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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 605: debated on Monday 8 February 2016

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Supported Housing

1. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of planned reductions in social rents and housing benefit support on the provision of supported housing. (903499)

18. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of planned reductions in social rents and housing benefit support on the provision of supported housing. (903518)

I associate myself and my colleagues on the Government Benches with your comments, Mr Speaker. Harry Harpham was a very distinguished long-serving councillor and we will all miss him in the years ahead.

This Government have always been clear that the most vulnerable will be protected and supported through our welfare reforms. Following our review of supported housing, due to report this spring, we will work with the sector to ensure appropriate protections are in place.

I, too, associate myself with the sad sentiments that have been expressed about our dear colleague.

The Minister says that the review will report in spring. It was due to report at the end of last year. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State is still pressing ahead with cuts before the review comes out. Can the Minister say why that is?

As the hon. Lady may have heard in the recent Opposition day debate, we have always been very clear that the most vulnerable in our society will be protected. We will also ensure a fair settlement for taxpayers.

Will the Minister acknowledge that, although his announcement to delay the 1% rent cut affecting supported housing is welcome, it does not go far enough and the substantive proposals should be jettisoned to inject much-needed stability back into the sector?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, and as I said in the recent debate, we are working with the sector. The changes will come in in 2018, but we are very clear, and have always been very clear, that we will make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected.

11. Homeless hostels and foyers play a vital role in helping rough sleepers to get off the streets and into long-term homes. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could confirm that housing associations will be given urgent clarity on whether the local housing allowance cap applies to those services. If it does not, there is a real worry that many will close and that, as a result, there will be an unnecessary rise in the numbers of young homeless people. (903510)

My hon. Friend always fights hard for his constituents. Preventing youth homelessness is a priority for this Government. We are investing £15 million in the fair chance fund, an innovative payment-by-results scheme. That is helping some 2,000 vulnerable young homeless people to get into accommodation, education, training and employment. We will work closely with providers to find a long-term solution to the funding of supported accommodation.

I, too, associate myself and those on the Labour Benches with your comments, Mr Speaker. Harry Harpham will be sorely missed by the Labour party, his constituents, and, of course, his family and friends. Our thoughts are with them at this time.

Research from Changing Lives, a Newcastle-based specialist housing agency, estimates that it and other supported housing providers across the country will lose a huge sum of money from the Chancellor’s crude cuts to housing benefit. The discretionary fund on which the Government say they must rely is totally inadequate. What will the Minister do to ensure that that vital form of housing for many thousands of people with disabilities and other specialist needs remains and is properly funded in future?

I say to the hon. Lady, as I have said before, that we will make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected. We are also boosting supply with £400 million-worth of funding announced in the spending review to deliver specialist affordable homes for the vulnerable, the elderly and those with disabilities. Of course, there is also our £5.3 billion investment in the better care fund, through which we are looking to integrate health and social care.

Property Purchase Schemes

I associate myself with your sentiments, Mr Speaker, about our former colleague, Harry Harpham.

This Government are committed to increasing home ownership. More than 130,000 households have purchased a home through Help to Buy since 2012. We have just launched London Help to Buy, and I can tell the House that in the first seven days, 15,000 people have registered to take advantage of it. Since April 2010, more than 53,000 homes have been sold to tenants under Right to Buy, and a voluntary Right to Buy scheme will give 1.3 million more families the opportunity to do so.

Bovis Homes, a major employer in my constituency, commends Help to Buy as a tremendous initiative, but we all know that we need more small-scale developers in the supply chain to increase the supply of homes to which Help to Buy can apply. Does my right hon. Friend agree that large-scale developers franchising some of their plots to small and medium-sized developers is one way of getting those small-scale developers into the supply chain?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. One of the effects of the financial crash was that many small builders left the industry, and we need to get them back and involved. My hon. Friend has a good idea. The direct commissioning scheme that we have announced, whereby we can carve up public sector land into small plots so that small builders can take advantage of it, will be a big step forward, too.

We should have an end to these excuses. There is a generation in the rented sector who have no hope of owning their own homes. Is it not about time that we had some bold, imaginative policies? How many new towns are there? How many new generations of building are going on? How many houses are being built in Ebbsfleet, for example, which is supposed to be a new town? Will the Secretary of State answer that?

Over the last five years, home ownership, and particularly house building, has been revived from the crash that happened under Labour. The hon. Gentleman should welcome the planning reforms that we made, which have increased planning permissions by 50%. He should welcome the introduction of starter homes to give first-time buyers a foot on the housing ladder. He should welcome the extension of Help to Buy, which has helped so many people to achieve their dream of a home of their own.

Right to Buy does not apply to rural exception sites. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that affordable housing in rural areas is absolutely key?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. In providing homes in all communities for all types of people we need to make sure that we have diversity of tenure, especially in rural areas. My hon. Friend is right.

The idea that any of these schemes are affordable is an Orwellian myth. In my constituency, people need an income of £70,000 to be able to get an affordable home, and that is going up to £90,000 before long. To whom is that affordable?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman does a good service to his constituents. He should know that under the combination of Help to Buy and shared ownership, the deposit that a London first-time buyer can be required to pay on the average price paid of £385,000 is as low as £4,800. The hon. Gentleman would do his constituents a service by promoting these schemes to them.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about the importance of the small and medium-sized building sector. Does he agree that one of the most damaging things that could happen to that sector’s involvement in London would be the imposition of a 50% affordable housing target across sites, which would have no relation to the viability? As experienced under Ken Livingstone, this would actually drive developers away from bringing sites forward.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is not a matter of speculation but a matter of fact, because, as he says, the last Mayor tried that, and the amount of available housing in London fell. We want to provide homes for Londoners. The present Mayor has an exemplary record in providing affordable homes—indeed, homes of all types—ahead of the targets, and the £400 million that is being invested in the 20 housing zones across London is a tribute to his tenacity.

I am pleased to say that hundreds of families in my constituency, and in the local authority area of North East Somerset, have benefited from the Help to Buy and Right to Buy schemes, but young families still cannot get on to the housing ladder because of the high cost of housing. Will the Secretary of State meet me, and other Members whose constituencies contain high-value areas, and will he undertake to roll out the two-for-one guarantee in those areas?

I will certainly meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. It is essential for homes to be built in every community, so that young people and rising generations throughout the country have a chance to continue to be part of the communities in which they were born and raised.

Private Rented Sector

I believe that all tenants should have a safe place in which to live. In the Housing and Planning Bill, the Government have introduced the strongest ever set of measures to protect tenants and ensure that landlords provide good-quality, safe accommodation.

According to a freedom of information inquiry that I carried out last year, only 14,000 of a total of 51,316 complaints made to councils about poor housing were subjected to a local authority environmental health assessment, and, on average, councils prosecuted only one rogue landlord every year. Is it not irrefutable that local authorities lack the resources, certainly, and the will, in some cases, to take action against rogue landlords? What possible grounds can the Minister have for resisting a modest change that would allow tenants to take legal action against landlords who let homes that are not fit for human habitation?

The hon. Lady is right, in that local authorities should be using the powers that they have. As I have said, there is already a requirement for properties to be fit and proper, and she may wish to welcome the extra £5 million that we have added to the £6.7 million that we have already invested to support it. However, if she looks at the changes in the operation of fines in the Housing and Planning Bill, she will see that the amount of resources for local government will be beyond anything that we have ever seen before, and certainly beyond anything that the Labour Government ever did.

Much of what the Minister said is not what I am hearing from constituents. Many of those who come to see me speak of substandard homes which are damp and cold and have not been subjected to gas and electricity safety checks, and many are afraid of dealing with their landlords because they fear being evicted. What will the Minister do about that? Does he now regret not supporting Labour’s amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill, which would have ensured that landlords only let properties that were fit for human habitation?

I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in insisting that her local council takes its duty seriously and deals with the situation. The Bill will enable councils to issue civil penalties amounting to up to £30,000 and remedy payment orders for up to 12 months. That will give them a resource that they have never had before, and one that I hope they will endorse and use. [Interruption.]

While the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) is right to draw attention to the difference in the enforcement of existing regulations, neighbouring councils with the same resources often enforce the regulations in radically different ways. May I encourage the Minister not only to promote the best practice in enforcement, but, most important, to challenge councils that are failing to use the powers that they have?

My hon. Friend has a wealth of experience in this field, and, as always, he speaks with great common sense and logic. Local authorities should be using the powers that they have. By far the majority of landlords provide a good service, but authorities should be using those powers to crack down on the rogue landlords whom all of us, including good landlords, want to see driven out of the system.

May I commend the Government for taking the toughest action on rogue landlords in a generation in the Housing and Planning Bill? On the provision of private sector rented housing, will the Minister give me an undertaking that he will continue to work, on a cross-party basis if necessary, to develop residential estate investment trusts, on which there has been a commitment from both parties over the years, and work with the Treasury to bring forward proposals for private sector housing, particularly in areas with affordability issues?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we are working right across government on the institutional investments. I can tell the House that the estates regeneration panel that the Prime Minister has set up will be meeting for the first time tomorrow and will be looking at all these issues in that context as well.

Many of the 33% of my constituents who rent privately have been the victim of revenge evictions. Shelter has estimated that in a calendar year 4,000 people in my constituency were victims of revenge evictions and 200,000 people across the country suffered from rogue landlords. The Minister has been speaking about how much work the Government have been doing, but will he clarify what impact the law that was brought in last year has had on the number of revenge evictions across the country?

It is clearly a matter for local authorities to use those powers to crack down on rogue landlords and to ensure that they are providing the right services. It is just a shame that the Opposition did not support those measures in the Housing and Planning Bill.

In my constituency, some of the worst landlords have been prosecuted by Boston Borough Council, and the Department for Communities and Local Government has recently awarded it a £74,000 grant to keep up that good work. Does the Minister agree that when councils are proactive, there are resources available for them to enable them to be more proactive?

My hon. Friend is right. He has given us an example of a good council looking to do the right thing by its local residents by ensuring that they are well protected and well served, using the extra funding that we have put in. In addition, local authorities will be able to impose the new £30,000 civil fines when the Housing and Planning Bill gets Royal Assent, and it is a shame that the Opposition did not support that measure. It will mean that councils will be able to do more in this regard than ever before.

City Deals: Scotland

6. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on the Aberdeen city region deal. (903505)

On 28 January, the Government, along with the Scottish Government and the local leadership in Aberdeen were able to announce the Aberdeen city deal heads of terms. The deal includes an investment fund of up to £250 million. This shows the investment going in and the support being delivered for our economy in Aberdeen, just as it is across the country as a whole.

With the Treasury having received more than £300 billion from North sea oil revenue over the past 40 years, and given that the current low oil price is being aggravated by deliberate under-pricing, including by our “friends” in Saudi Arabia, does the Minister not think that the UK Government should at least match the £250 million given by the Scottish Government, instead of offering just £125 million to help the region through this difficult time?

Most people welcome the Aberdeen city deal, the significant investment that is going in and the joint working that it demonstrates between the British Government and the Scottish Government to make a real difference and to drive forward the economy in Aberdeen, which faces some of the challenges of which the hon. Lady speaks. It underlines the fact that we really are better together.

I would first like to offer the condolences of the Scottish National party to the family and friends of Harry Harpham. He was passionate about housing, and he would no doubt have wanted to be here today to question the Government.

The Aberdeen city and shire deal submitted a bid for £2.9 billion of investment, but that ambition was not matched by the Tory Government, who stumped up only £125 million for the deal. Can the Minister understand why the people of Aberdeen city and shire feel disappointed and let down by this Tory Government?

Agreeing a city deal, with £125 million added to the other money that is going in, which is wanted by local people and delivered in co-operation with local partners, should be welcomed. It will drive forward growth, and it is something that a number of other areas would be very keen to secure if they could do so.

This Government are not providing a 50:50 basis for this deal. In fact, the Scottish Government are contributing £379 million to it. Will the Minister and his Government respond to calls from the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities and stump up the additional £200 million that Aberdeen so clearly needs?

When I saw that this was an area of questioning with which we would be dealing today, I had hoped the questions would focus on the great positivity that has surrounded the announcement, which is characteristic of the working together that has got us to a place where the heads of terms on this deal have been announced. This deal will make a real difference and it is only possible because of the contribution the British Government have made, alongside the Scottish Government, working with local partners. It is a welcome deal—it is a welcome deal in Aberdeen and it should be welcomed by Scottish National party Members rather more than it appears to be at the moment.

City Deals: Scotland

This question underlines the point I was making about how other areas would like city deals, too. We have to work together to deliver city deals and we have to ensure that they are properly thought through, but we will continue to have those discussions and continue to work together to deliver something that can make a real difference. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will continue to be a passionate advocate for it.

This city region deal was submitted in September, with further information being submitted to both the UK and Scottish Governments on 18 December. Local government received a draft set of terms of reference from the UK Government, which was responded to in early January, but despite follow-up, it is still to hear anything further back. Can the Minister confirm whether a deal will be in place prior to the purdah period for the Scottish Parliament elections?

The Edinburgh and South East Scotland city deal is another important area of potential growth. The discussions are important, as this has to be done properly. The discussions have to be detailed, going through the opportunities as well as the costs. Given what has been achieved in Aberdeen, it is no surprise that the hon. Gentleman is keen to secure a city deal for his area, too. We will continue to have those discussions, and if the right deal can be reached, we will look to deliver on it.

The Government committed £500 million to the Greater Cambridge city deal—or 50%. Following the news that only 25% of Aberdeen and Shire’s deal was funded by Whitehall, may I ask what percentage of the Edinburgh and regions deal the Minister will be committing?

As I said, those discussions are ongoing and we will see what conclusion they reach. What is welcome is the recognition across the House that city deals can make a real difference and the recognition in those communities and economies of the value they can bring and of the growth they can generate. We will continue in those discussions. I hope we will reach a conclusion that will be welcomed by hon. Members from across the House, but I am confident that the city deals, as a whole, are making a real difference and will continue to do so.

Brownfield Sites

We are committed to fulfilling our manifesto commitment of supporting development on brownfield land. To that end, we are creating a £2 billion long-term housing development fund to unlock housing on brownfield land, and we are determined to make sure that we get 90% of that land with planning permissions by 2020.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. In my constituency, we place great importance on the amenity that the green belt provides to our communities. What support is his Department providing to metropolitan boroughs to unlock brownfield sites for modern commercial as well as housing development, in order to afford further protection to the encompassing green belt?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we want to make sure we are protecting the green belt, and the national planning policy framework does just that. This £2 billion fund will make that brownfield land more attractive, as will planning permission in principle, once the Housing and Planning Bill goes through. This is about making sure we do everything we can to get those brownfield land areas developed for the benefit of our local communities.

Celanese is a very large brownfield site in Spondon in my constituency that is not included in Derby City Council’s core strategy, because it says that it will not be ready for development until at least 2028. The company on the site, however, says it will be ready by 2018. Does the Minister agree that local authorities should be doing more to utilise these sites through the funding that the Government have announced is available and increasing their efforts to make things ready for development?

My hon. Friend, who is working passionately for her local community to make sure that brownfield land is appropriately and properly used, will appreciate that I cannot comment on the particular local plan that is at examination stage. It is true to say, however, that a local authority should be working with its local community to make sure that appropriate brownfield land, with a good understanding of its availability, is brought forward at the earliest opportunity and can take advantage of this new £2 billion fund as well.

Pendle has 46 hectares of brownfield land, 40 hectares of which is assessed as suitable for housing, yet just days ago Labour and Lib Dem councillors voted through an application to build 500 homes on a greenfield site in Barrowford in my constituency. I am a strong supporter of localism, but how can the Government make councils such as Pendle Borough Council step up to the challenge of brownfield development, rather than just taking the easy option and building on our green fields?

My hon. Friend highlights a good case. I know that, with his support, the previous Conservative-led Administration in Pendle was passionate about delivering on brownfield land. We want to see 90% of that land given planning permission. The best route is for the local community to take note of what the authority does and to let it know exactly what it thinks at the ballot box next time round.

I join you, Mr Speaker, in paying tribute to my friend and colleague, Harry Harpham, who will probably be the last coalminer elected to the House. As you rightly said, despite the seriousness of his illness, he was still here three weeks ago arguing passionately for the steelworkers and steel industry in Sheffield. It was a fitting culmination to years of dedicated service to the people of Sheffield. That service included the delivery of the decent homes programme, from which thousands of our tenants have benefited.

There are many brownfield sites in the Don Valley in Sheffield on which more than 1,000 homes could be built. The problem is that the land is subject to flooding. Sheffield City Council has identified £40 million towards a £60 million flood prevention programme. Will the Minister ask his officials to liaise with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and city council officers to find a joined-up approach to ensuring that this land can be safeguarded and that those 1,000-plus homes can be built on the available brownfield land?

Yes, the hon. Gentleman outlines a good example of where everybody could work together in the best interests of the community and to see more housing built, and I am happy to organise that meeting. I will make sure I have that conversation with him and the local authority.

York desperately needs family and social housing, yet the council plans to build predominantly high-value units on the 72 hectare “York Central” brownfield site, which will go no way to addressing our housing crisis. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the principle of York First and putting the interests of the city ahead of asset housing?

As the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is absolutely right that local communities can make local decisions about what is right for them and that her local authority can look at its local housing need and make a decision about what is right for it, as it is looking to do in York.

In 2012, the Secretary of State told the House that the new planning policy framework offered “clear and unequivocal” protection of the green belt, yet the number of green-belt approvals has increased fivefold in the last five years under this Government. The new permission in principle powers in clause 102 of the Housing and Planning Bill will only further undermine the green belt. When will the Government put urban regeneration first, rather than ex-urban sprawl?

Through the national planning policy framework and the guidance that has come out since, we have actually strengthened green-belt protection. With the new planning permission in principle, the new requirement for a brownfield register and the £2 billion fund, we are going further than any Government before in making sure that brownfield sites are developed first.

Will the Minister agree that the plan of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) to drive the London Land Commission to force local authorities to bring forward unused land will secure the homes that Londoners need and protect the environment and give London the quality of environment it deserves?

My hon. Friend outlines the sensible and productive approach that has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who I hope will be the next Mayor of London, to make sure we deliver more housing for London. As the joint chair of the London Land Commission, I look forward to working with him.

Does the Minister understand the plight of the residents of Haughton Green, an urban village in my constituency, who, under the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s spatial framework, have seen every remaining piece of open green space in that area identified for future development? Is it not time we had a planning system that worked for the people of Haughton Green?

The hon. Gentleman’s council is represented on that authority, so I would hope it has a voice. I am also co-chairing the Manchester Land Commission, and I will certainly raise that point with the Labour interim panel chair and Mayor.

Neighbourhood Plans

10. What steps his Department is taking to support communities in setting up neighbourhood plans. (903509)

Our £22 million support programme for neighbourhood planning for 2015-18 provides neighbourhood planning groups with online resources, an advice service, grants and technical support in priority areas. Furthermore, the Housing and Planning Bill will speed up and simplify the neighbourhood planning process.

I thank the Minister for his important answer. Having failed to deliver the first time, the Liberal Democrat-led Eastleigh borough council is now consulting on its new and somewhat controversial draft local plan document. Does the Minister agree that the best possible solution for my constituents is to have a suitable and properly supported local plan, and to back parishes such Botley on their community created neighbourhood plans, as there is currently none going to referendum in Eastleigh?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I am pleased to reassure her constituents that if they go forward with a neighbourhood plan, it will have weight in planning law, and if the local authority is failing to do its duty by its local residents in the community then the neighbourhood plan is the best way to proceed.

A number of neighbourhood plans have failed because of insufficient evidence, unrealistic expectations and a failure to meet European environmental requirements. What help is the Department giving those formulating these plans to ensure that they meet the standards set down by the independent examiners?

As I outlined in my initial answer, we not only have online resources and advice services, but give grants of up to £8,000, with a further £6,000 in particularly difficult areas. Workshops are also going out around the country, and the National Association of Local Councils is talking through its parish council network about how the system works. I gently say to the hon. Lady that every single neighbourhood plan that has gone to referendum has passed with a huge majority.

Might it not be a good idea to highlight an exemplar neighbourhood plan in each shire area, which could be specifically rolled out across that county, to encourage more parish councils in particular to get involved?

As is often the case, my hon. Friend raises a very good idea, and I will take it forward. I will be talking to the group that is going out and doing this kind of work and sharing best practice around the country. It is a good idea for local authorities to look at what others have done locally, and we will certainly do our best to take up his idea and to promote it further.

Social Care Services

We have provided up to £3.5 billion of funding to meet the demographic pressures on social care. This is significantly more than the £2.9 billion that the Local Government Association estimated was needed.

When will the Government accept that the problems of social care will be overcome only when there is a comprehensive and publicly provided system of social care for all, which is free at the point of need? I am talking about a national care service, exactly parallel to and integral with the national health service—a true public service free of privatisation.

This Government are absolutely committed to the full integration of health and social care by 2020, and we will require all areas to have a clear plan for achieving that by 2017. The hon. Gentleman will also be interested to know that, by the end of the decade, the spending review does include more than £500 million for the disabled facilities grant, which is more than double the amount this year. That will fund around 85,000 home adaptations by that year, and is expected to prevent 8,500 people from needing to go into a care home by 2019-20.

17. Adult social care will be one of the biggest challenges that we face over the next several decades. Does the Minister agree that more needs to be done to integrate health and social care, particularly building on the success of the Better Care Fund, to encourage local authorities to work with local health providers to come up with innovative solutions for adult social care? (903517)

I know that my hon. Friend is a real campaigner on this issue. As he identifies, the Better Care Fund is paying dividends. We are seeing significant joint working through the Better Care Fund, which, in many areas, is reducing delayed transfers of care from hospital. We are absolutely intent on spreading best practice around all areas of the country. Plans are also in place to improve areas that are the most challenged.

I am afraid that what we have just heard is nonsense. Government funding for social care falls far short of what is needed. Directors of adult social services tell us that £4.6 billion has already been cut from adult social care, and the gap is growing at £700 million a year. The social care precept will raise only £400 million a year, and the Better Care Fund, which the Minister mentioned, does not start until next year, at £105 million a year. Government Ministers must consider that they are risking the collapse of social care because their funding is too little and too late.

The funding coming into the Better Care Fund—£1.5 billion—is all new money for adult social care, and it is going directly to local authorities. The absolute key is the integration of health and social care, and as I have set out to the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), the Government are determined to achieve that integration.

Does the Minister agree with the Conservative council leader who covers his constituency and who was recently quoted in the press as saying that inadequate Government funding has left his local council struggling to provide adult social care services?

First, I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box. I heard what she said about the Conservative leader of my local authority, Warwickshire County Council. I speak to the lady to whom she referred at all times. [Interruption.] Well, what I would say is that Warwickshire County Council set a sustainable budget last week, and was able to do that by protecting social care services.

Syrian Refugee Resettlement

13. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Syrian refugee resettlement programme on the resources required by local authorities. (903512)

Resettlement costs for year one are funded by the Department for International Development through the official development assistance budget. At the spending review, we announced a further £129 million towards local authority costs in years two to five. This amount was calculated after consulting the Local Government Association and local authorities with experience in this field on the likely costs that they would incur in being part of our Syrian refugee resettlement programme.

I am working hard with my council leader, Bill Hartnett, to provide refuge for two Syrian families in Redditch. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that that is the right thing to do, and will he reassure local people that it will not be paid for by local council tax, as there is some concern in my town about that?

I thank my hon. Friend and the leader of Redditch Borough Council for the part they have played in the joint bid with Worcestershire County Council. As they are aware, we work closely with local authorities to ensure that capacity is identified as suitable for that area, and I again confirm to my hon. Friend that the funding available through the spending review will go a long way towards funding the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

I commend the Minister on being the first Home Office Minister in living memory to set a target for resettlement and meet that target. However, there are still another 19,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled before the next election, and the number of other asylum seekers has risen from 9,000 to 17,000. Where are we going to find that accommodation?

Mr Speaker, excuse me, but to be complimented by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs puts one off one’s stride at the Dispatch Box. I remind the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) that the refugee scheme for which I am responsible very much requires the good nature of local authorities. That, together with the asylum programme, is important to us, and I am pleased to say that the demand for places from refugees equals the supply.

I understand the Minister. It is humbling indeed to be praised by someone of the exalted status of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz).

Council Tax

14. What estimate he has made of the average difference in council tax paid by residents of urban and rural areas. (903513)

The average council tax has long been higher in rural areas than in urban areas. In response to the consultation on the local government financial settlement, several councils and hon. Members have pointed out the extra costs of providing services in rural areas—something that I am determined to address.

Figures from the rural fair share campaign show that those who live in urban areas receive 45% more funding than their rural counterparts, while at the same time those rural residents pay on average £81 more in council tax. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents have every right to feel aggrieved about that inequality? What steps will the Government take to address that issue?

I have been looking carefully at the responses to the consultation on local government finance, including that from Leicestershire, which seems to make a perfectly reasonable point that the essential requirement is that the underlying formula should reflect the different costs of providing services in different places. If my hon. Friend is patient and comes back a little later, I shall have more to say then.

Is it not a fact that in practice, despite their rhetoric, Conservative councils are charging more than Labour councils? That is what the question from the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) conceals.

It is a long-established fact that Conservative councils offer lower council tax than Labour councils, which accounts for their success and their majority in local government.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the gap between urban and rural authorities is widening? If it is widening in favour of urban authorities, will not the council tax payers in rural authorities, who are going to see their council tax rise considerably over the next three years, have to conclude that they are subsidising higher-spending urban authorities?

My hon. Friend knows that we are moving to a world in which councils will be funded by council tax and business rates. It is essential that the formula underpinning that is fair to all types of authority. That has been very clear in representations that he and others have made.

The Tory election manifesto promised to keep council tax low, so will the Secretary of State explain to the House why he has just written to town halls up and down the country saying that he expects them to force council tax up by more than 20% over the next four years?

I have written no such letter. I remind the hon. Gentleman that council tax doubled under the previous Government. On all the forecasts that we have made, it will be lower in real terms than it was at the beginning of the last Parliament.

Support for High Streets

We are committed to ensuring that high streets remain at the heart of their community. We have introduced a £1.4 billion package of support, which includes business rate relief, help for small business, measures to tackle over-zealous parking enforcement, and practical changes to simplify the planning system.

May I associate myself with the comments regarding Harry Harpham? He was a dear friend, a good and decent man, and we will miss him very much indeed.

A week before the general election, the Chancellor told the Dewsbury Reporter that within the first 100 days of a Tory Government, the town would be added to a list of enterprise zones in which new businesses would be spared business rates for the next five years. Will the Minister confirm that nine months into a Tory Government, there is no enterprise zone in my constituency, and local businesses on our high street are still paying full rates? Will he offer an apology to local people who were promised one thing when the Chancellor wanted their votes, and got quite another once he was in office?

We are committed to supporting high streets. High street vacancy rates are at their lowest since 2010. Investment in high street property is up by 30%, and where areas are doing the right things, they are seeing people return to their high street. That was seen through the Great British High Street competition. There are a number of winners from Yorkshire, and I am sure that people in Dewsbury will be able to take tips from around Yorkshire so that they can improve their high street.

Topical Questions

Since the beginning of January, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill has been enacted and given Royal Assent, the Housing and Planning Bill has passed its Third Reading, the voluntary housing association right to buy has been launched in five areas, and direct commissioning of housing has been launched.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the life and work of Mrs Hazel Pearson OBE, who died on Friday at the age of 92, having retired as a Middlesbrough councillor only last year at the age of 91. She was a formidable leader of Conservatives in Middlesbrough, achieved much for her town and was greatly respected by all parties and by her community over 47 years of service. She represented everything that was best in public service.

Enfield has the fourth highest population figure of all London boroughs. The last census said we had seen a population increase of more than 14% in one decade. That rapid population growth is well above the national average and is not reflected in an increased funding settlement. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), whom I met last month to discuss these matters. However, in the light of that meeting, and of submissions that have been made, what further measures are the Government willing to take to ensure there is a more equitable funding mechanism for boroughs in this situation?

I understand the point the right hon. Lady makes, which is very reasonable. It is important that the funding that local government receives reflects the very latest information available in terms of the population. I have reflected on the representations that have been made in the consultation, and I will have more to say about that later.

T3. In my city of Plymouth, local campaigns seem to regularly mislead my constituents on the spare room subsidy, something that many people see as a fair way of bringing about parity between the social and private rental sectors. I commend the Government, therefore, for making funds available for specific cases where the spare room subsidy is not appropriate. However, will the Minister confirm that Plymouth City Council has chosen to return that discretionary housing payment to central Government every year, so no one should be struggling as a result of this policy? (903526)

My hon. Friend highlights the interesting point that a local authority is sending this subsidy back and then claiming that it cannot look after people. That local authority should be answering to local people, doing the right thing and using the subsidy for the purpose the Government set out in the first place.

The Secretary of State will know that one of the many proud achievements of the last Labour Government was the rise in the number of families able to realise their dream of owning their own home—the number was up by 1 million over 13 years. Will the Minister tell us what has happened to the number of homeowners since Conservative Ministers took charge in 2010?

I find it interesting that the right hon. Gentleman raises this question, bearing in mind the fact that, as a Minister, he said he thought a fall in home ownership was not a bad thing. I disagree with him on that, as I do on other things. I think home ownership is something people aspire to, and we should support it. I am proud that the number of first-time buyers has doubled since 2010. Our work through the Housing and Planning Bill will take that further, and we must go further to support those aspirations.

Let me repeat: the number of homeowners under Labour was up by 1 million. Since 2010, it is down by 200,000. For young people, it is now in free fall, and they have little or no hope of ever being able to buy their own homes. Never mind the spin or short-term policies, the Minister has no long-term plan for housing. That is why I have commissioned the independent Redfern review to look at the decline in home ownership. We would welcome evidence from Ministers, but will the Minister at least agree to look at the review’s findings, so that five years of failure on home ownership do not turn into 10?

Coming from somebody who oversaw the lowest level of house building since roughly 1923, that was interesting, particularly as the Redfern review is being led by Pete Redfern of Taylor Wimpey, who has called for an end to Help to Buy—the very product that is helping tens of thousands more people into home ownership. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is about to tell us that the Labour party will end Help to Buy, which is helping so many people. It is a shame that he and his party voted against the Housing and Planning Bill, which will deliver starter homes through increased Help to Buy. These measures will make sure that more homes are built for those who are working hard and who aspire to own their own homes—the very people let down by the crash under Labour.

T4. What advice does my hon. Friend have for groups such as the Aireborough neighbourhood forum in my constituency, which finds itself in a constant fight with its local authority in trying to make progress? In this instance, Leeds City Council appears to be ignoring Government advice on brownfield sites, without any consequences. (903527)

Having met some of my hon. Friend’s constituents, I know they are very keen, and he has been supporting them strongly on their neighbourhood plans. Those should move forward, and we are putting in funding to support them. That gives them weight in law. This is a really good way for people to have control over local development opportunities if the local authority, in its local plan, is letting them down in the way my hon. Friend argues it is.

What does the Minister estimate the total percentage rise for residents of Birmingham will be once the Chancellor’s social care tax, the increased police precept and the 1.9% council tax are added together?

The core spending power figures that we released just before Christmas and have just consulted on do not take into account authorities putting their council tax up to the maximum referendum principle. Council tax in Birmingham is a question for Birmingham City Council. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was absolutely right to say that we should not take any lectures from Labour Members on the council tax because while they were in power for 13 years council tax doubled.

T8. Will my hon. Friend confirm that if the people of Redditch want to be a full member of the west midlands combined authority, they will also be able to take part in directly electing a mayor? (903531)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is a passionate advocate for the people of Redditch. Whenever I see her, she does a very good and effective job of explaining why she has a desire to pursue this matter and ensure that her constituents will get a say if appropriate and at an appropriate time. I can confirm that were Redditch to become a full member of the combined authority, then yes, people would have a vote in the mayoral election, although of course it would be done only by local agreement. As this Government have pursued matters throughout devolution, we want to build consensus and work with local people to find deals and structures that meet their ambitions.

T6. Aberdeen has supported oil, with our residents having to put up with the bad and the good that comes with this. The UK Government have tried to tell Aberdeen that their £125 million of investment will inspire hundreds of millions of pounds of investment from currently hard-pressed Aberdeen businesses. What will the UK Government be doing to encourage businesses in Aberdeen that are suffering, along with the rest of us, to stump up cash? (903529)

I thank the hon. Lady for her important question, which ties in with the discussion we have already had about the Aberdeen city deal and the significant amount of money that is going in from the British Government in Westminster and the money that is going in in partnership with the Scottish Government, local authority leadership, and the local leadership of the business community in Aberdeen. We intend to ensure that the deal brings real growth and benefit to Aberdeen. We recognise the challenges that it faces because of the price of oil and other factors that affect its local economy, but we are determined, with local people who understand what is needed, to drive change and to do everything we can to support its economy.

T9. Under Mayor Livingstone, the number of new housing starts in London plummeted as a direct result of developers walking away from unaffordable sites, thanks to the 50% affordable housing target. What does my hon. Friend think would happen if the new Mayor were to introduce a 50% affordable housing target? (903532)

As my hon. Friend outlines, the evidence shows that those kinds of targets, if they are not appropriate for the local area, distort viability, meaning that developments do not go forward and we do not get the houses built that we need. Local areas have to look at what is right for them and make sure it is viable. My fervent hope is that we have a very sensible Mayor of London in my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who will take forward an increase in housing supply.

T7. The Inverness city deal from Highland Council is based on the idea of a region for young people. The Highlands area has, over many decades, seen a drain of young people. Much work has been done to address this, including the opening of the Inverness campus, but more needs to be done to attract and retain young people. A plan such as the one put forward can help to rebalance the population demographic. Does the Minister agree that the aims of the plan and the statement of intent are worthy of support? (903530)

The hon. Gentleman is diligent in raising this issue, which we have discussed in the Chamber before. I think he recognises, as I do, the value that these sorts of deals can bring and the difference they can make. I recognise his comments and the importance that he attaches to this as a diligent local Member of Parliament, and I will certainly take it away and look at it. I cannot pre-announce deals at this Dispatch Box today. However, we continue in discussions and we are determined to deliver where the deal is the right one, and his effective advocacy is helpful in pursuing that ultimate objective.

T10. Only 94 of 1,600 asylum-seeking children and care leavers in Kent have been taken in by other areas under the voluntary dispersal scheme. With more refugee children coming, how will my hon. Friend’s Department get local authorities across the country to accept their share of the asylum-seeking children who are already here? (903533)

We hope that dispersal arrangements remain voluntary and are working with the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services on a national dispersal scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Provisions in the Immigration Bill will underpin dispersal arrangements and, if necessary, enforce them.

I know that the Minister for Housing and Planning well understands the extraordinarily high cost of private sector housing in London, but does he understand the impact that the changes to the local housing allowance are having on residents in my constituency? Will he ask his departmental officials to provide data on the impact of those changes?

If the hon. Gentleman reads the answer I gave earlier, he will see that we have already outlined a one-year delay. We are also looking at the implications before the 2018 introduction and are working closely on it with the sector at the moment.

Medway Council is currently working on its local plan. Could the Minister give an update on the work of the expert panel, which was set up in September to help streamline the local plan process?

I am happy to do so. As my hon. Friend outlines, we are determined to make sure that local areas can have a clear-cut, simple system to deliver local plans that give control to the local community, because they should be locally led. I look forward to seeing the panel’s feedback in the weeks ahead.

In response to questions asked earlier by Conservative Members about funding allocations for rural areas, Ministers hinted that they think there is some unfairness in the system. May I encourage Ministers to look at the issue again, because I agree that there is a great deal of unfairness? The funding in my borough in Darlington is being decimated and the cuts are devastating for the local economy, whereas the spending power of a similarly sized town, Wokingham, will be increased over coming years. That is fundamentally unfair. Will Ministers look at the issue again?

I will respond on the provisional financial settlement shortly. It is important for every type of authority that its needs and the costs of providing services are properly met, and that is the Government’s objective.

My right hon. Friend is keen, as am I, on building on brownfield sites. With the closure of coal-fired power stations, including the possible closure of one in my constituency, what are we doing to encourage building on brownfield sites that include contaminated land?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. In the spending review the Chancellor established a fund to decontaminate brownfield sites so that they can be made available for house building in the way that my hon. Friend recommends.

The Local Government Association is predicting that the Government’s pay-to-stay proposals will lead to some 60,000 council tenants leaving their homes. At the same time, councils are saying that they do not know how much their tenants earn. Will the Minister for Housing and Planning explain to councils how and why they should be asking their tenants how much they earn?

As we have said throughout the progress of the Housing and Planning Bill, on the Floor of the House and in Committee, we are looking at tapering to bring this in and we are working with the sector itself. It is absolutely right that we come up with a deal that is also fair for taxpayers, to make sure that as people earn more and can afford to pay towards their home they do so in a way that always makes it pay to work.

I assume that the Minister is aware that Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council’s local plan is due for adoption this spring. Could he reassure the council’s planning committee that it can now start to make decisions in line with that plan, safe in the knowledge that the planning inspector will not overturn those decisions, thus protecting the countryside from speculative development?

That is good news. My hon. Friend outlines another local plan that is in its later stages. I can confirm that, as a local plan gets to those later stages, it picks up more weight, so the local authority should be making planning decisions in line with the local plan. That is the right thing to do for local communities.

What assessment have Ministers made of councils that introduce a 2% precept increase for social care? For those councils with a very low council tax base, that will not result in the funding required to ensure that social care continues at the level it should in areas such as Hull.

Part of the settlement that was made in the spending review was to include this new council tax precept in addition to the better care fund. On top of the resources that councils already invest, we will be able to invest more than the Local Government Association requested for social care in advance of the spending review.