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Communities and Local Government

Volume 602: debated on Monday 9 November 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fire Station (Shipley)

1. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of the planned reorganisation of fire station provision in Shipley constituency. (902047)

Decisions on the cost of reorganising fire stations are a matter for local fire and rescue authorities. Needless to say, I would expect any such reorganisations to save public money, rather than cost more.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. West Yorkshire fire authority has given up two fire station properties to hand over to a social housing provider in exchange for one less valuable piece of land to build a new fire station on. There is a lot of concern, not least from firefighters, that at a time of budgetary pressures, the fire authority is tossing away literally tens of thousands of pounds. Does the Secretary of State have any powers to intervene to ensure the taxpayer gets good value for money, or at least to make sure we know the valuation of these lands so that we can see for ourselves what the impact is on local taxpayers?

Before answering my hon. Friend’s question, may I pay tribute to all firefighters for their hard work on bonfire night last Thursday and over the weekend, and may I say how proud I was to meet firefighters and other members of the civilian services on parade at the Cenotaph yesterday? In the 75th anniversary of the battle of Britain we remember the 800 firefighters who were killed and the 7,000 injured defending us during the last war.

I am very concerned about what my hon. Friend says, and I will ask the chief fire and rescue adviser, who has the powers of an inspector, to meet him to understand his concerns and advise me on next steps.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response and pay tribute to the wonderful work that our firefighters do keeping us all safe, particularly on occasions such as the recent bonfire night. The Fire Brigades Union is extremely concerned about the forthcoming round of cuts and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has highlighted a major concern. Is not the Secretary of State guilty of putting ideology before public safety in Shipley, in Yorkshire and beyond?

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is a friend of the hon. Lady’s too; he is a very popular Member of this House. These proposals are locally given and his concern is that they may not be saving money. Any reorganisation has to save public money, not least because we do need to have value for public money, and fire and rescue authorities have had a good record in achieving that.

With regard to fire provision in west Yorkshire, in my constituency and in west Yorkshire at Wetherby it would make sense for the police station and fire service to go to a joint services site. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage authorities to take joint sites?

As my hon. Friend knows, a consultation is out at the moment looking at ways in which the blue-light services can co-ordinate with each other so that they can provide the best possible service to our residents.

Sheffield City Region: Elected Mayor

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that proposals for an elected mayor in Sheffield city region include provisions for democratic oversight by people in Chesterfield. (902048)

Sheffield city region’s devolution deal with its elected mayor will enable the area to strengthen its position as a world-class centre for manufacturing and engineering. I am considering carefully the question of wider democratic oversight raised by the hon. Gentleman, as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), told the House during the recent Committee stage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.

I commend all those involved, including the Secretary of State, in attempting to achieve a political consensus, which has been difficult as this is a complicated situation. We are still left with the situation where people in Chesterfield will have a third tier of local government introduced, with a Sheffield city mayor that at the moment they would not be able to vote on and a Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire one that they probably would. Will the Secretary of State continue to work to achieve clarity on democratic accountability alongside the consensus he is rightly seeking?

I certainly will, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s attendance to this issue; it is very important. No two places are identical, which is the very insight we are having—we are having bespoke deals in each place—but it is important for his and other Members’ constituents to feel they have enough say in the election of people who are going to provide leadership for them.

Will the Secretary of State say how flexible he is prepared to be on redrawing the boundaries of certain cities to allow, perhaps, certain districts that may currently be in one area and that might prefer to be in a different area to choose to be in that new area?

As my hon. Friend knows, the principle that runs throughout the devolution Bill that we have been debating is one of consensus, so the Bill gives me powers to give effect to what local people put forward but not to impose something against their will. It is an enabling piece of legislation, and what it does mean is that Members such as my hon. Friend have the chance to shape the debate locally.

I thank the Secretary of State for his helpful response. Does he agree that, if the Sheffield city region is to be economically successful, all the districts within it will need to have the right to join the combined authority? Also, if we are to have an elected mayor responsible for transport, should not everyone in that travel-to-work area have the right to participate in the vote for that mayor?

The hon. Gentleman made similar cogent points in the Committee stage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South has committed to reflect on those remarks. It has been my experience, when taking Bills through this House, that we should accept the good sense of Members on both sides, and if we can improve the Bill by listening to them, we will certainly do so.

The Secretary of State says that he wants devolution for Sheffield and democracy for the whole city region, but in order to secure that, he must first will the means. Unlike many other Secretaries of State, however, he has already capitulated, without a fight, to the Chancellor’s ideological zeal for cutting local government to the bone in Sheffield, Chesterfield and elsewhere. This is compounded by a funding formula that is rigged against areas of high deprivation. Is it not therefore the case that, despite all his fine words, he would allow the Treasury to strangle full-blown devolution in Sheffield and elsewhere at birth?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has joined me on the Front Bench, and I do not think he looks like a strangler. He looks pretty benign to me. Sadly for the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), he has got this wrong. The agreement that I reached with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury today related to my Department’s budget, not the budget for local authorities. In my view, it is right to lead from the front and to make significant savings in the running costs of my Department before I invite local councils to do the same.


Significant progress has been made over the past few years on speeding up the planning system, to the extent that some 242,000 homes were given planning permission in the year to June 2015. The Housing and Planning Bill will further improve the performance of the planning system right across the country.

House building is a key element of Havant Borough Council’s economic growth plan, Prosperity Havant. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the council on increasing the number of new homes being built in recent years through working in partnership with local developers and communities?

I am happy to thank my hon. Friend’s local authority for taking such a pro-growth, pro-housing approach. It is good to see local councils and others in the local area coming together to work out their housing needs and doing their best to provide for their local residents.

When will the Minister wake up to the fact that many people in this country are desperate for a home? When will he stop blaming planning and show some leadership? What has happened in Ebbsfleet? It was supposed to become a new town, but it has only a tiny number of Barratt-built homes. Why is it not thriving? Why are there not tens of thousands of new homes there?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving his support to Ebbsfleet; it is a shame that nothing happened there in a decade and more of Labour rule. I am proud that this Government, and this Chancellor, have put the money into Ebbsfleet, and into the infrastructure there, to enable those homes to be built.

I support my district councils in their desire to deliver thousands of new homes. Would the Minister be willing to support ideas in planning that could up-front infrastructure delivery, such as requiring developers to pay community infrastructure levy moneys from the point at which planning permission is granted?

I am always willing to look at new ideas, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to look at that one. The one challenge for the community infrastructure levy is that the local authorities should pool it so that they can use it within their authority areas. His proposal might not lend itself to that in the way that a section 106 arrangement would, but we are committed to reviewing the levy and I look forward to liaising with him and to hearing his views.

As the Minister knows, there is a long-standing chronic shortage of good planners and an over-reliance on consultants. Has he found any real solution to that problem?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Local authorities should view their planning departments as the heartbeat of economic regeneration in their communities in terms of designing and building for businesses and homes. I would encourage local authorities to work together and to share services in the same way that some have shared chief executives and other parts of their management structure. They have not done that so much with planning yet, but that would be a good step towards building a strong resource.

Community and business leaders in my constituency are concerned that the lack of an agreed five-year housing supply in Cheshire East means that a presumption in favour of housing development is overriding the designation of much-needed land for employment. Given the Government’s provision of £45 million for a Congleton link road to help promote jobs and growth, will Ministers meet me and community representatives urgently to discuss this matter?

I encourage my hon. Friend’s area to get their five-year land supply and their local plan in place as quickly as possible, to make sure that local residents have their voice and the protections that are right for them. When planning decisions are made, both by the local authority and by the inspectors, environmental and other policy constraints in that area will be looked at, but I am happy to meet her and her local council.

House Building

Housing starts have almost doubled since 2009. More than 608,000 new homes have been built since 2010, which therefore makes almost 800,000 in England since 2009. Trends in house building are published in the quarterly house building release.

I am keen to see further new housing built in my constituency but I want it built on derelict, former industrial sites, rather than on the green belt. Some of these sites are very contaminated but the Government offer funds to clean up land only for employment purposes, not for housing. Will the Minister re-examine that, because we could be enabling thousands more homes to be built?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be joining us in the Lobby in due course when we consider the Housing and Planning Bill, which creates the new zones for the brownfield register and the brownfield fund, which the Government will be putting £1 billion into.

With the welcome increase in the number of planning applications granted for residential development, will the Minister say what assessment he has made of the number of developers who are getting the planning permission but then failing to develop out, in a practice known as “land banking”?

My hon. Friend makes a good point; we do want to see planning permissions built out. I would also like to them to be built out more quickly. We can still go a long way towards speeding up the rate at which our traditional builders develop; it is still taking, on average, 20 weeks to build a home, even though modern technology can do it in just a couple of weeks. Clearly, local authorities have to look at the land they are giving permission for, to make sure that planning permission is viable and can be built out in good time, so that land agents out there do not give the development industry a bad name.

Last week, we heard the bluster from the Minister and Secretary of State about the Government meeting the one-for-one replacement of right to buy sales. Is the Minister aware that to stay on track as a result of the increase in the right to buy, 2,300 house building starts are required per quarter, but only 300 were achieved in the first quarter of this year? The Government are therefore going to be woefully short of that target. Does he agree that it is time for a rethink and that they should copy the Scottish Government, who are building record numbers of council houses?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, here in England we built more council houses in the five years of the last Parliament than were built in the entire 13 years of Labour before that. We are very ambitious for our housing programme and we make no apologies for being very ambitious about having one extra home or more built for every home sold through right to buy. The reinvigorated scheme is on target and in London it is almost at two for one.

As a young person myself, I am acutely aware of the difficulties of getting on to the property ladder. I, too, have been struggling to get on to it for the past 10 years, because of the lack of housing that was built in 13 years of Labour. Will the Minister join me in celebrating the work that Bath and North East Somerset Council is doing in building 7,000 new homes in Bath, of which 2,300 will be affordable? He will, thus, explain how the Housing and Planning Bill will end up benefiting my local authority.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, not least about his age. I do not think anyone in this House would argue with the fact that this country has built far too few homes for far too long. We are ambitious about ensuring that we correct that. On that Bill, I suggest that he looks at the starter homes programme, where we will be looking to build some 200,000 homes for first-time buyers, at a 20% discount.

Sunday Trading

5. What assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of extending Sunday trading hours on high streets and market towns. (902051)

The Government believe that there is a strong case for local areas to be able to decide if and where extending Sunday trading should be permitted. It could help some high streets compete with online shopping, for which Sunday is regularly the most popular day.

Is the Secretary of State aware that extending Sunday opening hours by just two hours in London will have a very positive effect on both employment and trade? Will he consider allowing the devolution of Sunday trading hours to the Mayor of London, the other metro mayors, or London councils following the success of such a move during the Olympics 2012?

I am aware of the study to which my hon. Friend refers. Up to 50% of the visitors to the west end are from overseas; they are tourists who are keen to spend their money here, and it is sensible to have arrangements in place that enable them to do so. She is a central London MP, so her residents will also benefit from such a move.

Will the Minister look at the matter again? Extending Sunday trading will have a deleterious effect on family life, as it already does, and will adversely affect many trade unionists who live in market towns and elsewhere, because the protections that are supposedly afforded to workers working on Sundays, or refusing to do so, are not succeeding very well? Will the Minister please look again and decide not to extend Sunday trading?

There is a consultation out on this at the moment, but the proposal in the consultation is to allow local councils to make those decisions. Councils have a wide remit, social as well as economic, to look after the interests of their area. It could be that allowing some areas or particular stores such as garden centres to open on their busiest day—Sunday—is in the interests of everyone in the area.

The Secretary of State says that there is a good case for devolution and deregulation, but is he not jumping the gun when the consultation has yet to be published? It was 12 pages long, and it closed seven weeks ago. We have eight days before day two of the Committee stage when the plan is to amend Sunday trading laws. Are we not going ahead of that consideration of the consultation, and are we not running the risk of aggravating small businesses, shop workers, families, Churches and many others without great material gain?

No, we have not published the response to the consultation yet, but we would not have had a consultation had there not been a proposal from the Government that having this power in the hands of local authorities would be consistent with the devolution that we have practised. We will of course respond to the consultation in due course. I do know that my hon. Friend has sincere and long-held views on this matter, on which of course we will reflect.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the concerns raised by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and other organisations that there may be implications on the pay and conditions of shop workers from devolving Sunday trading laws. Can he give those workers any reassurances, and has he met USDAW to discuss the matter?

I am very surprised by the hon. Lady’s question, because Sunday trading is completely deregulated in Scotland. As far as I know, it is operating without problem, but if it does give rise to problems, the hon. Lady’s party is the party of Government in Scotland so has the ability to do something about it.

On the contrary, in the Scotland Bill there are no provisions on pay and conditions or on employment law. Specifically on Scotland, will the Secretary of State assure us that there will be no impact on the pay and conditions of Scottish workers as a result of the decision of English local authorities?

We risk jumping the gun in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has just said. We have published a consultation proposal. It does not affect Scotland, because it is a devolved power. Of course we will want to ensure that workers have protections so that they are not obliged to work either for the first time on Sundays if they do not wish to, or to be compelled to extend their hours. That would make complete sense in any response to the consultation.

Local Planning: Shared Services

6. What support his Department provides to local authority planning departments to facilitate sharing of services. (902052)

Planning authorities that have introduced new ways of delivering planning services have shown that performance can be improved while reducing costs. I hope that more will follow their lead. We have put support in place through funding the Planning Advisory Service, and we are open to supporting planning authorities to deliver ambitious proposals through devolution deals.

Does my hon. Friend accept that shared services can lead to cost savings and greater efficiency. What can be done about those local authorities that consistently fail to meet their timetables for taking planning decisions, which holds up the development of new housing and economic growth?

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight local authorities which do not play their part and thus create a problem. I hope local authorities will be keen to make sure they deliver the housing their communities need. He has the advantage of having a local authority, Chelmsford, which is one of the better performing planning authorities, as I know from my experience as a council leader nearby. It is clear that local authorities that share services can make sure that they protect and improve front-line services, such as planning services, and can see savings of as much as 20% on the work.

Many local authorities, including my own, Halton, do a lot of good work through sharing and working in co-operation with other local authorities, but services such as planning have been cut to the bone and have great difficulty meeting requests. When does the Minister think planning and other departments in councils will reach a point where they struggle to deliver their service?

Planning is one of the services that councils, particularly small district authorities, have not gone very far in sharing. In some of the shire areas and small district councils in particular, coming together with one strong planning service is not just cost-effective, but will produce a good quality service and interesting work for the planners to do as well.

Residents in north-east Lincolnshire have been without a local plan for many years, and it will take another 20 months on a revised timetable to produce one. They would welcome shared services. Will my hon. Friend use his good offices to have a word with the council to see whether it could co-operate more closely with its neighbours to produce a plan much more quickly?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As we have just heard, devolution provides opportunities. My hon. Friend is right to prod, encourage and cajole that local authority to make sure that a local plan is in place in the best interests of local communities, but as we have said and as we are outlining in the Housing and Planning Bill, the Government will make sure that these are done from 2017.

Community Buy-outs

8. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of further extending measures on community buy-outs of local assets. (902055)

All over England communities have listed over 2,600 assets with local authorities. I am undertaking a review of the community right to bid, in line with our manifesto commitment. We are consulting a wide range of stakeholders and will report our findings soon.

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 passed in June by the Scottish Parliament decentralises power, giving local authorities and public bodies a legal duty to consider transferring property to communities. Will the Minister consider following the lead of the Scottish Government on this issue and on further decentralisation?

In many ways the hon. Gentleman’s party is following the lead from our party and the Localism Act 2011. The hon. Gentleman needs to consider that community rights in England are not centrally driven or managed from the centre. We should recognise and balance the rights of the local community with the rights of property owners and individuals. We do not want red tape which affects businesses and creates additional burdens on local authorities and taxpayers. That is what the hon. Gentleman’s proposal would create.

What advice would the Minister give to planning authorities that do not treat the presence of community pubs on the register of assets of community value as a material consideration when planning applications are considered?

Local authorities should certainly take into account community rights and the listing of pubs as assets of community value when they make planning decisions in their local area.

Devolution: Shared Services

9. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of devolving powers to, and encouraging co-operation between, local authorities on local economies. (902056)

Co-operation can power economic growth, and devolution is acting as a catalyst for co-operation right across the country. We are seeing local authorities and local authority leadership coming forward with proposals for new combined authorities, working together to identify the powers that they want for their area. A long-lasting sensible devolution settlement can enable economic growth on the scale that we want to see, and deliver for the communities we are all here to represent.

Does the Minister agree that we need strong, visible and courageous leadership at that level so that those authorities can provide the strategic plan necessary and harness all the aspects of economic plans and economic activity? That is the only way we will make the policy work. I hope we will have such leadership in Gloucestershire.

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for Gloucestershire and on this issue he is absolutely right. We need that sharp accountability. We need to ensure that local people can hold to account those who make the decisions that they are empowered to take under devolution. We need to ensure that somebody is in place who can drive forward the growth of the economy in areas that secure devolution deals, because that is how we will make this policy a success and ensure that it lasts for the long term.

Through no fault of our own, Hull runs the risk of being excluded from the back-room devolution deals that are being done for Yorkshire at the moment. If that is the case, will the Minister undertake to work with Hull and the Humber to make sure that we really can be part of the northern powerhouse that he wants to see in Yorkshire?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. Many areas across the country recognise what devolution can do and want to be part of it. Discussions continue in Yorkshire and Humber. We want to find deals that work for local areas. They have to be reached by agreement, have to be bottom-up and bespoke, and have to match the economic geographies that exist. When we get those deals—we will continue to work with areas that want them to deliver them—I am sure we can ensure that they last for the long term and drive real difference in the improvements we want to see.

In the east midlands we currently have a joint bid by Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and a separate bid by Leicester and Leicestershire. Does my hon. Friend agree that it might make more sense to have a combined bid of the three counties, previously known as the golden triangle?

My hon. Friend puts forward an interesting and important idea. However, I am not going to tell any area what its devolution proposal geography should look like. It is for areas to come together and identify the opportunities and sensible economic areas that exist. I am sure that those who are engaged in the discussions with the Department will have heard his comments, and I am sure that we can ultimately find a solution that will work for everyone.

One of the great drivers of local economies is education and skills. The Labour party’s London challenge transformed education in the capital. Why will the Secretary of State not show some leadership and push for his new set of combined authorities to gain responsibility for commissioning new schools and raising standards? Why the obsessive centralism in relation to education?

I remember standing in this place in the previous Parliament advocating free schools in my constituency and coming up against strong resistance from those on the Opposition Benches, including the hon. Gentleman. This is the ultimate freedom for communities to control the future of their education. We want to ensure that areas get the right devolution packages to deliver for their economies. We will continue to work with all areas on the asks that they have, but this is a bottom-up process that comes from the local leaderships, and we want to work with them to deliver this and ensure that what we deliver is fit to last for the long term.

Business Rates

10. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on proposed changes to business rates. (902057)

By the end of this Parliament, local government will keep 100% of the business rates it collects locally. This represents a major step in devolving powers and responsibilities to local government. In developing the scheme, I will discuss the details with ministerial colleagues, local government and business.

Business rate policy is vital to the continued planned development of Wellingborough. A planning inspector recently said that Wellingborough did not have a five-year land supply and allowed a completely unsustainable development in the village of Isham. How can the council plan for business rates and council tax when its land supply figure is challenged? Is it possible for the Secretary of State to certify whether a council has a five-year land supply?

My hon. Friend will know that under the national planning policy framework all planning authorities must be able to demonstrate a five-year land supply. At this point, I am not able to make a specific commitment in relation to Wellingborough, but I certainly undertake to write to my hon. Friend on this very important issue for his constituents.

My local authority, Kirklees, estimates that it would be £32 million short if the proposed business rate changes had been made this year. What plans does the Minister have to make sure that certain authorities, such as mine, are not penalised by the proposed changes?

I thank the hon. Lady for that important question. We are going to work with local government in implementing this policy. I can assure her constituents that there will be some form of redistribution of resources between councils under the new scheme so that areas do not lose out just because they start from a weaker position than others.

The imposition of business rates on empty properties is increasingly holding back the regeneration of brownfield sites in town and cities. Before any devolution, may I strongly encourage Ministers to revisit and reform this part of the system so that we can build more homes and workplaces?

My hon. Friend will know that a business rate review is currently under way. We will take into account all the factors in relation to business rates, empty property business rates and so forth in that review, which will be updated at the spending review and the autumn statement. Further information should be available by the end of this year.

The Government’s plans to localise business rates are very welcome, but without a clear plan to equalise funding it could simply widen the gap between the most and the least deprived communities. We need to hear what specific measures the Minister wants to put in place to address that question, and councils need to know when he intends to make such an announcement so that they can plan.

The hon. Gentleman will know from my answer to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) that we are considering this matter very carefully with local government. We will discuss the new scheme coming forward with local government, and, as he knows, there will be a redistribution of resources. Just to reassure him, under the current business rate scheme brought in by the Government several years ago, areas such as Leeds will benefit from £15 million in additional income from the current scheme this year. That is as a result of the scheme that we have put in place, and I do not think it is disadvantaging the type of areas to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Brownfield Development

11. What support his Department provides to local authorities to encourage development of brownfield land; and if he will he make a statement. (902058)

If we are to deliver this Government’s economic plan to achieve and unlock the growth potential that exists in this country, brownfield land must have a part to play in delivering the houses and commercial properties that we need to see built. That is why this Government are establishing a £1 billion brownfield fund and why we are establishing the brownfield register. We want to deliver development in the right places and in the right way, and that is what we are doing.

I welcome the Government’s plans to utilise brownfield sites and to require local planning authorities to compile a register of land. Can the Minister assure me and my constituents that the infrastructure needed will be included in the plans and will be introduced in tandem with such developments?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want to ensure that planning on brownfield sites is as straightforward as it can practically be, but it must go hand in hand with the existing needs in some locations for infrastructure to support those developments. That is exactly what we will do: those requirements will continue to exist, local authorities will still have such powers and controls, and the Government will of course work with them to ensure that we are developing for the long term and sustainably, which of course includes infrastructure as well.

The brownfield register of course builds on the welcome work of the Mayor of London’s London land commission, as well as the proposed changes to business rate relief suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk). Will the Minister also look at particular changes to the planning regime for brownfield land? For example, the accelerated introduction of in-principle permission would enable developers to go to the market, borrow up front against that permission and therefore accelerate bringing sites forward.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. This is one of the issues that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will cover in the Housing and Planning Bill. We want to ensure that where brownfield sites are identified as suitable for development, the planning system works with local authorities and people who want to invest to unlock the sites and ensure that they are developed in the right way, speedily and at the right time. London is currently under great leadership. We can learn a lot from some of the things that have been done by the Mayor of London. We want to take the best things that he has done and apply them elsewhere.

Private Rented Sector

The Housing and Planning Bill contains measures to tackle rogue landlords who rent out substandard accommodation. The proposals include the introduction of a database of rogue landlords and letting agents, banning orders for serious or repeat offenders, a tougher fit and proper person test, and the extension of rent repayment orders as well as the introduction of civil penalties.

I am sure the Minister will be aware that the Energy Efficiency (Private Rented Property) (England and Wales) Regulations 2015 could have made a great difference to the improvement of tenant conditions by requiring landlords to uprate their properties. I am sure the Minister will also be aware that the regulations were heavily dependent on the operation of the green deal, which was abolished shortly after the regulations were laid. Does the Minister now intend to intervene to get the regulations rewritten so that they actually work when they are introduced and tenants can benefit from landlords uprating their properties?

We have no intention of imposing any new regulatory burdens on the private rented sector because that simply pushes up costs, which reduces choice and is bad for tenants, and because we want supply to increase. In the Housing and Planning Bill, we will target criminal landlords who are ignoring their existing legal obligations.

18. Private renters face up-front letting fees of up to £500 when they move house and charges when they renew their tenancies. Will the Minister tell the House why the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill does nothing to get to grips with the scandal of sky-high letting fees? (902066)

The measures that we are taking to deal with bad and rogue landlords, whom I am sure we all want driven out of the system, as do the many good landlords out there, have been welcomed by people across the sector, including Shelter, which thinks they provide a good focus to ensure that tenants get the right protection. The changes that we have brought in to bring transparency to letting agent fees have just come into play and we will review them in due course. Being aware of what people are paying is absolutely key.

Research released today shows that since 2005, more than 1.5 million properties have gone from being owner-occupied to privately rented—a sector that is notoriously insecure. Longer tenancies could stabilise the sector, yet most mortgage lenders insist that tenancies are restricted to a year, and freeholders of leasehold properties, many of which are local councils because the properties have been bought through right to buy, often restrict tenancies for a year. What conversations has the Minister held or does he intend to hold with the Treasury and his DCLG colleagues about lifting those artificial barriers to longer tenancies?

One of the biggest things that we can do to increase tenancy security is to ensure that we have growing and stronger institutional investment in the private or professional rented sector, so that there is more supply from institutional investors, like elsewhere in the world, where there are one-year tenancies but there is security because the properties stay in the sector. That is why we have the £1 billion build to rent fund, which will see 10,000 homes coming through. There are already 15 schemes under that fund, which are worth more than £450 million and will supply thousands more homes. That is the answer to ensure that more homes are available.

Rough Sleeping

The Government are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society. One person without a home is one too many. That is why, since 2010, we have invested more than £500 million to prevent and tackle homelessness in England.

Across the UK, homelessness has increased by more than a third in the past five years. In my home city of Norwich, it has doubled in the past year alone, with devastating consequences for one rough sleeper, known locally as Sergio, who was found dead on the streets of the city a couple of months ago. Will the Minister tell us why there is nothing in the Housing and Planning Bill to tackle this disgrace?

The hon. Gentleman mentions a significant incident in his constituency. I reassure him that the Government are committed to helping rough sleepers to get off the streets. The “No Second Night Out” scheme that we have supported is delivering that. We are also funding the world’s first homelessness social impact bond, which is reaching 830 entrenched rough sleepers in London who have been sleeping rough for a considerable time, and getting them off the streets and into accommodation.

I am assisting a young woman from Syria who on Thursday will be made homeless from her Serco accommodation. She has no prospect of alternative housing because she is not deemed to be a priority housing need. How many single people, including young female refugees like Samia, are at risk of having to sleep rough? What is the estimate for the increase in those numbers if the Welfare Reform and Work Bill is enacted?

As I said in response to the previous question, my Department is working extremely hard to prevent single homelessness. I am committed to doing more to improve services to help people who have complex needs. We are supporting some of the most vulnerable people in society. I am holding a series of round tables with the homelessness sector to support people like the hon. Lady’s constituent.

Fire and Rescue Services

The spending review will set out the resources that are available to local government as a whole, and the allocations for each authority will be published in the provisional local government financial settlement later this year.

Northumberland fire and rescue service made proposals last week further to cut front-line services, which will undoubtedly compromise public safety and the safety of people in the brigade. Can the Secretary of State explain how it is in the best interests of the general public for fire and rescue service budgets to be slashed and slashed to the bone?

The hon. Gentleman gets it wrong. The National Audit Office recently published a report stating that, financially, fire and rescue authorities have coped well with the reductions. We know that there has been a 42% decrease in incidents over the past 10 years, and it is right that all parts of the public sector make savings. As it happens, the fire and rescue authorities have made savings of less than the rest of local government.

I welcome the consultation on proposals for greater integration and collaboration between police and fire and rescue services. Will the Minister confirm that that will not mean the end of the distinction between firefighters and police officers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I read the transcript of the debate that she secured in Westminster Hall. It is right to consider where collaboration can improve safety, which was one of the points that she raised in the debate, but there is absolutely no requirement to eradicate the separate services that our communities so value.

Domestic Violence

15. What support his Department provides to people affected by domestic violence who are seeking refuge. (902062)

Protecting women and girls from violence and supporting victims of sexual violence is a priority for the Government. Our manifesto committed us to ensuring a secure future for refuges. In the summer Budget we committed a further £3.2 million for refuges, and we will consider the matter further in the spending review.

As a trustee of a fantastic Chippenham charity, Helping Victims of Domestic Violence, I welcome the Government funding committed in the July Budget. Will the Minister update the House not only on what work the Government are doing to improve victims’ access to refuges, but on what support they are giving local independent charities that play a vital role in constituencies such as mine?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She supports the charity in her constituency, and I have had the privilege of seeing the fantastic work done by a charity in my constituency. Part of the point of the additional funding that has been made available is for local authorities to work with such voluntary groups to ensure that a service is available to all women who need it at the time when they need it.

Every Member will know that depending on charities for that type of service means depending on groups that are working hand to mouth and have no future security. Will the Secretary of State insist that local authorities give them a secure funding future and invest in specialist services, rather than expecting housing associations that are open only between 9 o’clock and 5 o’clock to make refuge provision?

The right hon. Lady is right that voluntary organisations need to work with local authorities. There needs to be a network of provision across the country, because the victims of domestic violence often have to go to a different local authority area to flee the people who have persecuted them and engaged in violence against them. She is right that there needs to be a dependable national system.

Topical Questions

May I start by wishing a happy Diwali to everyone who will be celebrating the festival of lights later this week?

Since our last oral questions, we have agreed with the housing associations the extension of the right to buy to more than 1 million tenants; we have agreed devolution deals with Sheffield, the Tees Valley and the north-east; the Chancellor has announced that councils will keep 100% of business rates; and we have had Second Reading of the Housing and Planning Bill and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. We will continue to develop new devolution deals with local communities in order to devolve more powers throughout the country, at the same time creating more homes and homeowners.

North Devon District Council has just started a final period of public consultation on its local plan. That has been some years in the making, and its absence has caused some difficulties, as the Secretary of State will know, as he kindly attended a meeting with me and a delegation from the council a few weeks ago. Does he agree that it is important for the council to get a local plan, and therefore a five-year land supply, in place, and will the Department give it every assistance in doing so?

We will indeed. My hon. Friend will know that local places have until 2017 to come up with their plans. If they have not done so by then, we will work with local communities to ensure that they have a plan.

In his autumn statement two years ago the Chancellor said that

“we must confront this simple truth: if we want more people to own a home, we have to build more homes.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1108.]

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the number of new homes built in the best year of the previous Parliament’s five years was still lower than in the worst year out of 13 years of the last Labour Government?

The right hon. Gentleman is having a characteristic bout of amnesia, because the worst year for housing starts was when he was a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government. That was the worst year for housing starts in peacetime since the 1920s, and 88,000 new homes were started. He has form on this.

Never mind the bluster about starts—as the Chancellor said, new homes built are what count. Figures from the Secretary of State’s Department state that 124,980 homes were built in 2009 in the depths of the recession. Five years later in 2014—the Secretary of State’s best year—with a much-trumpeted growing economy, 117,720 houses were built. The answer to that failure was set out in his manifesto pledge, which mentioned 275,000 more affordable homes and 200,000 new starter homes in this Parliament. Will he guarantee that he will not double-count those numbers, and that new starter homes will be additional to affordable homes?

The right hon. Gentleman’s record has gone down in history—he presided over the lowest number of housing starts since the 1920s. This is not just about a collapse in the total number of houses being built, but about affordable housing. During his time in the previous Government, the stock of affordable homes fell by 420,000. I have been doing my research about the right hon. Gentleman because he has form on this issue, and it is a cheek for him to talk about affordable housing. As he might remember, when he was Financial Secretary he published a report that stated that the Government’s No. 1 objective was:

“Freeing up or avoiding social tenancies.”

No wonder there was a collapse in the stock of affordable housing—he wanted to avoid those tenancies.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether starter homes will be built only on exemption sites, or will new legislation allow them to be built more widely? (902039)

As my hon. Friend will know, the Housing and Planning Bill will oblige local authorities building on all significant sites to include a contribution to starter homes, recognising that there are young people across the country who want to get a foot on the housing ladder.

T2. The planning policies of Sutton borough and the Mayor of London prioritise development on brownfield sites over greenfield sites and metropolitan open land. Is the Minister as surprised as I am that in a debate on Wednesday, an Education Minister described a site on metropolitan open land as the “preferred” site for a new secondary school, despite a brownfield site having been identified and purchased by the local authority? Will the Minister talk to the Education Minister about the basics of planning, and explain to him why it was perfectly in order for a local authority to prioritise development on brownfield land? (902038)

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we prioritise brownfield planning permission. He will also know—I am sure I do not need to “educate” him, to use his phrase—that I cannot comment on a particular planning application due to the quasi-judicial role. I am happy to look at some of the details he has outlined.

T10. As the Minister will be aware, I am a great supporter of enterprise zones. Will he assure me that before further consideration is given to yet more enterprise zones in Lancashire, we will make every effort to ensure that the two existing zones—one of which is in my constituency —and a further one that may be announced in coming days, are successful? (902046)

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Enterprise zones can be drivers for growth, and the Government have invited bids for a new round of them. We look forward eagerly to seeing which areas will be successful, based on the strength of their economic case, and looking at the potential that areas have to drive that growth. We must ensure that we create new zones where they can bring real benefit, and that existing zones are successful. That is what we intend to do, and I am always happy to discuss any specific concerns with my hon. Friend.

T4. According to the Government’s figures, the homelessness prevention grant has helped councils keep 1 million people from becoming homeless since 2010. Last month, I wrote to the Minister to ask that his Department protect that grant from the forthcoming spending review. In his reply, he failed to give any assurance, so my question now is if the grant is removed, what effect will it have on homelessness in coming years? (902040)

As the hon. Lady has identified, the £400 million that the Government have put into the homelessness prevention grant over the last five years has been part of a significant package to keep 935,000 families from becoming homeless. As she knows, a spending review is coming up, and that is one of the areas that we are considering very carefully: she will learn more about it and other policies on homelessness after the 25th of this month.

In my Bury St Edmunds constituency, both the district council and the county council have an appetite for building houses. They would like to know what support the Minister will give them for looking at funding arrangements in order to facilitate that growth.

Having visited my hon. Friend’s constituency and local authorities over the summer, I know what appetite they and other district and county councils have to build more homes. That is good to see. I am fully aware that they want to move forward and, through the devolution deals—I know that Suffolk County Council and Norfolk County Council are engaged with them—we are looking at what we can do to support more economic development and housing growth to satisfy their ambitions.

T5. Over the three years to 2014, the Mayor of London fell short of his target for building affordable homes by 40%. He was not helped by councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham—then Tory-controlled—which actually managed to reduce the number of social and affordable rented properties by sale or demolition. Those policies are now enshrined in the Housing and Planning Bill: what are they but crude pieces of social engineering? (902041)

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the extended and reinvigorated right to buy since 2012, he will find that in London roughly two extra homes have been built for every home that has been sold. We have made it clear that we want to see the Housing and Planning Bill increase not only home ownership, but housing supply. I encourage local authorities, including his own, to make sure that they deliver more home development permissions than before.

The draft joint core strategy for Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury was submitted almost exactly a year ago to the Planning Inspectorate, since when no substantive reply has been received. Without agreement on the JCS, the Gloucester city local plan cannot be finalised. Will the Minister give vigorous encouragement to the relevant inspector to respond to the Gloucester JCS as soon as possible so that local government can then make real progress on both documents?

I know that the examination of the plan is ongoing. I also understand that in September the inspector was in touch with the local authority and agreed an extension of time to allow the authority to undertake some further work. I further understand that it has been agreed that a hearing will be scheduled for January 2016 so that consultation can take place on the additional work. I will look into the detail of the case because it is critical that inspectors approach examination from the perspective of working pragmatically with local authorities to achieve a sound local plan.

T6. The Minister wants to punish council tenants who do well by raising their rents. In a high-cost city such as Cambridge, £30,000 is now the Government’s cap on aspiration. He has been vague about what household income means: will he give us a proper definition today? (902042)

Obviously we will be taking this issue through in the Housing and Planning Bill over the next few weeks, and it will no doubt be discussed. We are clear, as has been welcomed by the housing associations and local authorities, that it is right that high earners pay their way.

Can the Secretary of State give any update on his discussions with local government about the resettlement of Syrian refugees?

I can indeed. The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) has had a close and co-operative dialogue with local authorities to settle, in particular, the refugees who will arrive on planes in the next few weeks. We are in a good place in being able to find good homes for them.

T7. The north-east is desperate for a meaningful devolution of powers. I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that they must include powers over transport, at least those London has. Despite the recent ruling of the Quality Contract Scheme board, can we have our buses back? (902043)

The hon. Lady takes a keen interest in devolution in the north-east. It is no small step that both the north-east and Tees Valley have recently entered into devolution deals with the Government. We want to continue to look at all areas of devolution that local leadership wants to put forward. We will continue to have discussions with them about that. The agreements signed only a few weeks ago are a significant and welcome step in that direction for our shared regions.

My local Kirklees Council has today begun a long-overdue consultation on its local plan. Does the Minister agree that the council must listen to local communities as well as developers, and must take into account the Government’s £1 billion brownfield first campaign?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Another area entering into consultation is welcome news. It is vital that local area plans represent and take into account the views of the local community. I encourage the local authority to listen very carefully to residents in his area.

T8. After the Energy and Climate Change Committee wrote to the Government deploring their lamentable failure to get anywhere near targets on low carbon heat reduction and saying specifically that they had to go beyond part L of the building regulations to get new homes back on track, is the Minister reconsidering his decision to abolish the code for sustainable homes? (902044)

Significant steps have been taken in recent years in strengthening building regulations to lower the carbon footprint of the homes we build. We have to ensure we work with industry and interested parties and we look at the implications of all decisions taken. We are, of course, always looking at the process by which that can be done and the options available to us. We have to see the effect that changes already made will have in reducing significantly the carbon footprint, and in setting us further on the path to the ultimate goal that I think many in this place share.

I welcome the Government’s recent policy announcement on new planning applications from Gypsies and Travellers in the countryside. Has the Planning Inspectorate been fully briefed on the Government’s programme, and will particular importance be attached to combating the overconcentration of sites in the countryside?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The short answer with regard to the Planning Inspectorate is yes. We are very keen to ensure that the planning system treats everybody equally and fairly, and that everybody abides by the same rules in a fair and proportionate way.

T9. Will the Government legislate to provide for a substantial programme of municipalisation of private sector housing, especially empty homes, to help to rebuild the local authority housing sector to provide more decent homes at affordable rents for thousands of families languishing on housing waiting lists? If they will not do that, will they explain why? (902045)

I am very proud of the fact that we have pretty much one of the lowest levels of empty homes on record thanks to the work done and the substantial investment made in the past few years, and to the fact that the new homes bonus applies to empty homes. I encourage local authorities to look at those kinds of properties and think about what they can do with them, and to deliver housing—whether affordable, private rented sector, or, for example through the new starter homes programme, homes for sale to people who want to be able to afford to buy their own home—for their local area.

I once again commend the excellent enterprise zone in Corby bid, which is supported by both Corby Borough Council and East Northamptonshire Council. Will the Minister provide us with an update and let us know when we are likely to hear the outcome?

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for Corby. I have had a number of discussions with him on a whole range of issues relating to his constituency. He is proving himself to be a most diligent Member of Parliament. A large number of enterprise zone bids have been received and are being considered. We will assess the economic case and look at a range of factors that inform those decisions, and an announcement will be made in due course.

What advice should I give to my constituent, who is currently in a homeless shelter? He came from Jamaica in the early ’60s with his family. He never went abroad, and so has never had to prove his immigration status. He cannot afford to apply for British citizenship right now, but says he cannot be rehoused because there is a requirement for him to prove his immigration status.

I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing that case to the House. If she writes to me with the details, I will certainly look into it.

I am sorry to cut off questions at this point, but demand has exceeded supply, as is ordinarily the case.