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House of Commons Hansard
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Communities and Local Government
16 March 2015
Volume 594

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cross-boundary Local Authority Co-ordination

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1. What guidance he provides for local authorities on co-ordination across local authority boundaries. [908047]

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We have abolished Labour’s top-down regional strategies, which built nothing but resentment, and replaced them with the Localism Act 2011, which asks councils to work together and co-operate on cross-boundary matters.

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May I ask my right hon. Friend to have a word with West Sussex and Surrey county councils about the importance of constant liaison on roadworks? Is he aware that in East Grinstead, which has suffered terrible inconvenience for several years as a result of roadworks, it is becoming impossible to ensure that there is a free passage for cars at all times?

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My right hon. Friend has made a very reasonable point. I will of course liaise with both council leaders, and will send them a copy of Hansard. The duty not just to consult but to co-operate is immensely important, and most local authorities co-operate very harmoniously. They have a responsibility to work together: after all, the people for whom they are working together are the general population who elect them.

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As the Secretary of State knows, individual local authorities contribute to the Prevent strategy, but places of worship and community groups extend beyond local authority boundaries. How will he ensure that there is proper co-ordination between councils?

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That is a very good question. The duty to co-operate was originally designed to apply to planning and to housing numbers, but it clearly has a much wider application in the context of both economic development and social policy. Any sensible authority—and metropolitan authorities in particular, given their proximity to each other—must recognise that religious establishments and community groups do not necessarily correspond with municipal boundaries.

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Ellar Ghyll tip is just inside the Leeds city council boundary, but is next to Menston, in my constituency, and is heavily used by its residents. The council is happy to continue the existing reciprocal arrangement with Bradford council, but Bradford has refused to do so. That means that my constituents will have to pass a tip that is next door to them to visit one that is a number of miles away, and it will undoubtedly lead to more fly-tipping. Will the Secretary of State intervene and knock some heads together in order to reverse the ridiculous decision of the Labour council in Bradford?

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I was in Leeds and Bradford on Thursday, and, had I known about it, I would have looked in on that tip.

It is immensely important to recognise the purpose of this arrangement, which is to ensure that members of the public receive a decent service. When I was leader of Bradford council, I enjoyed a very harmonious relationship with Leeds, and I hope that that relationship can be quickly restored.

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In recent months I have been contacted by more than 20 parents, all of them with children who have been housed in the borough of Slough by other local authorities because of the workings of benefit caps and the like. Parents are having real problems getting their children to school, using family networks and so on. What will the Secretary of State do to help them, and help local authorities to communicate better with each other about families who are dumped from other boroughs?

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I am sure that the right hon. Lady is familiar with the authorities in question. I urge her to contact them, and try to persuade them to co-operate. It is obviously not satisfactory for children to have to travel large distances to school. The whole point of localism is that local people should be able to make decisions, and, surely to goodness, it must be possible for two local authorities to reach a sensible decision without the Government having to intervene.

Brownfield Land

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2. What support his Department provides for local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land. [908048]

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We have introduced a range of measures to support brownfield land development, including the provision of £200 million to help to create housing zones outside London and the release of enough public sector land for 103,000 homes, which is above the target that we set ourselves. The national planning policy framework encourages the reuse of brownfield sites.

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The leader of Pendle borough council, Councillor Joe Cooney, recently announced that the council will introduce a new £1.5 million fund for brownfield regeneration, making brownfield sites attractive and viable to developers. Will the Minister join me in welcoming Councillor Cooney’s leadership on this issue and assure the House of this Government’s support for local authorities that take the initiative to prioritise brownfield, such as Pendle borough council?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and has spoken to me extensively about the excellent work being done by Councillor Cooney and that council. I am pleased to welcome their positive initiative, which will help to make the planning process faster and more certain for developers in Pendle. I am pleased that we have been able to make £5 million available to local authorities who pilot local development orders that grant planning permission for housing on suitable brownfield sites.

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I welcome the Minister’s response. If what he says is true, why was St Leonard’s hospital in my constituency given to PropCo—NHS Property Services Ltd—in the NHS and why has the fire station, which was closed, been sold for a rumoured £28 million, and neither for local housing? Does he not agree that the best thing for public health in the local area would be good-quality affordable housing for local families, and would he not like to see that happen?

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Our target is to have 90% of brownfield land developed by 2020. We have made great progress, particularly on affordable housing, supplying almost 220,000 in this Parliament, and we are now building at the fastest rate in 23 years, but ultimately the planning decisions are for local councils and the local authority.

Local Government Funding

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3. What assessment he has made of the effect of local government funding changes on services since May 2010. [908049]

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Since 2010 councils have set balanced budgets and council tax has fallen by 11% in real terms. Public satisfaction with local services has been maintained and we have increased transparency so that residents can hold councils to account.

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The Public Accounts Committee report in January looking into the sustainability of local government finance clearly stated that the 10 most deprived areas in England and Wales have had cuts 10 times greater than those of the 10 wealthiest areas. Does that prove that we are not all in this together?

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Both the National Audit Office and the PAC report noted that all councils had managed to balance their budgets, and we should note that the 10% most deprived councils in the country receive 40% more than the most wealthy councils.

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Of course local authorities rely a great deal on central Government funding, but they also rely on budgets granted by other organisations. Will my hon. Friend have a word with Crawley borough council, which is in danger of losing £50,000 of England and Wales Cricket Board funding for new nets in Langley Green as a result of minor planning authority bureaucracy?

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I hope my hon. Friend raising that issue in the House today will buck up the council to respond in a more appropriate way.

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22. Despite being ranked in the top 10 in terms of deprivation, Hull city council has funding cuts of £279 per head, but Beverley in the East Riding, which is ranked 202 in terms of deprivation, has a cut of just £89 per head. [908070]

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The reality is that every part of local government has had to respond to the disastrous economy left by the last Government, but this Government have ensured that, despite the fact that we have had to reduce the amount of money to local government, we have given councils the opportunity to grow their economy, with retention of business rates and a reward for building houses. I encourage the hon. Gentleman’s local council to do the same.

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Despite cuts from Government to Shropshire council, council leader Keith Burrow has managed to freeze council tax for six years in a row. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the leader of Shropshire council on, despite the cuts and the freezing of council tax, maintaining and improving council services in Shropshire?

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I will certainly compliment my hon. Friend’s local leader on making that choice. Despite the challenges local authorities faced over recent years, some 64% of them have frozen their council tax in this financial period.

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17. Does the Minister agree with the conclusions of the Audit Commission, the National Audit Office and the International Monetary Fund, all of which say that the most deprived areas have been hit by the greatest cuts? Coventry is probably going to lose about 1,000 jobs and make cuts of about £75 million in the next two or three years, which will affect its basic services. [908065]

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This is now the largest growing economy in the G20. It is only through following a long-term economic plan in which we grow our economy, receive taxes for that activity, employ more people and have more apprentices that we can invest in public services.

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Last week at the Local Government Chronicle awards, Cheshire West and Chester council was the runner-up for the council of the year award. Does this not show that if councils improve their efficiency and their services, they can deliver better services in a tough economic situation?

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I compliment my hon. Friend’s council for taking the difficult decisions while at the same time delivering quality services. We should note that, despite the challenges that we have faced, public satisfaction with council services has remained constant during the term of this Government.

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In December 2010, the Secretary of State told the House:

“I have sought to achieve a fair and sustainable settlement for local government”.—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 679.]

How does the Minister now respond to all the evidence from the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee that those cuts have been neither fair nor sustainable? And will he come clean about the bleak future that councils would face if the Tories were to press on with their plan to return Britain to the 1930s?

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Rather than just reading reports, I have been listening to lots of councils. During the local settlement agreement, I spoke to more than 100 councils, and not one of them said that they could not set a budget. Yes, these are difficult times, but they are difficult because of the failure of the last Government to manage the economy. We have now created the largest growing economy in the G20, with more people employed and more apprentices out there. More people are getting a job. That is the route that we need to follow, and we will deliver more spending in the public sector by having a strong economy.

Home Ownership

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4. How many people owned their own home in England in (a) May 2010 and (b) the latest date for which figures are available. [908050]

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9. How many people owned their own home in England in (a) May 2010 and (b) the latest date for which figures are available. [908055]

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The number of households in home ownership has remained relatively steady since May 2010. There were 14.45 million in the year 2010-11 and 14.32 million in 2013-14, according to the latest available data from the English housing survey.

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Despite that response, the number has not remained steady. It has actually fallen by almost 4% in four years, and we now have 11 million people, including 1.5 million children, living in private rented accommodation. What are this Government going to do to support those families, and to support generation rent more generally?

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The figures I gave did show a fall, so we are not disagreeing on that. The fact is that home ownership peaked in 2005 and fell dramatically in the five years of the last Labour Government. The private rental sector is an attractive part of the housing mix for a large number of people, and in the past 12 months this Government have put in place a huge number of reforms to regulate the sector. They include the regulation of letting agencies to ensure that they all belong to an ombudsman scheme, that they are completely transparent about their fees and that they publish a how-to-rent guide and a model tenancy agreement. That is a vast improvement on what we had before.

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I hear what the Minister says, but what would he say to those young people in their 20s and 30s, one in four of whom are still living in their parents’ home? How is he going to provide for them, given that the Prime Minister said that he wanted young people to be rewarded with a home of their own?

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The Government recognise that most people want to own a home of their own. That is one of the reasons that we have put in place the Help to Buy scheme, which has now helped 88,000 people around the country. In the hon. Lady’s own constituency, 81 families have used the scheme to buy their own home.

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Will the Minister confirm that the number of first- time buyers is at a six-year high and that almost 192,000 households have been helped to buy or reserve a property through Government-backed schemes?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the full range of schemes have helped a rather large number of people to get their foot on to the housing ladder. Let us not forget the situation we inherited. There was a credit bubble, through a growth in mortgages until 2007, and lots of warnings were given, including by my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), who is now the Business Secretary, that the bubble would burst—it did. That was a catastrophe not only for the economy, but for a lot of people trying to get their foot on to the housing ladder. Our schemes have been a real help to people in buying their own home.

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In 2010, the Government’s then housing Minister said in his first speech on the subject that the

“age of aspiration is back”.

But under this Government we have seen home ownership falling to a 30-year low; the lowest level of house building in peacetime since the 1920s; and a record number of young people living at home with their parents. Given that this Government have broken every promise on housing over the past five years, why should anyone believe their promises for the next five years?

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I like the hon. Lady very much, but she has a tendency, as do quite a few people from her intake, to wipe the slate clean from the previous five years, or the previous 13 years when she was not a Member. The fact is that house starts and completions hit rock bottom in 2008-09, when there were just 88,000 starts. Since then, starts and completions have picked up: in the last year there were 134,000 starts; and the latest information we have, for 2014, shows there are now 253,000 new planning completions for housing. So there is a strong pipeline going forward.

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We are most grateful to the Minister, I am sure.

Planning Processes

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5. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the views of local residents are adequately represented within planning processes. [908051]

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This Government have radically reformed the planning system into a genuinely locally led process. Most significantly, through neighbourhood planning we have given local people a real role in shaping the areas in which they live and work; for the first time community groups can produce plans that have real statutory weight in the planning system.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Ribble Valley borough council is a small yet beautiful local authority—Tory-controlled, needless to say. Although the core strategy has been passed, giving the local authority greater powers, it still fears that where a planning application is rejected and goes to appeal, the costs associated with that are disproportionate, especially to the smaller, rural authorities. Will the Department look at ways of ensuring that local authorities are not going to be clobbered in this way in future, ensuring that they are able to make the right decisions on behalf of local people?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. Developers should be able to look at a local plan and have confidence that they can develop where land is allocated in that plan, but, as he rightly says, outside that they should find it the most difficult thing in the world to do if they have not got agreement with the local authority. It is absolutely right that his local authority has its local plan in place, and I encourage villages in the area and elsewhere to look at neighbourhood planning, to give even further protection to the areas over which people want to have control.

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The Minister knows that of course we want local communities to be able to protect their environment when they are concerned about it, but the balance must be right—we need homes for people in this country today. There is a national crisis. We have young people in debt; thanks to the Liberal Democrats, some graduates are £42,000 in debt. Who is going to lend them the money? And where are the houses coming from?

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I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that the previous Government’s top-down approach meant that everybody spent so much time arguing about numbers that very few of them got enough houses built, and that led to the position in which we inherited the lowest level of house building this country has seen since about 1923—that is a disgrace. Trusting local people to make the right decisions for their areas is paying dividends. In the last year, 2014, we saw an almost record level of 253,000 homes getting planning permission, proving that this Government are right: trusting local people to make local decisions is the way forward.

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Local residents in Broughton Gifford finally had their views represented earlier this month when the High Court struck down a planning consent on which Wiltshire council had inadequately consulted. Does the Minister accept that that is meaningless unless the council is prepared to take enforcement action? At the very least, proportionate action would be to ensure that the development was not operational as long as it remained unlawful.

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is vital that enforcement is dealt with properly to give people confidence that the planning system will deliver the right results. I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) who deals with renewable energy, looks at that case and makes contact with the hon. Gentleman directly.

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In 2013, the Minister said to this House about the future of high streets that

“it is also quite right for local authorities to use the powers they have to make sure that their high street or town centre is vital and vibrant for the benefit of their communities.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 7.]

Will he explain, therefore, why he has taken all those powers away?

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Well, we have not. I encourage local areas not just to take forward business improvement districts, but to take advantage of neighbourhood planning and business-led neighbourhood planning. I have seen that happen in a few parts of the country, including in Milton Keynes, where there has been some excellent work to take forward opportunities to develop the high street in a way that did not happen under the previous Government, as those opportunities just fell away or were ignored.

Business Rates

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6. What steps his Department has taken to support local firms and shops with payment of business rates since May 2010. [908052]

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We have taken significant steps, including doubling small business rate relief, benefiting 600,000 businesses with 400,000 paying nothing; increasing retail relief to £1,500 for the forthcoming financial year; and giving councils powers to grant discounts, with central Government funding half the costs. Today, we also launched the business rates review—paving the way to modernising the system.

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Business rates collected in Redditch are up by tens of thousands of pounds. Although we would all like to see business rates lowered, is that fact not further proof that, across Britain, our towns’ economies are benefiting under this Government’s long-term economic plan?

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My hon. Friend is right that our town centres and high streets are enjoying a resurgence. Last year’s report by Southampton university showed that our high streets have been outperforming out-of-town areas since 2013. I congratulate both Redditch traders on their achievements and my hon. Friend on her support of them. I sincerely hope that those traders will consider entering the great British high street competition this year, which we launched last week.

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Will the Minister give a guarantee to the House that the criteria for the recently announced review of business rates will include the fact that there will not be a single penny’s reduction in funding to local councils as a result of that review?

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I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that we are not in the business of giving rate relief to penalise other sectors, whether it is the business sector or the public sector. The relief that I have just outlined has been funded by central Government. We have not been penalising business. The hon. Gentleman can make submissions to the review, but I have to tell him that the review has been welcomed by business.

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Businesses of all sizes will welcome today’s reports that there will be, as the Minister has just said, a review of the way in which business rates are calculated. Given that, may I urge her and her colleagues to rebalance the costs between small high street shops and large online retailers? I hope she agrees that it is time to re-tip that balance.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Despite being seen as the death knell of the high street, online retailers have helped to bring about a resurgence on the high street. Some 35% of all online sales are now picked up through click and collect. We have just published the Future High Streets Forum’s digital report, which outlines not only ways that big business and companies such as Google, IBM and others can assist the high street, but why it is in their interests to do so.

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19. I am sure that the Chair of the Conservative party can remember when, as Minister with responsibility for local government, he promised a high street revolution. Does the Minister think that, given that the number of empty units on our high street is rising—on some high streets, up to 25% of units are empty—we are talking about a revolution or just a flat failure? [908067]

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The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. As well as the Southampton university report, which showed that high streets have been outperforming out-of-town areas on groceries, clothing and footwear since 2013, there is last year’s Deloitte study, which showed that re-occupancy rates are much higher on the high street than they are out of town.

Building of Homes for Social Rent

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7. What assessment he has made of trends in the rate of building of homes for social rent since May 2010. [908053]

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Under our affordable rent model almost 143,000 affordable homes for rent have been delivered since April 2010. In contrast, between 1997 and 2010 the number of social rented homes fell by 420,000.

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I notice that the Minister did not answer my question. At my advice surgery on Friday afternoon, I met Mr and Mrs Conning, who have waited years to move to a decent council or housing association property. Given that roughly 29,000 fewer social rented homes were built last year than in 2010, are the prospects of the Conning family securing a suitable home getting better or worse?

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The rate of building council houses is at a 23-year high under this Government. One of the flexibilities that we have given for local councils at the top of their borrowing limits on their housing revenue accounts allows them to apply to the Treasury for up to £150 million extra assistance, and Lewisham council has £43.7 million headroom in its HRA that it could be using to build houses. I suggest that the hon. Lady has a word with her colleagues back home.

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I draw attention to my interests in the register. As the Minister clearly has difficulty with the figures, may I remind him that the highly authoritative UK housing review, published last week, shows very clearly the figures for the number of new social rented homes started in this country in each of the years from 2009-10 to 2013-14? In 2009-10, the last year of the previous Government, 39,000 social rented homes were started. In 2013-14, 3,961 were started. Those are the figures, so will the Minister now own up and apologise for that appalling record?

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No, I will not apologise at all. I am proud of the record of this coalition Government, who have a reinvigorated affordable homes programme which between 2011 and the end of this month will have delivered 170,000 extra affordable homes. This will be the first Administration since right to buy started in 1980 to leave office with more affordable rented homes in stock than when they started, which the right hon. Gentleman’s Government failed to do in three Administrations.

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Ministers promised a 1:1 replacement for homes sold under right to buy, but in fact the replacement rate is in many cases 1:4 or worse. Why have the Government broken that promise?

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Local authorities have about three years in which to spend the money and as I understand it some £730 million of proceeds have been raised under the reinvigorated right-to-buy scheme. That must all be invested in building new homes for affordable rent in the borough. The previous Government did not do that. In fact, their record was pretty appalling: for every 170 houses sold under right to buy between 1997 and 2013, only one new social home was built.

Firefighters Pensions

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8. What progress his Department has made on resolving the dispute over firefighters pensions. [908054]

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The firefighters pension scheme 2015 will come into force on 1 April. The national employers have agreed to work with the Fire Brigades Union to ensure the fitness principles detailed in the national framework are incorporated into local policies. The dispute should now come to an end.

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The Minister gave a promise that firefighters would be redeployed if they were deemed unfit at the age of 55 or over. Will she tell us once and for all how many redeployment opportunities exist for firefighters in that position in England?

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Fire authorities are devolved organisations and we do not hold that information at departmental level. The hon. Lady is incorrect, as someone would be offered a redeployment if one existed or an unreduced pension if one did not exist. The working group on firefighter fitness considers those redeployment opportunities as part of its remit and I think that the shape of the fire and rescue service in the future and the many new things that firefighters will be doing will mean that there will be roles that are more suitable for those who are not fit enough to perform all the roles that a firefighter might.

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The excellent Minister has again reassured the House that if a firefighter, through no fault of his or her own, fails the fitness test after the age of 55, they will be redeployed, given help to reach the required fitness level or given a full pension. I am afraid that chief fire officers up and down the country are saying that is untrue. We are the Government and we make the decisions, not chief fire officers. How can we get them to confirm that fact, which is true?

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My hon. Friend is correct; since the statutory instrument was laid, a firefighter can no longer be dismissed simply for losing fitness. They must also have quality fitness support and six months of remedial training if they lose fitness but do not qualify for ill-health retirement. In addition, if fire authorities comply with the national framework, no firefighter will find themselves with no job and no pension. If a fire authority does not comply, the Secretary of State will intervene. Employers are now working on guidance to show how they will implement the new principles in the framework, and that will include the process with the firefighter and the principles on which an unreduced pension would be offered. That does give a guarantee, and it is a considerable improvement on what went before.

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Woeful!

The Minister promised to negotiate with firefighters on pensions, but then she just laid the regulations regardless. She promised national fitness standards, but that has not happened either. She guaranteed either redeployment or a full pension to those who cannot retain their fitness, but fire and rescue authorities across the country are clear that that is a promise they legally cannot deliver. Broken promises, lack of action and lack of leadership: what a miserable record. Is she ashamed? If not, why not?

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I shall run through the statutory instrument, but first I will just point out that if the hon. Lady thinks my record is shoddy, she might like to take a closer look at her own: she introduced working until 60 in 2006 without any protections at all. Since the statutory instrument came into effect, firefighters can no longer be dismissed for losing fitness, as the hon. Lady knows. They are now protected by the new principles in the national framework. [Interruption.] They are. The national employer guidance will add further weight to that. If she is still unsatisfied, I offer her this challenge: to write to me and outline a circumstance in which a firefighter would face losing their job for losing fitness and would not be protected if the fire authorities were following the national framework principles.

Neighbourhood Planning and Community Rights

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10. What support his Department has provided to local communities on neighbourhood planning and community rights since May 2010. [908056]

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Our support programmes have provided nearly £50 million to help communities undertake neighbourhood planning and access community rights and associated initiatives, including £22.5 million for neighbourhood planning announced only a few weeks ago. That has funded a helpline, online resources, specialist support and grants. From 2015-16 we are investing a further £32 million to help communities take up the rights.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Leeds city council is currently producing a site allocation plan, but neighbourhood planning organisations in my constituency are becoming increasingly frustrated by the council’s lack of consultation with them on the issue. What measures have the Government put in place to ensure that councils work with and share the evidence with such groups, which, after all, are made up of people who will be directly affected by the plans?

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My hon. Friend works hard to champion his local communities. I have enjoyed meeting some of the people working on the neighbourhood plans. They can have absolute confidence that a neighbourhood plan has weight in law. There is a duty on local authorities to work with a neighbourhood plan in an area. Indeed, the Government give them funding to do just that. If there are concerns about that, I will happily meet him and any of his constituents to see what we can do to ensure that the local authority does its duty.

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Does the Minister understand the considerable upset and frustration from my constituents in Reddish, and indeed in Denton, at the decision by Liberal Democrat-controlled Stockport council to grant outline planning permission for luxury houses to be built within Reddish Vale country park, which is part of the Greater Manchester green belt? Is not that just another example of the Government talking the talk on community engagement but, when it comes to it, the public being locked out of the decisions?

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Obviously, the green belt is protected and the Government have made it clear that it should be built on in exceptional circumstances only. Ultimately, local planning is a decision for the local authority, which is locally democratically accountable.

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The Secretary of State kindly came to Colchester and saw how the planning process failed the residents in the Mile End area of Colchester. Can the Minister give some assurance that the same thing is not going to happen to the east of town, particularly as the land in question in partly in Tendring district and partly in the borough of Colchester?

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As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, I cannot comment on a particular planning application, but in a general sense there is a duty for local authorities to co-operate, and they should be working together on these matters. Having a local plan—and even more so a neighbourhood plan—is the most powerful way for a local community to have absolute control over planning decisions in its locality.

Council Tax

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11. What steps his Department has taken to minimise increases in council tax bills since May 2010. [908057]

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Under the Labour Government, council tax more than doubled. Under this Government, our council tax freeze is saving hard-working families up to £1,075 on a band D bill. In Labour-run Wales, there is no council tax freeze, and bills are going through the roof.

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My constituency is served by two district councils. Conservative Rugby borough council has frozen council tax for the sixth year in a row, saving my constituents there more than £125 at a time when the council is investing in new facilities. By contrast, my constituents in Bulkington are being hit with an average increase of £30 a year from Labour-controlled Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council. Which authority does the Secretary of State believe is doing the right thing for its residents?

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It is clear to me that those residents are very lucky and fortunate in their choice of Member of Parliament, who I am sure is serving them extremely well. If all the authorities were to accept the freeze grant, they would receive £3 million in freeze grant among them to help keep down the cost for taxpayers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That seems a much better way. Why not take money from the Government rather than from their population?

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Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the additional cost that householders have to meet because of the cuts that have been implemented in council budgets resulting in people now having to purchase the services that they desperately need?

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I do not think there is any evidence of additional purchasing. This Government have been pushing councils hard to cut back on, for example, the bin tax, the tip tax and parking charges. The hon. Lady should look to the Government for reducing the cost to her constituents.

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Residents in my constituency benefited from a very welcome temporary rebate in their council tax after the floods of last year, but their houses have probably been permanently devalued and they also face very high insurance premiums. Should that not be reflected in council tax banding? Will the Secretary of State instruct the Valuation Office Agency to that effect?

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It seems a good idea for my right hon. Friend’s constituents to seek a revaluation. The Valuation Office Agency is willing to consider changed circumstances and I urge him to look into that.

Social Care and Health Care

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14. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on steps the Government are taking to improve co-ordination between social care and health care. [908060]

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I meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health regularly. The better care fund—now increased to £5.3 billion by local authority partner contributions—will transform the way in which health and social care services are provided.

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I have been out several times with social services in Gravesend and I have been very impressed by the way in which those individuals often go way beyond the call of duty, yet in the House and in the newspapers we hear about them only when things go wrong. Often, that is when there is a dispute between social care providers and health care providers about who is taking the lead. How will the better care fund help this situation?

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I applaud the fact that my hon. Friend has been out there doing that. He is right to recognise the enormous contribution that social services and councils make to the well-being of elderly people. He is right to point out that in Kent £100 million has been pooled. This is about making sure that local authorities, GP practices and acute hospitals work together. Historically there have been silos; now it is about making sure that the individual person is right at the centre of these services and that those services work far more effectively and efficiently.

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The Minister will know that plans to co-ordinate health and social care across Greater Manchester have moved very quickly. In fact, the memorandum of understanding describes the plans as “groundbreaking” and “unprecedented”. He will also be aware that the national health service is built on the collaboration and co-operation of patients, charities, community groups and the public. Given how important this deal is to the people of Greater Manchester, why did he decide not to involve a single one of those groups in this decision; and what ongoing role, if any, does he see for local communities?

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I am sorry that the hon. Lady has missed the point. This is about devolving moneys to a council—in fact, a number of councils—that has the confidence to deliver services better and does not just look to Government to make decisions but stands up for people in its own community and wants to shape and deliver those services more effectively. Greater Manchester, through the devolution route it has followed, will deliver far more effective services. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady can shout as much she wants. The people of Manchester have taken control of delivering these services, and she is outside that network because she chooses to be there.

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21. Given that local government is recognised as being the most efficient part of the public sector and that adult social care is one of the principal cost pressures on local authorities, are the Government not right to integrate in the way that is proposed in Greater Manchester rather than nationalise adult social care as proposed by the shadow Secretary of State? [908069]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. People and GPs on the ground in communities, and people who are running acute hospitals and councils, know better than Government, regardless of which colour. Over the period of this Government, the number of people who are extremely or very satisfied with support of adult social care has increased from 62.8% to 64.8%. That is a direct consequence of local people on the ground taking control and delivering better services.

Parking Charges

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15. What assessment he has made of the effect of local authority parking charges on town centre regeneration. [908061]

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The previous Labour Government told town halls to hike up parking charges and issue more parking fines. Such aggressive parking policies undermined local shops and high streets. That is why this Government have introduced a package of measures to support local shops that will come into law shortly.

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Thousands of local people have signed my campaign to introduce three hours’ free parking to regenerate Stevenage town centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that in order to provide that regeneration it is time for Stevenage’s Labour borough council to stop ripping off local people by charging £3.5 million a year in parking charges?

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Planning guidance issued by the now noble Lord Prescott told councils to hike parking charges and to issue more fines to discourage motorists. A former Minister for local government in the previous Government called for councils to charge more for services, including parking. Town centres suffer a disadvantage because of free car parking in out-of-town car parking centres. If we are to encourage people to shop locally, they have to be able to get there, and the measures we are introducing are designed precisely to do that.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908072]

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This morning my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary announced, as promised in the autumn statement, a review of business rates aimed at keeping the system fair, efficient and effective. The review will report by Budget 2016. Preparations for the 2017 revaluation will continue as usual. The review will be fiscally neutral. The current business rates system ensures that business rates do not increase in real terms. Local authorities now benefit by nearly £11 billion under the business rates retention scheme, which is estimated to deliver a £10 billion boost to national gross domestic product by 2020.

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In the light of today’s admission by the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps)—or perhaps I should say Michael Green—that he continued with a second job after his election as an MP, is the Secretary of State satisfied that it did not continue while the right hon. Gentleman served as a Minister in his Department, and can he confirm that the ministerial code was followed properly in respect of declaring any registrable interests? [Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), wittering from a sedentary position, can leave me to handle these matters, which I shall do with no difficulty at all. The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) has put her point on the record, but I simply make the point that it is not a responsibility of this Secretary of State to answer. The ministerial code, rightly or wrongly, is the responsibility of the Prime Minister, but the point is on the record and Members can find other ways to raise these matters if they wish. They should not trouble Secretary Pickles with them at this time.

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T4. Today an agreement will be completed for the stock transfer of its housing by Gloucester city council to Gloucester City Homes. The new charity will enable £390 million-worth of improvements and the first new social housing on our city council housing estate for a generation. I am grateful to the housing Minister and his predecessors for their help, as well as to the Treasury for writing off £50 million of housing debt. Will the housing Minister join me in congratulating my city council, Gloucester City Homes and its tenants, led by Andrew Harley, on their vision, hard work and attention in seeing through this vital change to bring about a new and bright era for social housing in Gloucester? [908077]

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Order. The hon. Gentleman’s erudition is equalled only by his length. This being the fag end of the Parliament, may I just remind Members that there is supposed to be a distinction between substantive and topical questions? The latter are supposed to be much shorter. I hope that point is duly noted by Members on both sides of the House.

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In the true spirit of your comments, Mr Speaker, I entirely support and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has campaigned hard on this issue with a lot of people who have done a lot of work locally.

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Before the last election, the then Leader of the Opposition said:

“Any Cabinet minister...who comes to me and says ‘here are my plans and they involve front line reductions’ will be sent back to their department to go away and think again.”

Yet we now know that the social care front line has been cut, including the simple act of giving a hot meal to elderly people living at home alone, with 220,000 fewer elderly people receiving meals on wheels compared with 2010, when that promise was made. I have a very simple question for the Secretary of State: why is that?

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The amount spent by councils in cash terms is roughly the same as it was in 2010-11 so far as adult social care is concerned. The net revenue on adult social care was £14.6 billion—about 30% of councils’ budgets. Individual councils have made various decisions and it is up to those councils to defend them. We have tried to ensure, with the better care fund, better co-ordination between medical care and social care, including domiciliary care.

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If I may say so, that was an overly firm denial of the Secretary of State’s responsibility for what has gone on. Let me ask him about another promise to the elderly that was made in 2010—by him. In December that year, the right hon. Gentleman assured the House that the local government settlement was

“providing councils with sufficient resources to protect people’s access to care”.—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 680.]

Yet the National Audit Office says that spending on adult social care is being cut, most of all in the areas of greatest need, which have also seen the biggest reductions in Government funding. Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State has also broken his promise to the elderly people of England and that it has happened because in the past five years he has taken decisions about funding that have been unfair to councils and because, as many councils of all parties think, he has failed to stand up for local government?

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Given that the right hon. Gentleman’s party is promising £52 billion-worth of cuts to local authorities, I do not see that he has a leg to stand on. I have to say to him that this coalition has worked hard to protect the elderly and to improve the better care programme. My desk is covered with requests from Labour councils demanding that we cease the exemption for elderly people on council tax relief and the like. Frankly, for the right hon. Gentleman to pose as a friend of the elderly is absolutely ludicrous.

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Tessa Munt. Not here.

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T8. Will Ministers give very serious consideration to a call-in request I have made relating to a planning application for 190 properties in Goostrey? It would generate detrimental interference to the radio telescopes and world-leading scientific work at Jodrell Bank, and is therefore a concern of national significance. [908081]

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My hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on a particular planning application, but any such request will be given full consideration. I know that she has campaigned very hard with local residents to protect what they perceive as an important piece of local infrastructure. I will obviously look at all the details that come in.

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T2. Having concluded the examination stage of the Whitemoss landfill extension as a nationally significant infrastructure application, will the Secretary of State assure Skelmersdale residents, despite eight broken promises that the site would be closed, that their voices will be given equal consideration to that of the company as he considers the decision on the application, and will he say when he will announce his decision? [908074]

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As a planning case, that matter is quasi-judicial. Again, I cannot comment on a particular planning application. However, over the next couple of days, I will write to the hon. Lady with some idea of the timeline.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that councils, such as my local borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, with emerging local plans and a five-year supply of housing, will not be overruled on appeal or undermined by speculative planning applications?

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Provided a neighbourhood plan has been submitted, then it has considerable weight, as has been confirmed by a recent court case.

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T3. May I refer the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), to her answers to my hon. Friends the Members for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and, on the Opposition Front Bench, for West Ham (Lyn Brown)? What actions is the fire Minister taking specifically to amend the statutory instrument along the lines suggested by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has scrutinised the text, to ensure that the promises she gave at the Dispatch Box to safeguard firefighters pensions can be delivered, particularly if fire authorities tell us that they cannot or will not deliver them? [908076]

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The SI is effective: it has been in place since 12 July. I have had no evidence at all that fire authorities intend not to comply with the national framework, but if they choose not to comply with it, the Secretary of State has powers to act under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004.

I would say to Opposition Members that it is incredibly important for firefighters to understand the facts. We are approaching April, and they will be making decisions that affect their financial future. If any hon. Member knows an instance of an authority which they think will not comply, or if they have concerns about how the SI will work, they can come to talk to me. I will be quite happy to explain it, but I have explained it several times on the Floor of the House. It gives firefighters the protections they ought to have, and it is a vast improvement on what went before.

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Will the Department give a ruling on the circumstances in which a sale of a village hall should be prevented? The right of adverse possession should not be to the detriment of the local community that has used the village hall, and access across the land to the village hall should be permitted regardless of who owns the land.

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National policy makes it clear that planning should promote the retention of community facilities, including meeting places such as village halls, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and look at the details of a case on which I know she has campaigned hard with her local residents.

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T6. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government, if they remain in power after the election, intend to carry on with the same level of year-on-year cuts in the next Parliament as they have applied in this Parliament, and if so, will he or the Minister of State seriously consider whether in that situation it will be possible for all councils to remain financially viable and continue to deliver their statutory services? [908079]

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I share the hon. Gentleman’s optimism about the chances of there being a Conservative Government and look forward to answering him from this Dispatch Box for many years. I know, like and respect him as the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, but he was making exactly the same points five years ago and it has proved to be perfectly all right. I cannot anticipate the levels of future budgets, but one thing is certain: whether there is a Conservative, coalition or Labour Government, because of the state of the finances, improving though they are, the level of support to local government will continue to go down.

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Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, and Daventry district council share a common rural boundary, immediately on either side of which Gypsies and Travellers continue to make a series of controversial applications for inappropriate development. In those circumstances, would the planning Minister expect the Planning Inspectorate to consider the cumulative impact on the rural parishes that are bisected by that artificial boundary, rather than judge the applications against the individual plans of each authority?

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Every planning application has to be considered on the merits of the case. However, I hope to make an announcement shortly on a consultation on improvements to the planning policy and guidance for Traveller sites to further strengthen the protection for the green belt and other sensitive areas, and to amend the definition of “Travellers” for planning purposes so that it refers only to those who travel.

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T7. This will be the last Communities and Local Government question that I shall ask. May I therefore surprise the Government by congratulating them on introducing measures to require the installation of smoke alarms in all privately rented housing, but—there is a sting in the tail—may I also ask them to explain why it took them so long to reach that decision, given that their own impact assessment shows that the measure will save more than 20 lives a year? Is it because there are forces within the Government that are hostile to regulation, even when it saves lives? [908080]

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It is with some sadness that I come to the Dispatch Box. I had the honour of following the right hon. Gentleman when he made his maiden speech on his second appearance in the House, which was a daunting task. I am very pleased to be answering his question today.

These things take a little time. The private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) helped, but it took a little time to persuade colleagues. I wanted to give these alarms away for free. It makes an enormous amount of sense for firefighters to fit them. It seems to me sensible, rather than imposing a duty, to impose a charge. I wish the right hon. Gentleman and his family every success for the future.

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In the light of the previous question, will the Secretary of State clarify that the measure will extend to carbon monoxide detectors, which were the subject of my private Member’s Bill that he mentioned? The subject of the Bill was chosen by the electors of the High Peak, so they will be grateful for this Government action, which I hope he will confirm for us.

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It is with enormous pleasure that I confirm that that is entirely the case. I pay tribute to the difficult work that my hon. Friend did in taking that Bill through Parliament.

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Back in February, Ministers criticised Birmingham for failing to collect 4.6% of the council tax that was due. I know that I will not get them to say anything nice about Birmingham, but I ask them to acknowledge that it did better than the Inland Revenue, which failed to collect 5.8% of the national insurance, basic tax and capital gains tax that was due.

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I am very happy to put it on the record that I love Birmingham. It is a wonderful city. Sometimes I get a lot of pressure from its Members of Parliament, who criticise the fine council, but I try to resist that whenever possible. I look forward to visiting Birmingham again and looking at the magnificent art gallery.

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Last Thursday evening, I attended the launch of Discover North East Lincolnshire, a private sector initiative that has been created in partnership with the local council. Will the Secretary of State compliment those involved and give an assurance that a future Conservative Government will build on the successes of the coalition Government in supporting such initiatives?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on that fine initiative. That is exactly the kind of thing we should be doing, and I look forward to it going from strength to strength.

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Will the Secretary of State explain why the East Riding of Yorkshire, with just over 1,500 troubled families, is getting a £200,000 grant from the Government, yet Hull city council, with nearly 3,500 troubled families, is getting exactly the same amount of money? How is that fair?

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The hon. Lady should not confuse the amount of money that goes to troubled families with the amount that goes to local authorities in general. The troubled families delivery programme is based on payment by results, and she should urge Hull city council to take some of the advantages that its neighbours have taken—it is payment by results.

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In August 2011 Denmead neighbourhood forum in my constituency received £20,000 from the Front Runners scheme to complete its neighbourhood plan, and it was passed on the Thursday before last with a resounding majority. Will the Minister congratulate Denmead neighbourhood forum on that fantastic achievement by local people for local people?

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I am happy to do that. My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some 6 million-plus people in this country are now covered by 1,400 neighbourhood planning areas, and I want that to go further. The example in his constituency, where I know he has worked hard with the local community, shows how important it is to give local people a local say over local power and planning. That is absolutely the way things should be.