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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 599: debated on Monday 14 September 2015

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolution Deal

May I wish Shanah Tovah to all Members, and to those in the wider community, who are celebrating the Jewish new year? May I also say how relieved I am to see that an Opposition Front Bench team willing to serve has turned up today?

This one-nation Government are determined to devolve power to every part of the country—town and country. In response to our invitation, 38 areas have submitted proposals for devolved powers and budgets. We will work with every area over the coming months to negotiate transformational devolution deals.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer on this most auspicious day.

North Devon District Council and other local authorities in Devon and Somerset have submitted an expression of interest to the Government for combined authority status—a move that I welcome. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming it? Does he agree that granting greater regional powers is in the spirit of greater devolution for people in the south-west?

I do welcome it. I read the proposals from councils and businesses in Devon and Somerset. One of the benefits of devolved funding would be that infrastructure decisions were increasingly made locally. I know that the north Devon link road is close to my hon. Friend’s heart. In fact, I heard him talk about it on Radio Devon, and so confident is he that this investment will be made that he has invited Her Majesty the Queen to come and open it next year. That is the kind of positive thinking we need.

On the devolution deal, does the Secretary of State take a view on what these new authorities should call themselves? “Combined west midlands authority” is rather a mouthful, and I would much rather have “Greater Birmingham”.

I think the nuance with which the hon. Lady asked her question answers it for her. It is better for local people to make these decisions rather than for a Secretary of State to determine them. It is very good that the authorities across the west midlands are coming together and working so well.

The great county of Hampshire has submitted a compelling bid for devolution. Does the Secretary of State agree that further devolution could be pivotal in unlocking further economic potential in the southern powerhouse as well as the northern powerhouse?

I do agree. “Powerhouse” is an apt description, because the economy of the south and the part of Hampshire that my right hon. Friend represents is really firing on all cylinders. I remember launching the growth deal there, where the new centre for 5G technology is up and running, creating many thousands of jobs.

When the Minister brags about devolution proposals for local government, why does he not do the decent thing and say to local government that the coalition Government and this one have taken up to 40% off local authorities? Pay that money back, and then you can start work.

During the recess I had a very cordial and constructive meeting with the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s local authority in Derbyshire, and the one accord that we had is that the progress that the coalition Government made in transferring powers from London and Westminster to the regions has been one of the contributory factors to the revival of the regions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent announcement of the historic devolution deal for Cornwall is a clear demonstration of this Government’s commitment not only to the devolution agenda but to a one nation approach to our economy?

It certainly is. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to his colleagues in Cornwall who were absolutely instrumental in securing that deal. I was delighted to travel down there with the Prime Minister to celebrate it, and indeed to do so over a pint of Tribute with him that very evening.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Opposition Front Benchers. Let me say this: we are ready, willing and able to take the fight to Ministers and eventually to drive them out of office.

The country is far too centralised, and there is clearly, because politics is not working, a political imperative on all of us to seek proper devolution. Devolution tied to spending cuts simply does not work.

It is great that the Government heeded, belatedly, the call to allow some more refugees into our country—we welcome that. Local government and devolved local government came up to the mark straight away, with over 60 councils immediately coming forward. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with local councils about how to deal with this incredibly important matter? Will the Government now hold the national summit that we have been calling for?

I welcome the shadow Secretary of State to his post. Members will recall that he was once Parliamentary Private Secretary to Peter Mandelson, and Tony Blair once said that his project would not be complete until Labour learned to love Peter Mandelson. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will update us on how that is progressing.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for devolution. I have found it possible to work on the most cordial terms with Labour authority leaders as well as Conservatives up and down the country, and I hope we will have a constructive working relationship.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Secretary and I chaired a Cabinet Committee meeting on Syria at which the Local Government Association was represented. This morning I spoke to the head of the LGA and, indeed, the Labour leader of Blackpool Council, who told me that local government collectively was working very well with central Government to make sure that we deliver the commitment that has been given.

In terms of loving people, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a long way to go to encourage people to love him.

When the Government indicated that funding would be made available to local councils to help refugees and resolve the refugee problems, it was clear that only a one-year financial deal was on offer. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the Chancellor will provide enough money over the five years of this Parliament to help councils to deal with the crisis, because the current financial offer is simply inadequate?

That is not the case. The one-year commitment is what is allowed under the official development assistance rules. The point of including our local government colleagues in the ministerial group designing the approach is to make sure that every aspect of the funding required is addressed. We will do that consensually with local government.

Brownfield Land

2. What support his Department is providing to local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land. (901297)

9. What support his Department is providing to local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land. (901304)

15. What support his Department is providing to local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land. (901310)

We intend to create a fund to unlock homes on brownfield land for additional housing. We will continue to support the regeneration of brownfield land through a range of measures, including announcing up to £400 million to create housing zones.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important to encourage investment in brownfield land where the site in question, such as Springbank shopping centre and the former Carlton Street post office in my constituency, is a local eyesore that attracts graffiti and other antisocial behaviour?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want brownfield land to be brought back into use and for homes to be built on it. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as a diligent constituency MP, will make the case for individual sites in his area. This Government are committed to delivering the houses needed in the right places across the country.

Greenfield sites across Pendle are under threat because the new Lib Dem and Labour administration of Pendle Borough Council has abandoned plans to spend the £1.5 million allocated for brownfield regeneration under the previous Administration. What more can the Department do to support the people of Pendle and to help fulfil their wish that brownfield is always developed ahead of greenfield?

The Government are setting up a brownfield fund, with £1 billion, and are introducing the brownfield register. We have an expectation that homes will be built, because the country needs them, and that they will be built in the right places, particularly on brownfield sites. My hon. Friend makes a very important point on behalf of individual sites in his constituency about the approach of his local authority. I am sure it will have heard him loud and clear on a matter that his constituents will be very keen to see resolved.

I welcome the Government’s redoubled commitment to support the development of brownfield sites. Does the Minister agree that, with the help of the Government’s new measures and extra effort by local authorities, brownfield sites can be developed more quickly and easily than by leaving large areas of green belt to be developed by large-unit developers, whose business model is not resulting in many houses?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, informed by her own direct experience. It is important that local authorities do not just plan to deliver the future houses we need in the right places, but ensure that the plans are deliverable. There are examples of best practice across the country, with local authorities delivering completions and the new housing needed, and I know that other authorities will look to them to see what lessons can be learned and what they can do in their own areas.

In my constituency of Mid Derbyshire, a large brownfield site is being decontaminated and made ready for redevelopment, but it has been left out of Derby City Council’s core strategy because the council states that the site will not be ready for development until 2028, despite the site manager saying that it will be sooner. Does the Minister agree that we must prioritise building on such brownfield sites?

With the brownfield fund and the accelerated powers we are giving local authorities for planning on suitable brownfield sites, the direction of travel and the intention of Government are clear. Local authorities need to ensure that opportunities in their areas are deliverable and that they are delivered. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s important comments regarding her constituency will have been heard today.

The Minister knows that there is a national shortage of homes and a housing crisis for the people whom we represent. He will not get anywhere with the illusion that that can all be dealt with through brownfield land. Brownfield land is often very expensive and in the wrong place. This Government will not acknowledge that we must build on greenfield to provide the homes that we need, but they do not like it: they are terrified of their constituents.

Listening to our constituents and recognising their concerns is an important part of the planning process. We cannot just ignore local sites of beauty or the value of our environment. It should be recognised and protected and account taken of it in the national planning policy framework. That said, we need to deliver more homes, which is why, on top the measures I have mentioned, the Government are releasing significant amounts of public sector land to deliver another 150,000 homes on brownfield land during this Parliament, meeting our obligations in a way that our constituents recognise is appropriate.

We must get developers to get on and build homes, but does the Minister accept that in a local authority area with sufficient land for building housing it would be inappropriate for a planning authority or the Planning Inspectorate to approve the building of houses on sports grounds when there is a need for them and users who want to keep them open as sports grounds?

The direction from Government is absolutely clear—we want to see more houses built in appropriate places. We want to facilitate and assist local authorities that want to build on brownfield sites to bring the sites back into use and to build the houses that are needed. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I am sure his local authority hears it, too.

The Minister’s ambition to build more houses, in particular on brownfield land, might be good, but is he aware of a recent survey by the Federation of Master Builders that highlighted the fact that many in the construction industry are still struggling to secure finance and that raw materials and skills are in short supply? What is he doing to address those issues?

The hon. Gentleman raises a range of important points, including the skills agenda, which is part of our devolution discussions in many areas. While I am tempted to go down that route, it is important to focus on what the Government are doing on brownfield, which is very significant. I say again that we have the brownfield fund and the brownfield register, and we are working to accelerate planning on such sites to deliver them and to release public sector land. This Government are doing a lot to deliver housing on brownfield, not on the green fields that some Opposition Members seem to think should be the priority for building.

The hon. Lady asks for figures I do not have immediately available, but this Government are setting up a significant fund to deliver housing and to free up and make viable brownfield sites. That will make a real difference and will encourage development on the sites that we want developed. I am happy to write to her in due course with the specific figures for which she asks.

I will help the Minister out here—I have some figures to hand. The cost of remediating brownfield land can range from £50,000 per hectare to over £1.7 million per hectare for the most contaminated land. Does he believe that the fund he proposes will be adequate to deal with brownfield land? The reason such land is brownfield, derelict and unused is that it can be difficult to remediate. In the east end of Glasgow, 350 hectares of brownfield land need remediation. How far will the fund go?

A range, of course, is not an average, although I recognise the hon. Lady’s concern. She, like us, wants brownfield land to be regenerated and built on and housing delivered in the right places, and the £1 billion fund being established by the Government will go a long way to doing that. It will make a real difference. It will deliver houses where they are needed—and on brownfield land that has not been used and from which there has been no benefit for far too long.

Local Government Finance

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the local government grant formula in directing funding to areas of need. (901299)

14. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the local government grant formula in directing funding to areas of need. (901309)

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

The Minister’s implication that areas of need are being fairly treated by the local government grant formula is simply not proven by the evidence. Research by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy found that many councils serving the most in need have been worst hit by the cuts. Indeed, in the list of councils worst hit by the cuts, Bradford council came 353rd out of a possible 383. Surely he agrees this is not fair.

Bradford has an area spending power of £2,295 per dwelling, which is 10% above the national average, and Bradford council also has £136 million in its reserves. It might want to deploy part of those reserves to address some of the challenges it faces.

Since 2010, funding to my constituency has been cut by a staggering 54%. Does the Minister agree that this cannot be acceptable given that during the same period some constituencies have benefited from a rise in funding? Does he realise that the funding formula is seriously flawed and in urgent need of review?

I do not agree. Burnley has an area spending power of £2,112 per household, which remains above the national average. In 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16, we provided Burnley council with a £1.9 million efficiency support grant—equivalent to more than 10% of its spending power—to support long-term changes to bring costs down while continuing to deliver the services that Burnley’s citizens expect. That is nearly £6 million of additional resources, so, given what some other councils have done, the hon. Lady perhaps doth protest too much.

Lancashire County Council tells me its grant is so inadequate that the discretion it used to have in assisting youngsters to go to schools of their choice has now been withdrawn. If a pupil passes a school to get to the school they want to attend, they will be asked to pay £550 for school transport. This is nothing other than a back-door means of raising council tax on hard-working families in Lancashire. Will the Minister look into what is going on, which is an abuse of the discretion system, and ensure that parents can get their youngsters into the school of their choice?

I know that my hon. Friend has pursued this issue on several occasions, including in a Westminster Hall debate. It is a complicated issue, and local authorities have sometimes had to take difficult decisions on the prioritisation of school transport. There is no easy answer, but he will no doubt continue doggedly to pursue it in the House, as he has today.

Child refugees orphaned or separated from their parents are arriving in Britain in unprecedented numbers because of the current crisis across the EU, but the Government have chosen to slash funding by 18% for gateway councils, such as Kent, Hillingdon and Croydon, which look after the highest numbers of them. What impact does he think this dreadful decision will have on the councils and, more importantly, the children affected?

First, I am joined on the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), whom the Prime Minister today appointed Minister for Refugees. He will sit on the Cabinet Sub-Committee looking to address these issues. I am sure the whole House will welcome his appointment.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman attacked us over resources. I have a question to ask him about resources.

We are familiar with the issue in Kent, because of what happened in Calais and all that was attached to that, and with our colleagues in local government we are looking carefully at the likely cost. That is one of the issues the Cabinet Sub-Committee will address, including with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Neighbourhood Planning and Community Rights

6. What support his Department has provided to communities on neighbourhood planning and community rights since May 2010. (901301)

Up to March 2015, we provided nearly £50 million to help communities undertake neighbourhood planning and to access community rights and associated initiatives. We are going further and invested another £32 million in April to help even more communities take up their rights.

Fylde communities such as Warton and Wrea Green in my constituency have submitted comprehensive local plans to the council. Does the Minister agree that it is important that when the council is finalising the local plan, it takes into account the neighbourhood plans and the wishes of my constituents?

I concur completely with my hon. Friend’s view. Our planning guidance is clear that local authorities should work in collaboration with neighbourhood planning groups when neighbourhood and local plans are being developed at the same time. Local plans are also subject to at least two opportunities for comment by any interested party.

A common complaint I receive from residents and communities in Doncaster is about the blight of empty properties. Some 3,800 homes are empty and over 1,000 have been empty for more than a year. That attracts vandalism and antisocial behaviour, and is a blight on property prices. Despite the best efforts of councils, including Doncaster Council, it is hard to get the owners of such properties to get them up to standard and filled with people living in them. Will the Minister agree to review the rights and powers of communities to tackle the scandal of empty homes, without imposing a cost on the taxpayer for the neglect of owners and landlords?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. She will be a loss to the shadow Front Bench. Local authorities already have significant powers to bring empty properties back into use. They are incentivised by receiving the new homes bonus to get long-term empty properties back into use. They also have the power to change the council tax regime to charge more council tax on properties that stand empty for a long period. I suggest that she contact her local authority and ask what it is doing about this.

23. Following a passionate local campaign, planning permission was recently rejected that would have seen the Ascot Tavern, a local pub in Cannock, demolished and replaced by yet another new supermarket. Local campaigners are looking at registering the pub as a community asset. What measures are the Government taking to assist and support communities who find themselves in that situation and similar ones?


I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in this important subject. We have removed permitted development rights from pubs that are listed as assets of community value. As was promised in our manifesto, we are committing £1.5 million to a pub loan fund to support community groups in taking ownership of their local pub. The My Community advice service also offers important advice and support to local groups that are looking to take on their local.

Disabled Facilities Grant

7. If the Government will ensure that the statutory maximum for a disabled facilities grant increases in line with inflation. (901302)

The Government have invested just over £1 billion in the disabled facilities grant since 2010. That has funded about 170,000 adaptations, helping thousands of disabled people to live safely at home.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but a report and survey by Muscular Dystrophy UK that will be launched in Parliament this week show that thousands of people are being forced into tens of thousands of pounds of debt because the disabled facilities grant has not been increased since 2008 and just does not cover the cost of adaptations. Will the Minister be kind enough to meet me and representatives of Muscular Dystrophy UK to look at the report and see what the Government can realistically do to help all the people who so desperately need adaptations?

I am not sure about my diary for this week, but I undertake to meet the hon. Lady and representatives from Muscular Dystrophy UK on this important issue. The Government are providing £220 million for the disabled facilities grant this year, which is a 19% increase on 2014-15. Where the cost of adaptations exceeds £30,000, local authorities are in a position to provide top-up funding. I hear what the hon. Lady says. A spending review will take place in a few weeks and I will listen to her comments and those of other Members.

The disabled facilities grant has done wonderful work to support our disabled ex-service personnel. May I encourage the Minister and his colleagues to ensure that that continues for the rest of this Parliament?

It is extremely important that the Government continue to support our armed forces personnel. In this country we hold dearly the work done by our armed forces, and as my hon. Friend says, it is extremely important that we continue to support them. I will take that into account, as will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in the up-and-coming spending review.

17. Given the Government’s dismal record of selling off council housing and extending it to housing associations, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that our remaining council housing stock has adequate disabled provision and access for those who need it? (901312)

Order. This is in reference to the disabled facilities grant, but I feel sure that the dexterity of the hon. Gentleman is boundless.

You are right, Mr Speaker—it is a rather tenuous link but I will do my best. As I have said, the Government are providing significant funding to local authorities to provide disabled facilities grants, and there is no reason why they cannot use that for current council housing stock, or support housing associations with their stock.

Affordable Homes

8. What steps his Department is taking to promote the building of affordable homes through the planning system. (901303)

The national planning policy framework requires local planning authorities to meet their affordable housing needs for their area, and we are committed to delivering some 275,000 new affordable homes through to the end of this Parliament.

In my constituency, over the past 18 months developer after developer has used the planning rules to get out of their obligations to build affordable homes, and more than 200 much needed affordable homes have been lost to my constituency during that period. When will the Minister get a grip and get developers to comply with their obligation to build affordable homes?

The hon. Gentleman might wish to take up with his local authority the issue of the power to negotiate locally. We are delivering affordable homes at the fastest rate in just over two decades, and in his constituency the number of homes going forward has increased by 124% since 2010. He should be thanking the Government for the work we have done to support that industry.

Will the Minister assure me that councils are being encouraged to build more affordable homes for sale, because much more homeownership is the priority of the British people?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and one key focus of our manifesto this year was the starter homes project. I am proud that the Government will take forward the delivery of some 200,000 starter homes for first-time buyers at a 20% discount.

But the increase in the definition of affordable homes is one reason why the Government can claim a massive increase in the building of such homes. In my constituency an affordable home requires people to be able to afford 80% of market rent, and people on average incomes cannot possibly afford that, even if they have a deposit.

For good quality homes in the rental and ownership sectors the key is an increase in supply. I am pleased that in the hon. Lady’s constituency the number of starter homes has increased by 45% since 2010, and completions are up by 100% since 2010. We must build more homes—it is a shame that the previous Labour Government did not build them and that we started in 2010 with the lowest rate of house building since about 1923, which is what Labour left.

Does the Minister agree that the rural starter homes programme will provide much appreciated assistance to young people so that they can afford to live in the areas where they grew up?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. The need for starter homes and affordable homes for people to purchase is as important in rural areas as it is in urban areas, and I am delighted that we will be able to take that project forward and see 200,000 starter homes delivered for first-time buyers across the country.

Affordable Housing

12. What steps his Department has taken to stimulate the building of affordable housing; and what steps he is taking to help young people buy a home for the first time. (901307)

We have already allocated £1 billion to our commitment to deliver a further 275,000 affordable homes by 2020. Since 2010, Government schemes such as Help to Buy and the right to buy have helped more than 230,000 people buy a home. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning said, we will build 200,000 starter homes exclusively for first-time buyers.

In fact, the right-to-buy scheme has raised private rents and cut social housing supply, but the Government want to force housing associations to sell homes during a housing shortage. Should the Government not look at the example from north of the border and the Scottish Government? Scrapping the right to buy has seen nearly 35,000 social rented houses built since 2007.

The residents of Scotland have the same aspirations as the residents in all parts of the United Kingdom. They want to own their own home, and the Government are committed to giving them the chance to realise that aspiration. We are doing that by extending the right to buy, and it is a matter of regret that in Scotland they are going the other way.

What specific impact is the new homes bonus having on the building of homes across the country in order to meet local needs such as those of young people?

First, the funds that come with the new homes bonus allow the financing of some of the infrastructure that is required—reasonably—when homes are built. Secondly, because of that, the plans that are coming forward for adoption by authorities have a significantly higher level of house building than was the case before the reforms were introduced.

Rough Sleeping

One person without a home is one too many. That is why since 2010 we have invested more than £500 million in local authorities and the voluntary sector to prevent and tackle homelessness in their areas.

I was intrigued to hear the Minister mention earlier how dearly the Government hold those who serve in our armed forces. Ex-forces rough sleeping in London has risen elevenfold since 2010. Homes 4 Heroes does a brilliant job in my constituency supporting the ex-forces, but what specific measures does the Department have to prevent those leaving our armed forces from ending up on the streets, and to intervene when they are identified as rough sleeping?

As I said earlier, this is an extremely important issue. Ministerial work is going on in relation to the military covenant, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is part of that ministerial group. We are also supporting local authorities with programmes to help them with rough sleepers, both to help rough sleepers on the street so that they do not spend a second night out—that has been especially useful in London—and to work with other housing groups so that rough sleeping does not become entrenched. We are helping people to get off the streets, especially those with mental health issues.

Will the Minister confirm that statutory homelessness acceptances are now lower than they were under the previous Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is right. Statutory homelessness is now lower than in 26 of the last 30 years and less than half of what it was at its peak under the last Labour Government.

20. Homeless people are 13 times more likely to be victims of crime than the general public and are more likely to suffer from serious health problems. Will the Minister explain his plans for the future of the homelessness prevention grant? (901315)

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. As she has identified, the homelessness prevention grant has been powerful in that councils have been able to use it to stop people becoming homeless. She will be glad to know that we are considering the future of the grant in the context of the upcoming spending review.

On 12 October, I and other Members will be taking part in sleep out night. The Government are rightly proud of the resources they put into such projects during the previous Parliament. Will the Minister confirm that to tackle rough sleeping he will be putting in money and continuing to support the Homelessness Change and No Second Night Out projects, which do a huge amount to prevent rough sleeping?

It is always good to see the interest my hon. Friend has in this particularly important issue. I can assure him that I realise the value of the No Second Night Out programme. In London, two thirds of rough sleepers come off the streets after a single night out as a result of the programme. As I said in the previous answer, the Government are currently undertaking a spending review. We are considering the merits of this important scheme as a part of that.

Under Labour, rough sleeping went down by 75%. Since 2010, rough sleeping by young people in London alone has gone up by 123% and is about to get worse. Is the Minister so weak that he cannot persuade his Department for Work and Pensions colleagues that taking housing benefit away from 18 to 21-year-olds will have a catastrophic effect on vulnerable young people, or does he not care?

I have said to the hon. Lady before that this Government have taken a different approach—a more honest and open approach—where we are actually calculating the number of rough sleepers properly. That did not happen when the Labour party were in government. On the welfare changes that the hon. Lady mentions, it is important to say that we have made it very clear that our proposals would protect vulnerable people in particular. This Government are on the side of people who want to get on and who aspire. We do not want young people to be trapped in dependency, as several generations have been hitherto. Obviously, the hon. Lady thinks that that is a good thing.

Urban and Rural Areas: Funding

18. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the difference in funding levels between urban and rural areas. (901313)

Our reforms give all authorities substantial scope to increase revenues through promoting growth. I accept that most rural authorities face challenges in delivering services that other authorities do not. Consecutive local government finance settlements have delivered a steady reduction in the gap in spending power levels between urban and rural authorities.

Still surprised, but delighted to be here. I thank the Minister for that answer. Cambridgeshire has a creative way for local authorities to look to bridge the funding gap. The level of economic growth is such that private investors now want to invest in our infrastructure and help us to build affordable housing. Will the Secretary of State or Minister meet me and business leaders from Cambridge to hear our case, because we have an innovative solution?

I will certainly consider a meeting. My hon. Friend talks about promoting economic growth. The business rates retention scheme provides a strong incentive to local councils to reap the rewards of economic growth. Councils now benefit from nearly £11 billion under the scheme, which should deliver a £10 billion boost to national GDP by 2020. If we meet, we can discuss these matters in more detail.

I welcome the Government’s announcement of the rural productivity plan over the summer. In particular, I praise the identification of improved local government as important to the economic regeneration of rural areas. Does the Minister agree that closing that gap—the Government have set out on a path to do that, albeit at an incredibly slow pace—is an important part of improving local government in rural areas?

My hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly on this issue for some time. As a result, he will know that the previous Government delivered a steady reduction in the so-called urban-rural gap in spending power levels. Consecutive settlements have helped to address the gap, and between 2012-13 and 2015-16 it has been reduced by £205 million. A great deal has been done, but there is still more to do.

Weedon Bec

19. If he will make an assessment of the performance of the Planning Inspectorate in applying planning guidelines in recent appeals in Weedon Bec. (901314)

Obviously, I cannot comment on specific planning appeals. However, the planning inspector will decide an appeal in accordance with the development plan and national planning policy, considering the evidence presented by all the parties in each specific case individually. The local decision is upheld in the majority of cases, with about two thirds of appeals being dismissed.

Although I understand that the Minister does not want to comment on the two planning appeals in Weedon, in which the same information was fed in only for there to be two different results, with one being allowed and one dismissed, will he let the Planning Inspectorate know that the people of Weedon in my constituency and the local council do not appreciate its varied decisions? They would also appreciate it if he could offer the Planning Inspectorate some strong guidance on implementing localism.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point on behalf of his community. There were two applications. I understand his point about their similarity, but every appeal has its own unique character, by definition. The planning inspectors need to consider them as individual cases. However, I appreciate his point about having consistent decisions.

In Northamptonshire, the difference in decisions on appeal for very similar applications is remarkable. Is it not time we took a serious look at the Planning Inspectorate and did something about it?

My hon. Friend is fighting hard for his constituents and planning is an emotive issue that people care passionately about. It shapes the future of the environments in which we live. Every planning application, no matter how silly it might seem, will have unique characteristics and will therefore potentially lead to different decisions.

Rogue Landlords

We have provided £6.7 million thus far to crack down on rogue landlords and have legislated to protect tenants from retaliatory eviction. I am determined to go further. We have recently published plans to blacklist and ban rogue landlords and to enable councils to impose civil penalties and to seek rent repayment orders in more circumstances.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the approach of creating a register will simply create bureaucracy and drive up rents for tenants?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last time the Opposition costed their plans for a national register, it was, I think, about £40 million a year, a cost that would fall on the tenants. More regulation in that sense is simply not the answer; it drives down supply and, as a result, quality for tenants.

Topical Questions

I issued a written ministerial statement today to update the House on the main items of business undertaken by my Department over the summer. In the past eight weeks, we have introduced measures to boost house building and to support aspiring homeowners, including first-time buyers; our commitment to devolve powers from Whitehall to local people has prompted proposals across the country; and we have strengthened the planning system to tackle unauthorised development and ensure that all communities are treated equally. As the House has heard, the Home Secretary and I chaired a joint committee with local government to put in place the arrangements to settle Syrian refugees.

Concerns have been raised that the changes to planning policy guidance for onshore wind will undermine the Government’s community energy strategy. Will the Secretary of State tell us precisely what assessment he has made of the impact of that announcement on proposed community energy schemes as well as those already in the system? Will he agree to meet community energy groups to hear their concerns?

We have implemented faithfully and speedily a clear manifesto commitment that wind development should go ahead only with the consent of the local community. We have not hesitated in doing that, and it was one of the things we enacted over the summer.

T4. Residents in Barrowford and Colne are keen to create neighbourhood plans for their area. Will my right hon. Friend say more about the support the Government are providing to local communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the completion of neighbourhood and local plans? (901289)

Neighbourhood plans have been a huge success since they were introduced in the Localism Act 2011. They give local people more power to control the shape of development in their area but sometimes, across the country, local councils seem inclined to be tardy in giving the support that is required. In the forthcoming Bill, we will place a clearer responsibility on councils to support neighbourhoods in producing their plans.

This is the first Commons Question Time since our Labour leadership election and I am proud to speak for the party with more than 325,000 members behind me, more than double the Conservative membership.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about his ex-boss, the Chancellor, who describes the recent decline in home ownership as “a tragedy”. I have new House of Commons figures showing that home ownership has gone down each and every year in the last five years. What does the Secretary of State say to the millions of middle England, middle-income young people and families who desperately want the chance to own their own home, but have no hope of ever being able to afford the escalating costs?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench, but I have to say that I am very surprised to hear that line of questioning from him. In 2009, he said that

“home ownership has been dropping…And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.”

For him to suggest to the House that his view is now the opposite is a turnaround. Since the coalition Government were elected, the number of first-time buyers has doubled—it collapsed under the Government of whom he was a member—but we want to go further, which is why we have extended right to buy and introduced Help to Buy. It is also why we are introducing the starter homes for first-time buyers.

What the Secretary of State is saying and what he is doing are simply not working. People need affordable homes to rent and to buy so that they get the chance of a decent start in life. In the last five years, with Conservative Ministers in charge, the number of people getting mortgages is down by over 10%. Last month, Shelter showed that families on the Chancellor’s so-called living wage will find it impossible and unaffordable to buy in eight out of 326 local authority areas across England. [Interruption.] Yes, eight of 326 local authority areas in England. Let me give a warning to the Secretary of State and his Ministers. They spent the last Parliament blaming Labour. That will not wash now. You have a track record of your own, and we Opposition Members will—week in, week out—expose your failings and hold this Government to account.

The right hon. Gentleman is not going to run away from his own record, because he was a Housing Minister in the last Government. In the manifesto on which he was elected in 2005, it said that his Government would

“create a million more homeowners”.

That was the commitment given when he was the Housing Minister. During that Parliament, home ownership fell by a quarter of a million—it actually fell. Under this Government, the number of first-time buyers has doubled, and under Help to Buy the figures published at the end of last week show that 120,000 people have been helped. That is working people who are being helped by this Government to achieve their dream of having a home for the first time. He should be supporting that, and doing so around the country, rather than seeking to hark back to a failed policy over which he, I am afraid, presided.

T5. The new Leader of the Opposition is, I believe, a keen advocate of rent control—unlike some of his colleagues. Does the Secretary of State agree that every time we see rent controls introduced, all that happens is a fall in the supply of housing, making it harder for people to find homes? (901290)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The reality is that the introduction of rent controls that the Labour party wants is another level of regulation. Evidence around the world shows that that drives prices up and supply down, which is bad for tenants. It is probably why the private rental sector dropped to just 9% of the market on the Labour Government’s watch. I am proud that we have rebuilt it to 19%, and it is important to see that grow further. What matters is the work we are doing to ensure that the quality of protection is there for tenants. It has been proven that rent controls do not work.

T3. Can the Secretary of State confirm the Government’s continuing support for city deals and that he, together with colleagues in the Treasury, recognise the substantial opportunities offered to Midlothian and the Edinburgh city region by the excellent collaborative work of the region’s six constituent councils? Will he make a statement on the progress of this city deal and produce a timetable for delivery? (901288)

The Government are indeed looking at the options for city deals, working with local representatives right across the country. I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland only last week to talk about the progress being made. Where we can find the right deals that will deliver the right things for local areas, we are keen to pursue them in collaboration.

T7. As term starts, Newcastle will proudly welcome 57,000 university students. However, the Government have stopped compensating Newcastle City Council for the fact that students do not pay council tax, and have excluded student accommodation from the new homes bonus. Given that the council has already suffered over £100 million of cuts, will the Minister take into account the number of students and others who do not pay council tax when calculating what remains of the grant? (901292)

It is good to see some representation from the north-east on the Opposition Back Benches, given that the Front Bench has very little, or none. [Interruption.] Ah! The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) is on the Front Bench, so it has one.

I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for her question. Newcastle has a spending power far in excess of those of many other local authorities, and certainly in excess of the national average. As she knows, we are undertaking a spending review and we will listen to what she is saying, but I must say that her part of the world does not do badly in comparison with many other parts of our country.

South Somerset District Council recently changed its approach to housing land supply, which means that despite spending £3 million on developing a local plan, it is now, after only five months of operation, likely to be considered out of date under the national planning policy framework. In situations of this kind, when serious questions need to be asked about the competence and/or motivations of a planning authority, what extra help can the Government give local communities?

My hon. Friend has made a strong point about the importance of ensuring that local plans are up to date and appropriate. We do give support to local authorities, but I think we need to look at the information they are putting into their local plans to ensure that it is the core information that they need to have if they are to deliver good, fast and efficient local plans. I intend to say more about that later in the week.

T8. Over the last Parliament, the local government funding settlement for Wirral Borough Council was reduced by 18% in real terms. If the Government cut that by a further 40% during the current Parliament, as they are considering doing, the council will have suffered a real-terms cut of 54% by 2020. How can it provide an adequate level of public services if its contribution from the Government is cut in half? (901293)

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but I think she should note that the spending power per dwelling in her constituency is £2,240, which is 7% above the national average. So Wirral is doing reasonably well in comparison with many other areas.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will welcome recent figures which show a 22% rise in the number of new home completions, but achieving the 200,000 homes per year that we need will require a revival of the small and medium-sized house builders whose number has been reduced by 75% over the last 30 years. What support can Ministers offer to ensure that that revival comes about?

We agree that the growth of the small and medium-sized sector is an important part of delivering the housing that we need, and we want local authorities to do more to support it through local plans. In the Housing Bill, we intend to introduce a new fast-track process of establishing the principle of development for small sites. It will allow developers to obtain an earlier and more certain view from councils of whether sites are suitable for development, and will reduce their up-front costs.

T9. What are the Government’s plans to extend to more than a one-off payment the use of funds from the international aid budget to help local authorities to assist refugees? Will authorities in Wales receive any moneys from that budget, now or in the future? (901295)

As I said earlier, representatives of local government are participants on the ministerial committee that is putting those arrangements in place. We will take their advice to ensure that all the different costs that are incurred by authorities are sensibly addressed in the settlement that we provide.

Rebecca Thursby has highlighted to me the lack of available specialist housing for children with severe disabilities in Wiltshire, including her daughter. Will the Minister ensure that councils are made aware that they need to provide this housing? It is a requirement of the NPPF, and it needs to be properly incorporated in core strategies and cannot be left to building regulations.

My hon. Friend raises an important point and I know he has written to the Minister for Housing and Planning with a constituent case related to this matter. We want more self-builds and for people to have the freedom to build appropriate properties for their needs. I know that the representations my hon. Friend is making on behalf of his constituent and the letters he has already sent to the Department will receive appropriate consideration. I hope we can find a solution that will resolve his constituent’s concerns.

Since 2010 Tameside council has had to cut over £100 million from its budget and in the next two years it will have to take out a further £38 million. In Greater Manchester our local government is some of the most collaborative and innovative in the country, but what will have to go next is our citizens advice service, our adult services for people with special educational needs, our libraries and our civic buildings. Can the Government honestly say they that believe that the level of funding for local government in the north-west of England is adequate?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The spending power per authority in the north-west is on average considerably above the national average. That said, we are aware of the challenges. The Manchester devolution deal, which is bringing together things like health and social care so that those services work more collaboratively together, will help local authorities to realise the savings they need and to produce better services for the local people they serve.

The Government’s productivity plan said local plans should be radically shorter and simpler. Does the Minister agree that local plans can deliver? What is he doing to facilitate this?

My hon. Friend was instrumental in helping us transform the planning guidance, taking 1,000 pages down to 50 in the NPPF, and I am delighted that he has agreed to serve on a group that will help to simplify local plans, which have become far too long. I believe his first meeting with the group is taking place tomorrow.