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Topical Questions

Volume 622: debated on Monday 27 February 2017

In the past month the Local Government Finance Bill has passed its Report stage and the Neighbourhood Planning Bill has almost completed its passage through the Lords. Our housing White Paper has been published and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has been touring the country sharing its bold vision, and I am continuing to meet councillors and council leaders from across the political spectrum to see how we can work together to shape the future of local government.

Councils are rightly using their powers more broadly and competitively. May I ask the Secretary of State and his Department to keep looking at the issues in my constituency, where Eastleigh Borough Council is using commercial sensitivity, public works loans and exempt business to hide behind a deficit, or debt, of £240 million by 2020 and buying unneeded former banks to become libraries? Can the Minister confirm that these details will not be kept from those who voted the council into office?

I am glad that my hon. Friend is shining a light on these issues, which are of concern. She will know that transparency is the foundation of local accountability. We have made councils publish data—for example, on spending, procurement and contracts—online and any councillor who hides information from the electorate should be wary of the power of the ballot box.

With 1 million-plus adults in England with unmet care needs and the head of the NHS warning of the impact the social care crisis is having, does the Secretary of State now agree with, among others, the Chair of the Health Committee today that the Government can no longer ignore the funding crisis in adult social care?

What I agree with is that we must constantly look at what more we can do to support the most vulnerable and those who rely on adult social care. That is why I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome the £3.5 billion that was allocated at the last spending review and the announcement that I made a few months ago of an additional almost £900 million for the adult care sector across England.

No one will be surprised by the lack of urgency in the Secretary of State’s response, not least No. 10, so let me ask him another question. The Local Government Association estimates that, taking into account social care, there will be a funding gap of almost £6 billion for critical local services for the people of England by 2020. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that funding gap?

The £3.5 billion that was allocated in the last spending review was more than the Local Government Association set out at that time. Despite that, we have acted, as demand has grown, with the announcement of the additional £900 million. As I have made clear a number of times at the Dispatch Box, this is not all about money; it is also about reform and especially about promoting more integration between the work done by local authorities and the health sector.

T3. With significant housing growth taking place, what steps are Ministers taking to ensure that, when developers run into financial difficulties, the necessary infrastructure is provided and the developments are completed? (908940)

The White Paper sets out a number of measures that we are taking to deal with that situation. First, we have the £2.3 billion infrastructure fund that the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement. Secondly, as I mentioned to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), we are giving local authorities real power to intervene to ensure that schemes get built out. We cannot just plan for the right number of homes; we need to ensure that they also get built.

Waste collection and processing is currently regulated and underpinned by the EU waste framework directive and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Local government takes on a great deal of responsibility for waste management and has invested significant sums in bins, fleets, staffing and processing centres to meet those obligations. What certainty can the Secretary of State give to local government on this and on future waste investment plans?

I should like to assure the hon. Lady that we take this issue very seriously. It is a national issue. I have discussed it a number of times with my colleagues, and we want to see how we can take further action. I would be more than happy to write to her about this.

T6. Some local authorities have tendering processes so complex that they appear to have been designed to deter small companies from bidding. For instance, I know of local authorities in Kent that require bidders to complete a wide-ranging pre-qualification form not just once but before every tender is submitted. That is okay for large companies that have dedicated contracts departments, but it is burdensome and onerous for small and medium-sized enterprises. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage local authorities to make it easier for small companies to bid for work from them? (908943)

I can share with my hon. Friend the fact that this issue was identified back in 2010 when there was a change of Government. The Cabinet Office has already done a significant amount of work to make it easier for small firms to win procurement competitions, but there is more that could be done. I hope that it will encourage my hon. Friend to learn that, as we go through the process of leaving the EU, we will be taking a clear look at many of the EU rules that can cause those challenges.

T4. The Secretary of State will know the importance to Scotland of EU structural funds, in the form of £1.3 billion of investment that is vital for many of our local communities. The ability to administer those funds is a key component of city deals. Does he agree that the uncertainty about the future of those funds after leaving the EU will have a negative impact on the vital long-term planning that is needed, and that it risks damaging those deals? (908941)

No, I do not agree with that. We have been absolutely clear in our commitment to maintain EU structural funds up until 2020. That commitment could not have been clearer. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is British taxpayers’ money anyway, at the end of the day.

Councils in my area require a definition of housing supply. They do not really worry about the methodology; they just want to know what it is. Could we have some clarification on that? Also, could the Secretary of State tell me whether he thinks the Liberal Democrats are wholly supporting the Government, because no Liberal Democrat has been in the Chamber until three minutes ago?

Ministers have no responsibility for the whereabouts of Liberal Democrat Members—or those of any other party, for that matter. However, the hon. Gentleman has made his point in his own way, with force and alacrity.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. All I can say is, “Thank goodness for that!”

On housing supply, we are measuring the total size of the housing stock, and local authorities are being asked to plan for not only the necessary number of homes but, as was clear in the discussion we had earlier, the right mix of homes for the changing demography of their area.

Why is the Minister abolishing the requirement for Parliament to approve the local government finance settlement through the Local Government Finance Bill? Is it because the Government have inflicted so much damage to local government services through cuts that they want to hide that and not be accountable to Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to some of the measures in the Local Government Finance Bill. When we move to 100% business rates retention, all local councils will be fully funded, so there will be no legal requirement for an annual settlement because no money will be forthcoming directly from central Government.

Some London authorities have an average of 40% more spending power than somewhere like North Yorkshire despite often having younger, wealthier populations. As part of the fair funding review, does the Minister agree that future allocations should be based on the cost drivers of need and the cost of delivering services?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who spoke eloquently on this issue in the local government financial settlement debate last week. He highlights the need to look again at the outdated formulae, which are not transparent, and to ensure that funding is allocated on a needs basis.

The chief executive of Centrepoint recently said that the Government’s plan to axe housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds

“could cost the taxpayer more money than it saves”.

In the light of cross-party support for the Homelessness Reduction Bill, will the Minister scrap that damaging policy and focus instead on delivering the genuinely affordable homes that our young people need?

I can certainly commit to the last part of what the hon. Lady asked for. In London, the Government are providing £3.15 billion of funding to the Mayor, who has been generous enough to say that that is the best ever settlement for affordable housing in London. On the other matter, we need to ensure that private landlords still have the confidence to let to younger people and we are considering that issue.

As important as the funding formula debate is, does my right hon. Friend agree that the way in which councils organise themselves is also important to ensure the maximum bang for the taxpayers’ buck? Against that backdrop, I hope that my right hon. Friend will give Dorset’s innovative proposals the thumbs-up, because they are the best way—indeed the only way—of securing services for local people.

My hon. Friend highlights that we have rightly encouraged councils to be creative and innovative as they deal with challenges, and some have come forward with proposals to reorganise. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any particular one at this stage, but we will consider those proposals carefully and seriously.

The Leasehold Advisory Service should play an important role in providing advice to leaseholders. However, the current chair Roger Southam has extensive previous business interests with freeholders and has even boasted of maximising ground rent opportunities for them. Can Ministers not see how that looks? In order to regain leaseholders’ confidence, will Ministers agree to an urgent review into the suitability of Mr Southam to continue as chair?

I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s passion for this issue; he spoke powerfully in a debate on this matter a few weeks ago. I recently announced that funding for LEASE will continue to come purely from the Government so that no one can be in any doubt that its job is to stand up for the interests of leaseholders.

Local authorities come in for a bit of stick in this Chamber from time to time, but the Secretary of State will be fully aware of the tremendous work that North Yorkshire County Council did in Tadcaster over the past year. Will he take this opportunity to thank North Yorkshire and David Bowe in particular, who did so much great work in ensuring the restoration of the bridge? Will he also thank the local enterprise partnership for its help?

I was pleased to join my hon. Friend and many of his great constituents at the reopening of Tadcaster bridge. It was lovely to see so many young people celebrating that moment. I am more than happy to join him in congratulating the county council and the local enterprise partnership on their work. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on all his work to help bring that bridge back to life.

T9. What assessment has been made of the effect of cuts to the early intervention grant on the ability of local authorities to fund Sure Start children’s centres? (908946)

We always want to make sure—we saw this in the debate on the local government finance settlement—that local authorities are funded adequately to deal with the challenges they face. If Labour Members are so concerned about local government finance, it is interesting that only four Back-Bench Labour Members bothered to turn up and speak in last week’s debate.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, by virtue of their closeness to residents, district councils continue to be the most effective tier of local government and have a strong future?

I agree with my hon. Friend that district councils are hugely important to local democracy. Alongside other councillors, district councillors are the bedrock of local government, and they have the full support of this Government.

Last week I met Lakeside Energy from Waste, a company that is enabling local authorities in my area to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. As the Secretary of State knows, the plant is due to be knocked down as a result of the creation of the third runway at Heathrow, yet Lakeside Energy from Waste is anxious because there is no reference to the plant’s future in the national policy statement. Will he or one of his colleagues meet me and Lakeside Energy from Waste to discuss how we can ensure that this important plant is re-provided?

This may well be an issue for the Department for Transport, but I would be more than happy if the right hon. Lady wrote to ask me to take a look.

I said in response to an earlier question that the Government are currently looking at the report from the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment. The Government are determined to build the homes that this country needs, but the homes must be built to a sufficient quality, too.

I will be brief. I have elicited three positive responses about the possibility of a Belfast city deal. Instead of a fourth positive response, can we have a meeting?

I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and I will make sure that a meeting is arranged. I am keen to see what my Department can do to work across and help all regions of the United Kingdom including, of course, Northern Ireland.