The Secretary of State will know that colleagues from Southwark on a cross-party basis had a constructive meeting with the Minister for Local Government last week. One of the matters raised in that discussion, but of concern widely, was out-of-date population figures on the basis of which local government settlements are given. I know the difficulties, but would the Secretary of State be willing to give an undertaking that, if not nowthat is, before
the final vote is taken, before the settlement comes into force in Aprilthen later this year, when the up-to-date figures are available, there will be a chance to review the settlement on the basis of accurate population information? We cannot give out grant on the basis of figures that are fundamentally out of date.
Hazel Blears: I appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put his case, and I know that he had a productive meeting. He will know that, in addition to the distribution on the basis of population statistics, we have another mechanism that seeks to protect councils, which is the floor damping mechanism. Southwark will benefit from that over the next three years to the tune of just over £63 million.
Local government itself wanted a three-year settlement, for the stability, certainty and predictability of its expenditure. The figures that we have used are therefore the best and latest available, and are consistent across local government. It would be wrong to disturb the stability and certainty of the three-year settlement. I therefore cannot give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he is looking forthat is, that we will reopen the settlementbecause that would inevitably have a huge impact on the stability and certainty that local government has welcomed.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Swindon borough council was disappointed with the award that it received for its growth point grant. Will my right hon. Friend or one of her colleagues meet me to discuss the councils disappointment and what else it can do? The council did not initially consult Swindons MPs, but has done so since, which has been very valuable.
Hazel Blears: Clearly my hon. Friend is, in her usual way, a champion and advocate for her constituents. She will be pleased to know that there are further moneys to be allocated. I should be delighted to ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government meets her to discuss the position in Swindon, and no doubt she will use her usual articulacy to make the case.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady please take action to increase the weighting of the sparsity factor in the calculation of Government grants to rural areas such as Lincolnshire, where, in a very large county, the police grant is the second smallest in the whole of England, and as a result many of my constituents continually complain of under-policing?
Hazel Blears: Sparsity is one of a number of factors, and is important in reflecting the particular pressures in rural areas. Sparsity is taken into account when we draw up the formula, which is subject to consultation and is regularly reviewed and examined. Clearly it is important that the formula should take into account a wide range of needs and differences, and the truth is that different communities have different needs. That is why my Department is absolutely committed to devolution to local authorities, so that they can tailor their services to meet the kind of pressures that the hon. Gentleman has outlined.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I am grateful for the patience that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government have shown in listening to representations on behalf of Slough, whose population has grown massively, but which is not having that change reflected, because of failures in the way that Office for National Statistics figures are calculated. Although I recognise the demands of a three-year settlement, is there any prospect at all of some resources being directed to those places that have coped with sudden, urgent growth and which are very diverse, such as Slough? Extra resources, when our
Hazel Blears: Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), my hon. Friend is a real champion. I can tell her two things. First, I have agreed to meet the leader of her local authority to look specifically at those pressures. Secondly, and more generally, hon. Members will know that there is £50 million of extra provision for looking at community cohesion. I anticipate that some of those areas will use some of those funds to look at the pressures and impacts of the rapidly changing communities that can now be found throughout Britain.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Is the Secretary of State not aware that there is not only growing concern but growing evidence that Labour-controlled authorities get much more generous grants than those authorities controlled by either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats? Is it not about time that the formula for the granting of resources to local government became not only genuinely fairer but a lot more transparent?
Hazel Blears: What is true is that, under Labour Governments, all local authorities get better settlements than they did under Tory Governments. In fact, by the time we get to the end of this spending period
Mr. Speaker: Order. I must put it on the record that an hon. Member has left the Chamber after asking a question before we have moved on to the next question. That is a practice that I will not tolerate, and I suggest that the Whip have a word with the hon. Lady concerned.
I was about to remind the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) that it is Labour Governments who are the most generous to local authorities of whatever political persuasion. Under this Government, we will have had a 45 per cent. real-terms increase in local government spending by the end of this spending review period. None of us will forget that, in the last four years of the last Conservative Government, there was a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in spending for local government.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Aylesbury vale is a designated growth area earmarked for substantial additional housing over the next two decades, and I had a very reasonable and constructive exchange on that subject with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), on 4 December. Will the right hon. Lady tell the House what discussions she has had with her right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that additional resources are made available on timethat is, concurrently with the housing developmentso that health provision and educational facilities are of the standard that my constituents are entitled to expect?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about ensuring that the new housing developments are part of thriving, vibrant communities that have schools and health facilities that make them the kind of places in which people want to live. There is a great deal of cross-government working going on as a result of the Green Paper to ensure that we provide exactly that kind of infrastructure, and the community infrastructure levy will help local authorities to ensure that developers and landowners make their contribution to making these communities excellent, high-quality places to live.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My own county of Leicestershire is generally a sea of prosperity surrounding an archipelago of islands of difficulty. The Conservative-controlled county council has said that it believes it has had a reasonable settlement this year. Is the Minister satisfied that, following that decent grant settlement, the extra funds for those islands of disadvantage are actually being spent within those towns and villages in Leicestershire and not on pet projects for the councils own Conservative areas?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend knows that we are undertaking negotiations on the local area agreements in every local authority area. It is vital that, within those agreements, funds are targeted at the areas where we need to make the greatest progress. In addition, we have the working neighbourhoods fund, and I am absolutely determined that that will enable us to tackle worklessness in the poorest and most deprived communities, where people need extra help to get back into work.
The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper):
HIPs are already cutting costs and delays in delivering searches, as well as providing energy information across the market. The Government also commissioned an independent report by Europe Economics on the impact of HIPs on the housing market, including the impact of the first phase. The report found no evidence of any impact on transactions or prices, and concluded
that the predicted impact on listings was short term and marginal compared with the wider factors affecting the market.
Philip Davies: Everybody knows that anyone who takes decisions can make mistakes. One of the things that the public do not like about politicians is that they never seem to admit to having made a mistake. A local estate agent told me this morning that the downturn in the housing market was at least partly caused by the introduction of HIPs, and there are many other experts in the field who will line up to criticise them. Will the Minister do her bit to restore peoples trust in politicians by admitting that she got this wrong, scrapping HIPs and stopping defending the indefensible?
Yvette Cooper: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that his local estate agent is out of line with all major commentators on that? That is exactly why we commissioned Europe Economics to do an independent analysis and to seek the additional advice of Peter Williams, a former member of the Council of Mortgage Lenders and also a member of the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, in order to do a full assessment of the overall impact on the market and of the particular impact of the first phase of introduction. It was very clear about there being no impact on transactions or prices and emphasised that the market was being affected by a much wider range of important factors, including the global credit crunch, which is of course having an impact on the market.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): After the initial delays in commencing the home information pack programme, it seems to have rolled out now relatively trouble-free. National Energy Services, which is based in my constituency, has reported that it has registered 85,000 energy performance certificates since 1 August. Home condition surveys are not a mandatory part of HIPs, so what work is the Department doing to secure the views of those who have had those surveys done, perhaps with a view to rolling out the home condition surveys as a mandatory part of HIPs in future?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend may be aware that the area trials looked into home condition reports, conducting detailed interviews with buyers as well as sellers. We await the final report, which will be published for further discussion about the way forward.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Will the Minister provide us with specific examples of actual house purchases that have been materially influenced by the content of home information packs? Will she arrange for any such case study examples to be placed in the Library so that we can make an objective analysis of whether they are doing any good?
We have certainly been given anecdotal evidence from particular estate agents. In one case, for example, early information about land title had highlighted a problem with the sale at an early stage; without it, such information might not have emerged until much later in the process. Detailed assessments have been going on in area trials, as I mentioned, and we are also
conducting ongoing monitoring. It will be important to link the energy performance certificates with the new green homes service, starting in the spring, which can target people with F and G-rated homes to provide serious financial support as well as clear advice on how to cut carbon emissions and fuel bills.
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): The Minister has already referred to the Europe Economics study that was conducted prior to rolling out HIPs for one and two-bedroomed homes. However, that study was carried out because the earlier area trials, to which the Minister has also referred, had never been published. Those were £4 million trials, whose results were promised to the House by the end of the year in June and July by the Minister herself and to the other place in October. Yet notwithstanding the £4 million cost, those results have never been published. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when those results will actually be published and how muchin addition to that £4 millionthe research by Europe Economics, which told the Minister what she wanted to hear, cost to commission?
Yvette Cooper: The two reports looked into completely different things. The Europe Economics report looked into the wider impact on the housing market and, in particular, at the roll-out to three and four-bedroomed properties. The area trials were conducted by Ipsos MORI in an independent assessment and have been looking into and following through individual cases, including those where a home condition report was involved. That is obviously not part of the three and four-bedroom roll-out, which was assessed by Europe Economics, as I said. We have not yet received a final report from Ipsos MORI. As soon as we do, we will, of course, publish it for scrutiny by the House.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will answer questions 7 and 12 together. It is councils that decide the level of council tax. The Department publishes the actual figures each year after all authorities have made their budget returns in March. We will do so again, as usual, this year.
Mr. Mackay: Does the Minister not understand that people are not fools and they know perfectly well that it is not just councils that set council tax? They know that the Prime Minister is introducing another stealth tax here by imposing statutory regulations on local authorities without adequately funding them to carry out their responsibilities.
We have an established system that recognises the net increase in any extra burdens and responsibilities that we place on local authorities, and
that is reflected in the settlement. There is no reason why anyone should experience excessive council tax rises this year. The increase that we have made continues the real-terms increase for local government that we have seen over the last 10 years under this Government. It gives all local authorities the certainty of knowing for three years what they will receive, it gives them the greater flexibility and freedoms for which they have asked, and it makes clear that their ability to manage lies, in many ways, in their own handsin the efficiencies that they should be able to achieve for their council tax payers over the next three years.
Mr. Hands: The Minister will know that Conservative- controlled Hammersmith and Fulham council is proposing a 3 per cent. cut in council tax for the second successive year. That compares with an average annual increase of 7.7 per cent. under Labour over the previous 12 years. Remarkably, although band D council tax will now be £863 a year rather than the £1,064 that it would be if Labour were still in charge, the Audit Commissions independent rating for the councils services has increased from three stars to four. Surely the Minister must join me in congratulating the council on its excellent performance.
John Healey: Of course it had a very good basisa Labour basison which to build. Residents of Hammersmith and Fulham may well be looking at council tax cuts, as they did in the current year, but they are also looking at library cuts, law centre cuts and cuts in vital voluntary sector groups.
The hon. Gentleman refers to band D council tax figures, but fewer than one in six dwellings across the country are in band D. If he wants to swap figures according to political control, I must tell him that the average council tax level for all dwellings is £260 higher under Conservative authorities than under Labour authorities this year, and rose by more this year than last year.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The Ministers last statement cannot go unchallenged. As he well knows, that difference is simply because there are more properties in higher bands in Conservative authority areas. I hope he will apologise for misleading the House in such a way.
John Healey: As the hon. Gentleman represents the City, one would expect him to be good with figures. I repeat that the problem with band D figures is that fewer than one in six properties are in band D. The right figures to use are those for the average council tax on all dwellings. Let me give them to the hon. Gentleman. The average council tax under Labour authorities this year was £938, the average under Conservative authorities was £1,200, and the average under Liberal Democrat authorities was £1,039. There have been higher rates and higher rises under the Tories than under Labour.