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My hon. Friend draws our attention to an important point in the White Paper. Because of the new framework, and the new relationship between central and local government, we will be able to reform
the rolling system of inspection for each local government service and to replace the present comprehensive performance assessment with a proportionate, risk-based, comprehensive area assessment. The Local Government Association and other local government stakeholders have been calling for this reform for many years, and it should massively reduce the costs for local authorities and make it possible for them to lead their areas better.
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in implementing the White Paper, there will be room to consider not only unitary options based on current district and county boundaries but the reinstatement of historic counties such as Westmorland and Cumberland?
Ruth Kelly: Of course we will consider any such proposals on their merits. There is a case for unitary authorities that can better lead their areas, but I do not want two-tier authorities across the country to be distracted for monthsor, indeed, yearsby the process of reorganising boundaries. That would distract them from their main job, which is to improve the quality of local services, and to increase prosperity for local citizens and respond to their concerns. An invitation to bid was sent out at the same time as the local government White Paper, setting forth the criteria against which any bid will be made. It makes it clear that the building block of any proposal should be the district councils, which should be the units around which proposals are based.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): May I tell my right hon. Friend that the White Paper has been generally well received by councillors in my constituency, but they have one genuine fearthat the White Paper will be used to reduce drastically the overall number of councillors nationally? Will she reassure me on that?
Ruth Kelly: I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend on that point. I know how much he champions the cause of his constituency and local authority. Rightly, he believes that his local councillors are making a huge contribution to well-being in his area, and he wants to see a future for them. I assure him that our proposals are devolutionary, and that it will be for local areas to decide whether to move to single-member wards or, for example, to all-out elections.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): The White Paper calls for parish councils in London. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will include powers to hike council tax via a parish precept? Is she aware that the average parish levy on band D is £30, and that it is more than £100 in some parts of the country? Is not it the case that Londoners now face a triple tax whammya parish council tax, a looming council tax revaluation, and a soaring bill for the Olympics because the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are at one anothers throats?
The hon. Lady is not right at all. The White Paper would allow London the freedom that everywhere else in the country has to determine neighbourhood arrangements. If local people think
that they are better served through parishes rather than, for example, neighbourhood forums, it would be for local people to feed that view to the local authority. The proposals are about making services responsive to local citizens and community concerns. I hope that both sides of the House share the view that it is in everybodys interests to ensure that we meet citizens rising expectations and tailor services to meet local needs.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): The recent White Paper confirms the Governments determination to tackle regional economic disparities. Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Chancellor to ensure that the upcoming comprehensive spending review will continue the movement of resources towards those areas of the country with the greatest needs?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend knows well that the Government have increased resources to local authorities by 39 per cent. in real terms since 1997, as against a cut of 7 per cent. in real terms when the Conservative party was in power. The Government value local services and local provision, which is why our White Paper proposes a new local settlement. Just as important as the distribution of funding, however, is the flexibility of funding. While it is right that we always keep under review the appropriate balance between different local authority areas, it is also right that we give local areas the flexibility to manage the resources channelled to them. That is what the White Paper proposes.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): In the Secretary of States discussions with the Chancellor, apart from listening to his grave concerns about city regions, will she take the opportunity to ensure that local government is given the right level of resources to deliver on the responsibilities imposed on them, week by week, by central Government? Will she assure the House that the local government settlement and the Chancellors comprehensive spending review will reflect the needs of local communities for services from an independent, genuine local government?
Ruth Kelly: If the hon. Gentleman is calling for greater investment in public services, this Government are delivering that investment to local authorities. Through the local area agreement, we are giving local areas much more flexibility over how they use those resources. For example, £500 million is currently funnelled through local area agreements, which could rise in future to £4.7 billion. He is right, too, that if we impose new burdens on local authorities, they should be funded from central Government for that purpose. The Government are committed to that, as will be seen through the comprehensive spending review.
Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab):
My local city council, after rejecting the idea of an elected mayor, is governed by an improved committee system. The upcoming White Paper includes three alternative leadership models, all of which, sadly, are incompatible with our current system. Will my right hon. Friend
assure me that there will be enough time and consultation for local authorities to implement any upcoming legislation?
Ruth Kelly: I understand my hon. Friends concern. It is only right that we talk not just to the local authorities that will have to adopt one of the three new models, but to authorities that have a different model for particular local reasons. Specific discussions will take place with Brighton and Hove to ensure that the structure we expect it to adopt is welcome locally.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The legislation on empty dwelling management orders became fully effective in July. We expect only a small number of orders to be used in the next 12 months as part of local authorities strategies to bring empty and abandoned homes back into use.
Yvette Cooper: I think that local authorities should be able to use a range of measures to deal with the problem of long-term empty homes, and so does the hon. Gentlemans local council. New Forest district council has said in response to our consultation that it
welcomes the introduction of Empty Dwelling Management Orders as a tool to ensure that empty property is returned to use...Our officers will continue to encourage owners to accept our help which should prevent the need to request an Empty Dwelling Management Order. However it will be extremely useful to have this tool in reserve.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I helped to persuade a former housing Ministermy distinguished and ever-popular right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill)to make provision for empty dwelling management orders in the Housing Act 2004. Does my hon. Friend agree that while local authorities should not be over-hasty in seeking such orders, they should show some dispatch, not just because empty homes attract crime and antisocial behaviour and affect the value of neighbouring homes but, crucially, because the cost of refurbishing such houses and returning them to a decent condition rises very quickly, making the orders uneconomic?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. The problem of empty homes can cause huge difficulties to local communities, particularly neighbours who may have to suffer all kinds of vandalism, crime or problems with squatters moving in when homes are empty for a long time. The councils that have done the most work in pursuing the strategies to which I referred often find that when they start proceedings, landlords introduce voluntary measures to bring homes back into use; so the strategies can be very effective.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister will be aware that there are 90,000 empty properties in the public sector. A procedure that can help to ensure that such properties are occupied is the public request ordering disposal, but a written answer from the Department reveals that the Government have turned down every single PROD application since they came to office. Whenever citizens have asked for homes in the public sector to be filled, the Government have said no. Can the Minister tell us why?
The number of public sector empty homes has fallen by 13 per cent. over the past two years, whereas the number of private sector empty homeswhich account for 85 per cent. of the totalhas not. That is why we have introduced powers to deal with private sector empty homes. The hon. Gentlemans party has opposed those powers, but they could make a huge difference to vulnerable families who must suffer as a result of neighbouring empty homes, which can cause a huge amount of blight among communities.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The Minister will know of a report that I forwarded to her recently. It refers to a survey of estate agents which showed that last year five times as many properties in my constituency were sold to second-home buyers as were sold to first-time buyers. We are, I hope, due to meet shortly to discuss the issues arising from that. What reassurance can the Minister give Members who represent constituencies where large numbers of second homes remain empty for most of the year while there is still massive demand for affordable homes?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right. There are pressures on housing in all kinds of areas across the country. As he will know, the pressures caused by second homes are limited to certain areas where they cause significant problems. In a large range of areas, they cause no particular problems in the housing market. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his concerns further, but we do not think it appropriate for second homes to be covered by empty dwelling management orders, which are designed to deal with very different circumstances.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Fantastic work is being done next door to my constituency by the regeneration company New East Manchester. However, many houses inside my constituencyparticularly the older terraced stockare now experiencing the same problems, with absentee private landlords and antisocial tenants. What discussions is my hon. Friends Department having with local authorities such as Stockport and Tameside to ensure that the problems are not merely displaced but are tackled at source?
My hon. Friend is right that addressing simply one aspect of a local housing problem will not be enough; we have to look at the local housing market as a whole, including the impact on neighbouring areas. We are working closely with local authorities across the country to support empty
homes strategies and housing market renewal programmes where there are particular problems with low demand. I am happy to discuss the particular problems that my hon. Friend faces in his area.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The local government White Paper Strong and Prosperous Communities will support the delivery of high-quality public services to all citizens including, of course, the elderly. The White Paper will help local authorities and their partners to provide integrated customer-focused health and social care services to the elderly.
Anne Main: Older people have been left off the political agenda for too long, particularly with regard to funding for care at the end of their lives. Due to poor guidance from the DCLG, formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, local authorities can often interpret supporting people contracts in wildly different ways. Providers in the care home system tell me they need certainty and clarity. What will the Minister do in the future so that the Department gives clear and comprehensive guidance on this matter?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Lady answers a very important question. [Hon. Members: Asks.] Asks, sorry; I am answering it. Actually, she has answered it. The need for stability in funding has been recognised by the move from a two-year period to a three-year period of funding settlement from April 2008 onwards. She will be aware of the strategy document that we published in July on the supporting people framework which addresses the very point that she quite rightly raises.
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): May we have some basic standards laid down for local authorities to follow in their care for the elderly? Suffolk local authoritys supporting people commissioning body is currently taking away funding for community alarm systems when all the indications are that these are a good value-for-money means of supporting people to follow the bodys basic aim of preventing older and vulnerable people from getting into a bad way. I thought community alarm systems were part of the draft national strategy. Is not withdrawing them incompatible with the whole concept of supporting people?
Mr. Woolas: The supporting people programme has helped some 814,000 elderly people and the provision of warden and alarm services is an important part of that. My hon. Friend will forgive me for not knowing the specific details that he raises, but there is consistent advice and guidance from my Department to local authorities.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con):
Have not the Government been unfortunately successful in setting local authorities against local health trusts? Too often
local authorities are asking elderly people to sell their homes for social care rather than for health care. There is confusion at local government level. Would the Minister like to clear up that confusion?
Mr. Woolas: Yes, I would. That is precisely why the White Paper builds on the successful policy of local area agreements, on which there is consensus across local government, to allow better joining-up so that different public agenciesthe council, the primary care trust and other agencieswork towards the same objectives and goals and not against each other.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): The Association of Directors of Social Services puts the shortfall in funding for social care at £1.8 billion, and the Local Government Association reports that seven out of 10 councils are suffering from NHS cost-cutting pressures. Will the Minister now accept that there is a real crisis in social care and can he explain why this was completely overlooked in last weeks White Paper?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Ladys comments sadden me, because she seems to fail to understand the difference between the need for health authorities to balance their bookswhich we all have to do in any walk of lifeand the issue of cuts. Like local councils, the NHS has received extra funding year on year from this Government. Of course, that is not the same as the demands that are placed on councils, and I would be surprised if the Association of Directors of Social Services did not put forward demands for extra money, as it always has done. We listen to those demands carefully and work with the Local Government Association to identify cost pressures and, where possible, relieve them. The hon. Lady cannot paint a picture of reduced resources, as the opposite isthe case.
Matthew Taylor: I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that council tax in Cornwall remains below the national average, but can he give some reassurance that any changes to council tax will not be made in such a way as to penalise areas such as our own, where house pricesespecially because of the purchase of second homesare way above the national average, but incomes are 25 per cent. below? It is rumoured that Ministers are considering a system that would penalise those areas that are seen as most popular or attractive. In some of those areas, incomes are very low and the local population is already penalised by the huge mortgages that they have to pay.
Mr. Woolas: We are very much aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about Cornwall, which was also made earlier by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I can reassure the hon. Gentlemen that the rumours amount to nothing more than scaremongering to try to frighten people on the basis of a misinterpretation of the Governments policy. Of course, our policy is to limit council tax increases through our capping policy.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Before the council tax bills go out next year, will my hon. Friend consider those on fixed incomes who just fail to qualify for benefits? Their real incomes are declining year on year.
Mr. Woolas: I am glad that my hon. Friend reminds the House of the existence of council tax benefit. Just under 15 per cent. of council tax is paid by the benefits system to ensure that those who are least well off are not punished. He raises an important point about those just above the threshold and we have askedSir Michael Lyons to make recommendations in that area. I will bear in mind the point my hon. Friend makes on behalf of the people of Bolton, with whom I have had that conversation.
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