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Topical Questions

Volume 587: debated on Monday 10 November 2014

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.