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Communities and Local Government

Volume 592: debated on Monday 2 February 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Tax

Under the previous Administration, household budgets were severely squeezed as council tax more than doubled. By contrast, this Government have worked to freeze council tax. Across England, bills have fallen by 11% in real terms since 2010 thanks to our freeze.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he reassure the House that he will do everything he can to help councils keep taxes low, and will he confirm that he will reject Labour’s call for a tax on family homes in England that would fill Scotland’s coffers?

I am very happy to confirm that we have no plans to introduce a family homes tax. The principal problem with the proposal is that, were it to be introduced, the amount raised from those in the top band would be inadequate, so people living in an ordinary home would wake up the day after the election and find themselves in a mansion.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate Hammersmith and Fulham council on cutting council tax while at the same time abolishing home care charges, cutting the price of meals on wheels by a third and employing more neighbourhood police officers? Does that not make it his favourite council—perhaps even the apple of his eye?

I am pleased that the new administration in Hammersmith and Fulham is building on the fine work of the previous Conservative administration, which did more than just freeze council tax; it cut it by 3% each year, from appalling record levels. The new Labour administration has been able to take full advantage of those efficiencies.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate Ribble Valley council, which has frozen its council tax for the past five years without reducing the level of services? If Ribble Valley council can do it, anybody can. The only thing missing in some councils is the political will.

I congratulate Ribble Valley council, which is clearly the apple of my eye. I know it to be very efficient. Income levels in the Ribble valley are better because local councillors are dedicated to keeping council tax down.

Council tax rates and council tax bands are closely linked. I try not to believe everything I read in the newspapers, but a few years ago The Daily Telegraph reported:

“Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who oversees local government, has also opposed any move to change council tax bands. He has ordered officials to destroy data collected by previous governments that could allow a widespread rebanding of properties.”

Is that so? If not, what data are available?

There was an attempt by the previous Administration to operate a spy system whereby people would be taxed if they had a good view, or if they did not have a good view; if they were close to a bus station, or if they were further away. Frankly, I do not think that it is right for councils to go into people’s homes to measure their bathrooms and look at their views. I regard that as a fundamental intrusion into the British way of life.

Local Authority Spending

2. What assessment he has made of the effect of real-terms cumulative changes in local authority spending power on services in communities with the greatest needs since 2010-11. (907328)

16. What assessment he has made of the effect of real-terms cumulative changes in local authority spending power on services in communities with the greatest needs since 2010-11. (907344)

Since 2010, we have delivered fair local government finance settlements to every part of the country. All councils have balanced their budgets, and most have reduced council tax in real terms and maintained public satisfaction with services. Councils facing the highest demand for services continue to receive more funding and have higher spending than less deprived authorities.

According to the BBC, Greater Manchester councils are preparing for another cut of £250 million this year, which is in addition to the £1.2 billion taken out of their budgets since 2010. Given the Public Accounts Committee’s conclusion that the Department for Communities and Local Government had limited understanding of the impact of the cuts on services, are Ministers not out of touch?

Every part of Government has had to respond to the challenges left by the previous Administration. It should be noted that now each authority does not have to rely just on its grant; it has the ability to raise money itself. Manchester has been very successful at that, securing many millions of pounds through its business tax retention and the new homes bonus. Manchester has also been very successful in securing a multi-million-pound growth deal.

The PAC report made it clear that councils with the greatest spending needs—the most deprived authorities—receive the largest reductions. The Minister talks about the challenges facing them. He will know that the challenges facing the local authority in Chesterfield are twice those facing the local authority that the Secretary of State is responsible for.

Is it not true that the reason why the areas with the greatest deprivation are facing the biggest cuts is that Tory Governments always redistribute money from the poorest people to the richest? If the disabled, the elderly and the vulnerable in my constituency want to do something about the situation, they should not complain to this Government—they should chuck them out in May.

The most deprived authorities receive 40% more than the least deprived. The PAC and the NAO recognised that, on the whole, local authorities have responded well to the cuts and that every single authority has managed to balance its budgets. It should be noted that local authorities have significantly increased their reserves during this period. The reason why each part of Government is having to respond to these financial challenges is the economic incompetence of the previous Government. I am sure that the public out there will not want to give the Labour party the reins of power again.

For decades, my local authority in Leicestershire has been one of the lowest-funded county councils. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that in reaching a figure in the local government settlement, account will be taken of how efficient a council already is?

I have received representations from my hon. Friend’s council, and I do recognise the enormous amount of work that is going on. Given the economic circumstances, we try to show a direction of travel regarding councils with significant rural coverage, and we have increased the moneys by some £15.5 million this time.

I represent a constituency in the north of England, where we see huge variations in the spending power of local councils, but also huge variations in how councils are dealing with the situation. My own Conservative Cheshire West and Chester council has redesigned services, sharing them and making them more efficient to protect the taxpayer, whereas neighbouring councils are looking at cutting services, closing libraries and making the taxpayer pay for their mistakes. Does my hon. Friend agree?

The track record shows that Conservative-led administrations are facing up to the issues that we all face. I have seen everything that my hon. Friend’s council has done, including the excellent homeless support services that it offers. Even the most difficult and vulnerable people out there are being protected by well-thought-out responses to the economic challenges we face.

The National Audit Office says that local government has faced 37% cuts on average, and hon. Members have highlighted just how unfair those cuts are. Why is the Department refusing to publish figures that show the real-terms, year-on-year changes by local authority, as the NAO and now the Public Accounts Committee have urged? Are the Government frightened to lay bare just how grotesquely unfair their policies are to the poorest communities?

Every year we have published all our figures. We go out there and consult councils on the figures that we offer. This time we gave indicative figures for not only last year but this year, and there have been plenty of opportunities for people to scrutinise those figures. I should point out that the NAO figures do not include the better care fund or the public health grant.

Council Tax

3. What estimate he has made of the number of local authorities who are planning to raise council tax by more than 1.99% in the next financial year; and if he will make a statement. (907329)

Councils have yet to set their budgets. I encourage every local council to take up this year’s offer of additional funding to freeze council tax. If they want to hike up council tax, they should put that to the people in a referendum.

A recent TaxPayers Alliance study identified that the chief executive of Pembrokeshire council had a Porsche funded at a cost of some £90,000 and that, in Camden, £3.25 million had been spent on so-called gagging orders for employees who were leaving. What more can be done to bear down on these unnecessary costs that burden the taxpayer?

Transparency is the order of the day. It is sad that the kind of information available to English taxpayers is not available to their Welsh counterparts. With regard to Mr Bryn Parry Jones’s Porsche, if any chief executive puts in a Porsche as part of their terms of contract, I think that is a cry for help. The chap is obviously suffering from a mid-life crisis, and the council would have been better spending money on getting him some professional help.

Kettering borough council, of which I am privileged to be a member, has frozen its council tax throughout the lifetime of this Parliament and now proposes to cut car parking charges. Will those practical and popular policies help local people tackle the cost of living?

I do not know which I like best—my hon. Friend’s council or Ribble Valley council—but that is my kind of council. This is about bringing in jobs and work, making it easy for people to shop, and showing some respect to the electorate. My hon. Friend’s electorate are singularly fortunate in their council and in their representative.

Local Plans (Accessibility Standards)

4. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure that high accessibility standards are incorporated into local plans. (907330)

Our planning policy is clear that authorities should plan for accessible communities, and guidance further promotes accessible and inclusive design. We are also reviewing housing standards so that they provide for more accessible homes, and all public bodies are bound by the requirements of the Equalities Act 2010, which promotes inclusion.

The Government estimate that a three-bedroom home built to the proposed category 2 costs just £521 more than the less accessible equivalent—about one week’s bill for residential care. Do the Government accept that that shows an urgent need for higher access standards, and for more homes to be built to those standards?

I think the hon. Lady is referring to part M of the building regulations, which has a baseline requirement for accessibility. The housing standards review proposes to allow local authorities to adopt higher standards where they judge that to be applicable. Demography obviously varies between authorities, and Bolton will be quite different from Christchurch. I am a localist and believe that that is the right way forward.

Residents in North East Lincolnshire would welcome a local plan with high accessibility standards—indeed, they would welcome any local plan, but the Labour-controlled council will not produce one until 2017. In the meantime, villages are having many unnecessary planning applications. What advice can the Minister offer my local residents?

The Government strongly exhort all local authorities to have an up-to-date local plan in place, and 80% of authorities now have a published plan and 62% an adopted plan. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman’s authority in Lincolnshire is not following suit.

Habinteg, Age UK, Aspire, Care and Repair, Disability Rights UK, Leonard Cheshire Disability and Mencap all supported Labour’s push to amend the Infrastructure Bill to ensure high standards of accessibility in new housing. Why did the Government oppose those efforts?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). Every local authority is different and demography varies from area to area. Part M of the building regulations has a baseline requirement for accessibility to be built into new homes, and the housing standards review provides two upper tiers—equivalent to the lifetime homes standard—for local authorities to adopt. On top of that there is also a wheelchair housing standard for accommodation that caters for particular specialist needs.

Translation Costs

My Department has issued crystal clear guidance to councils that they should cease translating into foreign languages. Translation is a waste of taxpayers’ money and encourages segregation and division. Promoting English is the best way to ensure integration.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and welcome the progress made by his Department. Does he agree that the enormous translation costs for public services that grew up under the previous Government were not just a huge waste of taxpayers’ money, but sent a message that if someone moves here from abroad, they do not need to speak English or to integrate, and that has proved a major policy mistake?

Yes; the cost worked out at something like £140 million a year. It is not good enough to say, “Don’t translate”; we must make a real effort to ensure that people can speak English. That is why my Department has invested £6 million in six programmes to deliver courses for more than 24,000 adults with the lowest levels of English. Those people are the most isolated because they are unable to speak English. The courses have been targeted principally towards Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Somali women.

I recently met the profoundly deaf communities in my constituency through Deaflink, and they highlighted how isolated they felt because of the lack of British sign language translation services available when accessing services. What will the Secretary of State do to support them?

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point: sign languages in English should be available. I shall look into the matter very carefully and, because she has made a reasonable point, respond to her.

Private Rented Sector

6. What progress his Department has made in promoting longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector. (907333)

8. What progress his Department has made in promoting longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector. (907335)

19. What progress his Department has made in promoting longer-term tenancies in the private rented sector. (907347)

We are progressing longer tenancies by promoting a model tenancy agreement with bodies representing landlords, tenants, letting agents, mortgage lenders and local authorities. Recent figures show that tenancy lengths have increased to an average of just under four years.

A survey conducted in Croydon North showed some letting agents charging registration fees as high as £500, and hundreds more in finder’s fees and for simply handling the deposit. Of course, short tenancies make this rip-off even worse. Why are the Government not standing up for hard-pressed renters against rip-off letting agents?

Actually, we are. The new provisions in the Consumer Rights Bill will require all letting agents to publish their full tariff of fees, both on their websites and prominently in their offices, regardless of whether they are a member of a protection scheme and of which redress scheme they have signed. This will protect tenants from the small minority of agents who charge unreasonable hidden fees and will raise awareness of safe agents and the right of redress.

Nine million people, including 1 million families with children, are in private rented accommodation, which, as thousands in my constituency know, leads to uncertainty and fear about people’s long-term future and stability. When will this Conservative Government and their Lib Dem accomplices take the issue seriously? Will they do something now, rather than engage in spurious consultations that take months and years?

I am not sure exactly what the hon. Gentleman is asking us to do. As I said, we have published a model tenancy agreement to encourage longer tenancies. It is worth noting that, according to Savills, a majority of people, particularly younger people, do not want longer tenancies and that 81% of private renters who have moved in the last three years ended their last tenancy because they wished to move, predominantly for work reasons.

Thousands of families in Hull are subjected to unfair, unsecured tenancies. Why can the Government not accept Labour’s plan for three-year secure tenancy agreements? What is wrong with it?

Given that average tenancies have increased to almost four years, I think that we have already achieved what we needed to achieve and that the hon. Gentleman should be saying, “Well done!”

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Despite what we have just heard, the evidence from abroad is that the best way to create a more professional private rented sector is actively to encourage pension funds and the long-term institutions to invest for the long term. Given that, may I strongly encourage the Minister to ensure that all our policies—taxation and otherwise—now encourage that long-term investment, not short-term capital gains?

As the House will know, my hon. Friend has a wealth of experience in this matter, and he is absolutely right. We have worked hard to expand the private rented sector, and we want it to grow further and not be threatened by the risk of Labour’s rent control. That is why we have £10 billion of housing guarantee schemes and have allowed the industry to unlock borrowing at the lowest rate in its history. We also recently announced a further £3.5 billion package to promote long-term institutional investment, which holds prices well and brings better and well-managed properties into the market.

I was delighted that the Minister supported the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on preventing retaliatory evictions. Given that the Bill can no longer proceed, will he support the amendments tabled in the House of Lords by my colleague Baroness Bakewell and others to introduce these measures into the Deregulation Bill?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is in fact a Government amendment that is being taken through the Lords. The principle of ensuring that retaliatory evictions cannot happen is one that we would all wholeheartedly support.

Does my hon. Friend agree that evidence from abroad also shows that the last way to get the long-term investment that the private sector needs is through the distorting effect of rent controls, which damaged the quality of the private rental sector in places such as New York when they were tried there?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. History—both in this country and in a number of countries overseas—has shown us that all rent controls do is put prices up for tenants and reduce supply, which is the opposite of what we want in this country. We want a good, thriving and growing rental sector.

In relation to the private rented sector and all other housing, the English housing survey

“is used extensively across government and beyond and is a public good of national importance.”

Those are not my words but those of the national statistician in reaction to the Minister’s plans to stop the survey next year and then do it only every other year subsequently. In the light of the national statistician’s concerns in urging a rethink, will the Minister confirm that he will take that advice and not scrap next year’s survey?

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we still have to deal with the record deficit and debt left by the last Labour Government, so we have to be sensible with public sector money, and look to see how we can do things more efficiently and more effectively. We are in consultation at the moment, and I shall make my response to the House when the consultation ends.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on what the Government have achieved through the model agreement? There will be appeals, so will he say a little more about how the approved redress scheme is coping with those appeals?

No issues have been reported at this time, but if my hon. Friend has any particular concerns, I would be happy to meet her and any concerned residents.

The Minister keeps peddling the myth, but we are not proposing rent controls. The Government have taken no meaningful action to promote longer-term tenancies. Both the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), and the current housing Minister told us last year that rent levels were falling, with the Under-Secretary saying that rents were falling even in London. But now the Office for National Statistics has confirmed what everybody else knew all along—that rents are rising faster than wages and rising in real terms. Will the Minister now admit that he was wrong and that millions of private renters are facing insecurity and rising rents?

I am afraid to say to the hon. Lady that real-term rents have been lower than the changes in inflation, so rent costs have fallen in real terms. We need to continue to see supply come through and get that institutional investment that was mentioned a few minutes ago so that we continue to see good-quality housing available at good prices.

Green-belt Land

7. What steps his Department has taken to protect green-belt land from inappropriate development. (907334)

The Government have safeguarded national green-belt protection in contrast to Labour’s top-down strategies of the past that wanted to concrete over it. In October last year, we published new planning guidance, which reaffirmed green-belt protection, and we have been consulting on changes to Traveller policy which, if taken forward, will further strengthen green-belt protection.

Over the past five years, the Kingswood green belt has been protected. Now, hundreds of local people have signed a petition against a proposed right to grow set out in the Opposition’s Lyons review that would allow Bristol to expand at the expense of our local green belt and local communities. Does the Minister agree that we need to continue to protect the Kingswood green belt against this dangerous right-to-grow policy?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. When I visited him not too long ago, he showed me Labour plans for places to have the ability to grow outwards. The review says that some places illustrate these issues to a greater or lesser extent, and that

“not all green belt land is of high environmental or amenity value”.

I suspect my hon. Friend’s residents would disagree with that. I know he has campaigned hard on this issue. It is vital to ensure that we continue these strong green-belt protections. Ultimately, these matters must be locally decided by local people for their local area.

The Minister will be aware that paragraphs 17 and 111 of the national planning policy framework contain a commitment to “brownfield first”. When the Select Committee did its recent inquiry into the operation of the NPPF, it received more complaints about one issue than any other—concerns about inappropriate speculative applications, not just in the green belt but in green fields in general. Will he agree to look very carefully at the Select Committee’s recommendations to speed up the process of local plan adoption and to ensure that those local plans have a higher percentage of brownfield within them? There is real concern about this issue on both sides of the Chamber.

The short answer is yes. The hon. Gentleman has made a good point: it is important to protect both green-belt and greenfield land. Some interesting cases have arisen, particularly one in the last couple of weeks, in which green-wedge land was protected by inspectors. However, it is also important for local authorities to deliver local plans, and it would be even better to see some more neighbourhood plans.

Following the question from my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), may I ask whether my hon. Friend the Minister is aware that 70% of Bath and North East Somerset is green belt? It is some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, and allowing Bristol to spill over into it would essentially mean the recreation of that most unloved county of Avon. The Government’s commitment to preserving the green belt is therefore of crucial importance.

My hon. Friend has lobbied me on this issue, along with colleagues in the area. There is indeed some beautiful scenery there, and the green belt is indeed important. The local authority, working with local people, has the right to make decisions that will protect its green belt, as is specified in the national planning policy framework.

In Cramlington, in my constituency, an urban sprawl of housing has developed over the years since it became a new town. There is a small green patch there, but it is currently the subject of an application for planning permission to build more housing. Should not the townships that were built during the 1960s have a bit of green space in the middle?

We all like to keep our green spaces, and the NPPF is very clear about the need to protect green belt, but, ultimately, the decision should be made locally. It is for the local authority to outline its local plan, but I urge the community in the area to consider proceeding with a local neighbourhood plan, in order to give themselves absolute local control and, if they want it, local protection.

In my constituency, Eastleigh borough council is working hard to meet the desperate need for more housing while also protecting the precious green gaps between our towns and villages. Are the Secretary of State and the Minister aware that the inspectorate has overruled the borough council’s local plan, which was based on all the evidence available, while refusing to give an adequate explanation of its reasons for insisting on the building of thousands more houses than the evidence has shown to be necessary?

Obviously I cannot comment on a particular local plan, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to contact me and provide some of the details. The inspectors would generally look at the evidence, and I think it unlikely that they would make a specific comment about numbers. It is more probable that they challenged the local authority’s evidence. It is important for the authority to put together a strong evidence base to back up what it wants to do.

Refuse Collections

9. What discussions he has had with local authorities on the frequency of the collection of black bins. (907336)

DCLG Ministers often discuss the frequency of waste collection with local authorities, and our £250 million weekly collection support scheme has helped more than 80 councils to provide weekly collections. About 40 innovative recycling reward schemes are making life easier for 6 million households.

I am sure the Minister is aware that Labour-run Cardiff council is currently consulting on the possibility of collecting black bins and bags just once a month. Of all people, Jeremy Clarkson has said:

“There will be so much litter in the streets that rats and plague are sure to follow.”

Notwithstanding the hyperbole, does the Minister share my concern that monthly collections will cause Cardiff to become dirty and full of rubbish, with a growing problem of fly-tipping, rats and seagulls?

Those sound like more wise words from Jeremy Clarkson.

Last year the council was presented with a significant petition against the proposal. Only 27% of residents believe that they can manage with a monthly rubbish collection. The hon. Lady is right: we have poor Labour leadership in Wales nationally, and we clearly have very poor Labour leadership locally in Cardiff.

What advice would my hon. Friend give residents in Bury, where, without any consultation and despite overwhelming opposition, the Labour-run council has already reduced the frequency of the black bin collection not from weekly to fortnightly, but from fortnightly to three-weekly?

First-time Buyers

We have already helped over 58,000 first-time buyers to purchase a home with as little as 5% deposit through Help to Buy. We are also consulting on the starter homes scheme. Starter homes will be available for 100,000 first-time buyers under 40 years of age, at a minimum of 20% below open market value.

I thank the Minister for that important answer. Stafford and Rural Homes in my constituency is investing in many high-quality, well-designed new homes for social rent. What steps is he taking to ensure that the proposed new starter homes are of equally high quality and good design?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have said at a number of points that it is important that, in building the quantity of homes we want, we ensure that the quality of build and design is there, too, so that communities can be proud of the homes that are being built. That is why I brought together a design panel of various organisations, which is looking at that work to ensure that we are using the best-quality design and build.

One way that the Minister can help first-time buyers in my constituency is to tackle high rents and insecurity in the private rented sector. Increasingly, there are reports of people who are not couples being forced to share a bedroom because they cannot afford the high rents in London, yet the Minister is being complacent. Is it not time that the Government acted?

I think that, in asking for rent controls again, the hon. Lady may have just contradicted her colleague, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). We have introduced the rent to buy scheme, which was announced towards the end of last year, to enable people who are renting and want to own a home to have another option to do that. I also encourage the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) to support our starter homes programme, which will make 100,000 extra homes available at a 20% discount.

I did not think that you would call two Opposition Members in a row, Mr Speaker.

The level of home ownership has fallen to its lowest level for 30 years. Will the Government now admit that their failure to build homes is pricing home ownership out of the reach of ordinary families?

I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that in 2010 we inherited the lowest level of building since 1923. We have been rebuilding that market, which is now back at the 2007 level. We have started building affordable homes at the fastest rate in 20 years. The latest figures we have show that, in 2013, we had the highest level of first-time buyers in the market—almost 230,000—for many years.

Housing Completions and Demand

11. What comparative assessment he has made of the number of housing completions and demand for housing since 2010. (907338)

Since autumn 2009, 700,000 more homes have been created across England. The Government’s action to get Britain building again has played a vital role in supporting the growth of housing across the country, which has led to a sustained economic recovery.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but he will be aware that demand for genuinely affordable homes massively outstrips supply. In the light of that, how does he justify the Government’s latest policy wheeze, which allows developers to offset vacant buildings on a site against the requirement to provide affordable housing? Is that not another example of his Government watering down the rules for private developers, at the expense of those on the housing waiting list?

I am actually quite proud of the Government’s record on affordable homes. In the 2011-15 spending review period, we will have put £19.5 billion of public and private money into the affordable homes programme, delivering 170,000 new affordable homes by March this year, the biggest programme of house building for about 20 years. As for the policy that the hon. Lady referred to, it has been in place for a month. We will have to review its effect and no doubt we will respond accordingly.

The policy of permitted development has been in operation for much longer. Will the Minister kindly look into that? Developers are able to convert office or industrial premises into residential housing with no social obligation whatsoever. In constituencies such as mine in central London, where there is a massive housing waiting list, that is not helping the situation; it is making it worse and forcing more families to leave the borough.

Introducing flexibilities into the planning system has played an important part in getting new homes in some places where there have been redundant office blocks. I know that there is a particular issue in London, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We have just consulted on those proposals and we will respond shortly.


13. What steps he is taking to encourage local communities to use crowdfunding for social and community enterprises. (907341)

The Government see great potential in the use of crowdfunding as a means of engaging communities and providing alternative access to finance for community-led enterprises. My Department established the community shares unit in October 2012, with £640,000 of funding. Since then, communities have raised over £50 million from 141 share offer launches.

Is the Minister aware that, because there is such an unfair funding formula, councils such as Kirklees have been cut to the bone and many of the services we have grown to expect to be provided by the council will now have to be provided in other ways? Will he do even more to help the social enterprise sector to provide those services that many of us think should still be delivered by local councils?

The hon. Gentleman and I have agreed on many things over the years, and I share his enthusiasm for social enterprise. I think it should be a growing part of the economy. I also share his enthusiasm for crowdfunding. I held a round-table in the Department to look at how we can encourage more communities to use crowdfunding, and I think it has enormous potential, in particular to replace the system whereby the Department or local authorities give grants for community groups but do not require them to raise money for themselves. That is something I am trying to alter, and I think it will lead to real community empowerment.

Brownfield Sites (Pendle)

We are working with the Lancashire local enterprise partnership and Pendle council to support development of the iconic Brierfield mill site. We have provided £2.5 million to help bring over 600 empty properties back into use in Pendle. Brownfield sites in the Burnley-Pendle corridor have also been shortlisted for housing zone status.

I welcome the news that east Lancashire has been shortlisted as a possible housing brownfield zone. However, more needs to be done to unlock previously developed sites and take pressure off greenfield areas like the Rough and the Meadows in Colne, which are currently subject to planning applications. What more reassurance can the Minister give me that the Government will support councils like Pendle to prioritise brownfield?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and he has spoken to me extensively about the excellent work going on in Pendle to make sure that brownfield sites are being developed, and I am pleased that that is part of the housing zone programme. We are in the process of encouraging further development on brownfield land. We want to develop 200,000 new homes by 2020 on brownfield land, and just last week we launched a £4.4 million incentive fund to support the preparation of local development orders on brownfield sites.

In the absence of a milometer I cannot say with any accuracy how close the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is to Pendle, but his question needs to be.

Absolutely, Mr Speaker. Last year the planning Minister told me that green-belt protection throughout the ancient county of Lancashire, which incorporates my constituency as well as Pendle, meant that development would not be permitted unless there was extensive consultation with the local population through an amendment to the development plan, and only then in exceptional circumstances. What would the Minister’s view be of a local authority that did not consult extensively with the local community and then approved a development in the green belt, as Liberal Democrat-controlled Stockport council has now done?

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will excuse me for saying “Nicely done” to the hon. Gentleman for keeping that question in order.

The hon. Gentleman is right: rearranging, reorganising or relooking at green belt within a local plan needs to be done in full consultation with people. The local authority needs to go through that, and it has to go through an independent examination with an inspector, but, obviously, with regard to individual planning applications, ultimately we believe in localism. I believe it is right for local people, through their local authorities, to have that power, through democracy, to make local decisions. It is very much a matter for the local authority.

Neighbourhood Planning and Community Rights

17. What steps his Department is taking to support local communities with neighbourhood planning and community rights. (907345)

Since April 2012, we have provided £48.5 million to help communities understand and access community rights and associated initiatives. This has funded a helpline, online tools and resources, and specialist support and grants. From next year we are investing a further £32 million to help communities take up the rights.

Neighbourhood forums in my constituency are engaging with the planning process and developing considered and well-researched neighbourhood plans, but their complaint is that they are not statutory consultees on planning applications that affect their area. Will the Department look at this?

Our guidance is clear. Where there is an emerging neighbourhood plan and the local authority—Leeds in the hon. Gentleman’s case—does not have a local plan, it should take account of the emerging issues in the neighbourhood plan in designated areas, such as Aireborough in his constituency.

Developers Gladman have won, on appeal, the right to build 250 houses on a greenfield site at Middleton St George in my constituency, at a time when the local residents are developing a neighbourhood plan. The development is against the wishes of local people and Darlington borough council. Local people feel that their views are being ignored and have called into question the Department’s commitment to localism. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the consequences of the housing development and Middleton St George’s neighbourhood plan?

I obviously will not comment on the individual application, but both the planning Minister and I often meet neighbourhood planning groups that are frustrated by the behaviour of some housing companies where there is an emerging neighbourhood plan. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss his issues too.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that one of the difficulties in persuading local communities to engage with neighbourhood planning is the huge amount of effort invested in the past in producing parish plans and village design statements that were then completely ignored by both local planners and the planning inspectorate? Will he reassure me that neighbourhood planning now really means something?

I visit many of the neighbourhood plans around the country, and I actually think that they have been an excellent innovation by the Government. They get people involved in planning at a neighbourhood plan level, and they now have weight within the planning system, which is the difference from before. The plans are also endorsed by a referendum of the public, which shows real enthusiasm for involvement in shaping their communities.

Firefighters’ Pensions

Firefighter pension regulations were fully debated in the House, and come into force on 1 April. Firefighters will continue to receive one of the best pensions in the public sector and we have added statutory fitness protections. These matters are now settled, and the current dispute should end.

On 15 December, the fire Minister gave hon. Members assurances that firefighters who failed a fitness test would receive unreduced pensions, and that was confirmed by the Secretary of State the following day. Subsequently, fire authorities, in response to a survey by the Fire Brigades Union, have said that they cannot provide a guarantee of an unreduced pension. Can the Minister confirm that the guarantee is 100%, or is it not a guarantee when it is given by a Tory Minister?

The national service framework has been changed and it came into effect on 12 January—that was the fitness protections. Fire and rescue authorities have to follow the national service framework: it is not an option. We have been very clear that if a firefighter loses fitness through no fault of their own, they should get an alternative role or a full unreduced pension. These are new protections, despite the fact that firefighters have been required to work to 60 since 2006.

I was one of the Members who backed the Government given the assurances from the Minister, but the documentation from the employers indicates something else. What clarification can she give about what the employers are saying?

Clearly, we can change the law. If fire and rescue authorities decide that they will not follow the law, we will spot that because we have also undertaken to audit this process and their adoption of new fitness principles. The Secretary of State also has powers to intervene. I have no indication that fire and rescue authorities will not adhere to the national service framework. If hon. Members know differently, they should let me know.

On 15 December, the Minister said that if someone fails a fitness test

“through no fault of their own”—

and they do not qualify for an ill-health retirement, they will get

“an alternative role or an unreduced pension.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 1153.]

The Minister further confirmed that that would be put on a statutory footing in the national framework. Will she confirm that the national framework does not guarantee a full pension or redeployed role? It merely requests fire authorities to consider options for redeployment or a full pension. It is a sham guarantee—it is no guarantee. How does the Minister square what she told the House with the ministerial code?

This is about protecting the firefighters whom the hon. Lady—who was in the Department when the changes were made in 2006—is asking to work until the age of 60. This is an improvement on the previous situation. There are two reasons why we have introduced the new measures: first, those older workers should have those protections; secondly, we recognise that the fear of being in that situation may have an impact on recruitment and retention. This scaremongering by the Opposition is shameful, and I would ask them to put the well-being of firefighters ahead of pandering to the militant wing of the Fire Brigades Union.

Topical Questions

T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. Will the Minister confirm that— (907318)

Order. It will not be long before we hear the hon. Gentleman’s dulcet tones. We can hold on just a moment. Let us hear Secretary Pickles, adorned in his waistcoat, first.

I can hardly wait, Mr Speaker. Last week, the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission published its recommendations to ensure that the memory of the holocaust is preserved. The Government will commit £50 million to the creation of the national memorial, the learning centre and the endowment fund. My Department will sponsor the new Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which will take forward those recommendations. Its first task will be to undertake an urgent programme to record and preserve the testimony of British holocaust survivors and liberators. It is our collective responsibility to educate future generations about the horrors of the holocaust and never to forget why we need to challenge and combat the forces of hate.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the holocaust memorial, which is fundamentally important? Will he confirm that, in 2015-16, Brent’s core funding will be cut by 14% and its revenue support grant by 28%? Will he also confirm that the reason why his Department curiously refers to Brent’s spending power is that it includes £23 million of money that Brent council does not receive and has no power over, and that doing so gives him the singular advantage of allowing him falsely to claim that Brent is being cut by only 1.8%?

We moved over to looking at the spending power of authorities at the urging of the Local Government Association, the Labour party and the local government unit. They considered it to be a fairer way of measuring, and I think that they were right. It is fairer, because it is frankly pointless just to measure the amount of money coming from the Government. It is better to get a rounded position. That is why we have been able to ensure that services have been protected, that the level of satisfaction with local government has never been higher, and that reserves have never been higher.

T3. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) have both kindly visited the largest redundant mill complex in Lancashire, Brierfield mill in my constituency. Following the fantastic news of Government funding for the project in last week’s growth deal, will Ministers commit themselves to continuing to work with Pendle borough council and myself to move forward this massive regeneration project? (907319)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I congratulate him on all he has done to be champion for his local area. I will be up there next week talking to his local enterprise partnership about how we can take things forward.

I want to return to the very serious matter of what the House was told in December about firefighters’ pensions. As we have just heard, firefighters are clear that the Minister gave them a guarantee that if they could not meet the fitness standard and could not be found another job, they would go on an unreduced pension. The Secretary of State—my question is to him—told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee the following day that if firefighters

“cannot be redeployed, the effect of yesterday’s decision is that they will get a full pension.”

However, the statutory instrument makes it clear that the fire and rescue authorities only have to “have regard” to the guidance in carrying out their duties. If that is the case, can the Secretary of State please explain how on earth that constitutes a guarantee?

The national service framework is something that is within our gift. We have changed it and put the principles within it on a statutory footing. They are not optional. There is no wriggle room for fire and rescue authorities. Clearly, fire and rescue authorities are responsible for their own policies locally, but I have no indication that they will deviate from the national service framework. If they do so, and we find that they are doing so, we will act. The Secretary of State has powers in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to do that. I say to Opposition Members that this is a vast improvement on what they gave firefighters. It is a step in the right direction to protect older workers. If, as the work of the fitness group progresses, there are further things that we can do once good practice is agreed upon, we will of course consider them. This is doing firefighters a grave disservice and it is undermining confidence in the fact that all firefighters—men and women—can enjoy a full career in the service.

I note that the Secretary of State did not want to respond in respect of his own words. But I say to the hon. Lady that the reason there is no confidence is that she and the Secretary of State have failed to give effect to the promise that they made. If she is looking for proof of that, may I quote to her what the London Fire Brigade said in correspondence to the Fire Brigades Union? She says that she has seen no evidence so she should really keep up. The FBU had written to the London Fire Brigade after the debate in December and asked whether there would be a guarantee. The London Fire Brigade said that it had taken legal advice, which

“confirms the position previously notified to DCLG by the Authority, most recently on 9 December 2014, that if DCLG wished to offer such a guarantee then it would need to change the regulations to enable that to happen.”

It then went on to say that

“the Authority is unable to give any guarantee.”

Firefighters are understandably angry because it turns out that the guarantee that they were promised in December on the basis of that was not a guarantee. Will the Minister do what she promised and apologise?

I will not apologise for improving the situation of firefighters. Firefighters had been asked to work until 60 without any protections. We have introduced those protections. I also have to say that I have no trouble keeping up with what the FBU wishes to tell us. Not only do I have its letters, but I have letters also from the Secretary of State. Those letters are not only in the FBU’s font but have even managed to get his job description wrong.

T5. One fire authority responding to queries from firefighters about how it was going to honour the Minister’s commitment wrote to them and said: “We are advised that the addendum to the National Framework…continues to provide discretion over the award of an unreduced pension…We are further advised that such discretion cannot be fettered, and that to provide the ‘guarantee’ you are seeking would be unlawful.”Will the Minister begin the audit to which she has committed and ensure that fire authorities honour the commitment that she has made? (907321)

Of course, if a firefighter loses fitness through their own fault—by neglecting to go to the gym, to train and to keep up to date with the requirements placed on them—fire authorities have the discretion not to award a pension, which is quite right. Where that is not the case, the authorities must award a pension. The audit will take place. There is work going on at the moment with the fitness group that was set up, and I am pleased to update the House that women in the fire service now have a permanent seat on that fitness group. The group will come up with good practice that I hope all fire authorities will follow.

T8. Durham is ranked the fifth most deprived area in the country on the Government’s own index and is recognised as having much higher need than other wealthier areas. If we are all in this together, will the Minister explain why Durham unitary authority has lost £180 spending power for every man, woman and child in Durham, while Wokingham authority, one of the wealthiest areas in the country, has seen a gain in its spending power for every man, woman and child? (907324)

As I said earlier, the most deprived areas receive 40% more money than the least deprived areas. It is important for local authorities and local leaders to understand that the grant is not the only course for delivering services. They should also consider building their local economy, building houses and receiving the new homes bonus, which I understand that the Labour party will scrap. That is the route that delivers quality services. It should be noted that, despite all the challenges that local authorities have faced, every authority has managed to balance its books and public perception of local authorities has remained positive.

T7. What steps is the Department taking to support independent local newspapers such as the Coalville Times in my constituency? (907323)

We have given clear guidance on our expectations regarding council-sponsored newspapers. At a time when every authority faces serious challenges in delivering core services to vulnerable people, we should not be wasting money on propaganda sheets, and our guidance makes sure that local authorities are aware of that. I note that my hon. Friend’s local council has taken significant measures to reduce the amount of money it spends on council newspapers.

T9. Why does the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) think that the fire authorities are saying that this is not a guarantee? (907325)

The fire authorities cannot deviate from the national service framework unless they choose to break the law. The measure will not come into effect until 2022 and we have undertaken to carry out a full audit in three years’ time of how they are adopting the fitness principles. If we find that fire authorities are not following and honouring those principles, we have powers to intervene. I do not understand why the issue is causing difficulty for the hon. Lady.

Harlow has had more than 100 illegal Traveller encampments over the past 15 months, yet the chief constable of Essex says that he does not have the power to remove them and cites human rights legislation. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please have urgent discussions with the chief constable, set out what the powers are and tell them to stop hiding behind Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines?

I know that my hon. Friend has fought hard for his residents in Harlow and I have met him, the police and crime commissioner and Harlow council. The council and the local police should be using their powers to make sure that policy, the green belt and the good residents of Harlow are protected in the way my hon. Friend has fought so hard to do.

T10. May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? This time last year, the Department published a consultation paper on the private rented sector that, among other items, proposed that the installation of working smoke alarms be mandatory. Since then, Ministers have repeatedly failed to meet their own—frequently deferred—deadlines for saying when the consultation will be published. Why are they dragging their feet on such a simple and popular measure that will save lives? (907326)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about how important working smoke alarms and CO2 detectors can be in saving lives. We will respond to the consultation in due course.

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discuss with his Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Health the rules of ordinary residence for people in care homes? The London borough of Havering picks up financial responsibility for a large number of self-funding residents who come from out-borough. Would it not be fairer if the rule of ordinary residence relied on the address where that person last lived?

I am aware of that problem, which I think is most acute in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As we move into April, the better care fund—which is a mechanism not just for funding, but for better co-ordination—should help. Residence should be taken into consideration as a whole and a proper care package should be worked out individually for each person. I hope that that helps my hon. Friend.

Does the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) not accept that for a promise and guarantee made to this House in December to be in tatters by January does nothing to help good industrial relations? Is not the general secretary of the FBU entirely right to say that firefighters have been utterly cheated?

The fitness principles came into effect on 12 January, and no amount of spin from Opposition Members can undo that. Firefighters will have a guarantee: if they are working beyond the age of 55 and lose fitness through no fault of their own they will get an alternative role or, if none is available, an unreduced pension. If fire authorities do not do that, the Secretary of State has powers to intervene.

I have asked Bradford council to supply details of the amount of money it raises in council tax from each ward across the Bradford district. I would have thought that would have been readily available information for any local authority, but Bradford council keeps refusing to publish it, claiming that it does not even have it. We all know why: the council does not want to show how much is contributed in council tax from the Shipley constituency and how little goes back to that constituency. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State whether he will make it a statutory duty for local authorities to publish details of how much council tax they receive from each ward in their area?

As a former leader on the front benches of Bradford council, I asked the same question and I was given that information. But of course that was under a Conservative-led administration, which wanted to be transparent and open about the amount of money that was raised. Bradford council has nothing to hide from publishing these figures and letting people who make a significant contribution to the economy of the district know where their money is raised and spent.