains that we are building fewer than half the homes we need in this country, and the combination of that and rising private sector rents is putting home ownership out of reach for many families. Is the Minister content that under his Government the dream of home ownership will be out of reach of millions of families in this country?

I am slightly surprised by the hon. Lady’s question, given that under the previous Administration the number of affordable rental homes fell by 420,000 and under this Government, since 2010, we have got about 480,000 new homes built. To be clear, and contradicting something she said, average rents are down in real terms year on year under this Government.

Does the Minister agree that the way to improve stability and affordability in the private rented sector is for local authorities to make more land available for housing? That is happening in my constituency, where we are delivering new housing at double the rate seen in the country as a whole.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes between 2011 and 2015. It is important that we keep on top of that and keep moving forward with the new homes that we need.

May I draw attention to my interests as declared in the register? In its consultation earlier this year on the future of the private rented sector, the Minister’s Department proposed the possibility of extending a requirement to have working smoke alarms fitted in all private rented units. I understand that there has been overwhelming support for that in the response to the consultation, and I would welcome an indication from the Minister as to when the Government intend to act on this recommendation.

As soon as we are ready to respond to that consultation, the right hon. Gentleman will be among the first to know.

Will the Minister cast his mind over the problems that are faced by people living in the private rented sector in London? It is unaffordable for anyone on average or below-average income, and those on benefits can no longer remain within the communities that they have lived in for many years. Does he accept that it is time for full regulation of the private rented sector and for a limitation on the levels of rent that can be charged so that we can maintain the diversity and cohesion of communities all over the capital city?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, affordable housing starts in 2013-14 show an increase on the previous year, with a large percentage of them being in London. I remind him of what I said a few moments ago: under this Government average rents are down in real terms year on year, not just elsewhere in England but in London. It has been clear from the suggestions by Labour Members that the idea of short-term gimmicks such as rent controls are simply something from the past.

Brownfield Land and Empty Buildings

3. What steps he is taking to (a) encourage development on brownfield land and (b) bring empty buildings back into use. (905200)

In June we announced a new £400 million package to encourage development on brownfield land which we estimate could provide up to 200,000 new homes by 2020. We have extended permitted development to give new life to thousands of empty buildings. The number of empty homes is now the lowest since records began a decade ago.

I am encouraged by that answer. Tamworth council has relatively few publicly held brownfield sites, but it is working innovatively with the private sector to redevelop our town centre with a mix of leisure, retail and accommodation property to keep it vibrant. What further support can Ministers give to local authorities with relatively few brownfield properties to encourage private owners to make better use of their assets?

I have indeed visited Tamworth, which already has a very handsome town centre with a statue of Peel that I went to visit. I suggest that my hon. Friend’s friends in the local authority look at the empty homes programme. I understand that, as of October last year, Tamworth has 579 empty homes, of which about 150 have been empty long term. If the council were able to work with the owners to bring just a third of those properties back into use, there would not only be new homes for people but a substantial new homes bonus of about £350,000 for Tamworth council.

In its current inquiry into the national planning policy framework, the Communities and Local Government Committee has had dozens of complaints from local residents about local councils having to find more greenfield sites to build on because brownfield sites cannot be included in their local plans as they are deemed not to be viable. At the same time, more and more applications are being considered under the presumption in favour of sustainable developments and are being approved for building on greenfield sites. Given that the vast majority of those complaints come from the constituencies of Government Members, what is the Minister going to do to address them?

It is up to local communities to work with their local councils and, indeed, their local constituency MPs to see what is most appropriate for each area. It is a mistake to make pronouncements from the Dispatch Box about particular circumstances in particular areas, but if the hon. Gentleman has a specific example he wants to put to me, I am sure we will be able to take it up.

At the risk of testing your sense of order, Mr Speaker, would you allow me to place on record our, as Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, sadness at the death of Jim Dobbin? He was a true Christian and a true gentleman, and we shall all miss him. Our thoughts are with Pat.

I applaud the Government’s efforts to bring brownfield sites back into use, but deplore the equal efforts by Mrs Ann Gloag to reduce a perfectly serviceable airport, Manston in Kent, to a brownfield site, with a view, presumably, to gaining Government assistance. Will the Minister join the Prime Minister in recognising the importance of Manston as a national asset and applaud the efforts of Thanet council, on a cross-party basis, to seek to bring it back into use as an airport?

I hear what my hon. Friend says and I heard what the Prime Minister said. He was obviously better briefed on Manston airport than I am, so I simply commend to my hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s words in answer to his previous question.

Last week the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has responsibility for housing and planning, was clear in rejecting urban extensions, yet under his Government brownfield development has fallen from 70% under Labour to just 53% now. As his new proposals to support brownfield development will help only about a third of councils, where do the Government think the new houses will go?

We have announced a £400 million fund for local authorities to bid to create new housing zones, with 20 in London and 10 around the country. With the additional money the Mayor of London is putting in, that is a £600 million investment. We will also publish a consultation next month on further measures to get planning permissions on brownfield sites, and we are working with local authorities to produce a support package, available from next March, to further encourage the use of brownfield land. There is, therefore, a lot of activity taking place in this area.

Business Rates

5. How many shops in (a) England and (b) Stevenage constituency have benefited from the reduction in business rates. (905202)

6. How many shops in (a) England, (b) Norwich local authority area and (c) Broadland local authority area have benefited from the reduction in business rates. (905203)

10. How many shops in (a) England and (b) Stourbridge constituency have benefited from the reduction in business rates. (905208)

We are providing £1 billion for the business rates support package, including a £1,000 discount for smaller shops, businesses and restaurants. We estimate that about 300,000 retail premises will benefit from this discount in England, including more than 1,000 retail premises in Bury; nearly 400 retail premises in Stevenage; more than 800 in East Hertfordshire and 600 in North Hertfordshire; more than 1,000 retail premises in Norwich and 300 in Broadland; and 1,000 retail premises in Dudley.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the business rate relief, together with the new employment allowance, makes a vital contribution to maintaining the viability of parades of small shops such as those on Mile lane in my constituency?

It is important to recognise that the Department is playing a role, as are the rest of Government, to get business going, to make sure that communities can stand on their own feet and to support very small businesses. That is why a £1,000 discount this year and next year will help those businesses.

I am delighted that the Minister has given local authorities the power to review and reduce business rates locally. I have teamed up with a local accountancy firm in Stevenage to launch a campaign to help businesses to do just that. Will the Minister support that campaign, and does he agree it is ridiculous that many small businesses in my constituency pay more in business rates to Stevenage borough council than they do in rents to their landlords?

I know that my hon. Friend is absolutely passionate about supporting people in Stevenage and that he is ruthless in pursuit of the Labour council, which yet again has failed local businesses. I am sure we can offer our support to his campaign and those businesses.

This tax cut for small shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants is already getting real help to hundreds of businesses in my constituency, and I think it is sad—perhaps the Minister agrees with me—that no Opposition Members rise to support it. Would the Minister like to give a message to Dixie’s café in my constituency—a regular pit stop for hungry Conservative canvassers—about the bill change that it already welcomes?

As my hon. Friend observes, and as many of us have seen, the Labour party is not business-friendly, unlike those campaigners who are supporting Dixie’s café and are out seeking to secure a Conservative majority while buying coffee and bacon sandwiches from what I am sure is a fantastic local shop.

Lower business rates are undoubtedly a factor in the recovery of high streets in my constituency of Stourbridge. Will my hon. Friend update the House on how many shops have benefited from the additional discretionary and hardship rate relief powers made available to local authorities by the Localism Act 2011?

Unfortunately, I cannot give my hon. Friend those details, because we do not record them. We should, however, recognise that this £1 billion package is part of the Government’s response to ensure that we have more businesses and more jobs. The £1,000 discount for local businesses this year and next year has had the successful impact of bringing 1.8 million people into employment, and that is a direct consequence of this Government’s intervention.

Building Affordable Homes

Almost 200,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2010. A further £23 billion of investment will deliver 165,000 affordable homes between 2015 and 2018. This will be the fastest rate of affordable house building for the past 20 years.

As someone born and raised in an affordable home, I know the value of such homes. I also know that not enough units are coming on stream in my constituency at the moment. This Government have presided over the lowest build of new affordable homes in peacetime since the 1920s. Does the Minister regret slashing the budget by 60% on coming into government?

I respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that we actually inherited the lowest level of house building since the 1920s from the previous Government. In fact, as I have just said, we are about to get the fastest rate of building in the past 20 years. Just to be specific, in his home area of Greater Manchester alone, 5,724 new affordable homes will be delivered as a result of this Government’s investment in this period’s affordable homes programme.

The Minister has been keen to bombard us with statistics and to blame anybody but this Government, but it is they who have set affordable rents at 80% of private sector rents. In areas such as Hackney, that means that such rents are not affordable to the average, ordinary working person, while it also puts pressure on the housing benefit bill. When will the Government rethink this crazy and unfair policy?

To an extent, I am having to apologise for the previous Labour Administration’s failure to deliver the sufficient number of council houses that we need. It is good to see that, under this Government, building is getting going again.

Despite the awful inheritance that the Minister has had to deal with, the truth at the moment is that the public sector is continuing to hoard surplus land and buildings. May I urge Ministers to look at ripping up the financial rules of Government, ensuring that we penalise the hoarding of public sector land and buildings and incentivise Whitehall and town halls to get such assets turned into real affordable homes?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I know that one thing he previously worked on, and I am now working on, is to make sure that we can go forward and deliver the land, as we are doing, to deliver the houses that we so badly need in this country.

In an area with a very recently adopted core strategy that, because of the current severe shortage and a backlog of many years, requires 50% affordable housing, what advice would the Minister give planning officers determining new applications should there be requests for deviations from that requirement?

I would say to the right hon. Lady that planning decisions are obviously matters for the local authority, and it would be wrong for me to comment on the core strategy of a particular area. However, if she wants to come and see me, I will be happy to go through any queries she has.

I welcome the Minister to his new position. According to his Department’s own forecasts, housing starts are due to fall in this financial year. His predecessor admitted that that was due to an expected hiatus between the current affordable homes programme and the next one. Will the Minister explain what steps he is taking to avoid this? Does he think that there will be such a hiatus in 2015?

No, I do not. The more than 41,000 affordable housing starts in 2013-14 is an increase of 15% on the previous year.

Regrettably, the truth is that the Government have undermined affordable housing, not promoted it. With the 60% cut to the affordable homes programme, the watering down of section 106 agreements, and the hated and discredited bedroom tax, will the Minister now admit that for all Ministers’ talk on affordable homes—we have heard the same today—the number of homes built for social rent has dropped to a 20-year low and that simply changing Ministers will not overcome this Government’s failed housing policies?

I am slightly astounded that such a question has been put by the hon. Lady, who represents a party that oversaw a drop in the number of affordable rental homes of 420,000 between 1997 and 2010. Under this Government, house building has got going again. We need to keep on top of that to deliver the houses we need, and we are looking at an increase of 170,000 in this period alone.

Community Pubs

In the autumn statement, we announced a £1 billion package of business rate support, which included a £1,000 discount for shops, pubs and restaurants with rateable values below £50,000. That could benefit three in four pubs. We are also providing funding to help communities diversify their pubs, and pubs can be saved through the community right to bid.

There are many reasons why pubs are closing: people do not want to drink and drive; some people do not go to pubs because of the smoking ban, although I support that; and people buy low-cost alcohol from supermarkets. Is my hon. Friend aware that one problem is the pubcos that charge high rents? How will the new statutory code help?

I reassure my hon. Friend that tied tenants will be able to report breaches in the statutory code to a new independent adjudicator, who will be able to arbitrate and bring penalties against individuals or organisations that fail to act appropriately.

15. In August 2011, the Government consulted on ending the use of restrictive covenants by pub companies to prevent new owners from reopening valued pubs. Three years on, the Government are yet to announce the outcome of the consultation. Will the Minister commit to ending the disgraceful practice of using restrictive covenants to prevent closed pubs from being reopened? (905214)

The Government pledged to release the consultation relating to covenants by the end of this year. I hope to release the information in the coming weeks.

The popular, successful and profitable Seven Stars pub in Sedgley in my constituency is threatened with closure because Marston’s and Morrisons are discussing turning it into a supermarket. Does the Minister agree that those companies ought to accept my invitation to meet residents who are concerned not just about the loss of the pub, but about the impact on traffic, parking and businesses in the nearby town centre? Is it possible to introduce tougher rules, so that planning permission is always required before a pub is demolished or closed?

I think that the businesses concerned should meet local residents—that dialogue is absolutely appropriate. The Government have given powers to councils under article 4 and the community right to bid mechanism. If communities have treasured assets that they want to be recognised as community assets, they can register them with the local council and give them some protection. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s participation and the dialogue that he is having with local business.

Right to Buy

9. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of changes to right to buy on the viability of maintaining and increasing the stock of social housing in England. (905206)

In 2013, social housing stock topped the 4 million mark for the first time since 2004. In the first year following the reinvigoration of the right-to-buy scheme, there were almost 6,000 council right-to-buy sales. In the same period, affordable rented stock increased by 20,000.

In South Lakeland in my constituency, of the 7,500 council homes, only 3,000 remain, and there is a council house waiting list of 3,500 individuals. That must be set against the backdrop of local house prices being 12 times average local wages. Does the Minister agree that, in the spirit of localism, it would be right to do as the Scottish Parliament has done and allow local authorities the right to suspend right to buy in those places where it is having the worst impact?

I do not entirely agree. I believe that people who aspire to own their own home should have the opportunity to do so if they can afford it, because it allows them to have the pride of ownership not just in their home, but in their street and their neighbourhood.

It is sad not to have Jim Dobbin jumping up and down today, as he usually did in this House. He was a man of courage. He would have joined me in saying that we need courage in facing the lack of good social housing. I have always been in favour of the right to buy, as long as the homes are superseded by more social housing. Is it not true that some Government some time must have the courage to say, “We will not meet housing need in this country—social or private—until we build on some of our green belt”?

I agree with some of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I do not think that we need to go down the line of his final few comments. From April 2012 to June 2014, almost 3,700 homes have been started on site or acquired with the £514 million that has been generated by additional sales through the reinvigorated right to buy. The additional receipts that are raised by local authority right-to-buy sales are now used directly to fund homes for affordable rent, thanks to the changes that the Government have made.

Is my hon. Friend aware that under this Government an astonishing 437% more people in Harlow have bought houses under the right to buy? Is that not an example of a housing policy that helps lower earners and gives people the ladder of aspiration?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have stood firm behind this clear policy to give people the chance to aspire to move on, own their own home, and play an important part in developing that home in their community for the future.

For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister tell the House what is affordable in London and the south-east? What is the capital cost and what is the rent?

National Planning Policy Framework

11. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the discretion given to local authority officers in the national planning policy framework. (905209)

Our planning reforms and locally led planning system have given more discretion to local authorities—to members, and through them, to local communities—especially when preparing local plans that identify where development should and should not go. Wherever possible we want local authorities to make decisions about their local areas.

On Friday, following a concerted campaign by local residents, Newcastle city council exercised that discretion and rejected an application recommended by officers to site a two-storey McDonald’s drive-through opposite the city’s largest school at the northern gateway to our city. Does the Minister agree that the spirit of localism is best served by McDonald’s respecting democracy and not appealing?

The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot comment on a particular planning application, but she is right to say that local democracy means that local decisions should be made by local members of local council authorities.

Will the Minister confirm that the national planning policy framework has provisions that protect the green belt from developers and people like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) who would like to build all over it?

My hon. Friend is right, and I intend soon to issue additional guidance to reiterate the protection that the national planning policy framework provides to the green belt and other designated areas. That will make it clear that local planners should seek to meet their objectively assessed needs, unless there are specific environmental and other policies in the framework—such as those on the green belt—which indicate that development should be restricted.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I just gave. The NPPF gives clear protection and priority to the green belt, and I encourage local authorities to respect that.

The Secretary of State has said that only in the most exceptional cases will fracking be allowed in national parks. Will my hon. Friend say what those exceptional circumstances will be, and that the precautionary principle will normally prevail for fracking?

Any planning application must be decided on its own merits. That means that things will change from application to application, based on the merits of each individual case.

Local Enterprise Partnership Boundaries

There has been no recent assessment of local enterprise partnership boundaries. Through growth deals, the Government invited local enterprise partnerships to submit proposals to revise those boundaries, but none did.

Some areas such as Bassetlaw are in two LEP areas. Will the good people of Bassetlaw be given the choice which local enterprise area they go in, or will it be a central Government decision?

We have been clear that those decisions must be locally driven. The Government are happy to consider such requests, and we are currently considering the results of a consultation on the rules surrounding the creation of combined authorities. It must be a locally driven ask, and in the hon. Gentleman’s case it is vital that both combined local authorities work together and not centrifugally. That will provide the best backdrop to spending £300 million—soon to rise to £550 million—of local growth funding for the hon. Gentleman’s area.

The borough of Kettering is in two LEPs—the Northamptonshire LEP and the South East Midlands LEP—and Kettering borough council is happy to be in both. Will the Minister confirm that no pressure should be applied by larger local authorities to force smaller ones to choose between two LEPs?

My hon. Friend is right. It is important that people choose locally how to organise themselves. There would be no support for pressure to get smaller authorities to change how they operate.

Greater Manchester is a case in point. The city region and the LEP boundaries are coterminous, which is working well, but there is a democratic deficit. What more will the Government do to address that problem, so that local populations have buy-in to the economic regeneration plans for the city region?

We are providing support, as are other organisations, such as, most recently, the Federation of Small Businesses, to help LEPs to develop and to have better representation on their boards. The Manchester LEP is doing extremely well—we need to do more to encourage it to allocate its growth funding to projects, but it is doing well. Further support, both from the Government and from third-party organisations, is being provided to develop democratic structures.

Solar Arrays (Impact on Landscape)

16. What his policy is on whether planning inspectors at appeal or local authority planning committees should determine what constitutes cumulative impact on the landscape from large-scale solar arrays. (905215)

I know from recent correspondence of my hon. Friend’s concerns about large-scale solar arrays. Although I cannot comment on particular cases, I can assure you that the same expectations on deciding planning applications apply to inspectors and local councils.

Order. May I invite the Minister to remember the merits of the third person, of which I am sure he is very conscious?

I thank the Minister for his reply. He will know that local residents and South Hams district councillors were very disappointed that he did not haul in the application for another 58 acres of solar arrays near Diptford. That is the fourth large-scale development within a three-mile radius of a tiny community in my constituency. He will also know that district councillors are under great pressure to accept such applications, because when they turn them down, as they did in Kingsbridge recently, the applications are overturned on appeal, with punitive costs. Will the Minister reassure me, and meet me to discuss how the situation can be resolved?

I am more than willing to meet my hon. Friend. I cannot comment on individual cases, but I should emphasise that the solution to giving confidence to a local council about the decisions it makes, and to the community, is to have a secure local plan, under which people clearly determine what they want to be built in their area. At the moment, the plan that covers the area where the hon. Lady works and lives is not appropriate and does not give that security.

Peterborough city council is misguidedly pursuing a solar energy park to the east of the city, around the villages of Thorney and Newborough, which will involve 500,000 glass panels on an area the size of 700 football pitches. Do we need to consider the use of more robust language in the strategic planning framework to ensure that such proposals to build on prime agricultural land are not pursued in future?

There is clear guidance on building on agricultural land and a preference to build on brownfield. I cannot comment on the case that my hon. Friend raises, but I am sure that his robust position will be heard by the local council.

Wiltshire council recently permitted a well-sited solar project—it was behind an industrial estate, next to a sewage works on the outskirts of Trowbridge—yet Broughton Gifford, a small village, has had a number of applications for several different arrays in its vicinity, despite the presence of National Trust buildings and English Heritage listed buildings. Is the Minister confident that the protections that we give our heritage assets are appropriately recognised in respect of such proposals?

As I have said in answer to previous questions, there is clear guidance on what is appropriate and inappropriate. It is absolutely appropriate for individual local authorities to get a secure local plan that determines the shape and use of renewable energy sources.

Help to Buy Scheme

17. What assessment he has made of the extent of take-up of the Help to Buy scheme in (a) England and (b) Swindon. (905216)

More than 50,000 families have already purchased a home in England with the support of Help to Buy since March 2012, helping them to achieve their ambition of owning their own home. In Swindon, 430 families have bought through Help to Buy.

Government-backed schemes have helped 430 hard-working families in Swindon get on the housing ladder. Will the Secretary of State comment on whether the scheme has been successful in Wales under the Labour Administration there?

It has not been as successful in Wales, because Labour rather botched its introduction of Help to Buy. I was recently in Mid Bedfordshire looking at some houses on a Barratt Homes development, and I was surprised to find that all the brickies came from Wales. The explanation was that because of the decline of house building in Wales, ambitious brickies are coming to England for work.

Help to Buy is strengthening demand for housing, but if that is not met by an increase in supply, it will simply end in higher prices. What is the Secretary of State doing to increase supply, which we know is at one of the lowest levels in recorded history?

I think we have made quite a lot of progress. As the hon. Gentleman admits, we inherited the lowest level of house building at any time since the 1920s. The current figures for the amount of house building taking place are more than encouraging—it is quite a success, and I think he will be pleased when the latest figures are released.

Coastal Communities

Having been appointed the first ever Minister with responsibility for coastal communities, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are committed to coastal areas. Since 2012, we have provided more than £62 million through the coastal communities fund to deliver more than 8,500 jobs, 3,000 training places and 400 new business start-ups, helping to make our coastal towns better places to live, work and visit.

I congratulate the Minister on that new position and wish her well.

In Fleetwood, Wyre borough council has a long-term economic plan to develop and expand the fish processing industry. Will the Minister and her officials meet me and representatives of the council so that we can pursue that project further?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a champion of that industry and what it will bring to his constituency. He has successfully campaigned both on fisheries reform and for CCF funding, which will improve the Fleetwood coastline. I would be happy to meet him about the issue that he raises and the hoped-for improvements to St George’s quay.

Topical Questions

May I join you, Mr Speaker, and Opposition Members in expressing my sadness at the death of Jim Dobbin? As you rightly said, he had a very distinguished career in the health service before becoming a Member of Parliament, which demonstrates what someone of a more mature age coming into this place for the first time can give us. He was a charming man and always very courteous, and Government Members will miss him deeply.

I am sure the whole House would like to congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the wonderful news this morning that they are expecting a second child. We wish them well.

My Department is announcing the first wave of funding for the builders finance fund, which will help to kick-start the building of 13,000 homes on 160 small sites across England that stalled because of Labour’s housing crash. Thanks to our long-term economic plan, housing construction is up and Britain is building again.

Jim Dobbin was indeed one of the nicest and kindest men in Parliament, and we will miss him greatly.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has made it plain, both in letters to local authorities and by withdrawing the subsidy, that large and industrial-scale solar farms like those discussed earlier are simply not acceptable on greenfield agricultural sites. However, planning regulations do not so far reflect the robustness of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s determination. Will the Secretary of State either write to local authorities or change the planning regulations so that the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities will take account of what DECC is saying on the subject?

The short answer is yes. I was struck by what Members said, and this country clearly needs a robust and sustainable housing policy with regard to energy. We need a degree of reality and reasonableness in this approach. We have made a number of ministerial statements on the matter. It is excellent to see these solar panels on the roofs of houses, but we do not want them taking away valuable agricultural land. I shall look carefully at what my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have said, and we will work with fellow ministries and produce a statement soon.

I join the Secretary of State and you, Mr Speaker, in expressing our profound sadness at the death of our good friend and colleague Jim Dobbin. Jim served his constituents and this House with distinction. He was a passionate defender of the national health service, for which he worked for many years, and a campaigner against global poverty. His integrity and his decency shone through in everything he did. All our thoughts are with his wife Pat and their children in their great loss.

I also join the Secretary of State in passing on our congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Over the summer, the nation has come fully to realise the scale of the grooming and recruitment of young British Muslims to go and commit atrocities in the name of the so-called Islamic State. Every single one of us has responsibility to tackle the causes of this radicalisation, and the Secretary of State particularly so. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore tell us what specific steps he and his Department have taken to counter this threat?

The right hon. Gentleman will readily understand that when we came to office, the Prevent strategy was moved to the Home Office. We have concentrated on the matters that bring people together and encourage communities not to be isolated. We have spent the best part of £45 million on that endeavour, on things ranging from “English First”, which ensures English is taught in perhaps unusual places—trying to target young mothers, for example—to putting a lot of money, about £10 million, into the recruitment of detached youth workers to appropriate organisations. We have also funded groups that work together, whether it be in mosques, churches or synagogues. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we all have an obligation in this regard. Speaking as someone brought up in a multicultural city, I think this issue goes far deeper than funding streams. It is an extraordinary sight to see someone born and brought up in this country participating in atrocities in the middle east. I pledge the Government, along with the Opposition, to work hard on this—

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. Given what he said, however, why does he think that last month the widely respected counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam criticised his Department’s failure to produce a proper strategy as “catastrophic”? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that much more needs to be done across government and the country to protect our young people, including confronting head-on Islamic State’s repugnant ideology, its promoters and apologists here in the United Kingdom and its utter contempt for our democracy and way of life? As he does so, he will have the full support of the Opposition.

I am grateful. We came to the conclusion early on not to fund some of Quilliam’s work, which might well have clouded its judgment. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. Quilliam’s criticism does not reflect what my Department, working closely with the Home Office, is doing, but as I say, I am grateful for his support.

T2. The Rural Services Network has expressed some concern about the unintended consequences of removing section 106 obligations on small developments and its effect on raising land values, making it more difficult to provide affordable housing in small rural communities. Will the Minister meet me on this issue as well so that I can be reassured? (905225)

T4. Last week, in a statement on child exploitation in Rotherham, the Home Secretary said that the Secretary of State was “minded” to commission an independent investigation of what had happened there. Will the Secretary of State update the House on his thinking, and tell us whether it would be within the remit of those conducting such an investigation to look into the accountability of officers who work for Rotherham now or have done so in the past, and their responsibility for anything that happens in this regard? (905228)

I hope to make an announcement very soon. There has been a delay because I want to ensure that the person that I should like to lead the inquiry is able to clear their diary.

I think that the fundamental question does revolve around governance, accepting responsibility and ensuring that there is a chain of command, so I take what the hon. Gentleman has said very seriously, and I think he is on the money.

T3. Will the Secretary of State update the House on plans to support my constituents who were victims of flooding in the summer of 2013 and who missed out on the compensation scheme that was afforded to the people of Somerset? (905227)

My hon. Friend has raised a very reasonable point. We are working with other Departments to identify funds for that purpose, and we hope to make an announcement very soon.

T6. The Secretary of State commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct an examination of the finances of Tower Hamlets council. Tower Hamlets council will be paying for that audit. Will the Secretary of State update us on how long it will be before the auditors report? (905230)

We are talking in terms of a matter of days. I understand that the consultants have finished their report, but the facts will have to be checked with Tower Hamlets, and only when that process has been completed will I be briefed on it. I shall then have to make a “minded” statement, because Tower Hamlets will obviously have the right to respond before I make a final statement to the House.

T5. This Saturday I shall be cleaning up Gosport with my local litter action group. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you so much.In the light of the recently launched inquiry into litter by the Communities and Local Government Committee, will the Minister join me in commending the litter action initiative, which involves community volunteers from all over the United Kingdom working to keep their local streets clean? (905229)

I fully commend the work of the group that my hon. Friend is supporting. The local authority of which I used to be a member identified that £6 million had been spent on picking up litter. How many more elderly people and individuals in schools throughout the country could we have helped with that money? How many books could we have bought for libraries? This is about a lack of responsibility on the part of individuals, which needs to be addressed and challenged.

Ministers will be aware that, during the lifetime of this Government, the grant that Knowsley council will receive has been reduced by between £65 million and £74 million. Given that half the total amount spent by the council is spent on adults’ and children’s services, will the Minister consider reintroducing the council tax resource equalisation adjustment in order to mitigate the worst effects of the cuts?

Council tax nearly doubled under the last Government. This Government have effectively reduced it by some 11%, but that does not detract from our responsibility to look after elderly people, which is why we are providing a £3.8 billion package to support them.

T7. Over the summer, a disabled pensioner in my constituency received a parking penalty notice after his car had suffered a puncture. His car was pushed to the side of the road by good Samaritans, and when he got out of his car to go into the premises of a firm to find some people to help him to change the tyre, a traffic warden came along and gave him a parking ticket. Ealing council refused to cancel the ticket. [Laughter.] The council has exercised no discretion at all. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is outrageous? (905231)

I must say that I was very shocked to hear the laughter from the Opposition Benches. I think it is a disgrace that the full panoply of the state should fall on a disabled person in this way. I urge Ealing council to look at the file again right now, to rescind the parking ticket, and to treat that disabled person with a degree of respect.

Will the Minister make dealing with flooding a statutory duty for all fire services, or at least undertake to consider doing so, and then report to the House?

I have had an opportunity to see this very close up and am very firmly of the opinion that the way in which this is dealt with now, through gold command, and with the firefighters, the Environment Agency and the police working together, is by far the best system.

T8. May I welcome the massive support the Department has given to coastal communities like mine in Dover and Deal, and the great backing to high streets, of which Deal’s is officially and definitively the best in the country? (905232)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on what they have managed to secure themselves in terms of on local growth. Deal is a fantastic example of a thriving high street, which I myself visited only a few weeks ago. It is already award winning, but I wish it good luck in the great British high street contest, which it has entered. I look forward to visiting Betteshanger park sustainable energy centre, which has secured £2.5 million of coastal communities funding to bring together business, education, heritage, green technology and tourism.

Can we be sure that small local businesses are benefiting from the scheme whereby councils can come together and cluster to provide services and procurement?

I can see no reason why not. In terms of procurement, my Department has looked at helping small and medium-sized firms, and I think it is very important that local councils support local businesses.

Somerset county council is reported to be paying one officer £318,500 through a limited company owned by him and his wife, his deputy £275,000, and has 15 other posts paying over £96,000. At the same time it says it has not got the money to run our services. Does the Secretary of State think that is right?

Obviously, the possibility of applying for the job is something one would not rule out. I think that is an absolutely outrageous use of public money. People should pay their taxes in a normal way, and it is an abuse of process for that to have happened.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Tory leader on Croydon council has been forced to resign in disgrace after he was exposed last week for secretly taking £10,000 in extra allowances before the council elections in May? Will he reassure the House that no other Conservative councils have set up allowances schemes that allow them to boast in public that they have frozen their allowances while leaving them free to claim the increases retrospectively after the polls have closed?

I do not mind whether somebody is Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Independent or UKIP—if they are on the fiddle, they deserve to have their collar felt, and that behaviour was completely unacceptable.

The Hertford road in Enfield is a struggling, though viable, shopping parade. Does the Secretary of State agree that Enfield’s Labour council’s obsession with mobile CCTV cameras in the area is simply a demonstration of its wish to raise fines and not support local businesses, and will he offer assurances to help out?

We now have a huge amount of evidence of what prevents local growth, and over-zealous parking restrictions are top of the list. My hon. Friend’s remarks are absolutely correct. We need to be giving support to local traders, listening to them and removing these obstacles to help our high streets thrive.