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Topical Questions

Volume 607: debated on Monday 21 March 2016

Before the Easter recess, I should like briefly to update the House on the recovery following flooding caused by Storm Desmond and Storm Eva. The Government have moved rapidly to support more than 21,000 flooded properties; £50 million in dedicated funding has helped to ensure the rapid repair and reopening of key transport arteries—I am delighted that Pooley bridge in Cumbria reopened yesterday; a further £130 million will be spent repairing roads and bridges; £700 million was announced to boost future flood defence and resilience; and I am delighted that, in response to the fundraising from community foundations, for which the Chancellor offered to have match funding, I can now announce a one-for-one match for every pound raised by those community foundations during the floods.

The local government pension scheme provides future security in retirement for millions of public service workers. It is a funded scheme financed by the contributions of those workers. The Government now seem to be trying to interfere in the way those funds are invested, but investment decisions should be driven by the interests of the members of the scheme. What legal powers do the Government have to do this? Are they intending to direct the investment strategies of other UK pension funds? If not, why treat the local government pension scheme differently?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a consultation on this. I do not know whether he has contributed to it, but it has now closed. We are reflecting on the responses, and I will update the House when we have had a chance to do that.

T2. Many towns and villages in my constituency have formally adopted their neighbourhood plans. Places such as Newick and Ringmer have had their plans in place for a long time, yet they are constantly challenged by developers who put in applications for sites outside the plan. Will the Minister uphold the status of neighbourhood plans in the planning process and return local democracy to our villages and towns? (904191)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We absolutely hold neighbourhood plans as being of prime importance and they have weight in law. I congratulate Newick on its initiative in creating a neighbourhood plan but, as I know she appreciates, I cannot comment on a particular case. I do wish to stress, however, while I have the opportunity to do so, that the national planning policy framework makes it very clear: where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted.

My question is for the Secretary of State, who clearly lacks the clout to argue his Department’s case with the Chancellor, because there was nothing in the Budget on housing—nothing to reverse six years of failure, from rising homelessness to falling home ownership. In Labour’s last year, despite the global banking collapse and deep recession, we saw 120,000 new homes built in this country. Five years later, that total was only 5,000 higher. At this rate, the Secretary of State will not hit his house-building targets until 2079, so why was there so little in the Budget on housing?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman, with great respect, that he might want to have a look at the Budget book, which outlines a range of measures on both housing and planning. It builds on the autumn statement and the spending review, which gave us the biggest building programme since the 1970s—that is quite a contrast to his personal track record. It also outlines the work we did with local government to deliver another 160,000 homes on public sector land—joining central Government’s 160,000. I would have thought that 320,000 new homes in this country, on top of what we are already doing, is good news and highlights just how important this is to the Government.

On the contrary, the extra investment that the Chancellor announced in the spending review that is cited by Ministers brings the total to around about half that invested by Labour in building new homes when I was the last Labour Housing Minister. The truth is that there was little in the Budget on housing, and nothing that will deal with the causes of the housing crisis, so six years of failure is set to stretch to 10. Will the Minister now admit that, on housing, as on everything else, the Chancellor’s credibility is in tatters?

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman keeps wanting to give me the opportunity to highlight the fact that he was the Minister who oversaw the lowest level of house building since about 1923. I am very proud to work with the Chancellor who has given this country the biggest building programme that we have seen since the 1920s. We have seen the number of first-time buyers double since 2010 and, as we heard earlier, planning permissions have gone up by 53% since 2010. We are delivering affordable housing at the fastest rate in more than 20 years. In the past five years, we have delivered double the number of council houses that Labour did in 13 years. I am proud of our track record. We aim to continue to deliver more and to deliver faster than Labour ever did.

T3. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Wychavon district council on utilising the new homes bonus and investing more than £1 million in local community facilities? Will he take time out of his very busy schedule to visit that outstanding council with me to see some of those schemes? (904193)

I will be happy to join my hon. Friend on a visit. On my last visit, it was good to see the ambition and hard work that her planning team and local councils had put in to provide the homes that were needed locally. It is good to see them using that new homes bonus to deliver the infrastructure of those homes. I look forward to visiting again very soon.

T5. I accept that the final quantum award under any EU solidarity fund has not been decided, but may I nevertheless ask the Minister to ensure that, however it is apportioned, it reaches the communities that were actually affected? A simple population share going to the Scottish Government will not ensure that it reaches my constituency of Dumfries and Galloway. (904195)

The Government’s intention is to support absolutely those communities affected by the terrible impact of Storms Desmond and Eva and the flooding we saw over December and January. We are talking to the Scottish Government about what we can do to help Scotland, what Scotland’s needs are and what the impact is to inform the bid that we are making to the EU solidarity fund. We will keep the House updated as we know more, and as the process progresses.

T4. Can the Minister update the House on the future of the coastal communities fund and reassure me that future rounds will focus on tackling the social problems that blight so many of our coastal communities? (904194)

The 118 coastal community teams across England are taking control of their own areas’ regeneration. The Our Blackpool coastal community team was an early adopter of the CCT concept. Blackpool received £2 million from the coastal communities fund for its Lightpool project, which was successfully launched in 2015. The project is a boost to the local economy, driving football into the town centre. In December 2015, Blackpool received £50,000 coastal revival fund money for emergency work to the roof of the Winter Gardens Pavilion Theatre. That is the first step in creating a Blackpool museum of popular culture, commencing in January 2017. The coastal communities fund has now been extended by a further £90 million, out to 2020-21. Bidding for the next round is set to commence by the summer of this year. I wish my hon. Friend good luck for any bids that may emanate from his constituency.

T6. Rather than cutting support to people with disabilities, would it not be better for the Government to cut the housing benefit bill, which is up by £4.4 billion over the past four years? Is not that due to the Government’s failure to build enough houses, which is driving up rents and heavy reliance on the private rented sector? Is it not a disgrace that the Budget did not put any money into building social housing? (904196)

I again say to the hon. Gentleman that he might want to look back at the spending review and the autumn statement that gave us the biggest building programme since the 1970s. I also gently point out that one of the problems that we have had is that, under Labour, for every 170 homes that were sold under right to buy, just one was built. That is why it is important that we build more homes—and we are building more homes. In London, which I know is dear to his heart, we are looking at two for one. That increases housing supply and it is good for delivering new homes.

T8. Last week’s Budget saw welcome news for small businesses and pubs across my constituency in the form of the changes to business rates. What support will my hon. Friend give to Torbay Council to ensure that local businesses in my constituency benefit as soon as possible? (904198)

The Government have announced the biggest ever cut in business rates in England, worth £6.7 billion over five years. We are permanently doubling small business rate relief and increasing the thresholds. I am sure that that will help many of the small businesses in Torquay and in Paignton that my hon. Friend sets out his stall to support on an ongoing basis.

T7. The financial cost of homelessness is going up to nearly £1 billion. Research from the charity Crisis has shown that tackling single homelessness early could save the Government between £3,000 and £18,000 for each person they help. What work are the Government doing with charities such as Crisis? (904197)

We are working across Government with Crisis and a number of other homelessness charities, and with local authorities, because we absolutely recognise that preventing people from becoming homeless is the key to this issue. I hope to come forward in the not too distant future with announcements to tackle this important issue.

T9. Construction of the Middlewich eastern bypass would open up substantial local and wider growth opportunities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how this long-awaited project can be progressed? (904199)

My hon. Friend is one of the most passionate and committed advocates for their constituency that I have yet encountered in the House. I know how much the investment she craves for Middlewich matters to her. I would of course be delighted to meet her, and any representatives of the local community she should wish to bring, to see what the Government can to do help to bolster the case.

During his statement on local government funding, the Secretary of State said that he would re-examine the fact that the social care precept will help the areas that need it most the least. How has he updated his thinking, because the areas of the country that rely on this the most are simply not getting the investment they need?

That is not true. The hon. Gentleman will see that the proposed allocation of the better care fund goes precisely to those authorities that have fewer resources through the precept. I am very happy to meet him to update him.

I welcome the greater Lincolnshire devolution deal that has just been finalised, but things are complicated by the fact that Lincolnshire County Council is in the east midlands whereas the two unitary authorities are in Yorkshire and the Humber. Will the Secretary of State look at this and re-designate the whole of Lincolnshire into the east midlands?

I do not have any regard to these artificial, expired administrative boundaries. Lincolnshire enjoys a proud identity, and my hon. Friend is a big champion of it.

In only six years the Government have managed to take away £100 million from Waltham Forest Council, which, funnily enough, happens to be Labour. How does the Secretary of State think that has assisted local services?

In their representations, councils across the country, and groups such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have reflected that this is a better way to allocate resources, and councils will see it as a fairer means.

My right hon. Friend has rightly been concerned about the structure and effectiveness of local government in Birmingham. This is not a party political point, because these concerns have extended under Conservative and Labour Administrations. In his negotiations with the Birmingham improvement panel, under the excellent John Crabtree, will he bear in mind the importance of giving the new Labour leader, John Clancy, the space to implement the necessary reforms?

I will. I pay tribute to John Crabtree and his fellow panellists. I am pleased to say that Birmingham City Council has made progress on the recommendations of the Kerslake report. The panel has done sterling work in helping the council to become more responsive. There remain a number of challenges that the council will have to overcome to translate its vision into reality. The panel wrote to me today suggesting that it step back and return in the autumn to report on how the council has progressed. I am happy to accept that recommendation, and I wish it well for the months ahead.

With your kind permission, Mr Speaker, an inquiry report was launched this afternoon in Speaker’s House on better devolution and the Union. During evidence-taking sessions, the Secretary of State was kind enough to say that he would positively engage in a discussion about a city deal for Belfast. I welcome that report, and ask the Secretary of State to reaffirm his commitment to engage in those discussions about a future city deal for Belfast.

I will do that with great pleasure, and I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman in that context.

Welsh community centres, rugby clubs and pubs cannot be registered as assets of community value because the Welsh Labour Government opted out of the relevant Bill. How can the Minister help us to protect our rugby clubs, pubs and community centres in Wales?

As ever, my hon. Friend is fighting hard for his community to have the same protections that we have been able to give people across England. I would be happy to meet him to see how we can work together to convince the Welsh Government that they should protect those vital institutions—something that Labour in Wales seems willingly unwilling to do.