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Communities and Local Government

Volume 597: debated on Monday 29 June 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolution (Local Communities)

We shall have a moment of silence at the end of Question Time, but I think that, as we gather together in the House at this point, we will all want to share our condemnation of the atrocities in Tunisia, Kuwait and France last week. All our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.

The Government are committed to devolving greater powers away from Whitehall to drive economic growth. We have already taken steps to enable that to happen by introducing the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. I welcome devolution proposals from all areas, including proposals relating to how powers might be devolved to cities, towns, counties and neighbourhoods throughout the country.

I echo what the Secretary of State said about recent events.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the need for further devolution of powers, but there is considerable disagreement in the north-east about the need for an elected mayor. Will he commit himself to giving people in the north-east a say in a referendum?

I am having discussions with the leaders of the north-eastern authorities, and I expect to see them later in the week. There is a real groundswell of opinion in the north-east that now is the time to put aside some of the divisions that have held it back, and to have clear leadership. Nothing will be imposed on an area, but I look forward to meeting the leaders and hearing their proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that neighbourhood planning represents the best way of ensuring that communities have a real say in the planning system when it comes to deciding where houses should go, what they should look like, and what green and open spaces should be preserved?

I do indeed. My hon. Friend is a pioneer of neighbourhood planning. He worked closely with me when I was last a Minister in the Department to ensure that it was introduced, and it has been a huge success. The first neighbourhood plan was in Thame, in his constituency. More than 1,500 communities are now engaged in the neighbourhood planning process, and 300 neighbourhood plans have been published for consultation. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has accepted my invitation to work with me to see what we can do to speed up the possibilities for other neighbourhoods throughout the country.

The Government’s decision last week to shelve plans for the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester railway line fundamentally undermined the concept of the northern powerhouse. When were DCLG Ministers first informed of the decision, and were they informed before or after the election? What opportunity was given to local authorities such as Kirklees to make recommendations to various Ministers?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made a substantial statement on the matter, and it was clear that he was dissatisfied with the performance of Network Rail in this respect. However, it is worth our reminding ourselves—and it is important for those in the north to recognise—that £38 billion is being invested in the transport system, which is the most significant investment since Victorian times. As for electrification, only 10 miles of line were electrified during the 13 years for which the last Government were in office, but we are committed to it.

The success of city deals so far has been due to the fact that Ministers have avoided over-prescriptive rules, and instead have focused on what each deal can do for each community. May I strongly encourage the Secretary of State to ensure that that flexibility is retained, particularly in smaller towns and counties?

I will certainly take that approach. My hon. Friend was a great force in working with the local enterprise partnerships in their early days, and respecting the fact that every place is different. It would be ludicrous to observe those differences and then impose a uniform requirement in all places.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Tunisia?

In all the debates about the northern powerhouse, I am very keen for us not to forget the southern powerhouse. What powers does the Secretary of State expect to devolve from Westminster to cities such as Brighton and Hove?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the success of the Brighton city deal, which has been warmly welcomed throughout his area, and which is one of the reasons for the fact that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 53% since May 2010. That is a powerhouse that is performing.

One of the great advantages of my right hon. Friend’s devolutionist approach is that city deals can capture the variation that occurs in key areas such as the housing market, which will vary from city to city. Will he talk to organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, which is keen to establish what further work can be done to capture the link between devolution and housing delivery?

I will indeed, and again I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend did in the Department in inaugurating this transfer of powers. Housing will be of great importance in all the deals we are negotiating and expect to conclude. There is an appetite for that right across the country and I will certainly take the advice of the RTPI.

Home Ownership

Annual statistics on trends in home ownership are published in the Department’s English housing survey headline report, and I was pleased that recently it highlighted the fact that the number of first-time buyers is at a seven-year high.

Is the Minister aware that the cost of the average house in Enfield has rocketed to over 11 times the average wage in the borough? Home ownership is now at its lowest level in 30 years, and the dream of buying a home is increasingly out of reach. Why are the Government so complacent about declining home ownership and their failure to build?

The hon. Lady should be pleased that we have seen 600 housing starts in her own area over the last year and that, although we inherited from the last Labour Government the lowest level of house building since about 1923, we have seen that level starting to come back thanks to the work this Government have done to deliver the fastest rate of building not just of council homes, but also affordable homes, in about 20 years.

Can the Minister confirm that the proportion of people who own their own home actually fell over the lifetime of the coalition Government, and will he reaffirm, as a central promise of this Administration, to increase the proportion of people who own their own homes?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting observation. Of course, home ownership started to fall in 2005, under the last Labour Government. Over the last Parliament, we worked to get the house building sector working again. We have made it clear that we are a party who believe in helping people who work hard and aspire to own their own home, and that is why we will deliver some 200,000 starter homes for first-time buyers over the course of this Parliament.

24. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show yet another significant rise in house prices in Bristol, with the biggest rise—some 12%—being in my constituency. Affordability is becoming an increasing problem for local people. People from outside Bristol might be able to afford to live there, but local people cannot afford to buy homes. What is the Minister doing about that? (900619)

The hon. Lady may realise that there have been just over 1,000 housing starts in the last year in her area, which is well up on where it was before and, again, builds on the terrible situation we inherited some five years ago. I hope she will join me in thanking this Conservative Government for pledging to deliver affordable homes at the fastest rate in over 20 years and, of course, those 200,000 starter homes for first-time buyers at a 20% discount. Perhaps her party would like to get on board and support that work.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the way to address housing affordability is to increase supply? Can he confirm to the House that the approach which saw over 500,000 new homes built during the last Parliament will be continued?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we seek to build on that by delivering affordable homes, including starter homes for first-time buyers, and making sure we increase supply. We have seen the increases over the last few years, and the recent figure of some 261,000 homes getting planning approval last year is pretty much a record level, and is a good sign that we have got the market moving in the right direction. We intend to build on that, and will do so.

Homeless People

3. What steps he is taking to ensure that local councils provide adequate support and assistance to single homeless people when they approach their council for help. (900597)

By law, local authorities have a duty to provide advice and information to anyone asking for help. To help them discharge that important duty we have, among other sources of support, funded the National Homelessness Advice Service supporting frontline staff, together with the Help for Single Homeless funding, helping 22,000 people across England by April 2016.

Housing is a big issue in my crowded city of Portsmouth and figures show that the number of people in priority-need has increased over recent years. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that there is good advice and assistance to the homeless?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know that she took a keen interest in this issue before she entered the House. We provided more than £500,000 in homelessness prevention grant funding to Portsmouth Council back in 2013-14, and the council was able to use it to prevent 1,021 households from becoming homeless. We are providing a further £550,000 to Portsmouth for the same purpose this year. I am certainly not complacent, however, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I want to work with local authorities to build on best practice. I shall also be meeting representatives of Crisis next month to discuss what more can be done to improve services for homeless people.

Does the Minister agree that the best way for the Government to help councils to help homeless people is to ensure that councils can build more council houses?

I am aware that councils can build council housing. That is quite an interesting question, because more council houses were built during the past five years of the coalition Government than during the previous 13 years under Labour.

Local Government Grant Formula

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the local government grant formula in directing funding to areas of need. (900599)

15. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the local government grant formula in directing funding to areas of need. (900610)

Councils facing the highest demand for services receive substantially more funding, including through the grant formula. In addition, with the introduction of business rates retention in 2013-14 there has been a deliberate shift away from keeping authorities dependent on grant and towards providing councils with the tools and incentives they need to grow their local economies and promote sustainable house building.

I thank the Minister for his response, but that is simply not the case, is it? Extreme cuts in areas of need have put councils in an impossible situation. Some have found it so hard to protect essential services that they have had to use funding that had originally been allocated for local welfare assistance schemes. That means that, at times, there is nothing left for people who are in desperate need, such as care leavers, those who are homeless and those who are fleeing abuse. Does he really think that it is acceptable for councils to have to make those choices?

The north-east and the north-west still have the highest spending power per household after London. The average spending power per household in the north-east is £2,313, and the figure for the north-west is £2,250. Those figures are both higher than the England—excluding Greater London Authority—average of £2,086. Spending power per household in the South Tyneside area will be £2,402 in 2015-16, which is more than the England—excluding Greater London Authority—average and also more than the metropolitan area average of £2,226, so I do believe that adequate resources are being provided.

The Secretary of State is a decent man with an open mind who has often spoken of the importance of fairness, so how does he explain the fact that while the great city of Birmingham, which has high need, has had a £700 million budget cut equating to £2,000 per household, the leafy shire area of Cheshire East, in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s constituency is located, has had an increase in spending power of 2.6%? If fairness is to mean anything, it must lie at the heart of the funding of local government. Fairness should be based on need.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my boss. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman still agrees with what he told the Municipal Journal on 29 September 2010:

“Labour was wrong in 1997 to downgrade the role of local government”.

We are not doing that; we are trying to upgrade the role of local government, and I remind him that spending power per household for the Birmingham area will be £2,554 in 2015-16, which is more than the England average excluding the GLA, more than the metropolitan area average and more than the Cheshire East average of £1,851.

There are many areas of high deprivation in the Shipley constituency. Does the Minister agree that people who are in need in otherwise affluent areas should be treated in the same way as those who are in need in deprived areas? What can he do to ensure that Bradford Council treats all those in need equally, and that it does not simply direct its resources to those in need in its Labour heartlands?

I am sure that any constituents who are in need have a doughty champion in my hon. Friend. If he believes the local authority is being deficient in any way, he will not be slow in coming forward to tell it so. Councillors in local government have had to take difficult decisions—I served in local government, so I remember some of those, too—but it is right that councils spend their money equitably for the residents across their entire area.

In my constituency, over the next five years, the number of residents aged 65 and above will increase by 20% and the number aged 95 and above will increase by 50%. What funding support can the Minister offer to meet the unique challenges of age and rurality in my constituency and others like it?

The funding changes made by the previous Government have already delivered a steady reduction in the so-called “urban-rural gap” in spending power levels. Consecutive settlements have helped to address that gap, and between 2012-13 and 2015-16 it reduces by £205 million. I hope those resources will be of some assistance.

20. The National Audit Office is clear that local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation have seen the greatest reductions in spending power, and in Cumbria rurality compounds the problem. Does the Minister accept that the cost of providing services in sparsely populated areas means that less money is then available to address our needs? (900615)

Allerdale is classified as a rural authority and, as such, it received additional funding via the £15.5 million allocated to rural areas for 2015-16, which was £4 million up on last year’s figure. In addition, it is worth pointing out that the Cumbria local enterprise partnership receives some £48 million in growth deal funding, part of which I hope will be to the benefit of the hon. Lady’s constituents.

It is important that local government grant and council tax payers’ moneys are put to the best use. Labour-led North East Lincolnshire Council is considering whether or not to establish its own funeral service, an area already well-served by private businesses, which fear that the council will exploit its monopoly position of providing cremation services. Will the Minister assure me that he will take the matter up with that council?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have given councils greater powers, and the matter he raises is a local one. Perhaps we can have a discussion on it, but all I will say is that the council will have to make sure that it enjoys support from local people if it is going to undertake this. Councillors should ask not for whom the bell tolls, lest it tolls for them.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s earlier comments on the atrocities in Tunisia and say what a pleasure it was to see him recently at the mayor-making in Croydon? Many people across local government hope the new Secretary of State will adopt a fairer approach than his predecessor. Over the past five years, Newham, which has very high levels of social deprivation, has lost more than £1,000 of funding per household while wealthier Elmbridge in Surrey has had an increase of more than £40 per household. How will his approach in future spending rounds put an end to this blatant unfairness?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my new responsibilities—at least that is what it said here. [Laughter.] I should explain, for his benefit, that I began my career in local government, serving on Basildon District Council, a robust place once described as the only local authority in the UK where at council meetings the councillors would actively heckle the public gallery. I also thank him for being nice to my boss. May I remind him that part of our approach is to give councils extra resources, and extra sources of resource, with which they can address issues? Local authorities now benefit from nearly £11 billion under business rates retention, with the scheme estimated to deliver a £10 billion boost to national GDP by 2020. By 2015-16, 94% of local authorities will see growth in business rates above their initial projections, which will be worth some £544 million. We are giving local authorities the methods to succeed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my position as well. As he seems to want people to believe that the Government’s approach is fair, why have the 10 councils with the most children in care lost three times more funding than the 10 councils with the fewest children in care?

I am very glad to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. We all know that money is tight, but it is worth reminding the House that the Department for Communities and Local Government contributed a package of £230 million to the recent in-year savings exercise, which was found mainly from unallocated contingencies and better than anticipated land receipts. As a result, we did not need to reopen the local government finance settlement for councils for 2015-16. I understand that that was received well across the whole of local government, even in some Labour authorities.

Public Sector Land

Over the course of this Parliament, the Government are committed to releasing public sector land with capacity for up to 150,000 homes. Selling surplus land plays an important role in delivering the Government’s ambitious housing programme, as it releases land supply to the market for starter homes and other initiatives.

Given the importance of protecting the green belt in areas such as my constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills, what assistance is being given to local authorities to identify public sector land for development and thus further safeguard our precious green belt?

My hon. Friend makes a good point on protecting the green belt, which we have done through the national planning policy framework. My now boss outlined the process during the passage of the Localism Act 2011. We are committed to ensuring that the Government release public land as an important part of that process, and that 90% of our brownfield land has its planning permission in place by 2020.

My hon. Friend will be acutely aware of the concern of many of my constituents about the potential loss of our green belt thanks to excessive housing targets set by Leeds council, but the release of public sector land would help to save those important sites. What measures are available to meet the remediation costs so that developers cannot say that such sites are not viable?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It was a pleasure to visit him in his constituency and to talk to residents about these issues. It is important that we get public sector land released. With regard to brownfield sites, we have the housing zones programme in place. We have announced that, later this year, we will go into more detail about the brownfield fund, which will be aimed specifically at such details. I will happily meet him and his local councillors to see whether we can help take things forward.

There is a significant disparity in the rate of public sector development across the United Kingdom. Will the Minister undertake to hold discussions with the relevant Ministers in each of the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments to ensure that residents in each of the parts of the UK get maximum bang for their buck?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Ministers are talking all the time; the Secretary of State has been very clear about driving the matter forward. He wants all Departments to deliver to ensure that we get to 150,000 homes. I am happy to look at what he suggests. If we can work with the devolved authorities to ensure that residents right across the United Kingdom benefit, I will be happy to do so.

Figures from a recent National Audit Office report showed that the Government were so desperate to inflate their record on the disposal of public land for new homes that they included land released as long ago as 1997 by the Labour Government. Will the Minister tell the House how on earth the Government propose to reach the higher target of 150,000 homes with no one else’s record to plunder?

I gently say to the hon. Lady that the programme that I outlined in the previous Parliament consisted of land that was built on or disposed of between 2011 and 2015. We have set an ambitious target of 150,000 homes for this Parliament, which we must reach, and I hope that she will support us in doing that. Let me gently point out to her that I am somewhat prouder of this Government’s record of delivering some 23,000 homes a year through public sector land than I would be of the Labour record of 1,000 homes a year.

Free School Transport

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the provision of free school transport by local authorities. (900601)

Ministers regularly meet colleagues in Government Departments to discuss a variety of topics. Local authorities have discretionary powers to provide free home to school transport beyond their statutory duties and are best placed to balance local priorities against the funding they have available.

They do have that discretion, but increasingly they are not using it. People who want to send their children to a faith-based school, a grammar school or just the school they want them to go to, not far from the nearest school, are being charged about £500 a time. That is nothing more than a supplement to the council tax. Will the Minister please look into that abuse and stop it?

I understand that my hon. Friend secured a Westminster Hall debate on this very subject only last Thursday, where he discussed it in considerable detail. He also raised a number of constituency cases and gave examples as he went. I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools in responding to that debate: local authorities need to adopt a reasonable approach, especially in the application of their discretionary powers.

Parents of disabled children face particularly high costs in arranging their children’s travel to school, and of course it is not always possible for those children to make use of public transport. Will the Minister have a conversation with his counterpart in the Department for Education to ensure that local authorities properly address the needs of those children?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. It is worth bearing it in mind that the statutory guidance recommends that local authorities adopt an appeals process, which must be published annually on the local authority website and involve a two-stage review by a senior council officer and, if the issue is unresolved, by an independent appeals panel. Any parent who feels that their disabled child’s needs are not being properly looked after has the right to that two-stage appeal process.

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping

7. What assessment he has made of the reasons for changes in the level of homelessness and rough sleeping since 2010. (900602)

We have invested more than £500 million since 2010 to support local authorities and the voluntary sector to prevent and tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. That investment has meant that we have not returned to the days of 10 years ago, when statutory homelessness in England was nearly double what it is today.

I thank the Minister for that response, but Government figures released just last week show that homelessness has risen by 36% since 2010 and that the number of homeless families living in bed and breakfasts has soared by 300%. Is the Minister not shocked at the dreadful legacy of the past five years, and will he commit to make tackling homelessness a top priority?

The Government are absolutely committed to tackling homelessness. The hon. Lady mentions bed-and-breakfast accommodation but, to put it into context, a small number of authorities—about 5%—account for 80% of the breaches. We are taking this very seriously and are absolutely clear that the long-term use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children is unacceptable and unlawful. However, the hon. Lady must also bear it in mind that the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation is a third of its peak under the Labour Administration.

Given the pernicious link between homelessness, mental illness, addiction, crime and unemployment, what progress has been made on the autumn statement commitment to extend the principles of the troubled families programme to other individuals with multiple needs?

It is too early for me to comment on what will be in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget—

I thank the hon. Lady for her advice.

I certainly hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) says, and we are making it a great priority to work with troubled families to try to improve their lives and, in particular, outcomes for their children.

Is it not a scandal that there are so many people sleeping on the streets of this country and that so many children are being brought up in temporary accommodation with no long-term security? Is it not a scandal that much of that is brought about by short-term renting in the private rented sector by people who then get moved out, particularly in London, because of the way in which the benefit cap operates? Should we not rethink housing strategy and housing needs in this country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and wish him luck in his endeavours over the next few months. He seems to be harking back to the same failed policies that lost his party the general election. He does raise an extremely important issue about assured shorthold tenancies and what happens to people when those tenancies come to an end. Some excellent work is going on, with some authorities helping people in that position to avoid homelessness. I want to build on the good work that has been done, to ensure that nobody is made homeless as a result of an assured shorthold tenancy.

So complacent.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. During the election, the Prime Minister stated that the number of people sleeping rough had gone down over the past five years. Crisis, the homelessness charity, said he had got his facts wrong. The Government’s own statistics show that the number of rough sleepers has gone up by 55%. Will the Minister correct the Prime Minister’s mistake?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. Compared with the situation five years ago, this Government changed the methodology for counting rough sleeping so that we have a more honest and accurate assessment and do not sweep things under the carpet, as her party did when it was in government. We have a number of programmes on rough sleeping that are working well. The “No Second Night Out” programme has been rolled out across the country, and in London more than two thirds of those new to the streets are not spending a second night out because of that programme.

Affordable Homes Programme

More than 260,000 affordable homes have been delivered in England since April 2010. The Government’s 2011 to 2015 affordable homes programme exceeded our expectations, delivering nearly 186,000 affordable homes, some 16,000 more than originally pledged.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Northampton Borough Council on using the affordable housing programme to create new affordable housing and bring empty commercial and office buildings in Northampton back into use? What further plans does he have to help local authorities provide more affordable housing?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and he is right. I congratulate Northampton Borough Council on its excellent work in making sure it delivers the homes that residents need. It is important that we do that. That is why we are committed to delivering affordable housing over the next few years at the fastest rate we will have seen in this country for more than two decades.

I welcome the Minister’s answer and applaud the Government’s policy of extending the right to buy to housing association tenants, but may I urge him to make sure that there is a robust mechanism to ensure like-for-like replacement of homes sold to housing association tenants? In particular, will he examine what happens in rural areas where community land trusts exist to ensure no depletion of affordable housing in rural communities?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I thank him for endorsing the fact that we are determined to do what we can to support people who aspire to own their own homes. We will move forward with delivering that right to all social tenants. The Government are committed to ensuring that people can achieve their aspiration of home ownership. We support people’s desire to own their own home, and we will work with them. Under the current programme, there are rural exemption sites.

Given that the Government have completely failed to replace the council homes sold under the right to buy, and given the Minister’s proposals to force the sale of housing association homes, are the Government committed to replacing housing association homes that are sold and council homes that will be sold to fund the compensation to housing associations? If not, does he accept that his policy will lead to a reduction in the number of houses available for social renting?

What assessment has the Minister made of land throughout the country that already has planning permission for housing that could help the affordable housing programme?

Some 261,000 properties have been given planning permission in the past year. That is a good sign, and it is pretty much a record figure. We need to make sure that those homes are developed in good time. Local authorities grant planning permission for a limited time, so they should rightly expect developers to build them out.

Right-to-Buy Scheme

10. What the replacement rate of council homes sold through the right-to-buy scheme has been since 2012. (900605)

Local authorities have three years from the date of sale of each home to replace the property. In the first year following the reinvigoration of the right to buy, there were 3,053 additional sales. Within two years—by the end of 2014-15—3,337 replacements were started or acquired.

I recall that at the start of the previous Parliament one-for-one replacement was promised, but across the country the actual figure has cracked out at one for 10, and in my city it is one for nine. Why should anyone believe these assurances now?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. He must not have listened to my answer, because I said that there were 3,053 additional sales and 3,337 replacements, which is more than one for one.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, Moody’s, the National Housing Association and the CBI, to name but a few, have raised concerns about the Government’s right-to-buy proposals. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of those proposals on the financial viability of housing associations and, in turn, their ability to build new affordable housing?

The impact of the policy will be to extend the aspiration of people across this country to own their own home, because 86% of people want to do so, and there is no difference between the aspirations of housing association tenants, council tenants and people who own their own home. That is the impact we are achieving through the policy.

Does the Secretary of State expect the replacement of housing association homes that are sold off to be the same as, above or below the rate for council homes previously sold off?

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made clear, the requirement will be one-for-one replacement. With regard to council house sales, replacement of more than one for one has already been achieved for the first year.

Localism (Infrastructure Projects)

11. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that localism is prioritised in the decision-making process for nationally significant infrastructure projects. (900606)

The nationally significant infrastructure planning system strikes a fair and effective balance between two important needs: the national need for infrastructure to underpin growth and sustainability, and the need to address community concerns and maximise local benefits from investment.

I thank the Minister for that non-answer. I would like him to explain to the residents of West Lancashire why, despite the Government’s claim to support localism in the planning process, permission was granted to dump hazardous waste for 20 more years at Whitemoss landfill, for which there was no demonstrable need, either local or regional, and which was opposed by thousands of local residents, the borough council, the county council and me as the local MP. Surely this means—

Order. The hon. Lady can preserve the unexpurgated version of her question for the autumn evenings that lie ahead.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the hon. Lady for her gracious comments. As she probably realises, that planning application is still within the six-week period during which a decision can be challenged. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on a specific scheme, owing to the quasi-judicial nature of planning.

23. Many of my constituents feel that localism is failing them when they oppose large-scale wind farms and solar farms. Will the Minister consider a minimum buffer zone between such projects and settlements, which would give my constituents some comfort? (900618)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am sure he will appreciate that local communities absolutely have their say under the new wind turbine regime.

Right to Buy (Housing Associations)

13. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of introducing a right to buy for housing association tenants. (900608)

The details will be set out in the impact assessment when the housing Bill is published, but it is all about ensuring that we support people who aspire to own their own home and extend home ownership to as wide a group of people who wish to have it as possible, and on equal terms to those who have had it for so many years.

What a load of waffle. It is quite clear that the Minister has made no assessment at all of the costs of the policy. When he produces the impact assessment before the Bill is published and brought before the House, will he ensure that it shows that taxpayers will pay three times over: first, for the investment to build the homes; secondly, for the discount to sell them; and, thirdly, for the higher housing benefit bills that will result?

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman feels strongly about this, no doubt against the background of his interests in the housing association he is involved with.

I gently point out to the right hon. Gentleman that he has made it very clear where the Labour party stands on the issue. Lord Prescott himself made it clear that he did not know what aspiration was. I suspect, from what the right hon. Gentleman has said, that he probably still harks back to his statement to the Fabian Society, in which he spoke about the drop in home ownership since 2012 being no bad thing. We think that it is, and we want to support people who want to own their own home. I am disappointed that he does not support aspiration.

Does my hon. Friend agree that constructing a local plan where one did not exist in areas such as my constituency of Eastleigh is of paramount importance in delivering home ownership while protecting green spaces and in committing to the strongest sanctions on councils that fail to do this properly by embracing localism and providing locally based community planning?

All housing association tenants will share my view, and my hon. Friend’s, that the best way for communities to have their say is to have a local plan and, even better, neighbourhood plans. I encourage her authority to listen to her and get on with putting its local plan in place.

Firefighters Pension Scheme (Scotland)

16. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the effect of firefighters pension scheme reforms in Scotland; and if he will make a statement. (900611)

The firefighters pension scheme is devolved, and it is for the Scottish Government to consider its operation in Scotland. As such, I have had no discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland on this matter.

Surely the UK Government should withdraw this appalling threat to Scotland’s funding and allow the Scottish Government to manage their own public sector pensions within the agreed funding settlement framework.

We have to look at the context. The cost of public sector pensions increased by about a third in the 10 years to 2009, and reform was necessary to ensure a fair deal for firefighters and taxpayers alike. Firefighters’ pensions remain generous. A firefighter who earns £29,000 and retires at 60 after a full career will get about £19,000 a year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension. It is also worth remembering that the pension age of 60 is the same as it is for the police and, indeed, for the armed forces.

Topical Questions

May I start this session of topical questions by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) for his five successful years in leading the Department?

Building on my right hon. Friend’s achievements, my commitments and those of my excellent team are, among other things, to continue to increase the supply of housing so that people can achieve their aspiration of a home of their own; to decentralise powers and budgets to local communities through the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill; and to maintain an ongoing commitment to turning lives around through the troubled families programme. This week, the Prime Minister announced that almost 117,000 families have so far been helped.

With the biggest housing crisis in a generation and an acute shortage of affordable and social housing, would that the Government’s right-to-buy Bill were buried and not brought forward, because it will make that bad situation worse. On the timetable for the Bill, the Prime Minister promised that it would be introduced in the Government’s first 100 days. Can the Secretary of State confirm that it will be brought before Parliament before the summer recess?

The hon. Gentleman is a former shadow housing Minister, and many of his colleagues are having occasion to reflect on Labour’s failure to offer any substantive policies; he should take his share of the blame. He should be clear from my previous answer that the right-to-buy policy, in relation to council houses, has increased the supply of housing. Whether on increasing housing supply or increasing aspiration, he should get behind our policy. The Bill was in the Queen’s Speech and it will be introduced very shortly.

T2. The Minister will be aware that the number of empty homes in the UK is now at the lowest level since records began. Will he assure the House that he will continue to work with councils such as Dartford council, which is successfully bringing more and more empty homes back into use? (900561)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It has been a pleasure to visit and meet the excellent council in Dartford, which is doing some superb work on this. He is right. The number of long-term vacant homes in England fell by some 10,000 in the year to October 2014, so we are at the lowest levels we have seen. That is good work and we want to go further.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion and join him in his condemnation of the terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France. Our thoughts and sympathies are with the victims, families and friends.

The reason the Secretary of State does not know when he is going to bring forward his housing Bill is that the policies were written on the back of a fag packet during the election campaign and were based on forcing councils to sell 15,000 homes a year. Since then, I have asked his Department how many of these homes will become vacant every year, and it said it does not know. How many council homes will he force councils to sell off every year?

I do not smoke, so there is no question of writing on the back of fag packets, but what I do know is that the Opposition policies for which the hon. Lady was responsible were very much inadequate to the task. In fact, one of her own colleagues, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), has said that the Labour party’s housing policies made his “heart sink”, and each member of Labour’s leadership parade has called attention to the party’s failure to come up with credible policies. We are very clear that extending the right to buy is a way of achieving people’s aspirations. I have yet to hear from the hon. Lady whether she agrees with the right to buy.

We are in favour of people’s aspiration to buy their own home, but we are also in favour of policies that add up and stack up. The Tories are just plucking the figures out of thin air. They have no idea how many council homes will be sold. Indeed, the property specialist Savills estimates that the number is closer to 5,000 rather than 15,000.

This is not just about existing council homes, but about homes that councils are building or planning to build. Is the Secretary of State going to force councils to sell brand-new homes even before those who are on the waiting list—elderly people, families and others—are able to move into them?

The hon. Lady gives every impression of not being in favour of the right to buy, but she cannot bring herself to say it. I invite her to make her policy clear. Our policy is very clear: on expensive council houses in the top third of the area, it is an efficient use of those assets to sell them in order to be able to allow more homes to be built. That is a very straightforward policy.

T3. The Secretary of State may recall canvassing on the brand new Edgewater Park estate in Warrington three months ago, where the major issue was lack of adequate broadband. Will he consider requiring that broadband be provided for new estates in the same way as other utilities such as electric and water? (900562)

I do indeed recall canvassing with my hon. Friend in his constituency and it was a very successful session. He is absolutely right to say that it is important to have broadband connections when new homes are built. In fact, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will meet Joe Garner of BT this very afternoon to press that point. Of course, it is not just a planning matter; it is for BT to make sure that it is alert and adept enough to make those connections.

T4. Was the Secretary of State as surprised as my constituents at the decision to suspend the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester rail line? Does that help or hinder the Government’s stated objective of a so-called northern powerhouse generating economic growth in Leeds and the north? (900563)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me this opportunity to respond. This Government are investing £13 billion in rail in the north. There will be more trains, newer trains and more regular journeys. It is right that the Secretary of State for Transport should look at the value for money for all projects and his decision is the correct one, but the northern powerhouse is about many things, not just transport. We are going to build it and deliver for the economy of the north of England.

T5. Are Ministers aware that the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk has a five-year supply of housing and a robust local plan, which will go to the inspector next month? In the meantime, do they agree that it is quite wrong and unethical for developers and housing associations to put in opportunistic applications and appeals? (900564)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is good to hear that the King’s Lynn local plan will be going through the process as soon as possible. I know that the inspectors will look at it and work with the local authority to get it through the process. If a planning application is made, the local authority itself is the body that makes the decision. Should it end up with an inspector, they will look at the process. Obviously, as the local plan goes through the process it gains more weight, which should be taken into account in any decision.

T6. With the pause in the electrification of the TransPennine service turning the northern powerhouse into a northern power cut, when did the Secretary of State actually know that the policy was in such difficulty? (900565)

Labour Members would do well to listen to their council leaders, so many of whom are supportive and enthusiastic about the policies that this Government are bringing forward to grow our northern economy. As I have already made clear, transport plays a key role in that, but this is about so much more. It is not about a cut; it is about delivering on our promises, growing our regional economies and delivering for the north.

T8. Will my right hon. Friend be very careful about any changes he might be considering to the south Essex local enterprise partnership? What is of paramount importance to me is that nothing is done to damage the regeneration of Southend-on-Sea. (900567)

Local enterprise partnerships have always been free to propose changes to their geography. No such proposals have been received for the south-east, but I am aware that some are likely to be made soon. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other ministerial colleagues will consider any such proposals on their merits. While any changes are considered, it is important for the focus to remain on delivering the existing growth deal commitments made by partners within the South East LEP, which I am sure is what my hon. Friend wants.

And I have been here since prayers, Mr Speaker, so I have been very patient.

The Secretary of State knows from the migration figures that more and more people want to come and live in this wonderful country, and he knows that more and more people want affordable homes. Will he do something dramatic about building houses and will he stop his plan to sell off housing association stock, or does he want to turn our cities into ghettos, as the French have done with theirs?

No one could be more determined to increase our housing supply than Conservative Members. The hon. Gentleman will know that, when I was the Minister for Planning, we reformed the national planning policy framework, which has increased planning permissions by more than 60% to 260,000 homes a year. What we have done in office is in stark contrast to what Labour Members did in office, when housing completions fell to an all-time low.

T9. I cheered for joy when the Minister for Housing and Planning said that, under this Conservative regime, the wishes of the public would be paramount on the siting of wind turbines. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the message gets through to the Planning Inspectorate when it looks at such applications on appeal? (900568)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I made a written statement to the House and wrote to the Planning Inspectorate to make it crystal clear that the final say on onshore wind farms must be with local people.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Department of Health that local authorities should not charge carers for the support packages that they receive to enable them to carry on their critical caring roles?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. [Interruption.] I am looking for the right page in my brief. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has given me all sorts of wonderful and very helpful advice today.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to make sure that we support older people properly. In relation to the better care fund, he knows that £5.3 billion is coming through to support people in this financial year.

Lichfield District Council is in early negotiations with the West Midlands combined authority and other local authorities, but it wishes to maintain control over planning and housing policy. Will that be possible for local authorities such as Lichfield?

As my hon. Friend knows, our intention is to transfer powers from Westminster to local communities, and it is for them to determine their arrangements. Places such as Manchester had that in mind when they set their own arrangements, so it is absolutely available in the west midlands.

What has the increase been in the number of families who have met the troubled families assessment criteria since the programme began? Has the Minister made any assessment of the impact of his Government’s £12 billion of welfare cuts and of his swingeing local authority cuts on already struggling families who need joined-up local support?

The hon. Lady visited my old school in South Bank to congratulate students there on being in the finals of the mock trial competition. Perhaps she will convey my congratulations to them as well.

On troubled families, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a statement last week in which he said that more than 117,000 families have had their lives transformed by this crucial programme. It has saved public money as well as transforming lives. We will build on that during the Parliament. I look forward to her support, because Redcar and Cleveland is one of the principal authorities delivering on this.

We shall now observe a minute’s silence in respectful memory of the victims of the atrocities in Tunisia.

The House observed a minute’s silence.