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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 589: debated on Monday 15 December 2014

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Assistance Schemes

The Government have consulted on how to fund local welfare provision in 2015-16. The Department for Communities and Local Government, with the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, is analysing responses, alongside the DWP review into current provision. The Government will make a decision by the provisional local government finance settlement.

The Minister will be aware of the excellent work of discretionary schemes. In my constituency alone, 446 people in desperate situations were helped in the past year. Will he please ensure that councils facing a particularly tough financial situation will receive funds and that he will bring forward something positive for them in the local government finance settlement? Otherwise, that vital work will be lost.

I recognise the work of local councils in helping individuals who are in very vulnerable situations. There will be an announcement on the local government finance settlement. We will take into account what the hon. Gentleman says, but I point out that there is a £94 billion welfare safety net. We have given local authorities the opportunity to use their resources in whichever way they think is appropriate.

When the Minister makes the announcement, will he recognise that many of the most severely disabled people, who depend on the independent living fund, flourish with the independence it gives them? The fund is being wound up in March and they are very frightened that they will lose that independence. Will he review the protection available, even at this eleventh hour, and ensure that councils can continue ILF provision in full?

As I have said, we will make an announcement in due course. It is important to reiterate that local authorities, which know the challenges facing their communities, have the opportunity to make choices and set the priorities they think are appropriate.

The loss of the welfare assistance fund has left many families fleeing domestic abuse in the south-west—in particular, women and children—facing considerable hardship, as local authorities find it difficult to find the funds to support such relationship breakdown. Is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done nationally to understand the needs at local level? Will he explain why the south-west seems to have had the greatest losses?

If there is a particular issue with domestic violence, the hon. Lady is more than welcome to write to me. The Government recognise that dealing with domestic violence is extremely important. Additional money has been put in place to support that provision.

LED Street Lighting

2. If he will estimate the potential energy and financial savings which could be made through local authorities installing LED street lighting. (906609)

We do not collect this information centrally. However, we know that two-thirds of councils have already switched to low-energy street lighting. That will save council tax payers’ money and have the double benefit of reducing carbon emissions.

I thank the Minister for that very thoughtful reply, which I am sure will be listened to with great interest at County Hall in Chelmsford, where the county council has had a blackout policy from midnight. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a company near Colchester that is in the market of producing LED lights that would be of financial benefit to the taxpayer?

I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. If he wants to bring someone along to meet me I would be happy to accommodate him. However, I am advised that Essex county council is about to embark on a £1 million pilot scheme to introduce energy-saving LED streetlights in six areas of the council. I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that, as a result, I am sure, of his campaigning, that includes Colchester.

The point about LED lights is that not only do they use a very small amount of electricity while generating a lot of light, they last so long and require little maintenance so that they require very few people to tend to them during the life of the light bulb. Has the Minister factored those cost-savings into his calculations?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In April, the Campaign to Protect Rural England estimated that councils spend more than £600 million on street lighting, accounting for 30% of their carbon emissions. Tackling the remaining street lights not using LED will reduce carbon emissions and cut the maintenance costs he mentions.

Local Authority Finance

3. What assessment he has made of the recommendations of the report by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783. (906610)

5. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the report published by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783; and if he will make a statement. (906612)

9. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the report published by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783; and if he will make a statement. (906616)

17. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the report published by the National Audit Office entitled, “Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2014”, published in November 2014, HC 783; and if he will make a statement. (906625)

Every part of the public sector needs to do its bit to pay off the deficit left by the last Labour Government, including local government, which accounts for a quarter of all public spending. The National Audit Office report recognises that local authorities as a whole have coped well with spending reductions, with many increasing their financial reserves. The Government will continue to support local councils to transform local services, cut waste, tackle fraud and achieve better outcomes for local people.

I admire the Minister’s calm, but the report says that half the local authority auditors, never mind the politicians, have grave concerns. Given that, and given that Labour itself wants to take £500 million out of local authority finance, is it not time for a wholesale review of local authority finance?

The record shows that the vast majority of people believe that local authorities offer a good service, and local authorities have achieved significant outcomes despite the reductions. Furthermore, the Government have prioritised the ability of local authorities to grow their budgets by developing local businesses, which has brought in significant money to those establishments—£11 billion has been retained in business rates alone.

The NAO found that the Minister’s Department did not understand the impact of its cuts on local authority services. By 2017, Liverpool council will have had its budget cut by 58%, which is 20% more than the national average, and it has reserves of only £39 million—down from £125 million—so what is his assessment of the impact of his Department’s cuts on the city of Liverpool?

The councils facing the most demands are receiving the most money and will continue to do so. It is exceptional that a great city such as Liverpool is standing up and recognising its potential and how it can get itself out of the financial difficulties it faces. The fact that it is confident about its city deal, which will result in 15,000 jobs and 16,000 houses, as a consequence of its leadership, and the fact that it is growing its business base and drawing down significant amounts of money to support local businesses, demonstrates that the community understands the direction to go in, even if the hon. Lady does not.

Given that this is a report by the independent NAO, should the Minister not be at least a little concerned about some of its findings? It states:

“The Department has a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities and the extent to which they may be at risk of financial failure”


“does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on services in a coordinated way.”

Is that not a damning indictment? If the Government continue with these policies, some councils will get into serious financial difficulties, and they will get there with the Government apparently unaware and seemingly uninterested.

No local authority has not been able to secure its budget, and each year, as dramas and challenges have arisen, they have faced them and dealt with them. Furthermore, we should not forget that about £2.1 billion is lost to error or fraud and that, despite the challenges, local authorities have managed to grow their reserve base to £21.2 billion.

A transformation of services is fundamental to delivering savings on the scale required, but the NAO report states that the

“The Department has not…estimated the capacity of local authorities to carry out widespread service transformation. Nor has it estimated…the level of savings such projects could realistically make, how long this would take, or the potential impact on service users.”

Why did the Minister not ensure that this vital work was carried out?

The money we put forward to support transformation in councils has been welcomed right across the country—in fact, more councils have applied than we have money for—and, as for outcomes, for every £1 put in, £10 is saved. We know what we are doing, and local authorities are leading the way in driving these savings.

It is now two years since the Department published its guidance, entitled “50 ways to save”, on how local government could make savings. Does the Minister have any plans to issue a second edition of this booklet, taking into account all the new ways in which councils, particularly Conservative councils, have come up with to save money since the first edition was issued?

That is a pertinent question, and a new booklet has just been published that demonstrates how Conservative councils are leading the way in saving money and driving up services. I will make sure that my hon. Friend gets a copy.

In every one of the four years in which I was a Minister at the Department for the Environment, we were told by the Opposition that our local government spending settlement would lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. Somehow local government continued and civilisation continued. Does my hon. Friend think that if local government manages better and cuts waste, it should be able to deal with an average 2.9% reduction in spending in 2014-15 without any serious hit on services?

My right hon. Friend is right. Businesses out there face these reductions and challenges all the time, and local authorities have risen to the challenge and are delivering good services, which are rated highly by the public—despite the challenges out there. We have faced difficult circumstances as a consequence of the previous Labour Government who drove the economy into the ground. Local government is responding to the challenge of addressing those needs.

The Minister’s shockingly complacent response today underlines the NAO’s findings that the Department has

“a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities and the extent to which they may be at risk of financial failure…does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on services in a coordinated way”—

and, even worse—that the Department’s approach “obscures” the “substantial differences between authorities”. Does the Minister have a clue about the real impact of his massive cuts to local government?

I think there was a question in there. We understand that there are huge challenges facing local authorities, but it is local auditors and local councils that are making the choices about priorities at this time, addressing the needs of the vulnerable people who need to be helped. I am confident that local authorities will continue to deliver high-quality services, despite the fact that resources are currently limited.

The truth, as this damning report by the NAO shows, is that the Government do not know and do not care about the impact of the cuts on the ground. Across the country, street lights have been turned off, bus services cut, lollipop patrols stopped, children’s centres closed and care services withdrawn. Will the Minister come clean and admit that this is just the start of what it really means to take Britain back to the 1930s?

This House knows, I know and councils out there know that the reason why we have had to make the difficult decisions to make sure this country lives within its means is a direct consequence of Labour’s incompetence and economic illiteracy.

House Building

4. What guidance his Department has given to local authorities on steps they can take to increase the rate at which new homes are built. (906611)

We have just extended the affordable homes programme—a total of £38 billion-worth of public and private investment, together ensuring that 275,000 new affordable homes will be built between 2015 and 2020. Council housing starts are at a 23-year high, and we expect the independent review into councils’ role in housing supply to report very soon.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that greenfield sites can be very highly valued by local residents and are important for protecting natural habitats and heritage? As we look to build the much-needed houses, will he take steps to assist local authorities to make sure that brownfield sites and inner-city spaces are fully exhausted before any greenfield sites are built on?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that local authorities should be looking to develop brownfield sites first. In fact, we are looking at that with the new starter homes programme that the Prime Minister announced today. We have also put in more money over the summer to encourage local authorities to develop those brownfield sites first and to make them more viable.

As my hon. Friend knows, Mid Sussex is making a great attempt to cope with the extraordinary demand for housing in the south-east. Does he agree that a rule allowing the Planning Inspectorate to accept housing development only when there is adequate housing infrastructure to support it would make a great difference to building in the south?

That is a very good point. It is important for local authorities and developers to ensure that the infrastructure is there to support housing development, and authorities will seek to do that as part of the planning process and, indeed, as part of their own local-plan process. That is another example of how important it is for local authorities to have local plans in place.

If Medway council had acted properly in approving the building of 5,000 houses in a bird sanctuary at Lodge Hill, would the Minister have needed to write to the council offering his guidance on the need for an evidence base to be submitted to him by 12 January?

The hon. Gentleman has stood in the House in the past and argued in favour of that development, but he has now changed his position. He and I have not had a conversation about the matter, and I think that that is the right approach, given that it involves a quasi-judicial planning process and the application is still live.

Although both unemployment and homelessness are at an extraordinarily low level in North Wiltshire, we are being told that we must have thousands of unwanted new houses—particularly in the Chippenham area—followed by factories to give jobs to the people who will live in those new houses. While it is fine for houses to be built where they are needed, surely central Government should allow areas such as mine, where housing and jobs are roughly in balance, not to have them.

As my hon. Friend will no doubt appreciate, this Government ended the top-down approach adopted by the Labour Government, getting rid of the regional spatial strategies. It is now entirely for local authorities to make evidence-based assessments of local housing development needs, and then to consider how they can provide for them. Decisions should be locally driven, with local people in mind.

If what the Minister has just said is correct, why did his own planning inspectors suggest to Knowsley council that it should consider using up green-belt land for future housing development as part of its local-plan process?

I have not seen the details of that case, but if the right hon. Gentleman forwards them to me, I shall be happy to look at them. In my experience, planning inspectors tend to challenge local authorities about their evidence bases. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that green belt constitutes an environmental constraint, and local authorities can use such constraints as evidence bases when it comes to what they can actually provide. It is for them to do the research, build those evidence bases, and make their case.

The Minister recently suggested that councils did not need local plans, and that there was no role for central Government if they failed to adopt one. As he knows, however, without local plans communities have absolutely no say in where new houses are built. If he is really serious about local people deciding, why does he think that councils do not need local plans, and why will he not back our proposals to make it a statutory requirement for every council to have one?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady has got the planning process slightly wrong. Obviously local authorities in all circumstances have a say in planning, which is a quasi-judicial process. Planning applications go through local authorities. As I have said, there is no need for a statutory rule, because it is in authorities’ own best interests to have local plans, which mean local involvement and local decisions about what development should be allowed and where it should be allowed to take place. If there is no local plan, those matters will fall within the national planning policy framework.

Social Enterprise North West

6. What assessment he has made of the effect of his Department’s demand for a repayment from Social Enterprise North West on local businesses and services in the North West of England. (906613)

My Department has worked with Merseyside partners to ensure that individuals and businesses are signposted to business support. My Department’s demand notice will not seek to reclaim any of the money from the 17 supporting organisations which operated in good faith throughout the process.

I am sure that the Minister believes what she has said, but it is not entirely accurate, and it does not entirely answer the question. Social Enterprise North West has been ordered to pay back nearly £1.5 million, although it observed the funding requirements that were laid down by her own Department, and hundreds of jobs and businesses are endangered as a result. Has she received representations from councillors, Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and local businesses—I have been told that she has—and what will she do to right her Department’s wrong?

It is not just a question of our accounting requirements; it is a question of the European Commission’s rules, and they are perfectly clear. Failing to provide evidence of the way in which money is spent puts funding at risk, and it is totally unacceptable that Social Enterprise North West cannot provide proper accounts for that public money. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. We will not be recouping money from the 17 supporting contractors which operated in good faith, no match funding has been lost, and the money from the European regional development fund that is being returned from the project will be reinvested in other existing business support services in the Liverpool city region.

Social Care

This Government continue to deliver a fair settlement to every part of the country. In particular, we have introduced the £5.3 billion better care fund, which includes locally agreed plans for protecting adult social care services.

Does the Minister not recognise that the better care fund is not new money, but is money taken from existing budgets? There are more people with more needs. Does the Minister not recognise that providing small amounts of low-level services to carers, who are providing for a lot of those needs, will ensure that most people can continue to be cared for at home, whereas now many people are facing difficulties in caring, and we will see elderly and disabled people living without dignity?

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly fair point. Many Members in all parts of the House recognise the vital work that carers do in supporting their loved ones, and I have been particularly struck by children who care for brothers and sisters or parents. I certainly agree with the hon. Lady on that. In terms of resources, in the spending review the Government put an extra £470 million into supporting the Care Act 2014, and of course in the autumn statement a further £2 billion was announced to support the national health service.

15. The accident and emergency department at Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth continues to struggle to meet its four-hour waiting time targets. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as part of the solution to this problem, the local NHS and the surrounding providers of care, the local authorities, must work together much more closely, particularly on the subject of discharge? (906623)

I absolutely agree that it is essential that local authorities and the health service work together to provide a seamless service for patients as they leave hospital and come into the care of local authorities. That is precisely what the better care fund is about. I am advised that the last round table in my hon. Friend’s district took place on Friday.

Is the Minister aware that, despite having cuts to its spending power of about twice the national average, Birmingham is increasing its child protection budget? To ensure that other forms of social care do not suffer as a result and to meet Birmingham’s long-term needs, some additional support is required. Will the Minister agree, perhaps in conjunction with colleagues from the Department for Education, to meet a delegation from Birmingham to look at what is possible?

Birmingham city council has obviously had considerable difficulties recently, which the Department has been heavily involved in trying to solve, but if the hon. Gentleman has specific proposals to put forward and would like to write to me or the Secretary of State, I am sure that we will look at them very carefully.

I understand that the Chancellor announced that the inheritance tax threshold will be frozen until 2017 and the money raised thereby will be put into social care. Is that part of the money my hon. Friend just announced, or is that additional?

That would be additional money, I believe, but just under £2 billion in additional support was announced for the national health service in the autumn statement, money that I am sure will be well received and well spent.

Parking Enforcement

Councils are making a profit of £667 million a year from parking. That is unacceptable, so this Government are bringing forward a series of measures to make local parking fairer for residents and shoppers. This includes curtailing the use of CCTV spy cameras, introducing grace periods, and giving local residents and firms new rights to demand a review of yellow lines and parking charges in their area.

Over-zealous parking enforcement by these methods, and in particular by mobile cameras in Enfield’s Hertford road, is one of the most damaging practices to shops and shopkeepers, and the more so because Labour-controlled Enfield council is reducing the number of parking spaces. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for this council to put shoppers and high streets first?

On my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, he was kind enough to show me Hertford road, which does not have a very easy trading environment. We have placed an obligation on local authorities to look after local businesses, and we know that that plays an enormously important part in people’s management of their shops. I would simply urge Enfield council to get together with local traders to ensure that people do not have to drive further and further from Enfield to do their shopping.

Will the Secretary of State join me and many Congleton residents in objecting to proposals to introduce parking charges at Congleton War Memorial hospital for the first time? That plan is likely to increase, rather than decrease, local parking congestion, and rather than benefiting patients and their families it will in all likelihood benefit the car park charging company through aggressive fines.

I have a War Memorial hospital in my own constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has been vocal in pressing local health authorities on this practice, which particularly affects people who are visiting patients who are in hospital for a long stay. It does not seem to be the most sensible way of raising funds.

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping

Homelessness is lower now than in 27 of the last 30 years, and since this time last year we have seen a 38% decrease in the number of families in bed and breakfast for more than six weeks. This Government have supported innovation through the roll-out of No Second Night Out and StreetLink, which means that rough sleepers are being found more quickly and given the help they need to get them off the streets.

The Minister’s response is astonishing. Under this Government, we have seen disproportionate cuts to the Supporting People funding, the disappearance of street outreach workers and an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping of more than a third. The number of homeless families in Nottingham has risen by a quarter in the past year alone. What assurances can the Minister give me that the proposed review of exempt accommodation to be conducted jointly by his Department and the Department for Work and Pensions will not result in this disgraceful situation becoming even worse?

This Government are tackling homelessness using funds from welfare reform, with access to some £1 billion. I should like to make a comparison between our record and that of the previous Government. There were 136 homeless acceptances in Nottingham this year compared with 493 under the previous Administration at peak. This year, 90 households are in temporary accommodation compared with 391 under Labour, and as a consequence of this Government’s intervention, there are no people in bed and breakfast.

Earlier in the autumn, my hon. Friend the Minister visited Chester to see some of the homelessness provision there. He saw some first-rate services, but he also heard that homeless people were leaving other council areas, including Liverpool and Wrexham, to come to Chester to take advantage of our services. What will he do to ensure that Labour councils fulfil their obligations in the same way as Tory ones do?

I recognise the caring work undertaken by my hon. Friend’s Conservative-led council to look after those vulnerable people. It is not appropriate for local authorities, of whatever political badge, to bus people from one authority area to another.

Last year, the then Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), said:

“There is absolutely no excuse for families to be sent miles away without proper regard for their circumstances…The law is clear: councils have a responsibility to take into account people’s jobs and schools when securing homes for those in need.”

Why, then, has the number of families being housed outside their local area increased by almost one third in this past year alone, and what is the Minister going to do about it?

I reiterate that it is against the law for councils to move numbers of individuals wholesale to other authorities, but I would point out that 14,220 out- of-district placements, equating to 93% of the total, took place in London local authorities.

Council Tax

Under Labour, council tax more than doubled. Under this Government, it has fallen by 11% in real terms. Further funding will be available to freeze council tax in 2015-16, which will mean five consecutive years of freeze funding since 2011-12. That is worth £1,075 for an average household over this Parliament. An announcement on the detail of this will be made shortly.

I am very grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) and I had the tremendous problem of keeping council tax down in the London borough of Barnet under the last Labour Government. What steps will the Government take to continue in other areas to help hard-pressed families, pensioners and individuals by supporting them with their cost of living and to ensure that the London borough of Barnet protects front-line services?

I commend Barnet for freezing council tax for four successive years. It proves that councils can run their services efficiently and encourage growth without increasing taxes on local people. The council tax went from being a modest sum in people’s budgets to being absolutely overbearing, and it is exactly right that the most vulnerable people—pensioners and the like—have benefited from this freeze.

20. I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier reply. As council tax is such a large bill, especially for those on fixed incomes, will he congratulate my local South Derbyshire district council on keeping its council tax at a zero increase for the past four years? We hope that this year’s settlement from the Government will help it achieve a record five years of frozen council tax. (906628)

On behalf of the Government, I say bless you, South Derbyshire. You have done a fantastic job. You have looked after the coffers very carefully and you have fulfilled good quality services at a reasonable cost, without going for the incremental rise every year.

House Building

We are making excellent progress in helping to deliver large-scale housing sites. Through long-term loans for infrastructure, capacity funding and brokerage, we have helped unlock or accelerate more than 90,000 homes to date, and a further 200,000 homes could be unlocked or accelerated on sites shortlisted for investment and wider support.

There are so many hard-working people in this country, including many firefighters, who would listen to that reply and not be able to believe the complacency. We have a Department with no leadership, no vision and no ambition, when we need a million new homes for our elderly people and for our young people, who have no chance of a home. This Government will face the wrath of those people at the next general election.

As before, I am sure there was a question in there somewhere. [Interruption.] And the audience agree. I find the hon. Gentleman’s follow-up point slightly bizarre, in the sense that this Government have provided roughly 700,000 new homes in the past four or five years, including more council houses than were built in the entire period of the previous Labour Government.

But the truth is that the Government are simply not building enough affordable homes. The number of homes built for social rent over the past year is the lowest it has been for 20 years, so it is little surprise that the waiting list in Sunderland has increased on their watch, whereas it more than halved under Labour. Thankfully, these Ministers have less than five months left in post, but may we have a little more action from them, even in those five months, and a lot fewer re-announcements of yet more empty announcements?

I simply point the hon. Lady to the facts: we have now delivered around 220,000 affordable homes in this Parliament, and there will be 165,000 over the next three years. It will be the fastest rate of building we have seen in more than 20 years, having inherited from the last Labour Government the lowest level of building since 1923. It was an absolute disgrace what was left by the last Government.

My constituents are concerned that if more houses are ever to be built on Teesside again in substantial numbers, more farmland could be swallowed up even though countless brownfield sites are available. Many of these already have planning permission, yet developers have left them derelict for donkey’s years. What steps is the Minister planning to take to get action from such developers? What will he do if they refuse to bring these kinds of sites, many of them close to our town centres, back into use?

As I said earlier, we have in fact put some money in over the course of the summer—a few hundred millions pounds—to encourage brownfield development. We are also now looking at the housing zones, and we will be making some announcements on that fairly soon to make sure we get these sites unlocked. When local authorities are developing their local plans, they are making sure that they are delivering viable sites to provide the houses we all want to see built.

Leeds city council has divided the city into areas in order to set the house building targets, and in Aireborough the vast majority of the sites being considered are in the green belt. I am aware that the use of green belt can happen only in “exceptional circumstances”. Will the Minister confirm what the definition of “exceptional circumstances” is?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about protecting the green belt, which is something that we always seek to do. The Secretary of State and I have outlined some further guidance on that in the past few months to make it clear that building on green belt land is something that we do as a last resort. Indeed, it is one of the exceptional circumstances to be taken into account against development to make sure that we protect our green belt. Obviously, every planning application has to be taken forward and adjudged on its merits by the local authority, planning inspectors and the Department.

Does the Minister agree that one challenge in bringing forward large-scale housing sites is the failure of local authorities to allocate sufficient land for housing in their local plan? For example, the Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council has failed to bring forward a local plan, whereas Rugby borough council has had its local plan in place for some time, and has brought forward a site for 6,000 new homes at the Rugby radio site.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Rugby is an excellent example of a good, well-run council, which seeks to support growth and to provide homes for local people. It is important that local areas, in conjunction with the community, work out their housing need, make provision for it, and take advantage of the £1.5 billion that we are putting in to help unlock those kinds of sites.

The coalition came to office promising localism whereby locally elected councillors would decide on large-scale housing developments. In Tendring, the Government have now insisted on an extra 12,000 houses. How is that localism?

That is not how the system works. We do not have top-down targets. We got rid of the regional spatial strategies. It is up to the local authority to work out its housing needs and to look at the evidence base to see what it can provide locally, taking into account any environmental constraints.

The recent designation of Bicester as a garden city brings not a single new home to the table, as Bicester had already planned for and started to build 13,000 new homes as outlined in its local plan. Is it not time that the Government thought seriously about how to deliver our much needed new settlements rather than simply repackaging existing developments?

With respect, I think the hon. Lady has missed the point. Bicester itself came forward and wanted to develop on garden city principles. When I was there last week, officials showed me around the excellent work that the local authority is doing to release some of the land, including looking at the infrastructure to see how they can make it possible. We are not following a top-down approach. I appreciate that the Labour party wants to have a suit in Whitehall deciding who builds and where, but we believe in localism. Local areas should lead on garden cities. They should come to us with the outlines of what they want to do. I am talking about local decisions, by local people and for local people.

Business Rates

13. What estimate he has made of the number of small firms and shops in (a) England and (b) Derbyshire local authority area which will have a reduction in business rates in 2015-16. (906620)

We do not hold figures for that year, but estimate that our retail relief is currently benefiting around 300,000 premises in England, including 4,700 in Derbyshire. We are also doubling small business rate relief for a further year, which is currently benefiting around 575,000 businesses, including 12,300 in my hon. Friend’s local authority area.

I thank the Minister for her reply. As she knows, Belper in my constituency recently won the Great British High Street competition of 2014. What measures are the Secretary of State and his Department taking so that other towns and high streets can follow in Belper’s footsteps?

As well as providing rate relief and a raft of other packages, we are helping by instigating initiatives such as the Great British High Street competition. In entering that competition, Belper has enabled us to identify good practice, which we are now able to share. We have produced a publication, which we launched last week, and we are now rolling out a package of further training and support for areas in the country that are not as far ahead as Belper.

Now that the Minister for firefighters is on her feet, and taking into account the question about all those shops and businesses, will she agree that the firefighters have to deal with those? If there is a fire, an industrial disaster or a flood, the Government paint a lovely picture of our firefighters and the work that they do. Why does she not accept that the Government should be leaving their pension alone? Let them keep their pension.

If I can answer that question and remain in order—[Interruption.] We are obviously debating this matter later on today. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the regulations that have been laid are an improvement on the 2006 scheme that his party brought in. A recent serious fire in Staffordshire highlighted a really good business liaison programme between fire and rescue services. Even businesses that were not directly affected by the fire were able to call on those services to enable them to continue trading. That model should be rolled out elsewhere.

Order. The hon. Gentleman was characteristically ingenious in the construction of his question, and we are grateful to him—I say that in all sincerity—but I advise the House that it was in any case my intention to get to Question 19, and I remain cautiously optimistic that we shall do so.

Empty Homes

The number of homes empty for more than six months is now at its lowest level since records began. This Government have achieved a year-on-year reduction in long-term empty homes through council tax incentives such as the new homes bonus, opportunities to increase council tax and a Government programme of £200 million for empty homes funding.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is totally perverse that Labour-run Kirklees council continues to forge ahead with building homes on greenfield sites when there are thousands of empty properties and numerous brownfield sites in my beautiful part of west Yorkshire?

The national planning policy framework does indeed incentivise local authorities to bring forward brownfield sites first, and the Government want 90% of suitable brownfield land to have permissions in place through local development orders by 2020. With regard to my hon. Friend’s local authority in Kirklees, there are 718 long-term empties for which it charges the council tax premium, raising £387,000. If it worked with the owners to bring those properties back into use, it would get £783,000 in new homes bonus this year, plus £4.7 million over the full six years that the funding is available.

From the Minister’s response, we might think that everything is perfect in the garden, but the Office for National Statistics has shown that over 1 million homes are still empty. At the same time there are record numbers of people in this country wanting to rent affordable homes. What is he going to do to ensure that local authorities that are not using their powers to bring empty homes back into use now do so in order to end this absolute scandal of homelessness and empty homes in Britain?

I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Gentleman cites, but I will have a look at it. My information is that in England the overall number of vacant properties has fallen from the 770,000 when we came into office to 635,000 now. I write constantly to local authorities to remind them of the suite of powers available for bringing empty homes back into use, and I have gone on a series of visits across the country to encourage social enterprises, in particular—I have visited Leeds Empties, for example—to work with the community in order to achieve the double benefit of bringing a home back into use and getting some social enterprise spin-off benefit.

Firefighters Pension Scheme

19. What estimate he has made of the number of firefighters who will retire early on medical grounds with a reduced pension after the introduction of the new firefighters pension scheme. (906627)

Any firefighter who retires early on medical grounds, owing to being permanently unable to undertake their role, will be entitled to take their pension without a reduction. Our final scheme provides a better pension for those firefighters than the alternative scheme for which the Fire Brigades Union is lobbying.

The Minister said on 10 November that no firefighter who fails to meet the standard would lose their job, yet Dr Tony Williams, who was appointed by the Government to assess the regulations, has said that two thirds of firefighters will not make the cut. How can she reconcile those two opposing views and cost firefighters over 20% of their pension?

That is not what Dr Williams said. The 2006 scheme, which was introduced under the previous Labour Government, has had firefighters working until 60. They have been working under the pension scheme with no protections if they fail a fitness test and are unable to continue their operational role through no fault of their own. We are introducing those protections. There is a written ministerial statement today and a statutory instrument will appear tomorrow, and it will guarantee, placing on a statutory footing—obviously firefighters are entitled to ill health retirement—that if there is not an underlying medical condition and they cannot pass the fitness test, either they will receive an alternative role or the authority will have to initiate a pension.

I have read the ministerial statement that has been placed in the Library this afternoon. It sets out the requirement for local authorities to consider an authority-initiated retirement. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it is her intention that under these circumstances firefighters will be guaranteed an authority-initiated retirement?

Absolutely. We are very clear in the ministerial statement that we have tabled today and in the guidance that will accompany it that that is what we expect to happen. In addition, because I recognise that firefighters need those safeguards, my Department will carry out an audit.

Topical Questions

Some 180,000 homeowners have bought or reserved a property during this Parliament through one of the Government-backed schemes. Our support for home ownership also prompted a sharp increase in house building to a six-year high. Today we are setting out the next step of our long-term economic plan to improve the housing market. The starter homes programme will offer 100,000 first-time buyers the opportunity to buy a new home with a 20% discount.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. Has he received much communication from some of our smaller councils—town and parish councils—about the pressure they are under from vexatious freedom of information requests, inappropriate pressure from members of the public, and sometimes problems of resolving their difficulties with a monitoring council, such as those between Arlesey and Central Bedfordshire in my constituency? Does such a problem arise rather more often these days?

It is not a general problem, though we have come across it. I know that my right hon. Friend is very disturbed by it. The best way to avoid freedom of information requests is to be open, straightforward and transparent, and sometimes some authorities are not. But there can be no excuse for persecuting a public official. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 lays down guidance with regard to vexatious claims. I understand that my right hon. Friend intends to write to me and I will look at the case very carefully.

May I start by expressing the Opposition’s concern about the situation in Sydney today? Our thoughts are with all the people who appear to have been taken hostage and with their families.

We are all aware of the threat posed by Islamism, the extremist ideology that wrongly claims to be informed by Islam and which attempts to recruit and radicalise our citizens. Can the right hon. Gentleman update the House on what his Department is doing with faith groups to help identify and deal with the sources of extremism and radicalisation in our communities?

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his statement about events in Sydney. Our primary thoughts must be with the hostages, but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be as heartened as I am by the response to the worries expressed by Muslims in Australia about travelling on public transport, and the “I’ll ride with you” campaign, whereby Australian citizens are standing by the Muslim community and ensuring that Muslims feel they are good Australians.

We have spent about £45 million on integration projects since 2010 and an extra £11 million to support 29 projects this year, but I expect the right hon. Gentleman is more concerned about work with specific groups. Indeed, we have given priority to working with groups in east London, east Birmingham and along the M62 corridor. We work closely with them and with various other groups in the spirit of “not in their name”, to show that we recognise the full strength of the Islamic community’s love of peace.

Interfaith dialogue of the type that the Secretary of State describes with mainstream religious groups is important. The problem is that radical Islamists are not part of it, and Muslim communities are just as keen as others to know what he is doing to help them identify, isolate and deal with the conditions in which such an ideology develops. Does he agree that it is now time for his Department to focus its efforts on helping families to stop the radicalisation of their children and on promoting greater mutual understanding so as to undermine the corrosive effects of Islamism, which so damages our values and our democracy?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I intend to put out a written parliamentary statement that lays out the full breadth of what we have been doing to deal with this issue. The empowerment of women and of families in knowing what is going on on the web is a recognition of how things have changed. Those who expect this to come out of the mosque are living in a past world. This battle is fought on the internet and by modern methods of communication. Of course, as always, I will keep the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends completely informed about what we do.

T2. My right hon. Friend will be aware that Labour Front Benchers appear to have a plan to impose a homes tax on people earning more than £42,000, and this is causing great concern to my constituents in Wimbledon. I note that all Labour’s mayoral candidates for London have disowned the plan. Does he agree, first, that this tax is inequitable, and secondly, that our Government would never impose such an inequitable tax on my voters? (906600)

We certainly have no intention of persecuting the good people of Wimbledon; nor do we intend to make people suddenly find themselves in a mansion that they did not realise they owned. These are people who bought a property a few years ago and whose incomes have not gone up, but now Labour apparently wants to take £3,000 or £4,000 from them every year.

T3. Those who risk their lives to protect us deserve a decent pension. Will the Minister explain why firefighters have recently been on strike in England, but not in Scotland or in Wales? (906601)

I am afraid there are some myths about what is happening in the other nations. Industrial action is taking place in the other nations; they have not settled. In fact, many aspects of England’s scheme are better. We will have a full debate on the issue this afternoon, when I hope that we will able to put some of the myths to bed.

T4. Langho, one of my pleasant villages in beautiful Ribble Valley, has recently had three hideous wind turbines imposed on it by appeal, against the wishes of local people, the local council, and, indeed, me. Will the Minister assure us that, in future, planning inspectors will give far more weight to localism and to the views of local people before deciding to impose hideous industrial furniture on a local community? (906602)

It would be inappropriate to talk about a particular case that is still live in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I will say, however, that the Secretary of State has given clear guidance about pre-application consultation with communities. There are guidelines about protecting landscape and heritage, and the Secretary of State is able to recover applications if he believes that we need to test those guidelines. The best thing that my hon. Friend’s constituents can do is to ensure that they have a strong local plan in place that determines renewable sources of energy.

T6. The Minister just praised firefighters from Staffordshire. I met them again last week, and they, like me, cannot understand why the Government, at this eleventh hour before the debate later today, will not agree a negotiated settlement on the firefighters’ pension scheme regulations. Why are the Government not taking account of the Williams report, why are they peddling the myth of redeployment, and why cannot we have a fair pension for those having to retire early on health grounds? (906604)

Again, the hon. Lady needs to be aware of the facts. We are taking account of the Williams report. We are putting in place protections that firefighters have not had before, including for those on the 2006 scheme, which requires them to work until 60. They are entitled to ill health retirement, as before, on an enhanced basis. Those who are unable to retain their fitness as they age—this is specifically for older workers—will get another role or an unreduced pension. [Interruption.] Those are the facts. If there is no operational role, they will get an unreduced pension. We need to get that message out to firefighters, because they are going to be making decisions about their financial future based on their understanding of the scheme, and it would be quite wrong to mislead them on that.

T5. Small independent shops are the lifeblood of our high streets and I am glad to say, with Christmas just around the corner, that Worcester’s independent retailers say they are seeing increased footfall and that they are looking forward to their £1,500 discount on business rates next year. Will the Minister confirm that reforming business rates and discounts to small businesses can, alongside cuts to job taxes, help small businesses drive the economic recovery? (906603)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. May I take this opportunity to congratulate Worcester on being a finalist in the great British high street competition? In addition to the discount he mentioned, the autumn statement also doubled small business rate relief for a further year and maintained the 2% cap on the inflation increase for next year. I am sure that all those things will help Worcester potentially to take the prize next year.

T9. When a useless Government Minister is sacked, including by the electorate, they get a huge pay out and a massive pension. Why is there one rule for the politicians and another rule for the firefighters? (906607)

We will debate this issue this afternoon, but I stress that we need to stick to the facts of the case. Many things about the regulations that came into law last week are an improvement on some of the schemes. We have addressed genuine concerns about people working until they are older. I hope this afternoon will provide us with the opportunity to get those facts on the record. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the previous scheme will finish at the end of this financial year, so if the regulations were revoked firefighters would be without a pension scheme and they would lose all the protections they currently enjoy.

T7. This Government have introduced measures that cap the amount that councils can charge leaseholders for repairs to their properties and homes. In my constituency, some residents of Merridale court are being charged up to £12,000 by Wolverhampton Homes, with bills that have come all at once rather than spread over a period of time. Do Ministers think it is fair and reasonable that those pensioners should have to pay those fees? (906605)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking on the case on behalf of his residents. He is absolutely right that we should ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent and that residents should be protected from any erroneous or over-the-top charges, as Florrie’s law, which was introduced in August, seeks to do. I would go further and say that, if those Wolverhampton residents do not feel they are being dealt with properly or appropriately, I would encourage them to go to the Leasehold Advisory Service, which can consider the first-tier tribunal to review their cases.

Does the Secretary of State recall that I asked him during the previous Question Time to give an early decision on the Coventry gateway project and that I followed that up with a letter? I have not received a reply to either request. I am sure he means no discourtesy, but could he tell us when we might expect a response, because a lot of jobs, business rates and development in the south of Coventry depend on it?

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not replying earlier. He will understand that the issue is very much tied up with adjoining authorities. A number of schemes are currently being negotiated under various growth deals and I hope the Government will be able to make a decision fairly soon.

T8. The Secretary of State has made localism his thing and he has come across very strongly as the champion of the people. Will he ensure that the people’s voice is heard and listened to when the first wave of hydraulic fracking applications go through, and will he insist that the Government follow the precautionary principle so that all environmental and health concerns will be addressed before an application is granted? (906606)

I thank my hon. Friend for standing up to make sure that the process is followed correctly. Obviously, the planning process is quasi-judicial and planning authorities must go through the full process. I will make sure that the chief planning officer keeps an eye on what is happening and ensures that the process is followed, and I will keep an eye on the case myself.

As I understand it, we will get an announcement later this week about the local government financial settlement for next year, which could involve a 10% reduction in local authority spending. That is as big a cut in one year as central Government Departments have faced throughout the whole of this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State, in the interests of transparency, give an assurance that he will come to this House and make an oral statement, rather than hide behind a written statement as he did last year?

The hon. Gentleman’s recollection is wrong: we made a statement from this Dispatch Box. We cannot anticipate what the business managers of this House will do. We will take the hon. Gentleman’s words into consideration.