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Topical Questions

Volume 599: debated on Monday 14 September 2015

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.