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Topical Questions

Volume 603: debated on Monday 14 December 2015

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.