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Children and Young Adult Services

5. Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effect of double damping on the funding of children’s and young adults’ services; and if she will make a statement. [168025]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): In the course of this summer’s consultation on options for changing the formula grant distribution system, we published illustrations of what each council’s level of grant in 2007-08 would have been if neither grant floor damping nor social services formula damping had been applied.

Mr. Turner: The damping of the adult and young person’s element of the local government grant was to allow authorities that lost resources to adjust over two years. Authorities have had that time, and the damping is no longer morally or intellectually sustainable. Will my right hon. Friend take note of Labour Members’ serious concerns about the matter, and will she make sure that resources follow needs in future local government settlements?

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Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend’s advocacy on behalf of authorities in relation to not only the local government formula but the health formula has been absolutely remarkable, and it helps our debate in the House to have this kind of informed discussion. He knows that I met various colleagues and members of the special interest group of municipal authorities last night, when they impressed on me the importance of the issues. The new formulae are better than the old system, because there is a better evidence base. However, he knows that I am not in a position to indicate the local government settlement today. He also knows the importance of predictability and stability, in addition to directing resources to the areas of greatest need.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): The disparities thrown up by formula funding do not apply only to children and young adults in social care. In my constituency, for example, Kingsway secondary school, Stockport, receives nearly 20 per cent. less in dedicated schools grant than Parrs Wood secondary school, a mile up the road in Manchester. Will the Secretary of State give some indication of when that fundamental unfairness will be resolved?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will know that local government finance is subject to a whole series of relatively complex formulae that seek to allocate funding to the areas that are in need of it. We can all raise specific issues relating to our constituencies, but we have to ensure that the system as a whole is fair. He will also know that schools funding is directly passed through to schools on the basis of the number of children and the needs in the community. That is a pretty fair system.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Council tax payers in the authority that I represent pay an additional 8p as a result of the Government’s failure to implement their policy that money should follow needs. When will the Government’s actions follow their rhetoric?

Hazel Blears: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. He will know that when we have reviewed the formula in the past there has been a change in the distributional impact in relation to the allocation of resources. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), the difficulty lies in balancing the new formula and the direction of those resources with the need for stability in the system. The system of floors and ceilings has been broadly acknowledged to be the right one. There will always be a discussion about how high the floor and the ceiling should be and who should contribute to that funding. We are keen to move towards implementation of the new formula as quickly as we can, balanced with stability.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will the Secretary of State ensure that the needs of rural communities are reflected in Government funding? In particular, will she give the House a commitment that North Yorkshire will have fair and equitable access with regard to pupil referral units compared with other parts of the country such as West Yorkshire?

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Hazel Blears: The hon. Lady will know that elements of the formula relate to rural areas, sparsity and the difficulty of delivering services. She asks about having equivalent resources for pupil referral units. Where there are needs as regards excluded children, it is absolutely essential that we provide facilities for them. The local government funding system endeavours to be as fair as possible while directing our resources, which are always limited, to the areas of greatest need.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that the principle of damping has been widely accepted because we all understand that radical changes cannot suddenly be foisted on to local authorities, which have to be given time to absorb the changes that are necessary. However, does she understand that double damping, as we see it practised in social services, is causing a considerable drop in morale among treasurers’ staff, who have been wringing out every pound note to get the very best value from it, and then find their efforts defeated? Wolverhampton is losing £1 million a year.

Hazel Blears: I understand the hard work that local government officers and councillors put into trying to ensure that their budget goes as far as it possibly can in meeting the needs of local communities. However, the comprehensive spending review settlement gives us a 1 per cent. real-terms rise for local government—an extra £960 million in the first year—and there will be a 2.3 per cent. real-terms rise in specific grants from the Department of Health to help us to cope with some of the demographic changes. I do not deny that it is a tight settlement and it is tough for local authorities, and I want to move to implementation of the formula as quickly as we can, but balanced with the stability that I talked about previously.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): In arriving at the local government settlement, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that although the damping mechanism was designed to slow the rate of change from the old formula to the new formula, some of us now believe that the rate of change has come to a complete stop and has prevented movement to the new formula? Will she also bear it in mind that the Government are giving grant to wealthy local authorities that are able to reduce their council tax, while areas such as mine are paying excessive amounts?

Hazel Blears: Yes, I am very conscious of all these issues, the importance of which is evident in the House from the number of Members who have spoken and the passion that they feel. The new formula is based on better and more up-to-date evidence than the old formula, with pretty extensive surveys as well. I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration at the slow pace of change towards its implementation, but we have to consider the matter in terms of the local government settlement as a whole. There will not be much longer to wait before we see exactly what that settlement looks like. I am very conscious of the genuine feelings on this issue in the House.

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Household Rubbish

6. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What discussions her Department has had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on charges for the collection of household rubbish. [168026]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): My Department has kept in close touch with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs during the development of its proposals for waste incentives.

Angela Watkinson: The Minister will know that large families are likely to produce the most household waste, and are least likely to be able to afford additional charges. Already, three out of four fly-tips are household waste, and this policy is likely to make that problem worse. Will he join me in congratulating the London borough of Havering, which has decided not to make any additional charges for waste collection, and will he recommend its decision to other local authorities?

Mr. Dhanda: I say to the hon. Lady, as I do to other Members, that it is up to local authorities whether they want to be among the five pilots. Before we roll out the pilots, we have to ensure that there are strong strategies in place to prevent fly-tipping, and we will do that. This process is being led by the Conservative-led Local Government Association, which is keen on incentive schemes. We need to get behind the idea because it could make a real difference to the reduction of household waste. If authorities want to leave out certain groups, such as disabled people, pensioners or family groups, it is their right to do so. We are talking about pilots, after all.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend will realise that we all pay for household collection through the council tax. Does he recognise that improving recycling is one the main contributory factors to reducing household waste? Will he re-emphasise that and send out one of his circulars to each council saying that it is up to them to decide their policies, and not this Government?

[Official Report, 6 December 2007, Vol. 468, c. 7MC.]

Mr. Dhanda: We want to work with local authorities and, as I say, it is up to them if they want to be among the five pilots. The mood that we sense among local authorities is that this process is a positive way of reducing waste, increasing recycling and having more money to return as rebate. This will not be a profit-making exercise. Any savings made have to be paid back to the electorate through a rebate.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister will know that council tax has increased substantially in recent years, and that in those areas that have introduced two-weekly collections, an additional problem has occurred because of vermin. Will he accept that if charges are made for the collection of refuse, there should be a reduction in the council tax?

Mr. Dhanda: In some cases, it is the right of local authorities to ensure through such incentive schemes that there is no additional charge at all, but an
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incentive to produce less waste. That could be done through smaller bins, or in other ways. The hon. Gentleman talks about non-weekly collection. He will be aware that in many cases, it is not just a question of fewer weekly collections, but of more collections of other types of waste, which is important, and of more recycling taking place during those fortnightly periods.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Would not many local authorities like the opportunity to experiment with variable charges? Provided that the pilots are cost-neutral, should we not be backing them?

Mr. Dhanda: Yes, and they will be revenue-neutral, as my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con) indicated dissent.

Mr. Dhanda: I know that the hon. Gentleman has concerns about this; I read about them in the Sunday Express this weekend. He said

If the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned about increases in fly-tipping, as he said in the Sunday Express, perhaps he should have supported the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which introduced stiffer fines for people who fly-tip, five-year prison sentences for those who are caught and tougher enforcement. If he is talking about catching such people, more of them are being caught than before.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Perhaps the Under-Secretary can explain how the policy is a positive one to reduce waste when his experts and advisers suggest that it will increase fly-tipping by 155,000 tonnes a year on top of the 186 per cent. increase over which the Government have presided in the past three years. Are the pilots to be kamikazes?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall be nice and charitable to the hon. Gentleman, because I find him amusing. However, he is wrong. Let us consider examples in other parts of the world. We have not taken such an approach yet, which is why the Conservative-led Local Government Association wants to try it. In the United States, where waste incentives have been introduced, fewer instances of fly-tipping have occurred in many areas because people are taking a greater interest in recycling.

Local Government Finance

7. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What representations she has received on the council tax in Croydon and England in the last 12 months. [168027]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): The Department for Communities and Local Government does not hold a record of representations received on council tax in Croydon and England in the last 12 months.

Richard Ottaway: Will the Secretary of State explain why the council tax payers of Croydon have to subsidise national services such as education and social
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services to the tune of £450 per household, when the figure for the council in the constituency of the Minister for Local Government is £110, yet the levels of deprivation are similar?

Hazel Blears: In the past 10 years, Croydon has received an average 4 per cent. increase in formula grant every year. That contrasts markedly with the 7 per cent. cut in the last four years of the Tory Government. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that his constituents are much better off under this Government’s formula than under that of the previous Government.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): How out of date does the Secretary of State think that council tax valuations will be by the time she gets around to revaluing or, better still, scrapping the council tax altogether?

Hazel Blears: I know that the hon. Gentleman has an unpopular policy for local income tax, which will make hard-working families much worse off. We have no plans for revaluation. Michael Lyons said in his report that the council tax was not broken, that it was basically a good tax and a property tax from which people could not hide. That is why the collection rate is 96 per cent. and more. It is the best way for us to proceed.

Housing and Planning Powers

8. Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): What her expected timetable is for the transfer of housing and planning powers from regional assemblies to regional development agencies. [168028]

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): The changes need primary legislation and we will set out further details for consultation in the new year. That will include more information about the timetable and more details about the way in which the new arrangements need to work, including the role for local authorities.

Mr. Binley: Is it not the case that whereas Conservative Members trust local people, Ministers appear to think of them as no more than a nuisance? That view was demonstrated by the decision to transfer housing and planning powers from one distant and unaccountable regional quango to another rather than returning them to local communities, as they should be.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. The purpose of the changes is to bring together for the first time a regional approach to economic development with an approach to planning, housing and other aspects that need to be dealt with across local authority boundaries and that cover issues that go wider than an individual local authority. It is right to examine those matters at regional level and to ensure that they are better co-ordinated than they have been in the past.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Is not my right hon. Friend concerned that she may concentrate too much power in what are essentially unelected regional development agencies? For example, Tom Riordan, chief executive of Yorkshire Forward, is a fine chap, but the policy risks making him the commissar of Yorkshire. Should not he
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be more accountable to local government through bodies such as Leeds City Region or perhaps accountable to a regional Select Committee?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that accountability matters. That is why we have said that we want local councils to sign off the economic strategy. We want a stronger role for local councils in the economic development of their regions than they have previously played. That is important. It is also important to emphasise that regional assemblies have always drawn on the housing and planning expertise of local councils. That needs to continue, and we will be clear that it must be part of the new arrangements that we will set out in the new year.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why does the Minister persist in ignoring the strong view of the overwhelming majority of people in the south-east that the development agency and the regional assembly should be abolished and that there should be democratic accountability for the planning powers? Will she give us a referendum if she does not believe me?

Yvette Cooper: Sadly, the reason the views of the regional assembly and regional development agency are disputed in the south-east, certainly by Conservative councils there, is that they want to cut house building in the region. That is a tragic thing for local councils in the south-east to want to do, given the overwhelming need for more housing throughout the region and the number of first-time buyers who are desperately in need of more support.

Warehouse Fires

9. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had on changing building regulations to reduce the risk of warehouse fires. [168030]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): In December 2006, my Department concluded a review of all the fire safety aspects of the building regulations, including those in respect of warehouses. A number of changes were made, following extensive research and public consultation. Those changes came into force in April.

Helen Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, and I know that he takes such matters seriously. I first raised the fire safety aspects of warehouses in 2002, since when we have had another warehouse fire, with tragic loss of life. As warehouses are still regarded as great fire risks, will he undertake to consult chief fire officers in England on what further changes can be made to make these buildings safer?

Mr. Wright: May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s first-class campaigning skills in that regard, particularly following a warehouse fire in her constituency? She has had an Adjournment debate on the issue and has also raised a series of parliamentary questions. In response to her specific point, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is in charge of the fire service, has already held meetings on the issue and will continue to do so.

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