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Topical Questions

Volume 597: debated on Monday 29 June 2015

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.