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Topical Questions

Volume 594: debated on Monday 16 March 2015

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.

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.]

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.

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)

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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

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)

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.