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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 587: debated on Monday 10 November 2014

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Localism

This Government have abolished Labour’s unelected regional assemblies and devolved power down to local people. We have given more power to councils over planning, housing, licensing and public health. Some 70% of all local authorities’ income is now raised locally.

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Worth, a village in my constituency, which has just had 92% acceptance of its neighbourhood plan? Does he agree that the additional money that has been secured for neighbourhood planning will help other towns in my constituency to deliver that empowerment to the people on the ground?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the residents of Worth. She is absolutely right that the additional £23 million that has been announced will help and encourage many more communities across England to start neighbourhood planning and to take control of future developments in their area. Nearly 10% of the population of England is now covered by a neighbourhood plan.

Is the Secretary of State aware that localism is not much help when the most important project in Coventry, the Gateway project, is called in and then the decision is delayed? An answer was expected in December, but it has been delayed to January and then to the end of January. Will he tell us when he will make a decision?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we do not call in many applications for consideration. Last year, we called in only about eight. The one he has mentioned has some degree of complexity, and he will understand that I cannot comment about the individual application until all the facts are before me.

I strongly support the Minister’s excellent work in devolving powers to our city regions. Will he assure us that our counties and rural areas such as those in east Hertfordshire will have the same opportunity for these new responsibilities?

Such areas most certainly do have the same opportunity. The devolution of responsibilities and powers to cities has been an important step forward for localism. I should like to see counties, perhaps adjoining counties, and district councils coming together with a united case, because it was that unity of purpose, which was presented to us in various deliberations, that made it easier for us to take powers out of central Government. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be at the forefront in encouraging his local councils to do exactly that.

Last Thursday, I held an Adjournment debate on works that had been carried out by Sainsbury’s in Belgrave and Leicester, which was efficiently answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). When will local communities be given the powers to hold developers to account not just for planning applications but when works are being executed, because great delays are being caused by this company?

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who is very junior and new to the job, has just briefed me on the situation. As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, the local authority should exercise the powers that it already has in these matters. There is not much point in calling for new powers if the existing ones are not used.

While I agree that the devolution of powers to local authorities can be a good thing, does my right hon. Friend agree that local people should always be consulted before there are any changes to their system of local government?

Certainly. When new things are to be brought in, I think that it is appropriate to have a consultation and, in some cases, a referendum. The most important thing about localism is that it is about passing powers not only to councils, but to local communities.

In my constituency we are currently campaigning against a planning application for a new drive-through McDonald’s. I hope that it will be rejected on the normal planning grounds of noise, pollution and so on, but does the Minister think that the local community should also be able to reject such applications when they are very close to local schools?

Of course, it is very important in that kind of discussion to have a local plan in place, and one would expect a local council to be helpful to the community, and to developers, by setting out clearly where particular developments should take place. I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me; obviously we will consider that fairly and openly if it comes to us, because the applicant is entitled to justice.

Firefighters’ Pensions

After extensive consultation and numerous changes, the Government laid the final regulations before Parliament on 28 October. They provide one of the best schemes in the public sector. I regularly meet firefighters and will continue to do so.

We have just come through the longest firefighters’ strike in 38 years. When will the Government stop their politically motivated and disingenuous behaviour in this dispute and genuinely sit down with the Fire Brigades Union to settle this, as the Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are doing?

There has been extensive debate and consultation on these matters. I have dealt with any outstanding issues in the past few months, including those of the transition of armed forces pension schemes into the firefighters’ pension scheme and fitness protections. The regulations have now been laid, and it is evident from the questions coming from the Opposition that they do not understand the scheme. It is an excellent scheme, and to say otherwise would be to do firefighters a disservice.

In a letter to the shadow fire Minister on 5 September, the Minister stated:

“I am conscious that we will only have the ideas for the service to meet future challenges and aspirations if firefighters are engaged and feel an ownership for the service. Trust and good morale are key to this.”

How does refusing to change a single word of the regulation improve morale, and how does refusing to negotiate improve trust?

The irony of the hon. Gentleman’s question might be lost on him, but I am sure that it will not be lost on many Members of the House. There have been several changes to the scheme since it was originally published, including improvements on the 2006 scheme—introduced by Labour—which introduced retirement age at 60, disproportionately penalised firefighters who want to retire early and offered no protections on fitness. We have addressed those issues in the new scheme.

Will the Minister explain to me why my constituents who work for Welsh local authority fire services have reached agreement on a fitness test and a pension plan, through a negotiated settlement and at no extra cost to the taxpayer, yet my constituents who work for the Merseyside or Cheshire fire services, on the English side of the border, are faced with a strike because of an intransigent Minister?

What the right hon. Gentleman says is not correct; Wales and Northern Ireland have made no announcements on fitness. We are currently consulting on doing what Scotland has done through a regulation, which would offer firefighters those protections —we have to do that through a statutory instrument because we do not have one single fire authority for England. In addition, we are the only nation that has set up a working group on fitness to ensure good practice among all our fire authorities.

I worked down the coal mine for 29 years, and I watched old men of 60 struggling at the coal face. What must it be like for firemen of 60 trying to save lives from fire and flood?

As I said earlier, it was Labour that introduced the retirement age at 60, but this is an issue that I—[Interruption.] I have to say that I take great offence, particularly at some of the paid-for advertising that has been run in local newspapers, which has been incredibly patronising towards older workers. We need older workers to stay in the fire service because they have great expertise. By offering protections on pensions and jobs for older workers and good practice for fire authorities to follow, we will ensure that in future they have the protections that Labour did not introduce.

In her open letter of 24 October, the Minister thanks firefighters

“for your patience in letting me work through these issues”.

The regulations she has put forward were in place in June 2013, so what exactly have they been patient for, and why does not she treat them with the respect that they deserve?

As an incoming Minister, I could have immediately laid the regulations, but I chose not to do so because I felt there were some outstanding issues, one major recurring theme being the many firefighters who have previously been in the armed forces thinking that they have been disproportionately adversely affected by transferring in their pensions. That is one issue I looked at, among others. Most importantly, I also met a number of groups, including women’s groups, within the fire service. I have trained as a firefighter and I am a serving reservist, so I know the stresses that women go through in order to maintain strength, in particular, in their fitness tests. That formed the bulk of our negotiations with the FBU. I am very happy that on the day we laid the regulations we also started a six-week consultation on putting protections for firefighters on a statutory footing.

What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that no firefighter over the age of 55 faces the prospect of having no job and that they still have a good pension?

As I said in previous answers, we are consulting on putting those protections on a statutory footing in the national framework. That will, through a single regulation, have the same effect as what Scotland has done.

Given that the Minister has recognised that there remain severe reservations about the fitness test for firefighters, is she saying that she will pass regulations that will ensure that firefighters who fail the fitness test will not lose their jobs, because there are insufficient numbers of back-office jobs in the fire service to accommodate them?

Yes. In addition to the protections that we are consulting on, we are the only nation that has set up a working group to ensure that there is best practice for fire authorities to follow so that their firefighters can maintain fitness.

In negotiations with the FBU, the hon. Lady said that some firefighters might not be able to maintain operational fitness standards until the age of 60. She promised regulations to protect those firefighters, she promised to address the specific concerns of women firefighters, and she asked the FBU for detailed proposals. Now, she has torn up every promise, stopped negotiations, imposed her own regulations, and plunged the fire service into the longest and most avoidable strike in 36 years. Firefighters risk their lives on a daily basis. Do they not deserve better?

I have outlined in several previous answers the reason that we cannot use the regulation: we have more than one fire authority in England—we have 46. We must go through the national framework, but it will be on a statutory footing. I caution the hon. Lady on this: we want older firefighters and women to stay in the fire service, and she is not helping by spreading myths about the existing scheme.

Neighbourhood Planning (Community Rights)

3. What assessment he has made of the level of the take-up of neighbourhood planning and community rights. (905950)

Over 1,500 assets of community value have now been identified and listed, and over 1,200 communities have taken their first steps towards producing a neighbourhood plan for their area. There has been overwhelming support in the 34 local referendums held so far, and that means that roughly 5.2 million people are now covered by a neighbourhood planning area.

May I take this opportunity to praise the residents of Warton in my constituency who recently submitted a comprehensive neighbourhood plan in line with the Government’s aspiration for community engagement? Does my hon. Friend agree that neighbourhood plans should be given full consideration by local councils at the earliest opportunity?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s community on going forward with a neighbourhood plan. He is absolutely right. Local authorities should move forward to get them to the referendum stage as quickly as possible—the average at the moment is just two months. I hope that his community will benefit from that as well.

The Government have made very much of localism, particularly community planning. Why, then, has the Minister held up the Gateway project in Coventry? Why cannot we have a decision?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that every planning decision that comes through the Department is taken on its own merits. Obviously I cannot comment on a particular application as it is going through its process.

Neighbourhood planning and community rights are clearly welcome, so will the Minister give advice to a community that cannot exercise them because the people who are planning to build 3,000 houses on their doorstep are in the neighbouring local authority area?

The hon. Gentleman highlights an issue for local authorities, and Labour’s plans, which would allow councils to build on other councils’ land, would create that very problem. That is why we have the duty to co-operate and planning inspectors look very carefully at how it is exercised. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue.

Recent research by planning consultancy Turley shows that areas of below average income have so far been less involved in the neighbourhood planning process, with just nine plans published in areas categorised as most deprived. What do the Government intend to do to ensure that more disadvantaged communities can participate in this process and that it does not become the preserve of the affluent few?

All communities should be looking to undertake neighbourhood planning. I visited Southwark last week to see the excellent work being done there. A wide range of more than 1,250 areas are undertaking neighbourhood planning. Obviously, a few are ahead of the others and there have been 34 referendums. We have put in more money and are funding local areas that undertake neighbourhood planning and the local authorities to support them. I encourage all areas and communities to consider undertaking a neighbourhood plan.

Bed-and-Breakfast Accommodation

5. What estimate he has made of the number of children living in bed- and-breakfast accommodation; and if he will make a statement. (905952)

We have invested more than £500 million to prevent and tackle homelessness. Homelessness statistics reported by local councils are published by the Department and they show that 3,670 children were in bed-and-breakfast accommodation on 30 June.

Slough council made strenuous efforts to avoid the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for children, and before 2010 it had abolished it. However, I estimate that in the past two years some 60 children have been placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in this area of high housing need. Will the Minister meet the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has responsibility for children, to discuss how we can avoid using bed-and-breakfast accommodation for children? They do not learn how to eat at a table and are often pushed out of their homes during the day and end up in expensive cafés. What is the Minister going to do to end this situation?

First of all, we already do meet as a ministerial group. The number of homeless acceptances has dropped by 2% this year. There are eight people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Slough and nobody has been in those bed and breakfasts for more than six weeks.

Earlier this year the Minister told the House that the number of homeless families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation had dropped compared with the previous year and that that was

“a direct consequence of this Government’s intervention”.—[Official Report, 30 June 2014; Vol. 583, c. 588.]

Since then, however, the Government have released figures that show that the number has, in fact, increased to a 10-year high. Given that the Minister took credit for the fall in the numbers, will he now take responsibility for the increase? Crucially, what is he going to do to help those families with children?

The number of families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has dropped by a third since Labour was in power, the peak being in 2002. We have put in a significant amount of money where there are issues in councils, and we have reduced bed-and-breakfast acceptances by some 96% where we have intervened.

Community Pubs

In last year’s autumn statement we announced a £1 billion package of business rate support, which included a £1,000 discount for small businesses with rateable values above £50,000. That is benefiting three out of four pubs.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and for the work the Government have done on reducing the burden of business rates. Will he consider further reform, such as standardised billings and an appeals process, to reduce yet more of the burden on small businesses and community pubs such as the Charcoal Burner in Furnace Green?

I commend my hon. Friend on his work in supporting the pub industry. As well as the £1 billion package to help bills, we are considering ways in which the regime could be improved through a review of our business rates administration. We are also looking at ways to speed up the appeals process, to make it more transparent for businesses.

The problem with pubs in inner-city areas such as London is that the land they sit on is so valuable that they fall prey to property developers who want to build houses, as has happened to the Dutch House public house in my constituency. Is it not about time that we told developers that they are not going to take away these assets, which are highly valued by local communities, just for their profits? Will the Minister take some action to ensure that we protect pubs in such a situation?

We have already put in place a community right to bid process. As well as discounts for the associated business rates, councils can use article 4 directions if they want to shape their particular community and to shape how such businesses are established. The hon. Gentleman is right that the pub plays a really important role in the community. The good news is that beer is 8p cheaper as a consequence of this Government.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the serial bad behaviour by the Co-op in my constituency and others in the south, where it is taking over pubs and converting them into shops, often on very unsatisfactory sites? The Ship Inn in Cuckfield in my constituency is uniquely badly placed to serve as a Co-op. Will he look at what he can do to review the article 4 direction scheme, and to give general instructions about where such shops should be sited?

That was a splendidly detailed question. There was I thinking that the right hon. Gentleman was going to tell us about the champagne and oysters that he consumes in his community pub, but I was wrong.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his support of the local pub. The article 4 direction scheme is strong, and it gives councils the opportunity to intervene. I know that there is a passionate campaign to support the Ship Inn. I would welcome the opportunity to meet the campaigners, and I will try to support them where I can.

Other things threatening public houses include not just the issue of business rates, but the cost of alcohol compared with the discounts that people get in their local shops and supermarkets. Has the Minister had any discussions with his colleagues about changing the price of alcohol in this country, as has been recommended, to protect not just people’s health but the local village pub?

All sellers of alcohol have a responsibility to make sure that they promote responsible alcohol consumption, which the Government are encouraging. There is a consultation on alcohol pricing, which is still under consideration.

No one wants this Government to be shown to be the most pro-pub Government ever more than me, but that is not going to happen while this ministerial team continue not to change the rules whereby a pub can become a supermarket without needing to go through the planning process. Will the new Minister with responsibility for community pubs tell us that he will finally stop this scandal, which is robbing communities of pubs up and down the country?

I am afraid that I must disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because nobody in the House is more enthusiastic about supporting pubs than me. There are powers through an article 4 direction to protect a location, and there is an opportunity through the community right to bid to support a treasured local site. I suggest that he works with the local council to make sure that he secures such assets.

Will the Minister acknowledge the contribution made to many small community pubs by independent family brewers? Will he speak to his counterparts in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that the concession achieved for them during the passage of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill is carried through and that they are excluded from the regulations?

Having several small brewers in my constituency, I know that they make a huge contribution to the local economy. I am more than willing to have the conversation for which my right hon. Friend has asked.

Business Rates (Small Businesses)

7. How many small firms and shops in (a) England and (b) Cherwell district council area have been affected by the reduction in business rates. (905954)

15. How many small firms and shops in (a) England and (b) Dover have been affected by the reduction in business rates. (905965)

Our £1 billion business rates support package includes a £1,000 discount for smaller shops, pubs and restaurants. That will benefit more than 300,000 premises in England, including 430 in Cherwell and 580 in Dover. We are also doubling small business rate relief for a further year, which will benefit about 575,000 businesses, with 385,000 businesses paying no rates at all. That will help 1,100 small businesses in Cherwell, and 1,300 small businesses in Dover.

Has not the introduction of the business rate retention scheme given local authorities the ability to offer business rate discounts to help attract firms, investment and jobs? Is not the fact that local authorities now directly and locally retain half the business rates a strong incentive for councils to encourage businesses and enterprises to set up in their areas?

Councils have a huge responsibility to promote local businesses, whether that involves getting the skill set right or using the discretionary powers that we have given them. I know that businesses and councils, particularly Conservative councils across the country, are responding positively.

May I welcome all the Government have done to help high streets such as that of Deal, in my constituency? Will Ministers condemn the Local Government Association group leader who has been going up and down the land telling councils to hike taxes and business rates, which will devastate our high streets and increase the cost of food?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work to promote Deal high street, which has been a tremendous success. Most recently, Deal topped the polls as Britain’s best coastal town as voted for by readers of The Daily Telegraph. The instinct of the Labour party is to tax businesses, ours is to encourage and grow local businesses by offering tax breaks.

Affordable Housing

Local authorities are required to develop an evidence base locally. This ensures that their local plans meet the needs for their market and for affordable housing to be consistent with policies in the national planning policy framework. We have published new guidance to local authorities on assessing housing need in their area and 340 new affordable homes have been provided in Brighton and Hove since 2010.

In spite of national constraints, the Green administration in Brighton has overseen the development of more than 500 affordable homes, with a further 230 in the pipeline, and has built the first council homes in a generation. Brighton council and councils around the country could do much more if the Government would provide direct capital grant funding. Will the Minister reconsider that and meet my constituents to discuss proposals we have put together in a local housing charter to promote fairer rents and more affordable homes?

There is about £2.8 billion of headroom in the housing revenue account across local authorities. We have recognised this year that some authorities that have been building have come close to that headroom, so we made extra money available. We have already announced some bids and will announce some more shortly. I encourage local authorities to bid to take up this opportunity, along with the housing guarantee grants that we have been offering with housing associations to provide more affordable housing. I am proud that we have managed to deliver more than 200,000 such houses over the past couple of years.

Local Government Pension Scheme

9. When his Department plans to issue a final response to the consultation entitled “Opportunities for collaboration, cost savings and efficiencies”; launched in May 2014, on the local government pension scheme. (905956)

Our consultation outlined how £660 million a year could be saved if local government pension funds were invested more efficiently. We will publish a response in due course. Many funds have already started to take the messages from the consultation on board.

I hope that “due course” will not be too long delayed, because my hon. Friend is absolutely right to recognise the significant savings that have been made to taxpayers and scheme members by the agglomeration of vehicles. When he takes on board the consequences of the consultation, will he particularly bear in mind the value that can be brought by collective investment vehicles, which can achieve some 90% of those savings without significant administrative upheaval and can provide useful vehicles for wider investment?

The consultation considered how some £240 million could be saved by creating combined investment vehicles. It should be noted that London borough councils have already taken that on board and some 30 councils have come together after their council meetings and have agreed to bring those funds together.

Council Tax Freeze

10. What assessment he has made of the effect on council tax payers of freezing the rates of council tax. (905958)

Under Labour, council tax more than doubled. Under this Government, it has fallen by 11% in real terms. Our council tax freeze is saving the average band D householder in England up to £1,073 over the lifetime of this Parliament.

Just like central Government, local government has had to take tough spending decisions. Does the Secretary of State agree that councils such as mine in Basingstoke, which have frozen council tax for five years, have protected front-line services such as the weekly bin collection and are now rated by their residents as providing even better value for money, have got those tough decisions right?

It is a pleasure to be associated with my right hon. Friend. I congratulate Basingstoke and Deane borough council on its excellent work. We must remember that we are doing all this to ensure that ordinary people on modest incomes are not forced to pay hundreds of pounds more for a mansion tax. That is why the Government will not introduce one. We want to reduce the cost of living, not increase it. That is why we are helping councils to freeze council tax.

Would the Secretary of State like to congratulate Kettering borough council, of which I also have the privilege to be a member, on freezing its share of the council tax since 2010, maintaining all its front-line services, maintaining its grants to local community groups and cutting car parking charges?

Every time I travel close to Kettering, I find myself saying, “Thank God for Kettering borough council.” What a great, well-run council it is. It is my pleasure to say from this Dispatch Box—I think for the 10th time—that Kettering borough council is magnificent, as is its Member of Parliament.

What is the additional cost to people on low incomes who now have to pay for basic services that they need and who have lost their council tax benefit?

I assume that the hon. Lady is making some kind of spending commitment on behalf of the Labour party—an unlimited one. Local schemes are put in place by local councils. We have offered them transitional relief to help them. It is a ludicrous argument to say that poor people and people who are struggling hard do not pay council tax. The problem with the hon. Lady is that she belongs to the political classes, who are out of touch with the needs of ordinary people.

Social Housing

We are on course to deliver the Government’s programme of 170,000 affordable homes by March 2015. A further £23 billion of investment will deliver 165,000 affordable homes between 2015 and 2018. That will be the fastest rate of affordable house building for at least 20 years.

I thank the Minister for that positive report. Will he assure the House that the energy performance of new social and affordable homes will not be downgraded using any of the foolish loopholes in the Infrastructure Bill, and that we will get genuinely zero-carbon homes in the social and affordable sector?

The Government are determined that we will. We tightened up the energy efficiency standards for new house building in April and we have announced a commitment to zero-carbon homes from 2016. It is important, however, to get smaller house builders back into the market, which is why we are consulting on a modest exemption.

There is a chronic shortage of social housing in this country, not least in my constituency. Despite that and despite the cuts in the grants for building affordable homes, will the Minister confirm that £800 million of grants have not been bid for and are sitting, unused, in the coffers of the Homes and Communities Agency? Does he blame the providers for not putting in bids because they do not see the need for social housing, or does he blame Government policy, under which the amount of grant per unit has been cut to such a low level that providers no longer feel able to bid for the money?

In fact, the Homes and Communities Agency and the Greater London authority, which is responsible for this matter in London, have announced initial allocations of £1.3 billion under the next programme to deliver 62,000 new affordable homes from 2015 to 2018. We will open the bidding process for the next round soon.

Is the Minister aware of the concerns expressed by our national park authorities about the possible unintended consequences of introducing a threshold below which affordable housing would not be required under section 106 agreements? Is he aware that it could halve the ability of the authority for the national park that I represent, Dartmoor, to deliver affordable housing, including social housing?

Yes, I and my ministerial colleagues certainly are aware of the special concerns about providing affordable homes in national parks. That is why, in the consultation, we have proposed a different threshold for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty from that for urban areas.

May I draw the House’s attention to my interests?

As the Minister will know from his own Department’s figures, just 100,000 new housing association and council homes have been built in the first four years of the life of this Government. Given that their record is an average of just 25,000 affordable homes being built over their four years to date, how will he miraculously deliver a further 75,000 in the Government’s last remaining year in office? It beggars belief that output will treble, as he suggests.

Some people may think that it beggars belief that a former Housing Minister can say that, given that in the 13 years for which his party was in office, with a rather different economic inheritance, the number of social and affordable homes fell by 420,000. This will be probably the first Government in my lifetime to leave more affordable homes in stock at the end of a five-year Parliament than there were before it.

Council Tax Benefit

13. What recent representations he has received on reform of council tax benefit; and if he will make a statement. (905962)

Local council tax support schemes are a matter for local authorities. An independent review of schemes will be carried out within three years, as set out in legislation.

The changes to council tax benefit that the Government have brought in are every bit as cruel as the evil bedroom tax and Thatcher’s poll tax. My local citizens advice bureau tells me that its new referrals to food banks have gone up from two a month to 10 a week. When will the Government stop attacking the poor?

One way in which we can get people to stop using food banks is to get them into a job, and this Government have delivered 1.8 million jobs for those individuals.

The New Policy Institute says that more than 200,000 families have been hit by both increases in council tax, due to the withdrawal of council tax support, and the bedroom tax. Will the Minister make a proper assessment of that tax double whammy on the least able to pay, and will he tell us why he is so keen to increase taxes on the poorest people?

This Government have frozen council tax for some five years, and in real terms it is 11% less than it was, which equates to a saving of more than £1,000 for an individual household. That is the Government’s track record.

Departmental and Local Authority Budgets

16. What level of reduction there has been in (a) his Department’s budget and (b) centrally-funded local authority budgets since May 2010. (905966)

We needed to make sensible savings to address Labour’s deficit. Local authority net current expenditure in England, excluding education, has risen from £74.7 billion in 2009-10 to £77.1 billion in 2013-14. At the time of the spending review, the budget for the core Department was reduced to £15.9 billion, reflecting an overall saving of 68%.

Since this Government took office, Newcastle has had its budget cut by 41% in real terms—almost half. My constituents are losing £115 per dwelling, while more affluent areas such as Surrey and Wokingham are gaining up to £20 extra per dwelling despite having less pressure on services. Will the Minister make a commitment to come to Newcastle to see the effects that his budget cuts are having on local services, and to explain to the people of Newcastle how they are fair?

I have had the pleasure of visiting the great city of Newcastle many times this year. It has the opportunity to invest money, support vulnerable individuals and spend further on public services by growing its business base. As a direct consequence of this Government’s interventions, 6,300 businesses have gained from our business tax discount.

Protection for Leaseholders

17. What steps he is taking to protect leaseholders from nuisance legal actions initiated by their landlords. (905967)

Existing legislation already provides leaseholders with rights and protections. Furthermore, the Government fund the Leasehold Advisory Service to give free advice to leaseholders who face a dispute with their landlord.

I thank the Minister for his response, but not enough is being done. My constituent Emma Stewart is being pursued by her landlord over a leasehold dispute. A tribunal decision found that Ms Stewart had made every effort to comply with the terms of her lease, and that her landlord had not been disadvantaged in any way, yet they continue to demand payment from her. That is a clear case of nuisance action and has cost Ms Stewart the sale of her home. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the situation and say what on earth can be done?

I wrote to the hon. Lady about this issue a couple of weeks ago, but I am happy to meet her if that letter did not cover everything she needs.

Storm Water Drainage (Local Authorities)

19. What recent guidance he has given local authorities on ensuring adequate storm water drainage in residential areas. [Official Report, 18 November 2014, Vol. 588, c. 1-2MC.] (905970)

There are strict tests in national planning policy to protect people and property from flooding, including from storm water. We made clear in planning guidance that we published in March that where those tests are not met, new development should not be allowed.

Quite right. In the past year we have seen businesses and homes damaged by floods in Bradford on Avon, Corsham, Melksham, and villages, including Holt. What role does the Minister expect local authorities such as Wiltshire council to play in preventing flood damage with sufficient storm water drainage?

We obviously expect local authorities to deal with such issues through their local plan. Some 94 local authorities act as the lead local flood authority and are expected to have in place a flood risk management strategy. Of those 94, 36 local authorities have not yet published or consulted on their strategy and, according to my information, Wiltshire is one of them. Perhaps as a diligent constituency MP, my hon. Friend will join me in encouraging Wiltshire council to come forward with that plan.

Help to Buy Scheme

The Government have already helped more than 54,000 families purchase a home in England with the support of Help to Buy since March 2012, helping people to achieve their ambition of owning their own home. In the Winchester local authority area, 65 families have already bought through Help to Buy.

Like many Members, I have spent years listening to young people say that they can afford mortgage payments but never the deposit to get on the housing ladder. Help to Buy nails that issue, and it is one of the most positive things this Government have done. Will the Minister comment on the starter homes plan and say whether those two programmes will work together to give more young people a chance to live the dream?

My hon. Friend has campaigned hard for people to aspire to own their own home, and the Government share that desire. The Conservatives have made clear that after the next election we want to deliver 100,000 extra starter homes at a 20% discount, giving more people the opportunity to get on the housing ladder for the first time.

Topical Questions

There is no place in British society for anti-Semitism, and we must stand united to resist all the pernicious ways in which it is manifested. Recently, there has been an increase in anti-Semitic graffiti on public property, private homes and in Jewish cemeteries, where gravestones have been desecrated and covered in offensive graffiti. That is appalling. Today, I am writing to councils, with the Community Security Trust, to stress the importance of using their range of legal powers to remove such graffiti quickly, including on private property, and to report all incidents to the police. That is part of a wider measure to tackle anti-Semitism and promote tolerance and respect in our society.

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said about tackling anti-Semitism.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue service has faced a 35% cut to its Government grant since the Government came to power, which means that it has lost two of the four whole-time fire appliances serving my constituency. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that we will not suffer further cuts in the next spending review, given that such cuts would inevitably lead to the loss of at least one of the fire stations in Sefton?

The project merges existing stations into three new efficient stations, while protecting front-line services with the introduction of an on-call arrangement on the three new sites. In addition, the new sites will be shared with police and ambulance services, enabling further efficiencies and service contribution. That seems a very sensible way of going forward.

T4. Last month, the Secretary of State upheld the planning inspector’s decision to close the Arpley landfill in Warrington. This is of great benefit to the town and on behalf of the residents I thank him for that. Will he confirm that landfill remains at the bottom of the waste hierarchy and that in time it will be replaced everywhere by incineration and recycling? (905941)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that landfill is at the bottom of the waste hierarchy, below incineration, energy recovery and recycling. Updated planning policy on waste from October this year continues the focus of moving waste up the hierarchy by moving away from traditional landfill towards more sustainable options.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning anti-Semitic abuse. I very much welcome the action he has taken today.

Last year, the Secretary of State decided to extend permitted development rights so that offices could be converted to residential use without requiring planning permission. What assessment has he made of the impact of his change on the availability of office space, in particular for small and start-up businesses that are so important to our economy?

First, may I express great sadness that the right hon. Gentleman was not on his feet yesterday to defend his leader? For him to be missing seems to me to be deeply shameful. [Interruption.] Well I’m here to defend Ed.

We did this because there was quite a lot of surplus office accommodation. It was a necessary thing to do and I think it has improved a number of town centres by getting people new homes. In terms of offering new and exciting ways for people to set up new businesses, the situation remains open.

It seems extraordinary that the Secretary of State has clearly made no effort at all to find out the impact of his decision, despite reports of small businesses being affected. As he will know, the Mayor of London is very unhappy about what he has done. The Business Secretary thinks it is a really bad idea, saying that

“in south-west London large swathes of commercial property are in the process of disappearing…there is nowhere for small firms to operate.”

A recent Local Government Association survey found in one case that 100 charities and small businesses had been given four to six weeks’ notice to quit. The right hon. Gentleman used to be a localist. He said earlier that he has given more power to local communities to take decisions on planning, so why did he decide that his view on this matter would prevail over the views of local people?

I note that the right hon. Gentleman has not taken the opportunity to defend the Leader of the Opposition, which again I am very shocked at. He should do his homework: local schemes exist and article 4 exists. It is possible to decide where they go and where they do not. People need housing, and where Labour failed to deliver houses, we have succeeded.

T6. Stevenage borough council has taken more than £3.5 million in car parking charges, preventing the regeneration of Stevenage town centre. Thousands of local people have joined my campaign for three hours free parking. Will the Minister agree to support my campaign and send a strong message to Stevenage borough council to stop ripping off local people? (905943)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. He is quite right that this is an issue that restricts growth locally. We recognise that and have introduced restricting the use of CCTV to enforce parking, grace periods for on-street parking, and have made it possible for local people to require their local councils to review parking. I draw his attention to the Great British High Street portal, which demonstrates that if local authorities reduce their parking rates they receive greater revenue.

T2. Responding to a Centrepoint report quoted in The Independent last week, the homelessness Minister said that the number of people sleeping rough was falling dramatically and claimed that it was a result of the Government’s action. Given that his Department’s own figures show that the level of rough sleeping has risen every year under this Government and is up 37% since 2010, will he repeat his claim to the House and take responsibility for this dramatic change in levels of rough sleeping? (905939)

The Government take the plight of individuals who are homeless and rough sleeping extremely seriously, which is why we support the No Second Night Out project and have invested £1 billion through homeless services and welfare reform to address the problem. Levels of homelessness have dropped by 2%. Rough sleeping figures across the country are variable, but the Government take the issue extremely seriously and will continue to support those vulnerable individuals.

T9. Has the Minister seen the disturbing reports from Tower Hamlets that £400,000 was given to organisations that did not meet minimum standards and that council land was sold off to friends of the administration? The mayor, Mr Rahman, says they have done nothing wrong, but surely this has to be tackled—a very serious situation has arisen. (905946)

As my hon. and learned Friend will recall, I made a statement to the House last week, and we are currently waiting to hear what the mayor has to say in response to the report. As the House will recall, I asked for two specific undertakings regarding the disposal of property. We have received those undertakings, and I hope to make an announcement very soon.

T5. I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interest, which I frequently make public in this place.When will the Secretary of State act to save roughly £500 million of public money over 10 years by giving registered housing providers the same powers as local authorities to enter properties to carry out essential gas safety checks, as supported by the Association of Gas Safety Managers? (905942)

I am discussing this matter with the industry, and I will continue to do so and inform the House once we have finished those conversations.

The concrete councillors of Labour-led Telford and Wrekin borough council seem to be building on every bit of greenfield and every green patch in the borough, despite its being a semi-rural borough. What more can the planning Minister do to encourage this out-of-touch council to build on brownfield sites?

We have published further guidance to help councils to appreciate that green-belt development should be an absolute last resort and that brownfield sites should always be used first. This summer, we made available to councils an extra several hundred million pounds, and I encourage my hon. Friend’s council to bid for some of that and do what it can to protect its valuable green belt.

T7. It is a disgrace that the Secretary of State has personally allowed the dispute over fire service pensions to drag on for three years. The Government’s own expert report says that two thirds of firefighters will not pass the current fitness standard at the age of 60, meaning they will be faced with no job and no pension after years of good service. Why has he turned his back on firefigters and now dragged his new junior Minister away from the negotiating table? (905944)

As I have stated before, we have introduced protections for firefighters on a statutory footing and set up a working group to ensure best practice to enable people to maintain their fitness. We have gone further still, however, and are looking at the future shape of the work force to ensure that people who want to stay operational but cannot maintain those fitness standards have jobs to go to.

Will my right hon. Friend consider strengthening guidelines to prevent a council from unilaterally removing heritage assets, including a presumption of like-for-like replacement if assets need renewal? In particular, I am thinking about popular items of street furniture.

Obviously, if my hon. Friend has something specific in mind, I would be most interested to hear what he has to say, and perhaps we could have a discussion about it today.

T8. This Government have taken away 58% of Liverpool city council’s funding, hitting Liverpool harder than anywhere else, yet Liverpool is still finding innovative new ways of maintaining services, including the announcement today that all our libraries will be kept open. Will the Secretary of State finally travel to visit Liverpool for himself to see what difference the city could make if its funding cuts were at the national average? (905945)

Liverpool is one of the highest-funded councils in the country, but it has one problem—it does not collect its council tax. If it were to do so, an enormous burden would be taken off the shoulders of taxpayers in Liverpool.

Given the Prime Minister’s commitments earlier in the year, why is it proving so difficult for the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to find a sustainable funding formula for the proposed Somerset river authority? Frankly, I do not care about precedent—13,000 acres under water is a pretty compelling precedent in itself.

We have, of course, honoured our obligations to the people of Somerset with £20 million having already gone in and an additional £13.1 million for looking at the possibility of a barrier at Bridgwater. It simply comes down to this: what we are doing is trying to find something sustainable. The hon. Gentleman seems to be urging me to tax people who were flooded. What we are looking at is trying to get something sustainable without over-burdening the people of Somerset. That seems a much more sensible course to pursue.

T10. Further to the Secretary of State’s statement last week on the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on Tower Hamlets and the criticism on grants and disposal of assets in particular, it was reported at column 669 that the right hon. Gentleman would “send a copy” of the report “to the police”. Will he confirm that a copy will be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, too? (905947)

It appears on our website, but I will certainly bring the attention of the Crown Prosecution Service to it. I express no view on whether or not these matters are criminal. I am certainly unhappy with them, but it is for the police and the Crown Prosecution to make the appropriate decision. I am determined to ensure that Tower Hamlets has the best possible council so that public confidence can be re-established in it.

I understand that the Secretary of State is calling in almost all onshore wind farm applications and turning most of them down, including those already approved by the planning authorities. Given the majority of the people of this country say, when polled, that they are broadly in favour of onshore wind projects, will the right hon. Gentleman explain his Department’s policy on this matter?

If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I need to correct him. There have been just over 800 applications for solar and wind farms, of which some 40 have been recovered and only four have ever been called in.

The continuing firefighters’ dispute in England is both damaging and avoidable. Will the Minister look at what has happened in Northern Ireland, where the Northern Ireland Executive have come to an agreement with the firefighters that is neither costly nor damaging? Will he adopt the same common-sense approach here as has been adopted in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

In summary, all the schemes except that of Northern Ireland have a retirement age of 60, while England and Scotland have the same faster accrual rate and England, Wales and Northern Ireland have the same transitional protections. Wales and Northern Ireland have not yet made any announcements on fitness. The scheme in England is marginally different from that of the other nations and, in many respects, it is better. The regulations have been laid. We must get the message across to firefighters to remain part of that scheme.