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Local Government Expenditure

10. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): What proportion of local government expenditure was (a) raised locally and (b) met by Government grant in 2007-08. [206431]

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): About a quarter of council revenue spending is financed by council tax; about three quarters is financed from Government grant.

Paddy Tipping: Is the balance of funding right? If more money were raised locally, would not local authorities and local councillors be more receptive and sympathetic to the needs of people who live in their areas?

John Healey: Some argue that, but it is also important for all local councils to be properly funded. That requires a significant redistribution of central Government funding, which we make each year, and, thus, a significant proportion of central Government support, which we give each year. Over the past 10 or 11 years, the proportion of funding raised through council tax has remained at about a quarter. The proportion of central Government funding has, of course, risen: local councils have seen rises of more than 39 per cent. above inflation over those 10 years, which directly contrasts with the three years before 1997, when there was a 7 per cent. real-terms decrease.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Why is local government grant divided in such a way that a child educated in Devon receives £500 per annum less than a child educated in Manchester? Given that teachers are paid the same nationally, how on earth can that be fair?

John Healey: Quite simply because, although the hon. Gentleman’s party leader does not appear to want to continue it, we have a system of funding local councils and the people who live in their areas according to the needs in those areas. That is intrinsic to our system, and that is the way it will remain.

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Topical Questions

T1. [206411] Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): My Department will continue with our three priorities of building more homes, empowering local people and building strong communities.

Andrew George: In my constituency, three times as many properties continue to be sold to second home buyers than to first-time buyers. The Government’s rural advocate and their Affordable Rural Housing Commission recommend action, and meetings that I had with the Minister for Housing’s predecessor and with the Prime Minister have left the door open for action, so can I assume that the Government will act to rebalance the market? If so, when will they do so?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Planning policy statement 3 on housing empowers local authorities to shape housing according to the specific circumstances of their local areas. I understand the point that he is making about rural areas, particularly in respect of second homes. Our problem is that introducing something such as a requirement to obtain planning permission to use a property as a second home is difficult and impractical. That is because decisions on a planning application can be made only on the basis of land-use planning considerations, and whether someone who is purchasing a property already has a main residence elsewhere is not such a land-use planning consideration. I understand the points that he has made, and that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) is examining the matter.

T2. [206412] Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): In the two years since the system’s introduction, my local authority, like many up and down the country, has not taken the opportunity to designate areas for selective licensing of houses in multiple occupation, and, as a result, many of my constituents are living in very substandard conditions. I know that a review is being undertaken. Will the Minister incorporate this matter into the review to ensure that we find a way to move forward, so that there can be a genuine partnership between Government and local authorities to cover those who are not being serviced locally?

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. We have provided an opportunity in a number of different ways for local authorities to investigate and license properties that represent HMOs—for example, the mandatory licensing system and the additional licensing system for smaller properties. I must say to him that only one local authority has sought permission from the Department to use that power. We also have selective licensing for a wider area, where a local authority believes that a situation is detrimental to the sense of neighbourhood in those communities. I believe that about five authorities have come forward in that regard, and his is not one of those. The Building Research Establishment is reviewing the
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licensing arrangements and I shall ensure that it takes on board the points that he makes. We must ensure that available powers are used, and where they are not being used, we need to know why. We need to look into this area.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I was very concerned to read in The Independent on Sunday that the Prime Minister is very critical of the Secretary of State’s handling of the bin taxes. I was especially interested to read that a Downing street spokesman had said of the bin taxes that they would be

Given the bin taxes’ ability to come, zombie-like, back from the grave, that does not bode especially well for the Prime Minister’s long-term prospects. Will the right hon. Lady now lay this discredited policy to rest and kill off the bin tax pilots and the bin tax laws currently before Parliament?

Hazel Blears: I do not know about people coming back from the dead, but I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the Dispatch Box from Crewe, and I know that Tamsin Dunwoody will be an excellent Member of Parliament for that constituency from Friday morning.

The Government’s interests lie in ensuring that we encourage people to recycle. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my care for the environment and ensuring that we have a proper system of incentives and rewards to encourage this country to take its responsibilities for the environment seriously. I thought that the slogan was “Vote blue and go green”, but that does not sound very green.

Mr. Pickles: Well, I am not sure that that will do for the Prime Minister. May I remind the Secretary of State that the Government have put a pin into the voodoo doll of the bin tax on four previous occasions? They scrapped it on 27 April, 12 September and 24 October last year, and again as recently as 5 May this year. Given that those occasions coincided with deep crises for the Government, may we anticipate a further announcement about the fate of the bin taxes in the early hours of the morning on Friday 23 May?

Hazel Blears: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman recognises this statement:

That is a direct quotation from Paul Bettison, who is the Tory chairman of the environment board of the Tory-controlled Local Government Association. Perhaps there is a rift between the LGA and the hon. Gentleman.

T3. [206413] Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Councillor Manjula Sood, who last Thursday was unanimously elected as lord mayor of Leicester, the first Asian woman lord mayor of any UK city, and in almost 800 years of the mayoralty in Leicester? Following Councillor Sood’s example, will my right hon. Friend say what progress has been made to ensure the recruitment of a greater number of women councillors and councillors from ethnic minorities, especially women councillors from ethnic minorities?

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Hazel Blears: I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in those congratulations. I have met Councillor Sood and I wrote to her on 30 April congratulating her on her appointment. I wrote:

I agree entirely that we do not have enough councillors from black and minority ethnic communities, especially women; we have only 168 out of 20,000 councillors. I am pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality this week launched a taskforce to see what practical steps we can take to ensure that more people come forward so that our councils are more representative of our communities as a whole. I have no doubt that Councillor Sood will be an excellent lord mayor and I wish her all the best for her year of office.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Thanks to the Minister for Housing’s transparent choice of stationery, we now know that her Department expects house prices to, at best, fall by 10 to 15 per cent. What is the Department’s estimate of the worst-case scenario?

Caroline Flint: What we are working towards at the moment is how we can engage with the construction industry, mortgage lenders and across Government to ensure that we do whatever we can to deal with the present challenges. Fundamentally, we need a long-term view of how we can ensure that when the upturn comes—and it will—we are on task to build more homes. That is our agenda and that is what we will do. We will continue to engage in a common-sense, practical way that delivers for our communities.

T4. [206414] Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Many of my constituents express increasing frustration about the length of time that they have to wait on Sheffield council’s waiting list for a council house. What does my right hon. Friend think needs to be done to improve allocations policy and to make it work more successfully for our hard-working decent families?

Caroline Flint: I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in this subject and her commitment to ensuring not only that we build more affordable homes, including social homes for rent, but that we avoid the mistakes of the past, when we have often created two cities in one—one for those in the social housing sector and one for those in the private housing sector. As we work towards producing our Green Paper on housing reform towards the end of this year, we will look at how the allocation system can be fairer and more transparent and at whether there are inequalities in it that need to be addressed. We need to address how much more we can enable people to get the skills to work while finding ways in which we can support young working people on low incomes so that they get access to housing.

T9. [206419] Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Given that Cranbrook in East Devon will be a prototype eco-town, can we expect some support from the Government in ensuring that it is a zero-carbon development through the provision of a combined heat and power station?

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Caroline Flint: We are obviously working with the local authorities and partners in the Cranbrook area to support the delivery of the housing and of the necessary infrastructure. To support that, we have provided £1 million in 2007-08 and £5.5 million for 2008 to 2011. At the same time, we are working to see how we can ensure that homes can meet higher environmental standards over the next few years. I am working with the industry on a journey towards zero carbon for all new buildings by 2016. Clearly, some developments in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world will be affected by that.

T5. [206415] Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the tremendous contribution that the new deal for communities programme can make to the regeneration of local areas, including King’s Norton in south Birmingham. When will she make an announcement on the final year’s funding for the new deal for communities programme? When she makes that announcement, will she emphasise the importance not only of the much-needed infrastructure work but of the community development work that will be one of the important legacies of the programme?

Hazel Blears: I am very pleased with the progress on the new deal for communities in King’s Norton. My hon. Friend has been a key driver for that programme. I should be in a position to make some final decisions in June, so he does not have too long to wait. I urge the local authority in Birmingham to work with the community development trust that is already established there. My hon. Friend will know that regeneration is about far more than just bricks and mortar. Unless we support the families in those areas, we will not get the long-term sustainable regeneration that is so important for the future.

T10. [206420] Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): May I commend the Secretary of State for calling my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) shortly after his victory in the London mayoral election? I think that the Minister for the Olympics did the same. What advice has the Secretary of State given to the Prime Minister, who has yet to make that call? The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that he would make contact with the Mayor

In London, an awful lot of matters need to be discussed, not least knife and youth crime. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the Prime Minister, as perhaps it is time for him to make that call?

Hazel Blears: The Prime Minister has done better than simply making a private call. He has congratulated the Mayor in public and is happy to engage with him. The hon. Gentleman might want to have a word with the new Mayor himself. I understand that the Mayor recently met Mayor Bloomberg, from New York. Mayor Bloomberg’s advice to Mayor Johnson was to get rid of his manifesto commitments as soon as he could, because he might find them a bit inconvenient. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell the new Mayor that he wants him to abide by those commitments.

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T6. [206416] Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The Housing Minister will be aware of the concerns that are being raised by some residents of newly built estates about the role of property management companies. She might well be aware of the all-party group that has recently been set up. Will she be willing to meet that group to discuss its concerns and what the Government can do to address those issues?

Caroline Flint: I welcome the formation of the all-party group, and the work that my hon. Friend contributed to its establishment. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) who for some weeks now, if not months, has been talking to me about the problem of the lack of empowerment felt by residents in homes run by property and land maintenance companies in respect of charges on communal areas and other matters. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friends, and I apologise for not having been able to find the time before now. We will make sure that an appointment is put in the diary.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Could the Minister explain how a contradiction in Government policy will be resolved? On the one hand, the Government are working for the regeneration of our high streets, market towns and seaside resorts. On the other, their planning policies—which may allow an additional four supermarkets in Teignmouth and Dawlish, bringing the total there to seven—are likely to lead to the closure of shops in those high streets.

Hazel Blears: I certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to press on with our policy of putting town centres first and making sure that they are vibrant, exciting places for people to shop. We also intend to make sure that we plan properly for the impact of major retail developments. There is no contradiction at the heart of our policy making: we intend to make sure that our retail centres continue to be the sort of places to which people want to go to do their shopping and which contribute to the quality of life that is so important to all of us.

T7. [206417] Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accept that it is time that the Cabinet met outside London? I suggest that their first such meeting should be held in Stockton-on-Tees. That would give Cabinet members the opportunity to listen to, and gain experience from, local people, and to hear about the wide range of delivery of Government service.

Hazel Blears: As usual, my hon. Friend is a champion of her area. In a speech just last week, I suggested that the Cabinet might like to consider meeting outside London—

Mr. Iain Wright: In Crewe!

Hazel Blears: In Crewe, indeed. My proposal was not just for the Cabinet to meet outside London, but
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that it should engage with local people and schoolchildren to take evidence about what is happening in our communities. That is vital, as there is an awful lot that we can learn from the day-to-day experiences at the sharp end. I cannot promise my hon. Friend that the first meeting will be held in Stockton, but I am sure that she will be the first of many to seek such a meeting.

T8. [206418] Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that the best way to tackle extremism is through understanding and knowledge. Crawley’s Interfaith Network does a fantastic job of bringing together people of faith—and of no faith—to increase that understanding. Will she ensure that the funding that has made it possible for us to have a co-ordinator will continue, so that the network’s excellent work can go on?

Hazel Blears: As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important matter, and one in which she has been particularly active in seeking to build the resilience of her local community. She will know that the Government’s inter-faith strategy has been out for consultation, and I hope to be in a position to respond very soon. It is absolutely vital that we bring together people of different faiths. Very often, people discover that the major faiths in this country have far more in common than they have differences. The opportunity for people to debate and to do things together is really important. This is not just about social dialogue: it is about social action that brings people together to share experiences. That is the way we build strong communities.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Hundreds of my constituents are still not in their homes after last year’s floods, and dozens are still in caravans. I know that, like me, the Minister is fully aware of the suffering and anguish that so many people have endured in the past year. What steps are he and the Government taking to work with the insurance industry to ensure that people get back in their homes as soon as possible, and that hundreds of people are not still out of their homes come Christmas?

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): The hon. Gentleman is right. Something like 1,000 households are still not fully back in their own homes, and about 300 are still living in caravans in his East Riding local authority area. So far, central Government have given his council over £6 million, and there will be more to come. I met the leader of the Association of British Insurers last week, and I shall meet the chief executives of the leading companies in a couple of weeks’ time. I pay tribute to the work that they and local councils such as the hon. Gentleman’s have done to try to get people back in their own homes. It is clear now that over the next couple of months we need to step up our efforts and pull out all the stops to get more people back in their own homes, certainly by the anniversary of those terrible floods last summer. That is exactly what we will do.

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