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Topical Questions

Volume 605: debated on Monday 8 February 2016

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.