9 Mar 2010 : Column 133

9 Mar 2010 : Column 133

House of Commons

Tuesday 9 March 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked-

Planning Appeals

1. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Under what exceptional circumstances planning inspectors may consider representations on planning appeals made after the deadline for submissions has passed. [320996]

The Minister for Housing (John Healey): Information can be accepted after the deadline when there has been a material change in circumstances or when there are demonstrably good reasons for the deadline to have been missed.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that response and for his earlier telephone call to my office. He will be aware that, in a planning appeal in Innsworth in my constituency, although the public inquiry date has passed and the inquiry has finished, a change of details has been submitted by the developer. A rather confusing letter from the Secretary of State's office purports to reopen the inquiry, but surely that cannot be an open and transparent way of dealing with planning applications. Will the Minister look into this issue further?

John Healey: The material change of circumstances in that case was the offer from the developer, after the inquiry, to increase the proportion of affordable housing in the proposals-something that I would have assumed that the hon. Gentleman welcomes. Clearly, it would have been wrong if the Secretary of State had not then sought the views of the parties at the inquiry to that change in the proposals. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has acted openly and done the right thing in seeking those views. He is currently considering the case carefully.

Efficiency Savings

2. Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): What guidance he has issued to local authorities on achieving efficiency savings without reducing front-line services. [320997]

9 Mar 2010 : Column 134

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. John Denham): I asked an expert taskforce, chaired by Sir Steve Bullock, mayor of Lewisham, and Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester city council, to look at how best to achieve efficiency savings and protect front-line services. Their report "Putting the Frontline First: Meeting the local government challenge" was published on 1 March. It sets out 10 decisive steps that councils can take to achieve efficiency while delivering high-quality local services. Local people will rightly be intolerant of any council if they are told that front-line services like care provision, libraries or youth services will be cut because it has failed to carry through all the recommendations made in our experts' taskforce report.

Mr. Hendrick: Will my right hon. Friend comment on the disgraceful situation at the now Conservative-led Lancashire county council? It has received a 5.1 per cent. increase in Government grant but has cut the budget by 3 per cent., with the likelihood that 200 to 300 jobs will now be lost. The council is also failing to support the staff at the National Football museum who need an agreement to be reached between Lancashire county council and Manchester city council so that the museum can remain at Preston and in Manchester as well.

Mr. Denham: First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's sterling efforts to support the football museum and to retain it for his constituency? He makes an important wider point, because some local authorities are trying to suggest that the cuts that they are making to front-line services in some way reflect cuts in central Government finance or the wider economic circumstances. As he has rightly highlighted, English local authorities received, on average, a 4 per cent. cash increase for the coming year, and the cuts that are being made reflect the decisions of Tory and Liberal local authorities to make them at a local level.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council on delivering a council tax cut for the fourth year in a row while preserving its four-star quality rating for services? Will he also use this occasion to apologise to the leader of the council for saying that the leader had allegedly said of council tenants, "These people are hard to shift"? That is totally and utterly untrue, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman apologised for that mis-statement.

Mr. Denham: I prefer the records of the eight Labour London local authorities that have frozen council tax while protecting front-line services. He will be aware of the impact of local decisions to raise charges for elderly people and of housing strategies that seem to be designed to deny security of tenure to people who have long enjoyed secure local housing. I do not share his assessment of his local authority's record-indeed, far from it; I think it is a warning that should be broadcast to tenants up and down the country, and I will do my very best to make sure that it is.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Ryanair was recently voted the least family- friendly company in the country. In the light of that, what is my right hon.
9 Mar 2010 : Column 135
Friend's view of local authorities that seek to make efficiency savings by instituting two-tier services, with a no-frills basic?

Mr. Denham: I worry greatly about councils that are proposing what they call a budget-airline or Ryanair approach to local government, with services stripped down to the most basic level. The only people who enjoy decent services are those who can afford to pay for them twice-once through the council tax, and once through charges. For example, I was told the other day that Wolverhampton council has made it part of its standing orders that every service should be charged at a full-cost recovery rate, unless specifically authorised otherwise by a cabinet member.

I think that that approach will leave large numbers of people on middle incomes unable to enjoy decent council services. It is a shame that it is being championed by the Opposition.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The Secretary of State seems very keen to talk about this year's Budget settlement, but less keen to talk about Government grants looking ahead. What guidance has he received from the Treasury about the scale of future cuts that councils will need to make? Does he really believe that efficiencies alone will be able to halve the deficit?

Mr. Denham: I certainly believe that the budget reduction programme set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the pre-Budget report is a credible one. It can be delivered in local government without damaging front-line services, provided that the hard decisions are taken to deliver efficiencies. My Department set out in the PBR where we expect savings to be made through operational efficiency and through savings on particular local government services. That can be done so that members of the public see their services protected and improved where they use them.

Julia Goldsworthy: The problem is that the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinks that that is simply not possible, and that deep cuts will follow in years ahead. Given that no credible detail is forthcoming from either the Government or those on the Conservative Front Bench, should the right hon. Gentleman not be doing the responsible thing and advising councils to prepare for the worst-case scenario pointed out by the IFS-that is, reductions of up 23 per cent. over four years from 2011?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Lady is wrong on both counts. In reply to an earlier question, I said that we have published a report from two respected local government leaders on precisely the measures that local government should be planning to take now to make the most efficient use of the available resources. As the House knows, however, the reality is that there has not yet been a comprehensive spending review for the next three-year settlement because we have been through a year of the most extraordinary economic change. The policies that we have implemented have seen the Government, the country and local government through the crisis, because we rejected the calls from the Opposition to cut our spending last year. It would have been irresponsible to try to project exact levels of spending for four years from today, given the uncertainties of the past year.
9 Mar 2010 : Column 136
Clearly, spending plans will have to be set out, but the timing is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Given the levels of support that Birmingham city council has had from the Government over the past decade, why does my right hon. Friend feel that it has got itself into such a financial mess, to the extent that thousands of jobs are threatened and services to the public are being put at risk?

Mr. Denham: I can understand the concern of my hon. Friend and other Birmingham Members of Parliament. It is true that Birmingham has not received the highest rating, shall we say, from the Audit Commission, for the quality of its financial management. The record shows that it has been given resources by the Government for tackling worklessness, but that it has failed to devote them to tackling that problem. It is a shame that Birmingham's Conservative-Liberal Democrat council is saying that front-line services will have to go, when issues about how the council manages its resources clearly need to be addressed closer to home.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Instead of shamelessly scaremongering, it would have been nice if the Secretary of State had acknowledged that local government has already had considerable success in delivering efficiency savings. Can he understand why councils feel so furious about being instructed to meet the £250 million shortfall in the Prime Minister's latest commitment to personal care? The Government define a new burden as

Will he explain which part of that £250 million is not covered by that doctrine?

Mr. Denham: It is a shame that the hon. Lady has not welcomed the fact that the Prime Minister's proposals for free care at home for those with the highest needs involve the biggest single transfer of resources from the NHS to local government since the NHS was founded in 1948. It is a massive vote of confidence in the ability of local government to deliver the policy. I believe that the savings that local government is being asked to make can be achieved. As she herself has said, local government has proved its ability to make efficiency savings and to plough them into other front-line services.

Mrs. Spelman: We all want to see help for those who most need it. The question is where the money is coming from. The Government must be living in cloud cuckoo land if they believe that the £250 million bill for changes in personal care does not fall under the definition of an unfunded burden. Is it not the case that the efficiency savings earmarked for that policy will not materialise until 2012-13, yet the policy comes into force this year? Can the Minister explain to the House where the shortfall will be found, and whether the figure of £250 million is capped? If not, is it not the case that as well as being unfunded, the policy is uncosted?

Mr. Speaker: Order. There were three questions, but one answer from the Secretary of State will suffice.

9 Mar 2010 : Column 137

Mr. Denham: In which case, Mr. Speaker, I will respond to the point that we all want to do something to help. I recall that when cross-party talks were taking place in an attempt to establish a consensus on social care, it was the Conservative party which broke out of those in order to launch a cheap-shot poster campaign, rather than try to address the serious issues that concern elderly people in this country.

Regional Regeneration

3. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government support for local authority regeneration initiatives delivered regionally. [320998]

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): An independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers published in March 2009 established that, on average, every £1 of regional development agency spend, much of which is in partnership with local authorities, will add on average £4.50 of value to their region. The PWC report found that in the Northwest Regional Development Agency area, 41,000 jobs were created or safeguarded, 8,000 businesses were assisted and 48,000 people were helped with training.

Tony Lloyd: Those figures are impressive. Does it not beggar belief that there are those who cannot make up their mind what they should do with regional development agencies, which have been such a great success in regenerating and creating employment in the north-west of England?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right. As somebody who meets a number of businesses, I know that they are horrified by the idea that any Government or potential Government would talk about abolishing the regional development agencies. That is the view not only of businesses, but of business organisations such as the Engineering Employers Federation, the CBI and the chambers of commerce. However, I notice that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) have now written down their policy, in a vague attempt to see if it will last longer than one day.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, but we want to hear about Government policy.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Last Friday's edition of Property Week condemned the Government's track record on regeneration by pointing out that the pathfinder scheme has been responsible for the demolition of more than 16,000 homes, yet has created only 3,700 new homes, with a net loss of 12,000 homes. In short, the scheme has cost £2.2 billion and knocked down four times as many homes as it created. Does the Minister regard that as a success?

Ms Winterton: As I understand it, for the scheme to which the hon. Lady refers, the expenditure so far has been on acquiring the land. It will continue. The Government are looking at ways in which we can intervene in the economy at local, regional and national level to address the problems that have arisen during the
9 Mar 2010 : Column 138
economic downturn. The Opposition have a hands-off, "don't care" attitude to regeneration and economic development.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend is well aware that the public railway in the centre of Sheffield has been transformed by the actions of the then Labour-controlled city council and Yorkshire Forward working together. She is probably also aware that at a Regional Select Committee hearing recently, every employers body that came to give evidence praised the actions of Yorkshire Forward in helping its members in the recession. For both those reasons, would it not be folly to get rid of Yorkshire Forward and other RDAs, particularly at this time of economic difficulty?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and as the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber I know also how much Yorkshire Forward is valued in terms of the work that it has done. At this point, even talking about removing that help sends completely the wrong message to businesses, because we can put together assistance to help people through into the recovery. For the Opposition to talk about dismantling that help is a very bad approach.

House Building Projects

4. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What account his Department takes of the effects on local employment in the construction industry in its decisions on the allocation of funding for house building projects. [320999]

9. Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): What account his Department takes of the effects on local employment in the construction industry in its decisions on the allocation of funding for house building projects. [321004]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Ian Austin): In September 2009 we announced that all new housing projects funded with public investment will be required to offer apprenticeships and local labour opportunities. The aim of that policy is to increase opportunities for young and unemployed people who have been particularly hard hit in the current economic climate.

Paul Rowen: I understand that, but I am sure that the Minister is aware that there are 750,000 empty homes, and that more than 200,000 construction workers are chasing 300 jobs. Does he not accept, therefore, that the Government ought to do more to bring empty homes back into use?

Mr. Austin: It is precisely because we want to do more in the housing industry that we have announced the £1.5 billion housing pledge to increase the number of homes being developed and to provide jobs in construction.

Next Section Index Home Page