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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 603: debated on Monday 14 December 2015

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Powerhouse

The northern powerhouse is a project that runs across a number of Government Departments. The contribution made by this Department includes: the local growth funds, 11 of which are worth nearly £3 billion; the £400 million northern powerhouse investment fund; the devolution deals being agreed right across the north of England; and, of course, the doubling of the enterprise zones in the northern powerhouse announced in the spending review by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Earlier this year, the Government invested over £113 million in high-performance computing in my constituency at the Hartree Centre, a joint venture between the Science and Technology Facilities Council and IBM bringing high skill, high wage jobs to Weaver Vale. Does my hon. Friend agree that investment in technology and science is key to the growth of the northern powerhouse?

I commend my hon. Friend’s important and significant work in this area. He is a passionate advocate for his constituency and for investment in it. This is just one more example of Government investment in the north to build the northern powerhouse and rebalance our economy. As we saw in the autumn statement, science and innovation spending is being protected. We are investing in the economic growth of the future. This is a great example of that and my hon. Friend deserves commendation for the work he has done to deliver it.

Will this Government stop patronising the north? We are a powerhouse. Give us the investment in infrastructure. We are the people who still make things in this country. We make the wealth of this country. Many people in this part of the world—London and the south—live parasitically on our efforts. Stop patronising, start investing!

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the northern powerhouse project. The Government recognise the potential of the north to drive our economy. The north can make a difference if it is invested in, and, crucially, if the people of the north are given real control over their own future. That is what we are doing. That is what the devolution agenda is about and what some of the investments I spoke of are about. We are going to deliver it. It will make a real difference to his constituents and to mine.

What support are the Government giving to small businesses in the northern powerhouse area to ensure that they benefit from all the procurements that will come from it?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The £400 million northern powerhouse investment fund will be targeted specifically at small and medium-sized enterprises. Growth hubs across the north are driving that investment and giving that support. We want our big industries to succeed and drive forward our economy, but our small and medium-sized enterprises are important too. We want to invest in them and give local people the controls they need to ensure they can reach their potential.

The Minister will be aware that the Scottish Government procure 46% from small and medium -sized enterprises compared to the UK Government’s 26%. Will he look at the Glasgow and Clyde Valley city deal, which has a supplier development programme to encourage SMEs?

City deals can be key drivers for growth. I welcome those that have already been agreed and we continue to have talks, including with some of the great cities and city regions in Scotland, on where we can go further and what more we can do. I hope we can deliver more in due course, because we can already see the difference the deals are making.

On behalf of the whole House, we thank all hard-pressed and often low-paid council staff and others who even now are helping those areas of the north so badly affected by the recent flooding.

In contrast to the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse, the Office for National Statistics recently reported that the north is falling further behind as a result of under-investment and that it is getting worse. The average Londoner now produces £42,000 a year added value, while in the north-east the average is only £18,000. In the place of more cuts, will the Minister now include specific, substantial and urgent northern investment in his local government settlement later this week?

The hon. Gentleman raises the important point that our economy has for too long been unbalanced. The whole point of the northern powerhouse project is to address that imbalance, ensuring we unlock the significant growth potential that exists across the north and the contribution the northern powerhouse can make to our economy. We can see, from a number of the announcements, that that investment is going in, but more importantly it is going in hand-in-hand with local control, giving control to the people who know best how to grow the economies of the north because they live in them and are part of them.

Fire and Rescue Services

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of changes to the level of funding for fire and rescue services on the effectiveness of those services. (902665)

Fire authorities have continued to provide an excellent service while making sensible savings. The number of incidents is 42% lower than 10 years ago, while the number of fire deaths and injuries is at an all-time low.

The existing grant distribution formula disproportionately penalises grant-dependent authorities such as Cleveland, regardless of socioeconomic deficits, unparalleled levels of industrial risk and/or their efficient performance. What assessment will the Minister make to identify less efficient authorities that can make savings and, more importantly, what capacity grant-dependent authorities have to make further savings?

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the magnificent work of firefighters, who, with the other emergency services, council staff, engineers, the armed forces, and indeed the whole community, have worked tirelessly to protect and help people during the flooding in the north of England.

Over the past five years, fire authorities have had spending reductions of less than local authorities. I have given the hon. Gentleman figures showing how well they have performed and managed those cuts, and the National Audit Office has said that the picture is one of financial health. In Cleveland, for example, the fire authority’s spending power is £48 per head of the population, compared to the national average of £37. So that is reflected in the formula.

The Minister mentioned the cuts to fire services over the years and said he took great pride in their work, particularly in places such as Cumberland, so I think he should award them a decent wage increase. What guarantee can he give that local fire and rescue services will not be negatively impacted if taken over by local police and crime commissioners?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are consulting across the country on whether to remove barriers to better local collaboration between all the blue light services. Such collaboration would be initiated locally, where it is wanted, for the purposes of providing a better service, if those changes would help.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that greater collaboration between the fire service and the police service necessary to reduce costs will not end the distinction between firefighters and police officers?

I can certainly confirm that. They are two distinct services with proud and distinct histories, but, as I think my hon. Friend would acknowledge, the opportunities for them to work together should be taken, whenever it could make a difference to people on the ground.

I was greatly encouraged by what the Secretary of State said about amalgamating services, particularly with local authorities. Wiltshire fire service has been in discussion with the first-class, Conservative-controlled Wiltshire Unitary Council. Will he encourage the fire service, which has also been negotiating with Dorset council, to seek to find areas of co-operation with Wiltshire council?

That is a matter for the local services. The consultation proposes requiring that those discussions take place, but it is up to them what they conclude.

I also pay tribute to the magnificent response of fire and rescue services to the floods in Cumbria and other northern areas. Fire and rescue services are rescuing people, pumping out water from flooded high streets and homes and rescuing livestock, thus limiting damage to rural communities, yet all those fire and rescue services have suffered cuts over the last five years. We have lost nearly 7,000 firefighters—one in eight—and equipment and appliances have been cut by more than 12% in metropolitan fire and rescue services. The fire service is at a key juncture. It is not safe, effective or efficient simply to keep cutting resources. Does the Secretary of State agree that more cuts will further damage the service’s ability to meet the risk in local major incidents, such as the recent floods, and will he commit to providing adequate resources so that the service can continue to contribute to national resilience on the scale and at the speed the public expect?

I would draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the National Audit Office report, which was published quite recently. It says that the picture to date is one of financial health and that

“fire authorities have not changed emergency response standards as a result of budget cuts”.

The evidence is that all but one stand-alone fire authority increased its reserves by 67% in real terms from 2010 to 2015. That tells me that the fire services are coping well with the reductions they have been invited to make.

I have lost confidence in the Staffordshire fire authority, which has decided to build a brand new fire station in Lichfield, but to reduce the number of appliances to half of what it is presently. Will my right hon. Friend work with Matthew Ellis, the police and crime in commissioner in Staffordshire, who has good, positive plans to combine the police and fire services for the betterment of the whole county?

That is the purpose of the consultation that we have embarked on: to remove the barriers that have prevented that kind of collaboration. I am very interested in what my hon. Friend has to say about the proposals in Staffordshire.

Affordable Housing

13. What recent progress his Department has made on increasing the provision of affordable housing. (902675)

We have successfully delivered 270,000 affordable homes since 2010. More specifically, the 2011 to 2015 affordable homes programme delivered 193,000 affordable homes, exceeding expectations by some 23,000.

It is no surprise that the Minister is so keen to crow about his numbers of affordable homes, but I can assure him that, in Sheffield, £250,000 is not considered affordable. Will he therefore introduce a statutory definition of affordability based on average income, not market rate?

I think the hon. Lady is referring to the maximum price for a starter home. If she looks, she will see that the average paid by first-time buyers is dramatically lower, which, along with the 20% discount we are introducing for starter homes linked to Help to Buy, makes buying a home affordable again for more people.

In Worcester, according to city council figures, 260 new affordable homes were delivered in the last financial year, a record for any year since 1997. That record was delivered by a Conservative administration the year after a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition delivered just 76 new affordable homes. Please can the Minister advise us how he will support well led councils such as Worcester to keep delivering more affordable homes?

My hon. Friend gives a good example of a good, well run local authority delivering housing for its constituents. We are determined to stand by those authorities and work with them. That is why I am delighted that the Chancellor committed a further £8 billion in the spending review to deliver 400,000 affordable homes across the country.

Given that average property prices in London have exceeded half a million pounds, first-time buyers will need to earn at least £70,000 a year to buy their first home. Does the Minister consider that affordable and, if not, what effective action will he take to put home ownership within the reach of the many and not just the few at the top?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is now joining our call to build more homes that are affordable for people. Starts are up some 57% in his constituency since 2010, which is a good start, but we want to go even further. That is why we want to deliver more shared ownership, giving people a wider opportunity to get on the housing ladder, along with the 20% discount on starter homes through Help to Buy on just a 5% deposit.

Some Opposition Members believe that homes can be made more affordable, particularly in London for example, by returning to the bad old days of rent controls. Will the Minister assure me and many other Members of the House that the Government have no intention of giving powers to any future Mayor to reintroduce rent controls in London?

As my hon. Friend will know, we are very keen to see more and more localism and devolution of power, but I am happy to tell him that this Government will not allow us to fall into the trap that Labour often encourages people to fall into. The reality is that rent controls simply drive supply down and end up increasing rents, so we are very much against them and they will not be allowed under this Government.

The Minister has talked about extra housing investment, and I would not want him or the Chancellor, who has said the same thing, to mislead the House. After the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the annual housing investment from the Government will be £1.7 billion. Under the money inherited in 2010 from Labour, it was £3.1 billion—not an increase, but a cut; not a doubling, but almost a halving. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that this must be the reason why his Government have built 30,000 fewer affordable homes to buy via shared ownership than Labour did in our last five years?

I am somewhat surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should ask a question of that type, bearing in mind that he was the Minister who oversaw the lowest level of housing starts in this country since the 1920s. What the Chancellor has now done has meant that this Government are overseeing the biggest building programme in about 30 years.

The Minister is wrong on the big picture as well. Under our national affordable housing programme, the number of homes built each year was bigger than under the last Government when he was the Minister. The hard truth is that for so many people, the dream of buying their own home is totally unaffordable and out of reach. Now the hon. Gentleman plans to fiddle the figures again by changing the definition of “affordable” to include so-called “starter homes” that can be sold at up to £450,000. Will he at least agree with Labour and the Building Societies Association, whose members will lend for these homes, that the discount on these starter homes should be permanent, not a cash windfall at the end of five years, but there for the next generation of first-time buyers as well?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman and I have a big disagreement on this. He seems to want to stop property owners having the right to deal with their property in the way that any other property owner would, but we want to support people who aspire to own their own home. That is why we want to keep building more homes generally and keep building more homes for people at that discount rate for first-time buyers. We are proud that under the Conservative-led coalition during the last Parliament, we oversaw an increase in affordable homes—unlike the loss of 420,000 that we saw under 13 years of Labour.

Home Ownership: Government Support

5. What steps his Department is taking to (a) support shared ownership and (b) help people to buy a home. (902667)

The autumn statement confirmed £8 billion for over 400,000 affordable homes, including 135,000 new shared ownership homes and £2.3 billion towards delivering 200,000 starter homes. Our Help to Buy ISA scheme, launched on 1 December, means that we have a Help to Buy equity loan scheme as well, which is being extended through to 2020-21. That means that just a 40% equity is being provided by the Government for people in London, and that will be launched in 2016.

I was very pleased recently to attend the opening of Prospect House in Cheadle Hulme—a brand new development of 11 apartments available for shared ownership, and I welcome further measures introduced by the Government to expand this scheme. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage local authorities to build more shared ownership housing and ensure that these developments utilise brownfield sites?

I am happy to respond. We will relax or remove local authority restrictions to shared ownership to make it easier for people to find the right home for their families. Brownfield land has an important role in meeting housing need, and we are committed to ensuring that 90% of suitable brownfield sites have planning permission for housing by 2020.

Social Housing

Since 2010, we have delivered 270,000 affordable homes, including nearly 200,000 homes for rent. The majority of rented homes, delivered through the affordable homes programme, are for affordable rent, delivering more homes for every pound of Government investment. The spending review committed some £1.7 billion to deliver 100,000 affordable rented homes.

Let me draw the Minister’s attention to the question I asked, which was about social rented housing, not affordable rented housing. Will he confirm that during the last Parliament, the only social rented houses built had been funded before the 2010 general election, and that there is no funding at all for social rented housing in the comprehensive spending review for this Parliament? Does the Minister accept that the combination of the policies of Right to Buy for housing association tenants and the sell-off of high-value council properties means fewer social rented homes being available for people and longer waits on the waiting list for those people who want one?

Actually, there was a 70% increase in social housing waiting lists under the last Labour Administration, and thanks to the flexibilities we have created, it has fallen. We also saw more social council housing built in the last Parliament than in the entire 13 years of Labour Government before that, and there is still over £2 billion of headroom in the housing revenue account for local authorities to go further and build more. I encourage them to do so.

The building of genuinely affordable homes for social rent in this country has plummeted, and no matter how much the Minister tries to dress up the Government’s record, his Department’s figures are clear and speak for themselves. In 2010, more than 38,000 homes were built for social rent, but by 2014-15, that figure was a truly dismal 9,500. The Housing and Planning Bill makes it virtually impossible to build homes for social rent. There was also the disgraceful sneaking out last week of proposals to end secure tenancies for local authority tenants. What exactly do this Government have against people who rely on social housing to make ends meet, and when is the Minister going to address the huge shortfall in social housing units?

As I said a few moments ago, in the last five years of Conservative government more council homes were built than in the entire 13 years of Labour government, during which the number of affordable homes dropped by 420,000. There is still more than £2 billion of borrowing headroom enabling local authorities to build more. We have made it clear that we will help all those who aspire to own their own homes by extending the right to buy and delivering starter homes throughout the country.

Autumn Statement: Devolved Services

9. What assessment he has made of the effect of policies in the spending review and autumn statement 2015 on his Department's expenditure on policies and services which in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Government. (902671)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the services of this Department are devolved to Scotland, so there are Barnett consequentials of spending decisions that affect the Department. As a result of the spending review, the Scottish Government’s capital budget will increase by 14%.

The Chancellor confirmed in the autumn statement the extension of the right to buy to housing associations, thereby effectively privatising them. As we all know, the existing right to buy has decimated social housing stock throughout the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government recognised that, and abolished the right to buy. Given that the new discounts and the so-called one-for-one replacements are not being financed by additional Government funding, will the Minister explain what effect the Chancellor’s proposals will have on housing in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the policy intention to replace homes on a basis of at least one for one, which is greatly welcomed by Conservative Members. As I have said, the spending review will have a Barnett consequentials impact on the Scottish Government’s capital budget, amounting to £1.9 billion, which is in addition to the borrowing powers they already have. That will enable them to deliver on what they want to do for Scotland—just as we want to deliver on our objectives and manifesto priorities in England and Wales.


10. What steps he is taking to ensure that new developments do not affect the risk of flooding to existing properties. (902672)

There are strict tests in national planning policy to protect people and property from flooding, which all councils are expected to follow. They include ensuring that new development does not increase flood risk elsewhere.

In my experience, the Environment Agency often does not object to a planning application even when the area on which building is proposed floods, and especially when other areas could be caused to flood by the development in question. Will the Secretary of State look into the agency’s policies and practice in this regard?

I will certainly do that. I recognise my hon. Friend’s constituency experience, and, indeed, his expertise as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention. However, the national planning policy framework states that any new application in an area of flooding risk

“must demonstrate that the development will be safe for its lifetime…without increasing flood risk elsewhere, and, where possible, will reduce flood risk overall.”

That test must be passed for the development to be permitted.

Is it not time to recognise the fantastic work that firefighters do in dealing with floods, and to make it a statutory duty for fire and rescue services to respond to flooding?

I am grateful for the opportunity that the hon. Gentleman offers me to pay tribute again to the fantastic work that is being done in the north of England, and which has, over the years, been done throughout the country at times when such emergencies occur. I will bear in mind what he has said, and it will be considered during our future discussions.

Loyn bridge, in Gressingham—which is in my constituency —has been partly washed away, and the roads on either side of it have caved in because of the flooding. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that everything will be done to ensure that the repairs are completed as quickly as possible, as the bridge is the main thoroughfare across the Lune valley?

I will indeed. I note the leadership that my hon. Friend has shown in, and with, his community in responding to those conditions. We are determined to ensure that things are put right with the greatest dispatch, and we are working closely with the authorities throughout the area. The funds that have been made available so far will allow an assessment of what is required for restoration to be made, which will be followed by the repairs themselves.

Does the Secretary of State think it is right that the Government are helping new people buy their own home under the Help to Buy scheme, but those very same people will not be eligible for flood insurance under Flood Re, which his Government are introducing in April?

The negotiation with the insurance companies has been very clear: we want to make sure that everyone in the country can benefit from the insurance that gives them peace of mind when they buy a new property.

Planning Decisions

Over 1,700 communities are preparing neighbourhood plans to shape development in their area. These will form part of the development plan and be used to determine planning applications. The Housing and Planning Bill reforms will speed up and simplify the process and allow communities better to engage in local planning.

The Minister will be aware that the planning inspector has deferred a decision on Chippenham’s housing development plan and has asked Wiltshire council to come back after a few queries. During this time, what measures could be put in place to ensure we do not have a free-for-all of aggressive planning applications against the best interests of the strategy of the town?

Having a five-year land supply in place puts local planning authorities in a strong position to resist unwanted development. Furthermore, national planning policy reiterates the importance of sustainable development, not development anywhere or at any cost, and I am sure my hon. Friend’s local authority is well aware of that when making decisions.

Last Thursday at business questions I raised the case of Porlock avenue in Audenshaw in my constituency, where a small semi-detached property that is now privately rented has been converted into a house of multiple occupation as part of the asylum dispersal programme. Does the Minister understand the dismay of the neighbours of this property that the owners are able to circumvent planning and licensing regulations because there will be only five people housed in the property?

I cannot comment on an individual case without knowing all the facts, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the measures in the Housing and Planning Bill, particularly those in relation to dealing with rogue landlords.

The interpretation of neighbourhood plans appears to be causing difficulties, in particular in the beautiful village of Hook Norton in my constituency. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how villagers can ensure the neighbourhood plan is adhered to?

And a great village Hook Norton is, and it is the home to a fantastic brewery. I hear what my hon. Friend says and I will certainly undertake to meet her, or I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will.

Local communities in York desperately need family housing built for social rent on the 35-hectare York central site, yet we hear that high-value flats are going to be placed on that site. Will the Minister listen to local communities and ensure their voice is prioritised?

This Government have demonstrated that we want local people to have a strong voice through neighbourhood planning. The issue the hon. Lady mentions is on the record, and her local planning authority should be listening to the concerns and comments of local residents.

In council areas where there is no adopted local plan, local communities are continually let down by the planning process. Will my hon. Friend consider allowing objectors the right of appeal?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. By 2017 we will make sure all areas have a local plan in place. The Housing and Planning Bill sets out in some detail how we are going to achieve that.

Inverness City Region Deal

The Government, along with the Scottish Government, are working with Highland Council to identify the opportunities for an Inverness and Highland city region deal. The discussions are ongoing. They are positive and constructive. I hope they will lead to the outcome that I am sure the hon. Gentleman hopes for. He is absolutely right to raise this important issue. City deals can be a great driver for growth; they can help us realise economic potential, and that is what we want to see.

Highland Council has submitted a detailed and innovative plan for city deal investment, with the support of the Scottish Government. Will the Minister commit to advancing discussions, and will he indicate a timescale for finalising the process to allow the deal to get under way?

Discussions are already under way. Officials met local representatives on 2 December and will continue to work through the plans to ensure that they are robust, that they deliver what is needed, that they meet the requirements that we place on such deals and that they have the support they need to continue. We wish to see them progress positively. That is the strongest assurance I can give the hon. Gentleman at this time, because of course those things need to be done properly and thoroughly before plans are taken forward.

Local Government Funding Model

I will shortly be presenting to the House the local government financial settlement for 2016-17. I will set out how we will deliver a sustainable settlement for that year and later years and pave the way for future reforms to fund vital services, promote growth and efficiency and devolve power and resources, just as local government has requested.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that since 2010-11 the areas of greatest need in England have seen the largest cuts in local government funding, breaking the historic link between the amount that a local authority spends per head and local deprivation levels. Over the past five years, councils such as Wirral have had severe cuts to their funding, whereas other areas have seen an increase. Forecasts suggest that Wirral will lose at least £126 million by 2020. What will the Government do to ensure that funding for local authorities genuinely reflects the needs of the people who live in the area?

The hon. Lady should wait to see what the settlement has in store, but she should know from the past few years that Wirral’s spending power, at £2,240 per dwelling, is 7% above the national average. Her council has reserves of £80 million, a third higher than they were in 2010. It is important that she bears that in mind.

20. People in rural areas such as my constituents pay an average of £80 more in council tax than those elsewhere, yet they receive about £130 less in central Government funding, which has an impact on local services. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time to look for a fairer funding formula for all taxpayers? (902683)

I recognise that the cost of delivering services is higher in areas with a sparse population, for obvious reasons. The rural services delivery grant was introduced to reflect that extra cost, and it has since been increased. I will obviously have to bear that in mind when we assess what is needed in the financial settlement.

It is a year since a National Audit Office report found that the Department for Communities and Local Government had limited understanding of local authorities’ financial sustainability. Does the Secretary of State understand the unsustainability of high percentage, across the board cuts in low tax base authorities, and the fact that the complete removal of revenue support grant and the retention of all business rates without national redistribution will drive those authorities into the ground?

I would have thought that the hon. Lady, as a former council leader, would be in a position to welcome the spending review settlement, which not only provided protection in cash terms for the resources available to local government over the four years ahead but did what local government requested and made money available for the care of the elderly through the social care precept. I would have thought that her experience caused her to welcome that.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the settlement reflects the pressures on top-tier authorities from adult social care costs, and particularly that it restates the opportunities for greater integration of health and adult social care spend, as supported by, for example, the London Borough of Bromley?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In advance of the spending review I had a communication from the Local Government Association estimating that the gap, if unaddressed, would be £2.9 billion. In the spending review settlement the Chancellor allocated £3.5 billion, to reflect the need to help our elderly population. That was a significant result for local government. As we come to make the settlement for individual authorities, we will ensure that that is in the hands of local people.

At least 340 unaccompanied child asylum seekers disappeared in this country between January and September, which is twice as many as did so in the calendar year before. That leaves them at terrifying risk of abuse, sexual exploitation and radicalisation. Councils say that funding cuts mean they do not have the resources properly to protect these incredibly vulnerable children, so why are the Government going ahead with a further cut to the unaccompanied child asylum seeker grant?

These are important statutory responsibilities of local authorities and it is vital that they discharge them. Through the spending review settlement, the Chancellor has made available funds to local government that make sure that the cash settlement by the end of the spending review period is the same as it is at the beginning. That is a positive result for local government.

Syrian Refugees

15. What recent estimate he has made of the number of local authorities that have resettled Syrian refugees. (902677)

The number of local authorities that have resettled Syrian refugees changes frequently, as more Syrians arrive for resettlement in the UK. Although it is not practical to give a running commentary on the number of local authorities participating in the scheme, I can confirm that at the beginning of December about 50 local authorities had confirmed places before Christmas.

Does the Minister share my concerns about the rise of Islamophobia in the country, fuelled by the right-wing press? Will he issue guidance to local authorities and community organisations on how best to deal with it and to support refugees?

Of course I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about Islamophobia. All I can say is that I have found nothing but a warm welcome from all parts of the UK for the refugees who have arrived in this country, and I am certain that will continue.

A lot of local authorities, including my Sefton authority in the north-west, are seemingly confused about their role. Is there anything the Minister can do to add clarity and hurry things along?

Our dealings with local authorities vary very much, depending on the particular cases. We do not have any power to insist that refugees go to certain places, but we are working with county councils, district councils and metropolitan borough areas. The system is therefore very flexible, and all I can say is that at the moment it has been working very well, because the number of places that have been offered is broadly equivalent to the number of refugees arriving.

Planning Developments: Neighbourhood Plans

16. What weight his Department gives to neighbourhood plans when assessing planning developments at the appeal stage. (902678)

Planning appeals are determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Once brought into force, a neighbourhood plan is part of the development plan.

As the Minister will know, a few weeks ago the villagers of Earls Barton were trooping to the polls to vote on the referendum on their neighbourhood plan, at the very same time as the Secretary of State was allowing a housing planning appeal in their area. After all the work my constituents have put in, what assurance can the Minister give them that this work on neighbourhood plans will be worth while?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s diligent commitment to representing the views of his constituents and taking an interest in local matters, including this one. He will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual planning cases, but neighbourhood plans are, where appropriate, given significant weight, and individual decision letters will set out why there is a difference and why a neighbourhood plan has been departed from. The Secretary of State will always give appropriate weight to neighbourhood plans, which are an important part of our planning process and of localism. We welcome them and we want to see more agreed.

Local Government Grant Formula

19. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the local government grant formula in directing funding to areas of need. (902681)

We will shortly present our proposals for a sustainable and fair 2016-17 local government finance settlement to the House. We propose to continue our approach of transforming local authorities from being dependent on grant to benefiting from promoting local growth.

Spending on adult social care has fallen by £65 per person in the most deprived communities, whereas it has increased by £28 per person in the least deprived. In one of the councils I represent, the estimated shortfall in adult social care funding following the comprehensive spending review is £20 million, of which £2 million can be raised by increasing council tax by 2%. Is it not true that allowing an extra 2% rise in council tax merely devolves the blame without fixing the problem?

In the provisional local government settlement that will come very shortly, we will announce changes to the local government finance system to rebalance support, including to those authorities with adult social care responsibilities, by taking into account the main resources available to councils, including council tax and business rates.

Edinburgh City Deal

We are speaking with Edinburgh and south-east Scotland to look at proposals for a city deal there. It is welcome that so many parts of Scotland are keen to be part of the process of delivering city deals. We must ensure that, when they are agreed, they are agreed in such a way that will drive economic growth, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Despite the obvious wealth that exists in some parts of Edinburgh and south-east Scotland, there are also significant areas of very severe deprivation. Some 21% of children in the proposed city region live in poverty just now. The economy of the area has not been helped over the past few months by Government decisions on renewables. Rather than just talking about this deal, will the Minister tell us what the timescale is, first, for a decision and, secondly, for actual action on it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the diverse nature of the area about which he talks. We see great potential for growth across Edinburgh and south-east Scotland. We want to ensure that we can realise that potential and deliver that growth. We will continue to have talks, which have been productive and are constructive, with interested parties on the city deal. We will continue to work constructively to deliver that city deal if it can be delivered in the right way. These things must be decided properly and after due consideration. That is the process that is currently under way.

Rogue Landlords

The Housing and Planning Bill contains measures to tackle and go further with rogue landlords than anything we have had before. We want to rule out rogue landlords who rent out substandard accommodation and to do all we can to ensure that tenants have a good and safe environment. Our proposals include a database of rogue landlords and letting agents, banning orders for serious or repeat offenders, a tougher fit and proper person test, extending rent repayment orders and introducing civil penalties.

Over the past five years, despite the poor quality of many privately rented homes, rents have soared and they are now a fifth higher than they were in 2010. Why are the Government not taking any steps in their new Housing and Planning Bill to help private renters with these soaring rents?

If the hon. Lady looks at the private rented sector over the past five years, she will see that its increases are, on average, lower than the increases in the social housing sector, hence our reason for the changes in the Budget. We are going a lot further than ever before in cracking down on rogue landlords, whom everyone across the House would like to see put out of business.

An important part of protecting tenants is ensuring that landlords understand their obligations and that tenants understand the remedies that are available. What action is the Department taking to ensure that tenants and landlords understand their rights and responsibilities?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Apart from the extra measures that we are taking in the Housing and Planning Bill, in which we will do all that we can to publicise to tenants what they need to be aware of so that they know what to expect, we have also published a guide for tenants, so they can clearly understand their rights and what to expect from a good quality landlord. We should be clear that the majority of landlords offer an excellent service and that tenants are happy with them.

Topical Questions

At the start of topical questions before Christmas, may I wish everyone a very happy Christmas across the country?

Since our last oral questions, the spending review has announced the biggest affordable house building programme by a Government since the 1970s, delivering at least 400,000 affordable homes, and has confirmed that resources available to local government will be maintained in cash terms until 2020. We have agreed devolution deals with Liverpool and the west midlands. We have completed the Committee stage of the Housing and Planning Bill and Third Reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. We will continue to develop new devolution deals with communities in order to devolve more power and resources right across the country.

As my right hon. Friend might know, I am running a campaign to try to save the hedgehog. Will he ask his Department to provide guidance to local authorities on how to make gardens in new-builds more hedgehog-friendly and ensure that we can have a hedgehog superhighway?

I know that this is a prickly issue for my hon. Friend, so let me come straight to the point. I will not be issuing guidance on the protection of hedgehogs, but I draw Members’ attention to the excellent publications of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society. I recommend its guide to looking after hedgehogs to any hon. Member who wishes to curl up this Christmas and read it.

The words “hedgehog superhighway” did not trip off the Secretary of State’s tongue, but I feel sure that he is preserving them for another occasion.

T3. Will the Secretary of State explain why the very same councils that have the highest numbers of vulnerable children are also those that have seen the highest budget cuts under his Government? (902655)

If the hon. Lady looks at the figures, it will be quite apparent that the local authorities with the highest spending power are those that she refers to. Councils will see a rise in their resources in cash terms over this Parliament, from £40.3 billion to £40.5 billion in 2019-20. The hon. Lady will shortly see the outcome of the local government finance settlement.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming plans submitted for the tearing down of the PowerGen building in Solihull—an eyesore that has blighted the lives of my constituents for a generation? It is being replaced by hundreds of new homes of many different types, including 260 badly needed assisted living apartments. (902654)

My hon. Friend has given a really good example of a local authority making good use of brownfield land to provide the housing that its local community needs. I congratulate him on thinking properly and locally in that way.

T7. In a hasty attempt to reverse the Office for National Statistics decision to reclassify housing associations as “public”, Ministers were recently reported to be considering the sale of £44 billion of Government grant on housing association balance sheets to private investors. Housing associations have made it clear that they would strongly oppose such a move and David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has called it an “unhelpful distraction”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House and the housing association sector that the sale of Government grant on housing association balance sheets to private investors is not under consideration? (902659)

T4. Last year, Christchurch Borough Council’s local development plan was adopted with new green-belt boundaries. Will my right hon. Friend ensure public confidence in that plan by making it his policy to call in for his determination any application by a local authority to depart from the plan by giving itself planning permission to build on the very green belt that was so recently confirmed? (902656)

My hon. Friend outlines an important point. It is absolutely right that once a local authority has its local plan in place, it should adhere to it. If his local authority dared take an opportunity to go outside the local plan, I am sure that my hon. Friend would be the first to ask me or the Secretary of State to consider the application.

T8. Crippling cuts have led to some local authorities having to close their local welfare assistance schemes altogether. Food banks in these areas are reporting increased need. Given that the Government are continually presiding over 5 million people living in food poverty, will the Secretary of State commit to protecting future funding and reinstating the local welfare ring fence? (902660)

It is important that local authorities should take their local welfare responsibilities seriously. When we have the local government financial settlement, I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to see that that continues to be recognised.

T5. The people of Lincolnshire know what is best for the people of Lincolnshire. Will my right hon. Friend outline the benefits on offer in the current devolution deal and tell me how the Lincolnshire bid is going? (902657)

My hon. Friend is, of course, well placed to represent the views of the people of Lincolnshire and he does it very effectively. The whole approach of the Government towards devolution is bottom up; it is about bespoke deals that recognise that areas are different and that local people know best the tools they need to drive economic improvement and improve lives for the communities that they represent. Discussions in Greater Lincolnshire are going well and include the issues of skills, transport, housing and water management. I hope they will conclude successfully and that a deal will be reached that will last for a very long time.

T9. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Business Secretary to explore how councils in steel communities can use imaginative and creative approaches to business rates to support the steel industry through this difficult time? (902661)

I have had discussions with the Business Secretary and his colleagues. It is very important that we empower those local communities to be able to act in support of the businesses and the employees of those industries. Through the extension of the enterprise zone in Teesside, for example, the hon. Gentleman will see that practical support has been given to make sure that the prosperity of those regions continues to grow, despite these challenges.

T6. I am delighted to see the extra supply of affordable housing that will result from the Housing and Planning Bill, but a key to that is supply. Does my hon. Friend agree that the London Land Commission is crucial to this, and will he keep under review all the powers that it may need to ensure the supply of that land? (902658)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am honoured to be joint chair of the London Land Commission and I can assure him that we will make sure that that land becomes available and plays its important part in delivering housing for the needs of London. Once we reach the 12-month point from when it starts, we will carry out a review to make sure that the commission has all the powers it needs to deliver on that promise.

T10. On Saturday I was out with Caroline Pidgeon, who is London Lib Dem mayoral candidate. We were campaigning on the subject of police community support officers. Will the Secretary of State talk to the Policing Minister about ensuring that PCSOs continue to play the essential role that they play in keeping our streets safe, particularly in boroughs such as Sutton, where we have the Safer Sutton Partnership, which joins the police and the local authority together? (902662)

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman reminded us of the name of his candidate, because I think it had escaped many of us in the House. I am happy to confirm the importance of all our police officers, including PCSOs, in keeping our streets safe.

Simon Stevens has described social care funding as “unresolved business” from the spending review. Does the Secretary of State agree with him that it is time for a fundamental rethink about how we fund social care in the future?

My hon. Friend, who has a deep and long-standing interest in the matter, will know that the funding of adult care needs to be done jointly between local councils and the NHS. The Health Secretary and I are working very closely to make sure that the funds that the Chancellor has made available are put to good use so that our elderly people are properly cared for, whether they are in the charge of councils or in our hospitals.

Do the Government have any plans for fresh initiatives, other than business improvement districts, to help traders in small suburban shopping centres, such as Stirchley in my constituency?

This Government are doing a number of things to help the type of traders that the hon. Gentleman refers to. We have allowed sensible planning changes to allow local areas to respond more flexibly to changing market conditions on the high street. We are tackling over-zealous parking practices and I am working closely with retail organisations on the Future High Streets Forum to develop strategies that will enable our high streets and communities to meet the future needs of the consumer.

I commend Staffordshire fire and rescue service for its work in fire prevention, which has contributed to a fall in call-outs, but does my right hon. Friend agree that further integration and collaboration between police, fire and other blue light services would help to identify vulnerable people more effectively, which would lead to better outcomes for the public and great efficiency savings?

I agree that closer collaboration between our blue light services offers the opportunity to offer even better services, as well as to make efficiencies, so I encourage her and her colleagues to make their representations through the current consultation so that we can do that without the current barriers.

On the very last day of consideration of the Housing and Planning Bill, the Conservatives passed an amendment to bring to an end secure tenancies in social housing. That was done without consultation or any impact assessment. Can the Secretary of State tell me where he warned council tenants that this was in the Conservative manifesto?

Apart from the fact that that was outlined in the summer Budget, the tenancies of current council tenants are not affected. The provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill laid on 7 December prevent councils from offering new tenants life-time tenancies in future.

Some areas, such as the Isle of Wight, will have a much more difficult task than others in increasing their income through increasing the business rates base. Will my right hon. Member meet Isle of Wight Council to discuss this matter?

I would be delighted to meet Isle of Wight Council. In taking this historic step of giving 100% business rates to local government, it is very important that, with local government, we agree on how places that do not have such a buoyant business rates base do not lose out.

Many of my constituents were dismayed when I went back at the weekend after hearing last week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) suggested, that the Government were going to limit council tenancies. What does the Minister say to people in my constituency who are absolutely dismayed that this Government have pulled a flanker on them, and pulled the rug from under them, in what they consider to be their rights as tenants?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a few minutes ago and remind her that council tenants who already have a tenancy are not affected by this—it is about new tenancies. This is the right thing to do, as I am sure she would agree, given that the previous Member for Holborn and St Pancras had a council house when he was on a Cabinet salary. I am sure that many taxpayers would wonder whether that was good expenditure.

South Gloucestershire, Bristol and Bath and North East Somerset councils work very well as a functional unit. Does my right hon. Friend understand that any attempt to reintroduce Avon, directly or through the back door via Treasury pressure, would be regarded as an enormous betrayal, and will he guarantee that it will not happen?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I have no intention of reintroducing Avon by the front door, back door or side door.

Further to my earlier question, if the new one-for-one replacement for right to buy was funded directly by the UK Government instead of other means, what would the Barnett consequentials be for Scotland?

As I said earlier, the Scottish Government are seeing a significant increase in their capital budget as a result of the announcement in the spending review. The Barnett consequentials of individual policies are worked through and delivered. The British Government—the Government here in this place—meet our obligations in that regard, and will continue to do so, to ensure that the Scottish Government get a fair deal and can continue to deliver what they need to deliver to meet their obligations and the concerns of hon. Members.