My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (John Denham) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
I am today updating the House on progress the Government have made in implementing the Sustainable Communities Act 2007.
The Government remain committed to the Sustainable Communities Act. Local authorities put forward proposals to improve their local area to the Local Government Association (LGA), in its capacity as the selector, last summer. In December the LGA produced a shortlist of 199 proposals which the Government are required to consider and respond to under the Act. The Government are working to try to reach agreement with the LGA on which proposals should be implemented. My officials worked very closely with their counterparts from the LGA to set up three discussion panels which provided an opportunity for the proposals to be discussed in further detail between LGA and government officials. These panel meetings proved to be very helpful in clarifying issues behind proposals from both a government and LGA perspective and gathering further useful evidence. Consideration of the proposals is ongoing with other Whitehall departments. Many of the proposals are complex and the Government are investigating further issues raised by the LGA as part of the process. Once again, I would like to thank the LGA for its continuing efforts in assisting the Government in this significant task.
In the mean time, I am pleased to inform the House that the Government will be taking action to make progress with the following proposals:
The London Borough of Islington asked the Government to make it compulsory for owners of empty business premises (mainly shops) to talk to councils about the possibility of premises being used by the community, if they have been empty for six months. In response we will carry out a consultation, involving Islington and other relevant stakeholders, looking at the challenges behind engaging with landlords and owners.
Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council and South Hams District Council asked for communities to have the right to buy privately or publicly owned assets put up for sale in order to develop opportunities for communities to buy redundant buildings and land for community benefit. The Government will undertake an investigation into the challenges and barriers that a community right-to-buy approach would solve and what other solutions would help.
The London Borough of Redbridge, which suggested relaxing the rules on the illumination of some road signs to reduce costs of installation, maintenance, energy consumption and light pollution. The Government are now considering further relaxations to lighting requirements beyond those made in the 2002 review on this matter and will be undertaking further research into lighting through the national traffic signs policy review to assess the relative performances of lit and unlit signs in a number of environments.
Brighton and Hove City Council put forward a proposal requesting a freedom that would allow surplus produce from allotments to be sold to local markets and shops. In response the Government have been able to clarify that there are no legal restrictions on allotment holders selling genuinely surplus produce. This clarification was made on 3 March within a package of measures that set out the Government’s support for gardeners and growing food in the community. This package also provided clarification to the London Borough of Waltham Forest, Birmingham and Sheffield City Councils, which have also put forward proposals about allotments under the Act, highlighting existing powers around allotments and the opportunity offered by new meanwhile lease arrangements that will make it easier for people to take control of abandoned land while it is waiting to be used.
Newcastle City Council, Ryedale District Council, and Darlington Borough Council wanted action to address the problem of large pub and retail companies imposing restrictive covenants on pubs preventing them from operating as pubs when sold. The Ministry of Justice will consult on removing the right of pub owners to impose such restrictions that are leading to pub closure.
Kettering Borough Council and Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council asked for changes to rules that would allow the council's Community Protection Officer Service to carry out civil and crime related duties in a combined manner without fear of legal challenge and to improve the efficiency and quality of services provided. They want to change the statutory guidance to allow local authorities to employ single teams of wardens capable of dealing with all civil enforcement issues. The Government recognise this issue and the potential benefits of this request and have committed to undertaking a review of the current rules and any changes that may be needed to allow this idea to move forward.
Kent County Council asked for recourse to government funding to build a lorry park with 3,000 parking places to address lorry traffic problems locally which arise when the Kent police implement Operation Stack which enables them to close the M20 in order to hold large volumes of freight traffic.
The Department for Transport and the Highways Agency are currently reviewing the existing policy (Circular 01/2008) on motorway service areas and other roadside facilities on motorways and all-purpose trunk roads and trying to find ways to remove barriers to the development and use of lorry park facilities, rest facilities and improved signing to existing lorry parks. A public consultation on the revised policy is expected to be published within the next few months.
The Government are also looking to review their approach to the use of powers under Section 238 of the Highways Act 1980 to promote new roadside facilities for motorists and, in particular, provision for lorry drivers where appropriate to do so. Whilst this will not directly fund developments such as the one proposed by Kent, the approach would help to overcome the hurdle of securing planning approval. Use of these powers would provide an alternative means of securing site approvals. The delivery of the facilities could then be franchised to private operators on a competitive basis which will represent the best outcome for the taxpayer in terms of value for money.
There were a number of councils which put forward proposals pressing the Government to focus on improving energy efficiency and incentivising the development of renewable energy within communities. On 2 March, we published Warm Homes, Greener Homes: A Strategy for Household Energy, which addresses many of the issues raised by the proposals under the SCA. The introduction by the Government of feed-in tariffs in April this year and the launch next April of the Renewable Heat Incentive will also help to address these critical issues.
West Devon Borough Council, Herefordshire County Council and a number of other councils asked for a much wider role for post offices in communities including banking and financial services. In response the Prime Minister has already committed to do just that, and as a result we carried out a consultation to find out what people think about existing products and services offered through the Post Office, and our proposals for the future of the Post Office banking. In response to the consultation the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made an announcement on 29 March about the sort of services that post offices will be offering in the future.
Wiltshire County Council asked for the Sustainable Communities Act process to be ongoing or annual. The existing Sustainable Communities Act requires that the process should not be a one-off. CLG officials have, however, been working closely with local works on the development of the Sustainable Communities (Amendment) Bill. The Government wholeheartedly support the current draft of the Bill which, if passed by Parliament, will provide a date for the next invitation for proposals to be issued and will enable the process of submitting and considering proposals to be improved.
The Government continue to assess the 199 proposals on the shortlist submitted by the Local Government Association. I intend to make a formal decision on which proposals the Government believe should be implemented alongside the associated actions the Government will take, later this year.