CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 693-ii

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Communities and Local Government Committee

The work of the department

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Mark Prisk MP, Nick Boles MP, Rt Hon Don Foster MP and Brandon Lewis MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 176-253

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee

on Wednesday 12 December 2012

Members present:

Mr Clive Betts (Chair)

Bob Blackman

Simon Danczuk

Bill Esterson

James Morris

Mark Pawsey

John Stevenson

Heather Wheeler

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mark Prisk, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, Nick Boles, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Planning), Rt Hon Don Foster, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, and Brandon Lewis, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, gave evidence.

Q176 Chair: Can I welcome everyone to our second evidence session on the performance of the Department for Communities and Local Government? Secretary of State, a warm welcome to you and your Ministers. There are slightly fewer Ministers than we had officials at our first session, but you are very welcome.

I must start, Secretary of State, on a note of disappointment. I knew we had something in common, or at least I thought we had something in common until last weekend. I heard from your very own mouth that you are more fondly disposed towards Essex than Yorkshire.

Mr Pickles: I am; I am.

Chair: I can entirely understand how this might be due to political necessity in terms of the ballot box, but it certainly is deeply disappointing to a fellow Yorkshireman to hear that said.

Mr Pickles: I have to say this, Mr Betts. It was the bling what done it.

Q177 Chair: Secretary of State, let us go back to matters of even greater importance. In terms of your Department, we talked to you last year, when Departments were ranked in the Civil Service People Survey; you were the second worst Department out of all of them. You have actually exceeded that this year; you are ranked the worst. Does this cause you concern?

Mr Pickles: I thought we had improved considerably. I think approximately 70% of staff would like to be working in the Department in one year or three years from now. I would have thought you would have been very pleased that, having gone through the process of reducing the staff by 44% and been through that traumatic period, on a number of key indicators, including where the Department is going in terms of leadership, we have seen improvements. We also have to bear in mind, Mr Betts, that I inherited a Department that was not very happy, where there was an attitude of bullying of staff, which we have managed to deal with. If you recall, under my predecessors the Department was compared unfavourably to a pantomime cow. It might have been a horse, but it was certainly one of the two.

Q178 Chair: Perhaps it is the cow now and was the horse before. Seriously, the issue of morale is one that came through the surveys. There have been problems. How far they go back is of course an issue, but certainly the surveys for 2010 and 2011 showed there was a real problem with morale. I think we accept there has been a significant reduction in staff, which itself affects morale, but could you say what you feel you and your Ministerial team have been able to do to keep morale somewhat higher and people focused on the important work at hand?

Mr Pickles: The new results are out and they do show a big improvement in our position. In just about every instance you can see us moving forward. On organisational objectives and purpose we have moved forward by 10%. Learning and development has moved forward by 14%. In terms of whether the senior management are sufficiently visible, that has increased by 10%.

Looking across the piece, I think it has been a process through which, having been through-as you rightly point out-a considerable reorganisation, the Department is looking to be in a much happier position. You have to understand, however, that we started from a very low base. I am pleased that the culture of bullying no longer exists.

Q179 Chair: In terms of what the future holds, we obviously have the Autumn Statement. We have heard about the further reductions in Departments. It seems that DCLG has been exempt from next year’s further reductions but will then receive a 2% cut.

Mr Pickles: Local Government is being cut.

Chair: So the Department itself will take a further cut next year.

Mr Pickles: Yes.

Chair: Is that achievable while maintaining the focus on the key issues the Department has to deal with?

Mr Pickles: I am a very prudent man and my Ministers are the very model of prudence, and we did make plans for what might have been possible. This was certainly at the lower end of expectations, so I do not anticipate any significant problems in being able to do it.

Q180 Chair: So it is not likely there will be another round of redundancies amongst staff. Can you offer us a reassurance?

Mr Pickles: I anticipate that at some stage, as localism develops, we might want to look at the way in which the Department is being run. However, I do not think producing this 1% or 2%, as far as the Department is concerned, represents a significant problem.

Q181 John Stevenson: As you will appreciate, the Treasury is obviously concerned about budgets, reserves and the use of them by Departments. In 201112, £885 million was used from the contingency reserve of your Department. I understand that may have been used for the freeze in council tax. It may have been used for other purposes. Could you let us know what purposes it was used for?

Mr Pickles: We have had the reputation of the cando Department. We do have a very good system of being able to hold and control our expenditure. When we look around in terms of making contributions, the council tax freeze is entirely separate from that. I should make that absolutely clear.

Q182 John Stevenson: The money used for the council tax freeze did not come from the contingency fund, did it?

Mr Pickles: Not from our Department, no. It came from the Treasury. I would not have the temerity to ask the Treasury where they got the money from.

Q183 John Stevenson: Do you think that is a good use of it?

Mr Pickles: The council tax freeze is, absolutely. If you are a hardworking family, you have been used to seeing your council tax double over the last 15 years. We have been able to hold council tax for the first two years of this Parliament-and now, hopefully, for three years of this Parliament. I think that will give you a considerable feeling that the Government is on your side. Yes, I think it s a very good use.

Also, it establishes the principle of partnership between local authorities and the Government. It is entirely voluntary. If people do not want to take the council tax freeze, it is entirely up to the individual authorities. It means if local authorities are prepared to do that little bit extra to help it get back to zero, then the Government is also willing to do that.

Q184 John Stevenson: Do you foresee council tax being frozen again in the same manner?

Mr Pickles: I would not dream to be able to look into the heart of the coalition on these matters, but, should they decide to do so, I certainly would be willing to do my part.

Q185 Simon Danczuk: Can I start by wishing everybody a festive and happy Christmas? The question is regarding the chief executives and senior officers within local authorities. Will the proposals announced on 9 November, Secretary of State, to limit payoffs to senior council officers result in it becoming easier for councils to dismiss senior officers?

Mr Pickles: You are probably very familiar with this, but it comes from the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) Regulations 2001, which was an update of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. That sets up quite a laborious process by which to get rid of a chief executive; it can be quite an expensive process to do so. While I am second to none in my admiration for chief executives, I do not see why they should be treated any differently from other local authority staff. It seemed to me to be a burden that local government was finding difficult to deal with and I was only too pleased to respond to the request from local government to do this.

Q186 Simon Danczuk: That is fair enough. Following on from that, I am given to understand that these safeguards were laid by Margaret Thatcher’s Government.

Mr Pickles: It would have been, in 1989. I suppose that means now I have committed the ultimate sin; I have defied the great lady. However, it is even worse than that, because in the 1983 election Michael Foot stood on a platform of wanting to give local authorities a general power of competence and the great lady denounced that as communism. I am afraid this is the second betrayal in a few short months.

Q187 Simon Danczuk: Are you not worried about politically motivated dismissals? That, I suppose, is the question.

Mr Pickles: I do not think local government is like that anymore. I do not think I would be worried about chief executive dismissals being any more politically motivated than dismissals of, say, those of a director of finance or human resources. I do not see why chief executives should be any different and, in the end, it is the taxpayer who has to pay. There was a feeling that chief executives had become the new untouchables, the ones who simply could not be removed-a kind of power elite.

It does seem to me that, regardless of political affiliation, most local authorities go about this business in a very straightforward way. I inherited someone appointed by the Labour Party and, indeed, when I was a councillor I clashed with my present Permanent Secretary, but I have no worries whatsoever about working alongside him. What we look for in a chief executive is somebody very senior, very competent and who can actually carry the confidence of the general council.

A chief executive who becomes partisan is a chief executive whose days are numbered. I do not want to name names, but you can think of some of the really big and important ones. They have managed to work with all political sides.

Simon Danczuk: You might be relieved to hear that I agree with your proposals.

Mr Pickles: There we go.

Brandon Lewis: Chairman, can I just say something? One thing related to that point that is really important to note is the kind of difference this could make to taxpayers. We can see examples around the country of small district authorities who are looking at payoffs for their chief executives in excess of £100,000. We are now starting to see, this week, authorities doing this in a far more sensible, managed way. I will be parochial about this: in Norfolk, a chief executive is on over £200,000. He has decided to step down to allow someone new to come in and take the authority in a new direction. He has taken a payoff of just £35,000. It is still a lot of money, but it is a much more sensible than district councils having to pay in excess of £100,000.

Hopefully this will give the message that, actually, districts can renegotiate and look at getting something more sensible, because it is taxpayers’ money. It is a really good step forward.

Q188 Bob Blackman: There are a number of high profile issues where chief executives have either left or are leaving local authorities. Are you concerned about those negotiated departures that are still going on where, quite clearly, there has been a political clash? These have not necessarily, as the Secretary of State has said, related to serving one political side or another, but where, clearly, the chief executive has fallen out with the political establishment of the authority and there are still some quite substantial payments in the offing.

Mr Pickles: I am worried about those substantial payments. This is one of the reasons why we will change the regulations. Partly because of the nature of the way local authorities are run and the move towards executive members’ cabinets and the like, I think they tend to be much more concerned with the actual running of the Department than Mr Betts and myself, in those halcyon days. We tended to be much more spiritual leaders.

You will always have those kinds of clashes, but you will get that kind of clash in any kind of business or any kind of service. What I am simply trying to do is make it a much more level playing field to be able to do that process. You have to rely on the professionalism of the officials and the integrity of the politicians to ensure that the threat of removal is not used lightly. Something has seriously gone wrong to remove a chief executive. The authority will go into virtual stasis for the best part of six months, and it is a very traumatic process. I think we need to separate the regulations and the actual de facto process.

Mr Foster: Can I just add one other thing? One of the other reasons why I think it is important is to recognise that local government structures are changing in many ways. One of the things we are seeing and encouraging is more joint, cooperative work between councils, such as backoffice sharing and so on. We are also seeing a number of councils sharing chief executives. The idea of having one of the two step down or both step down for a new one to come in will also be something they will be looking at. We have something like 20 councils that have shared chief executives.

Q189 Mark Pawsey: I wonder if we might move onto the planning system. In October, Mr Boles came and spoke to the Committee. He had been in his position for only a number of days at that time. One of the things we focused on was the importance of the local plan, under the new National Planning Policy Framework. We expressed concerns that a large proportion of councils had not adopted local plans. It was a question I was happy to ask because my local authority adopted its local plan several years ago. They always put a large resource into planmaking, in addition to development control.

Have you had any further considerations on how we can speed up the process of getting local plans adopted? There are lots of difficulties in the system and it could be simplified if we can determine development through the local plans.

Mr Pickles: I think movement is pretty quick, but Nick, would you like to outline where we are on that?

Nick Boles: Yes, thank you. Progress is good, relative to the past. I do not mean that we should be in any way complacent, though, because there is a very long way to go. From April 2011 to December 2012, the number of authorities with adopted plans increased by 59%, from 96 to 153. That means that 65% of areas have a published plan. Published is obviously still a way away from being adopted. Progress is good.

I have had meetings, just in the last two weeks, with officials. In the new year I will be having a weekly chasing meeting for the priority areas. Obviously, you cannot chase every single authority equally. What we are doing is working out a list of those authorities that either seem to have particular problems or are priority areas for growth and development. With those, we will be offering extra special support and, if necessary, I will get involved to try to understand where there are issues.

The Planning Inspectorate is always available to provide that support, too. We will be trying to actively push it through the system.

Q190 Mark Pawsey: Are you happy that councils are putting the right level of resource into planmaking? Do they have the expertise and the skill to do it?

Nick Boles: It is obviously not absolutely consistent in every area, but as a general matter, yes. If anything, probably, one of the reasons for the dip in the timeliness of decisionmaking on major applications is probably that some of the more senior planning officers are caught up doing the local plans. In a sense, we understand that. We do not want to go too far, hence the measure in the Bill.

For a transitional period, however, we do want them focusing on the local plans. We are not aware of any where they simply do not have the resources but, as I say, we will have this chasing process that will identify if there are any that do have that issue.

Q191 Mark Pawsey: When you spoke to us in October, you said you felt that some councils did not want to do local plans because they would rather have the Planning Inspectorate take the decision and therefore the flak, perhaps, when unpopular decisions came forward. Are you satisfied that that is still the case or are there things we can do to deal with that?

Nick Boles: I hope I did not suggest then that it was a common problem. I think that it has applied to relatively few authorities, but I am afraid I would not be able to suggest that there are no authorities to whom that does not currently apply.

We are not intending to give authorities much hiding room. I think it is important that I should say-as I did mention the city of York-that I have had a very good conversation with the leader of the city of York. I am meeting him in the new year. I know that they are very keen to get on with getting a local plan in place, which is exactly what we want them to do.

Mr Pickles: Mr Pawsey, you asked a question of our officials that gave me enormous heart and cheered me. You asked, I think, the question to Sir Michael Pitt. You said, "There are some instances were plans are less than thorough and less than perfect. Do you find that acceptable?" Sir Michael said, much to my delight, that he did not accept they would be less than thorough, but that he could imagine accepting a plan that is less than perfect.

I think that is actually quite important. These are proper working documents; we are not looking for perfection. I think it is part of localism that if you find authorities, like Nick was suggesting, who say, "No, we are not going to do this", pretty soon, local people will be saying, "Hold on one minute. What exactly is your purpose? Why are you there? Why is there a planning authority? Why are our plans being determined on an ad hoc basis?"

One of the things people do not understand about planning is that it is a planbased system, as the title suggests. The most exciting part of it is getting a community to put these things together.

Q192 Mark Pawsey: That is an issue that communities have not understood until quite recently, because so many authorities had not made any effort to get their local plans in place. My subsequent question was going to be: given that authorities are now under pressure to do it, are you, as the Planning Minister, happy that they are of sufficient quality?

Are they just ticking the boxes, dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s and doing the bare minimum to get a plan in place, because the Government have told them to do so?

Nick Boles: I completely agree with the Secretary of State. I particularly liked when Sir Michael Pitt said we did not want to be pernickety. That is exactly what we do not want the Inspectorate to be in reviewing these plans.

The truth is you cannot do a tickbox plan. It is actually impossible. You cannot produce a plan in a tickbox way. They must think about where they are, how they will develop and what their needs are for housing and other economic development. To give credit to local authorities, they are dealing very quickly with a new arrangement through the NPPF, which is a whole new set of expectations about what goes into a local plan than those that they used to have to deal with. I am very encouraged with how actively and enthusiastically they are doing this.

Mr Prisk: If I could briefly add to that, in my conversations with local authorities where they have a substantial housing development they are trying to unblock, they have naturally pointed out-I think they are right about this; it is the point the Secretary of State is making-that sometimes you have people who are doing a local plan for the first time in 10, 15 or 20 years, so there is a skills gap. We have tried to be positive in supporting that, whether that is through some of the work that ATLAS does, or PINS or whoever. We recognise that, but it must be a working document. This is not meant to be something that is forever frozen in aspic and meant to be perfect at the moment it is formed.

Q193 Chair: When are you going to name and shame these authorities, however small in number, who are dragging their feet and are not producing a plan with proper diligence?

Nick Boles: The beauty of it, Chairman, is that you do not need to name and shame them, because it is a very public fact. By the end of this coming calendar year, the vast majority of local authorities will have plans; most of them will be adopted. We are not planning a ritual humiliation.

Chair: Is that a new year’s resolution?

Nick Boles: I may well be subject to a ritual humiliation; that is a different matter. The local press will hold their local authorities to account for failing to do that.

Q194 Chair: Could I just pick up on one point that I think is a serious issue? One issue that local authorities do find very difficult-indeed, some Government Departments find this very difficult-is the question of onshore wind and when you get planning applications for it. The Government has targets. The Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that renewable energy is an important part of the Government’s energy targets. Onshore wind plays a part in delivering those targets.

How do we ensure, therefore, that the national requirement to hit those national targets is met by the combination of all the local plans in the country and how local planning authorities intend to deal with applications that can be very sensitive and where communities generally might completely resist them?

Nick Boles: It is tricky, Mr Chairman. It is tricky for the planning authorities and it is tricky for the Inspectorate if the Inspectorate ends up facing an appeal, because the whole point of the NPPF was that it does not try to take the decisions for the decision-maker. It sets out what the different considerations are that must be balanced against each other. Yes, our renewable commitments are very important policy but our commitment to making sure that we respect heritage and beautiful landscapes, and the views of local communities are also important. In each case, at the planning authority level, the Inspectorate level or even in the Secretary of State’s office, the decisionmaker must weigh those up.

This is equally true for housing as it is for wind farms: we are not in the business of working out-as, perhaps, previous Governments have done-how we will divide up the total among all of the areas of the country. We do believe that is right1; we do not think it is the way to run things. It certainly does not seem to deliver results when it has been tried previously. We do believe in setting out some policy principles and then allowing local areas to react to developments.

Q195 Chair: If that reaction does not equate to the delivery of the policy principles, is it the job of the Planning Inspectorate to intervene at the point of an appeal or for the Planning Inspectorate to intervene at the level of the local plans to make sure the local plans collectively are more reflective of that national policy?

Nick Boles: With specific regard to wind farms, I think you will have heard some of what John Hayes, the Minister of State for Energy, was saying recently. He is right that the throughput of wind farms already in the system is very substantial and represents a very substantial increase in capacity that, given that the renewable commitment is not just for wind farms but for all forms of renewable energy, makes a very, very significant contribution. I do not think there is any reason to believe that there is not enough progress being made. We do not believe, however, that you should be in the business of saying, "This area, unless you have shown in your plan where you will put your regional target of wind farms, you will somehow fail". We do not believe that works or is the right way to use a plan.

Mr Pickles: It does, actually, I think, press against one of the most difficult aspects of planning. What I have noticed, because I do read planning reports, is since the presumption in favour of sustainable development, you can actually see that process of looking at the environment, looking at the damage and looking at the economic gain. That is why we are seeing wind farms being turned down and wind farms being passed. I think it remains the most difficult of many of the planning issues that we face.

Q196 Chair: Moving on to housing issues and the possible, perhaps forced, renegotiation of Section 106 agreements, alongside the changes to the possible changes to these was this commitment to replace 10,000 affordable homes that might be lost as part of that process with other funding. Where did the figure of 10,000 come from?

Mr Pickles: It was extra money.

Chair: I know the money is, but where did the figure of 10,000 houses that might be needed to be funded come from?

Mr Pickles: I saw the cross examination of Mr Schofield, which laid that out.

Mr Prisk: I think that is the background to it. As the Secretary of State said, that is where the funding emanates from. That is what it would be based on.

Mr Pickles: Is there anything that Mr Schofield said that you did not like?

Chair: No, I was just asking. When Ministers announced it as a figure, it almost seemed to be a figure plucked out of the air.

Mr Prisk: No, I do not think that is what we did. What you must look at with Section 106 issues is, of course the background. There is this debate that you and I have had, Mr Betts, around the question as to whether the arrangements that are in the Bill, which Mr Boles is leading on, will actually lead to a substantial diminution of that number. We do not buy that argument. In my dealings with developers, what they say to me, looking at the picture as a whole, is that this is now already getting local authorities to start to negotiate.

Indeed, I was in Croydon-I might have mentioned it to the Select Committee when we last met-where there was a scheme that was going to have 200300 affordable homes. Nothing had been built for three years. To the credit of Croydon Council and to the developers, Barclay, we now have a scheme that will incorporate 114 as part of that package. I do not know whether Nick wants to add to that.

Nick Boles: My understanding is that, obviously, an impact assessment is produced for every measure. Like all of these things, if you are looking at a projection in the future you must make a certain number of assumptions. I believe that Peter Schofield took the Committee through this: there were 1,400 housing schemes with 75,000 units with over 10 units-those are the ones that are stalled. In the assessment, you have a look at roughly how much affordable housing will be in that and what might be affected by the negotiation.

We made this very conservative estimate-i.e. from our point of view we think it is at the upper end-that it could be up to 10,000 affordable units that, in theory, might have been delivered by those Section 106 agreements, if the market situation had not made them unviable.

As you will know, Mr Chairman, there is a proposal in this part of the same package for a funding package of £300 million of extra subsidy and £10 million of guarantees, which will deliver at least 15,000 more. Net, we will definitely be better off but, anyway, those 10,000 are only lost in theory, because none of them have been built and none of them will be built unless somebody does something about it.

Q197 Chair: Just in terms of location, the concern is about where the 15,000 extra homes are going to go. Will they be in the same places that the homes in the renegotiated Section 106 agreements would have gone, if there had been the ability to build them? Will they go in completely different parts of the country?

Mr Prisk: I do not think you can be that specific. What you must remember here is that when we are looking at these situations these are often individual negotiations between the developers and the authorities. It is true to say that where some of the clusters, if you like, of some of the sites that have become stuck over the last few years, inevitably after the crash and so on, very often you will have a grouping. They have said it to me, so it is a good example. Croydon have accepted that actually they have a large backlog of undeveloped homes. There may be a clustering, but I think it would be a mistake for us to be able to try to pretend we can pinpoint where this housing is.

Mr Pickles: I think what you are asking is, "Are we going to go back to the old system of the rich man in his castle and the poor man down the bottom?" No, absolutely not. We want to make sure we are building proper communities. Where we have helped local authorities, and this has happened on a voluntary basis, often when you look at the Section 106 agreement it might have said that 30% must be, and what we have done is negotiate that down. It might have gone down to 23% or 26% or something; we have made it viable. We have a mechanism set up where it is not just on the back of an envelope; the developer must demonstrate to the Inspectorate that it is unviable.

Mr Foster: Can I just add one other thing? Perhaps it might be answering where you are coming from, but the £300 million that is with the HCA could in certain circumstances, if it meets the value-for-money study, be used to ensure the continuation of some of those affordable houses on one of the stalled Section 106 sites, but it would have to meet the sort of criteria that Mark Prisk is talking about in terms of meeting value for money.

However, in certain circumstances-given that the land is already purchased and the planning permission has already been given, at least in outline-that may enable this to happen more quickly and, of course, it would help in ensuring mixed development, which is something we are very keen to see.

Q198 Chair: I think that is a very helpful point. Mixed developments were going to be my next point. The Secretary of State has just alluded to it as well. What everyone is slightly worried about is that the 106 sites where affordable housing is reduced end up predominantly or almost totally owneroccupied and next door you build a social housing scheme with the new money.

Mr Pickles: These were called swaps, if you remember. I have seen it in my own patch. I have seen really good developments that have social housing mixed up with slightly more expensive housing. What you are doing is building something where people live, rather than just gated communities. That is the last thing we want to do.

Mr Prisk: It is very important, Chairman, because when we are looking at this one of the things we said about building more homes is building more owneroccupied but also right across the tenures and getting that blend-so that we do make sure we get a society and local communities that balance. It is really important.

Q199 Chair: Just in terms of the problems with the current state of the economy and the problems that the Department believes developers are facing with Section 106 agreements, our feedback in evidence from the RICS and British Property Federation is that the CIL proposals are actually a bigger obstacle to growth, but there is no intention to have the renegotiation of CIL agreements required by the Department in the way that Section 106 renegotiations are being required. Why is that, when that appears, from the RICS and British Property Federation, to be a bigger problem?

Mr Pickles: We will be making some analysis with regard to CIL in the nottoodistant future. I think it will be pretty clear. I just do not want to take the surprise away, Nick. How much can you say?

Nick Boles: I cannot say a great deal. It is worth observing that there are only eight authorities that actually have CIL in place. This is entirely a prospective fear. Of course, any development is an investment in the future, so prospects matter. We have heard concerns from all of the parties and we are working with them very intensively and with the Local Government Association to come up with a series of sensible changes to make sure those fears are not realised. One very important part of that will be viability- making sure that the viability test is very rigorous and very independent before a local authority brings in CIL.

Q200 Chair: Might we see some retrospective action on CIL as per Section 106?

Nick Boles: I think I was accused of retrospective legislation during Bill Committee. I am not in favour of retrospective action, but I do not think we need it because so few authorities actually have it. They, of course, can review it at any time.

Mr Pickles: Given that the Mayor will be looking at the ones in London, I think they are in a fairly advanced stage of negotiation between boroughs, districts and the Mayor. How we got into this problem with 106 agreements was that sometimes there became a bit of a chase with regard to how much social housing was included. Sometimes that was based around, "I have 30%." "30% is nothing. I have 35%." "That is nothing. I have 40%." And so it went up. I think what we are looking for is a dose of realism, because, just to bore you to tears with the whole cliché, 50% of nothing is still nothing.

Chair: I think we have heard that before.

Mr Pickles: I felt the meeting would not be complete without it.

Chair: Before we move on to the next bit, can I just thank Nick Boles for sending the Committee a copy of the consultation on the changes to permitted development rights. The Committee may decide that it wants to respond to that consultation and, obviously, anything we hear this afternoon may help us in that response.

Q201 Bob Blackman: Can I just look at the finances first? The impact assessment suggests the savings as a result of the permitted development proposals that you are consulting on may be between £5 million and £100 million. That is a huge variation. Can you just shed some light on why the variation is so large?

Nick Boles: The difficulty of course with this is-I know I was given a slightly hard time for not being able to predict this the first time we met-we know how many applications there currently are and we can make, therefore, an estimate, as we have indeed done, of the number that therefore will no longer need to have planning permission under the permitted development right. What we cannot estimate very easily is how many people there are, who would have been put off from doing it at all by the planning process and the expense and effort involved in going through that, who will now actually come forward.

We can make a reasonable estimate. It is a slight stab in the dark, but it is a reasonable estimate of how many of the existing volume will now come through without planning permission. It is much harder to speculate on how the lack of planning permission requirement will stimulate more activity, particularly as the economy hopefully begins to recover steadily. That is why the figures are necessarily vague. What we do know is that this will be relieving local authorities of a lot of work. While a number of them have said to us, "We will lose fee income," that does not really work as an argument because they also say that fee income is inadequate to cover the costs of processing an application. If fee income is less than the cost then taking away that work saves them money.

Mr Pickles: It is a large amount. It depends on where we actually place the size-whether we go from three to six metres, four to eight metres or whether it is somewhere short of that. However, an awful lot of those that are dealt with by officers go through on the nod; it is just a process. What we are suggesting is, in order to relieve local authorities, whose planning authorities are hardpressed, that they perhaps spend time on things that are more difficult and worthwhile, rather than just being engaged purely in process. Providing that neighbour rights of light and nuisance are held to the existing arrangements, we do not see that this is as big a problem as some have suggested. I want to make it absolutely clear: we are not wedded from going from four to eight metres to three to six metres. We could well consider something a little less than that.

Q202 Bob Blackman: 90% of planning applications for extensions are approved after the local authorities has reviewed them and neighbours have had the opportunity to put their views. Often, the scale and size of an extension is brought back as a result of the quite reasonable objections that neighbours have. One of the key concerns that many people have now is that if you have a blanket permitted development, then you will end up with huge neighbourly disputes that local authorities cannot get involved in.

Mr Pickles: You are a man of considerable experience in these matters. Do you think the existing permitted development rights have caused bad feeling between neighbours? Are you asking us to repeal that so that everything comes through local authorities? Is that what you are saying?

Bob Blackman: No. Local authorities up and down the country have permitted development rights and they vary from one authority or another in many cases. It is quite clear that each is the position in that local authority, but to have a blanket position right the country on what is permitted development, particularly in urban and suburban settings, where potentially up to half of the garden will be taken away and neighbours will have no right to object-

Mr Pickles: No, half the garden is the upper limit.

Bob Blackman: Indeed. In many urban environments that is the limit that will be taken. There will clearly be objections from neighbours and they will not be able to do anything about it.

Mr Pickles: A reasonable average for a suburban garden-say, in Harrow-would be around about seven metres. Under the current arms you could build up to three metres without a problem. Under the new arrangements, because half of the garden is three and a half metres, you would be able to go out another half a metre. I do not see that this will cause a particular problem in Harrow.

Bob Blackman: I would invite you to come to Harrow and see some of the monstrosities that have been built.

Mr Pickles: It would be an honour.

Bob Blackman: People have built them outside of permitted development and waited for the local authority to try and interfere with that process.

Mr Pickles: That is under the existing system.

Bob Blackman: That is one of the other concerns that I think is rankling with a lot of people at the moment.

Mr Pickles: Is that not a reflection on the efficiency and diligence of Harrow’s planning department? If that is the case, why should the rest of us be dragged down to what you are telling us is a low standard of enforcement in Harrow?

Q203 Bob Blackman: It is not just in Harrow. Obviously, I have immediate personal experience of Harrow. Many other London authorities are saying they are scaling back on the number of planning officers they have. They are not replacing people that leave. They are not having the enforcement officers in place, because of this proposed change in permitted development. Therefore there is a queue.

Mr Pickles: Would it not make sense to relieve the pressure on them? By getting rid of things that would go through on the nod, they could get more of these planning officers out on the street finding these monstrosities and enforcing against these monstrosities?

Q204 Bob Blackman: Would that be true, but that is not the experience. You have separate planning officials and enforcement officers, and enforcement officers are being reduced. Can you just confirm, as well, that the other requirement will be that they will have to get a certificate from the local authority following this permitted development, which they will need to sell on their property at a future date?

Nick Boles: That is as they do currently with current permitted development rights. To add one thing, you have said that this is a blanket permitted development right; the existing one is a blanket national permitted development right, which local authorities can vary and add to as they will be allowed to, indeed, with the new one. The blanket national position already exists; we are just proposing to slightly alter the extent of it. The same situation with the certificate will apply. People will only do it if they need to sell it, but they will probably want to do it pretty quickly.

Q205 Bob Blackman: Would local authorities be able to charge a fee for that certificate?

Nick Boles: I would have to say I do not know. I would be very happy to write to you,2 but I suspect that whatever the current situation is would apply.

Bob Blackman: My understanding is that there is no fee involved, which means no income for the planning department. Far from reducing the bureaucracy, it actually imposes another duty on a planning department where they will get no income for the process of inspection.

Mr Pickles: Forgive me for saying so, but that is a pretty thin argument.

Bob Blackman: It is quite clear that by allowing permitted development for these extensions where there would have been a fee income for approving them in the first place, they will now be no fee but the requirement to inspect them-

Nick Boles: I am sorry, Mr Blackman, but you do not seem to have understood the position, which everybody knows and which local authorities are permanently giving us a hard time about, which is that fee income does not cover the costs of dealing with an application. Therefore, losing the application and the fee income saves the authority money.

Bob Blackman: They will still have the requirement, however.

Nick Boles: It will be a much less onerous duty, which is to go around, after it is built, and check that it is less than four metres and only single storey.

Bob Blackman: If it is not within the permitted development right-

Mr Pickles: That is exactly the same.

Nick Boles: It will be as it is now.

Mr Pickles: Forgive me: I hope you do not think I was being rude by saying I felt it was a pretty thin argument, because I have changed my mind. I think it is a thin and insubstantial argument.

Mr Prisk: To add something, quite rightly, as a Committee you flagged up right at the start the question of how we can make sure planning departments have a capability to deal with the affordable housing and so on that we need. This is a golden opportunity to be able to allow planning Departments to focus on actually what I think most of us, as elected representatives, want, which is actually to ask how our towns, as a whole, will look. What enforcement powers are underway? The fact we are removing a power on applications that are approved 90% of the time and saving councils’ money at the same time seems common sense, to me.

Q206 Bob Blackman: Just to correct the position, it is 90% that have been approved, but that is after negotiation and after making sure they are in conformance with the rules of the local planning authority. That is the key concern. That will be removed.

Can I just ask one final question? Clearly, London authorities in particular-almost to an authority-are objecting to this whole proposal. What is your answer to their objection? What are you prepared to do to alleviate their objections?

Mr Pickles: We are reasonable people. We are a byword in reasonableness. We will look very carefully at what they have to say. I think we will look very carefully at the size of extensions that are currently being approved. We hope to conduct this in a reasoned way. Our object is to free up local authorities, their time and their expertise, to enable the householders to be able to put in an extension at a reasonable price that will enhance the value of their property and the facilities available to them. It might be a room for an elderly parent or for a growing family or, for goodness’ sake, even to put up a conservatory and to enjoy a little bit of the sun, with which our nation is occasionally blessed.

Our object is not, however, to create big boxes. Our object is to make the system easier, rather than more difficult. We would look with great interest at the considerable practical advice I do not doubt the Committee will bring.

Q207 Bob Blackman: It has been suggested that Article 4 directives would be one solution. Is that what you are suggesting?

Nick Boles: That is a provision for all permitted development rights. Authorities can go through that process. They obviously need to have a case, but that is what those cases are there for. We trust them to make those cases and we have consistently pointed out, since these proposals were first published, that those Article 4 directives could be applied for areas where this just is not right, for whatever reason. It is worth reminding the Committee that these will not apply, in any event, in conservation areas.

Bob Blackman: Article 4 directives are not normally used in conservation areas.

Nick Boles: Sorry, these permitted development rights will not apply there.

Q208 Bob Blackman: Can you confirm one position about Article 4 directives? Would local authorities not be able to claim a fee for such applications and, indeed, may end up having to provide compensation for refusing an application?

Nick Boles: That is how Article 4 works. Of course, what a local authority is doing by doing an Article 4 declaration is removing from local people a right that they would have if they lived somewhere else.

Mr Pickles: It is not easy to get compensation. If the local authority behaves reasonably during the process and it is not a quixotic decision, it is very difficult.

Q209 John Stevenson: Mr Boles, back at the tail end of November, I happened to be watching Newsnight.

Nick Boles: At least you watched it.

Mr Pickles: I was watching it as well.

John Stevenson: During your interview you made the suggestion that building on an additional 23% of land in England and Wales would solve our housing problem. What does your evidence for this suggestion?

Nick Boles: I am very grateful to you, Mr Stevenson, for asking this question, because my fear is that not everybody watched Newsnight and many people might have read some of the reports that appeared in the newspapers that interpreted my comments on Newsnight in a particular way.

Firstly, what I was doing was making an argument about how little developed this country actually is-contrary to many people’s belief-and how little land would be required to completely solve any housing problem at all for the foreseeable future. What I was not doing-I want to be very clear on this, because I absolutely, passionately do not believe in it and said as much in answer to an earlier question-was setting any kind of target, plan or expectation of what would, might or needs to happen over the next 20 or 30 years, which is the period I referred to.

What I was trying to get people to focus on was the level of development in the country. It is worth mentioning this a little, because others in this debate-they all have a very legitimate place in the debate-like the CPRE have tried to suggest that the figure I used, which was 8.9% being the level of development in England was somehow an outofdate figure or an incorrect figure. It is very important, actually, to understand where this figure comes from. The final report of the Countryside Survey by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology found that 8.9% of land in England was developed. That is defined as built up and gardens. Now, this comprehensive report was based on satellite mapping of the entire country, overlaid on Ordnance Survey maps. It is, without question, the most accurate survey of the level of development in this country. That is probably why the current shadow Communities Secretary of State, as the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, praised it as an impressive undertaking for its hard, scientific evidence

The figures that others have produced, such as the CPRE, relate back to an early draft of the Barker review, which itself sourced the figures from Ministers in an official report in 2005, which themselves were based on figures from the 2001 urban settlement data. 8.9% is the truth; my only argument-Newsnight was an argument, nothing more-is that this means 91% of England is countryside. Thank God and hallelujah; I am grateful for the fact. Is that not fantastic? Does that not mean we should not be too worried about meeting our housing challenge, because there is plenty of brownfield land, empty homes and sites on scrubby land that nobody cares about?

Q210 John Stevenson: Following on from that, it depends, because a lot of people now want to live in the South-East, which is already very crowded. There is limited land. Is that not part of the problem for you?

Nick Boles: I would love to invite the entire Committee to my office in the Department, where I have the landuse maps up on the wall. The fascinating thing is that even in the South-East there are some counties where the level of development is not 8.9%; it is below 5%. If you take London out of it, which obviously is pretty much 100% developed-it’s a big old thing-the figures in the South-East are not worryingly high. The trouble is that this does not accord with our experience, because most of the way we see the countryside is driving; needless to say, settlements are close to roads. However, actually the South East is not heavily developed.

Chair: You have been saved by the bell, perhaps. We will suspend the Committee for 10 minutes and we will come back.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming-

Q211 John Stevenson: Thank you for your comments about the SouthEast. As you will appreciate, people in the SouthEast often complain that they are very crowded and do not necessarily want to see new housing. I would like to be a little bit parochial here. If you go to Carlisle, which is a place that does want to grow, would like to see an increased population and has the land to achieve it, what do you think you can do to help that happen and help rebalance the country, as much as anything?

Nick Boles: Can I hand over to the Housing Minister? This is perhaps slightly more his area.

Mr Prisk: Mr Boles leads on planning and planning reform is important so that all areas can benefit from a simpler, more clarified system. But, as you rightly say, Mr Stevenson, one of the things is how we make sure we build more homes. One of the points that was perhaps not understood in this debate about how much land is developed or not is what is driving it. 60% of it is people over 65. It is wonderful that people are living longer, but we need to understand that balance and what is driving that growth. Specifically for areas like Carlisle, we need to make sure that the planning framework is strong locally, so that that community is able to make sure it gets the housing it needs. We, in Government, are actively involved in building more homes-whether it is the 170,000 more affordable homes, the substantial expansion of the privaterented sector with the £10 billion debt guarantee that will help to do that, or making sure that the owneroccupied market is operating more effectively. For too long now it has been dysfunctional. For 15 or 20 years, we have seen housebuilding running at half the rate we need. By making sure we put in the planning reforms, by putting the investment in-£19 billion for affordable homes-by expanding and reforming the privaterented sector, and through some of the work we have been doing on things like First Buy and NewBuy so that those who would like to be able to afford to purchase are better able to do so, we are trying to make sure we deal with planning, land supply, and also the demand side; they all work together.

Q212 John Stevenson: Yes. It is the last one that is probably the problem for Carlisle, in the sense that we have the available land and the planning regime; it is just effectively extracting the population. Rather than going to the SouthEast, it is trying to persuade them to come to the NorthWest.

Mr Prisk: If I may say, in that context, when I came in, the Secretary of State was kind enough to put in my job title, "Housing and Local Growth". This Department is strong about bringing those two elements together. We have got to do that. That the Government, later on, will start to look at the extension of High Speed 2 to bring it further north; the work we are doing with, for example, Local Enterprise Partnerships; and the fact that we have now got a local infrastructure fund that is looking at housing with economic development are good signs. I should perhaps declare, Mr Betts, that Mr Stevenson was kind enough to extend an invitation to me to come and see Carlisle. I am looking forward to doing that in the first three of four months of next year, so I can see the reality on the ground for myself.

Mr Pickles: Mr Stevenson, you do have the advantage of living in a stunning part of the world that offers a very high quality of life. I thought Nick was cut off in his prime when the bell went. It is important to say about these numbers that the lesson we should take out of this is that, because of the relatively small amount of change that we need, the countryside is very safe.

Q213 Chair: Returning to the issue, I heard what was said about this not being about targets, but about raising the issue. That is exactly the same answer the Prime Minister gave me yesterday afternoon, you will be pleased to know, at the Liaison Committee-virtually the same words.

Mr Pickles: It is good to know he is on message.

Chair: Absolutely, Secretary of State. On Newsnight, Mr Boles, you did not put the caveats in about brownfield. I did not see it, but I listened to it afterwards, so I heard the words. What you actually said was: "All we need to do is build, probably, on another 2% or 3% of land-that is after the brownfield developments, because it is building land that is not currently developed-over the next 20 years and we will have solved our housing problem".

Nick Boles: I am sorry, Chair, you are quoting selectively from a film that was 10 minutes long and a discussion that was 15 minutes long. It was 25 minutes of a Newsnight programme. I very specifically, in the discussion, said, "Yes, we have to bring empty homes back into use". We are already doing that, and the Housing Minister will be able to tell us how many. Yes, we need to bring brownfield back into use, but we cannot kid ourselves that we can completely solve our housing need without building on some lowquality, environmentally uninteresting field that is currently undeveloped.

Q214 Chair: 2% or 3% more.

Nick Boles: No.

Chair: That is what it says here.

Nick Boles: I am sorry; it is not what I said, it is not what I meant and it is not what we are suggesting as a Department.

Mr Pickles: It could not be clearer.

Bill Esterson: It is what you said. It may not have been what you meant. I watched Newsnight and there is no doubt that is what came across.

Nick Boles: I am not denying that I said "2% or 3%". What I was talking about was the fact that there is only 9% of the country that is currently developed. I think the words I used were, "You could solve our housing crisis forever for the sake of this". I was not talking about the next five years; I was not talking about the next 10 years; I might not have been talking about the next 100 years. All I am saying is this country has hardly developed more than 9% of its space. That means that 91% is undeveloped. Given that we have had a 2 million addition to our population over the last 10 years, thanks to a range of policies, some of which were ones that you supported, it is not unreasonable to suggest that we are going to have to find room to build some housing and that not all of it will come from brownfield sites. I would rather you dealt with the argument; if you disagree with that and you feel that immigration has not contributed to our housing need, let us talk about that, rather than attempt to play "gotcha" on four words in a 25minute programme.

Q215 Bill Esterson: I do not think it is about that, Mr Boles; I think it is about people having an expectation. If you come to Merseyside, the greenbelt is drawn very tightly. As soon as you step outside the urban area, you are into greenbelt. Tying together what you said about empty homes and what Mr Prisk mentioned about his title including "Local Growth", where is the investment coming from? What you have in places like my constituency is developers who are very, very keen to build on the greenbelt because they think they will make more money out of it. Councils cannot include empty homes in their figures.

Mr Prisk: That is not true.

Nick Boles: That is not true.

Mr Pickles: That is not true.

Bill Esterson: They cannot in the local plan, because it is doublecounting, is it not?

Mr Prisk: Mr Foster leads on empty homes, rather than I, so he may want to add to this, but empty homes is a very important part of the package. Going back to your question about the investment, the whole point of making sure that we are putting infrastructure investment in, both economically and for housing, and making sure the two go together-some of the changes, for example, in terms of the Northern Hub for transport for the NorthWest, which, yes, affects Manchester particularly but also reaches out into your part of the world-and also some of the work in terms of affordable homes, is that it is a concrete package that makes a difference. I think empty homes and brownfield land, but also new and undeveloped land, will be part of that package.

Mr Pickles: Remember, if you bring empty homes back into use, you then get the New Homes Bonus. Do you want to say something about this, Don?

Mr Foster: Just as a simple figure, in the two years of operation of the New Homes Bonus, 38,000 empty homes have come back into use and the relevant local councils have received the New Homes Bonus for them. It is worth remembering, too, that in the announcement we made very recently, we made clear that some of the £300 million that was announced on 6 September will also be available for further support to bring more empty properties back into use. We have given a challenge particularly to the Portas areas to come forward, with the possibility of even bringing some empty commercial property into use for homes as well. There are a number of benefits. Earlier, when Mr Stevenson was asking about his own area, one of the things I was tempted to say was that his local council has now got a number of drivers provided by the Government to help, of which the New Homes Bonus is one, coupled with the work that is going on through the Regional Growth Fund, and also, very importantly, coupled with the decision we have made to, from this year, to give councils access to the benefits of the business rate so they get the real benefit of any growth. There are real incentives given to local councils to provide that mixed package.

Q216 Bill Esterson: The point I was driving at, though, was that the New Homes Bonus is not going to incentivise a developer to build on a brownfield site. They would far rather build on a greenfield or-as in my area-a greenbelt site, because it is so much cheaper and they will sell for much more. That is the analysis they do. You can understand that.

Mr Foster: Of course that is true, but it does not mean to say that they can do it.

Q217 Bill Esterson: Where is the money coming from to create a level playing field so brownfield and empty homes can be done as a priority, rather than greenfield or greenbelt?

Mr Foster: I do not want to take away from Nick Boles’s area.

Nick Boles: I am all too grateful.

Mr Foster: The one thing that seems to be forgotten in the comments that are made in this debate is that we have the NPPF. It lays down very clearly what has to be done.

Q218 Bill Esterson: But there is no money in that, is there?

Mr Foster: No, there is no money in there, but it does mean that just because the developer you are talking about would love to build on a greenfield site does not mean to say they can do it. You have already heard from Mark Prisk about the money that the Government is making available for 170,000 affordable homes, the further money announced in the Autumn Statement that is going to help, the support we are giving to encourage firsttime buyers, etc. There is a very big package of measures that we are making available that developers in your area can access.

Mr Pickles: It is not the Wild West; it is a planbased system.

Q219 Bill Esterson: You have still got the cost of decontaminating land, have you not? If that is not viable, it can be a challenge, can’t it?

Mr Pickles: Not all brownfield sites need decontaminating.

Bill Esterson: No, but there are quite a lot that do.

Mr Pickles: I really do not think so.

Mr Foster: If I might say so to the Secretary of State, even where it is necessary, the Government is stepping in and helping. There is Regional Growth Fund money being used currently for the decontamination of land.

Q220 Chair: We have to move on. Could we have a note on how much is actually being spent on decontamination? That would be helpful.

Mr Foster: Yes. I can give a specific example from my own local authority area: £7 million.

Q221 Bob Blackman: Can I just clarify one point? A lot of this exchange has been based on a few words on Newsnight and I think it is terribly important. We have had the lowest level of housing starts and finishes since before the Second World War for an extended period of time, which is a key concern for people who want homes. Mr Boles, can you clarify your remarks on the amount of land that you envisage being required? Does that satisfy the current housing need? Does it look forward to increased population growth and the need for additional housing as that population grows and people live longer and want to start families and so on? Will that mean that open land will be required? What sort of open land would be required? I think if you can clarify that, that will satisfy everyone.

Nick Boles: I will clarify how it is going to happen. The approach that we are taking is in stark contrast to the approach the previous Government took. It is similar to the earlier discussion about wind farms, in which we were asked whether we sit down and work out how many wind farms are going to have to go in each area and where they are going to go. No, we do not. What we do is put in place policies and incentives, then allow communities to plan for themselves. I am making an argument that we have a very intense housing need and that that intense housing need means that local authorities who are writing their plans now need to take that into account; they need to be very serious about it, because the inspectorate is going to measure very seriously whether they have assessed that need objectively and made proper provision for it. I am not ever going to second-guess whether they can get it out of brownfield, whether they can get it out of empty homes or, frankly, whether they want to put it all in tree houses, for all I care. That is not my job. My job is to create a framework and, with my colleagues, to put incentives in place for the development that will meet that housing need. What I was trying to do-and I accept that I did not entirely succeed-was reassure people that this country’s fantastic landscapes are not under threat. Over 30% of the countryside is in designated areas-greenbelts, AONBs and national parks-and another 60% is greenfield and has not been developed. That is what I was trying to do. I was not trying to set a target for an amount of land that was going to have to be surrendered to housing.

Chair: Communities planning for themselves; that leads on to James Morris.

Q222 James Morris: Secretary of State, some of us who observe these matters have detected some tension, perhaps, in localism policy emerging over the last two or three months, especially around some of the new planning reforms, which suggest that the Government is taking more central control over planning. Are you in the process of abandoning localism?

Mr Pickles: No. I think there is a fundamental, wilful blindness on localism. Localism, in the view of some local authorities, is power to them, and what they say therefore goes. Localism is not, and has never been, exclusively about giving powers to local authorities. Localism is about giving powers to local communities-sometimes to local authorities, sometimes through local authorities, and sometimes to individuals. I coined the phrase, with tongue slightly in cheek, "muscular localism".

Q223 James Morris: What did you mean by that?

Mr Pickles: I am going on to explain that. I mean precisely that: "muscular localism" is ensuring that we do not replace one set of tyrants-i.e. the fine bunch of people sat at this table-with another bunch of tyrants locally, and that individuals have a right to justice. Sometimes I get people saying, "We are presenting a petition of 2,000 people against this development and you have approved it". It is a plan-based system. People are entitled to justice; people are entitled to a reasonable decision. Localism is not the rule of the majority at the sake of oppressing the minority. Where "muscular localism" comes about is when we stand up for the rights of those minorities.

Q224 Bill Esterson: Are they your muscles, or are they the local people’s muscles?

Mr Pickles: They are the local people’s muscles, but we are there to enhance and to help that process.

Brandon Lewis: You raised the point about localism and where it is going. It is worth noting as well that it is not just about planning. Localism is about a whole range of things, potentially across different Departments. Even within the Department for Communities and Local Government, if you look at the Localism Act, the community right to bid and the community right to challenge, neighbourhood planning is part of it, but it is not the only part. We are already starting to see where communities are appreciating the powers they have got. Even parish councils have got the power of competence. Local authorities have got the general power of competence. It is about more than planning. Therefore, what we will start to see-and are already seeing in some places, if you think of examples like this place in Kent-is communities coming together and doing things. Part of my portfolio is pubs; I have got communities going in and taking over, running and owning pubs now as well. That is all part of localism. We must not let it get caught up in just one part of the Department.

Mr Pickles: Can I develop the point? I think that was right, but I recently had a meeting with a bunch of very senior people from different voluntary organisations and they asked me to talk about where things are, and I wanted to say this here. I think next year is going to be one of enormous change so far as localism is concerned. We created the Localism Act; we have placed it there. Unusually, we have got the measures in; the secondary legislation is in place now. Normally, we would still be doing that. I think there has been a process where councils have not woken up to or used the general power of competence yet; I do not think community groups have understood or grasped the importance of the power to bid and the power to challenge; and we are just at the foothills of neighbourhood planning. I think next year we will see a fundamental change, in many ways-almost constitutionally-in the way in which local communities are run. I do not think local communities have yet grasped the power that we have shifted to them.

Q225 James Morris: Many of us are quite excited about receiving this report, "Decentralisation: An Assessment of Progress", by the previous Decentralisation and Planning Minister. This has been quite a long time in its gestation. I think it was promised last summer and published on Friday. Could you just give us an indication of why it took so long for this assessment to be produced by the Department?

Mr Pickles: We decided to put it out at a time when it would be noticed. It has got your attention. You will see that despite me spending the best part of two years castigating the ridiculous nature of giving stars to local authorities, I was proud to see that we were a fourstar department.

Q226 James Morris: I am very intrigued by the starring system that has been employed. To give one example from the report, it says: "Action 3: Increase local control of public finances". The report concludes: "Little has been done so far to reduce the proportion of public funding that is determined and raised centrally or to put those resources directly in the hands of communities". Would you agree with that assessment?

Mr Pickles: I would. In a way, in the period while that report was being written, the future of local financing was beginning to emerge with the various City Deals. I do not have the slightest doubt whatsoever that the way in which the deals that are there for Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Bristol is the way local government is going to go more generally. I am as critical as anybody of the tentative steps we have taken on TIF. Again, we are at that point of change. Change is not going to happen overnight, but I am very hopeful of two things. The first is that, through those kinds of direct negotiations, local authorities, or a cluster of local authorities, are going to come with an economic scheme to Government and Government will have to have the courage to take that over. The second thing is that, more importantly, neighbourhoods eventually will be the building block of local government finance and delivery.

Q227 James Morris: Finally, this report also, reflecting on the Department for Communities and Local Government, talks about potential opportunities over the life of this Parliament. The third bullet point says that "the Department should move to a more settled but ambitious view of the role of local government and communities and neighbourhoods". Is that an implied criticism that you have not been ambitious enough in relation to your view of the role of the Department?

Mr Pickles: Yes, that is quite right. In many ways I anticipated and answered your question. I think we are in a state of flux. The Department we inherited was essentially the voice of local government inside the Government, and I think we have changed that to be the voice of the council taxpayer, of the citizen, inside local government services. We have changed. We have moved much more towards an economic Department through our work with Local Enterprise Partnerships and local Enterprise Zones, and we have played a very big part, particularly when Greg was with us-and we still do-in putting those City Deals together. I do think that if a Department ever become complacent, the echelon of that Department is diminished.

Q228 James Morris: Just as a final point, the other intriguing thing about this report is that it does not give a star rating for our friends in the Treasury. It does not do a review of the Treasury at all. It makes a recommendation that it should.

Mr Pickles: They are listening to you now. They would, of course, be fivestar.

James Morris: I was wondering whether the Treasury would share your view and vision of the importance of localism, local government and the devolving of power, or whether the Treasury is, in a way, trying to capture a lot more power for the centre.

Mr Pickles: There are, of course, tensions inside the coalition. I sincerely hope that I am not doing my colleague any damage, but I think Danny Alexander inside the Treasury has been an enormous advocate for localism. We could not have got those deals together-we particularly could not have got the looseness with regard to TIF, taking it beyond the Spending Review period and the reset period-without his considerable help.

Mr Prisk: Can I add one little thing to this? We talked about the need for cultural change in Whitehall, but localism also has been a challenge to the local institutions. I recall sitting with Greg Clark when he and I were working on the establishment of Local Enterprise Partnerships, and frankly, after 30, 40 or more years of local government waiting for central Government to tell them what it is that we would like them to do, it has been a real challenge, and therefore it has taken a little time, to get to the point of momentum where people realise that actually, they can form the LEP of their area or they can shape the City Deal that is relevant to them, and that variety is not a bad thing. It has taken a little time because they have been used to the old model that we saw under previous governments, where Ministers pulled a lever and somehow that was meant to miraculously change things. It did not; it failed. The RDAs are a very good example of that.

Brandon Lewis: One of the things that is quite interesting, exactly as Mark has just said, is the range of things that are going on in this. This is why we are now at the start of where I would expect to see this motor on. We had a conference a couple of weeks ago for the Community Budgets pilots. There is some fantastic work being done there around putting together budgets from different parts of the public sector. The other Departments are starting to come through with this kind of work around localism. There are some real opportunities to root out some of the duplication, and therefore some of the cost, but actually to provide better services for the local community, driven by that local community, whether it is through the council or an LEP.

Chair: We will probably come on to Community Budgets in just a second.

Brandon Lewis: I am just saying it is that range of different things across different areas. The point about LEPs is true as well. Local authorities are only just starting to understand that the general power of competence exists and that means they can get on and do stuff. One of the things we have got to see, and I think we are starting to see, is then how they properly link with their LEP and get the proper synergy through the money they spend on economic regeneration, for example. That is about going through the business community and what the business community needs; not so much worrying about what any of us in Whitehall think, but worrying about what their community needs from the people in their community who know that best. That is where localism will be really successful.

Chair: I thought what a highly accurate report it was when I looked at the three black marks beside the Department for Work and Pensions, then I realised they were stars.

Q229 Simon Danczuk: The former Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, told us last year that "most people will recognise you have to be building 200,000plus, maybe more, homes a year". In 2011/12, fewer than 118,000 homes were completed. How and when are you going to hit your annual figures?

Mr Prisk: You are right to say that last year we saw 117,190 homes built. The encouraging part about that is it is a 6% increase yearonyear. It puts us at the point where the net supply now is higher than it has been for the last four years. But equally, we are not in the position, nor do we have any intention of being, of having the old Sovietstyle central targets. That is something we are not in the business of.

Q230 Simon Danczuk: The previous Housing Minister said you should be building 200,000; you are nowhere near that.

Mr Prisk: No. As I said earlier, where we have come from is a 15 to 20year period when we have been building, roughly speaking, half the number of homes we need. We want to get that number up. Am I going to pluck a figure out of the air? No. I will tell you why. It is driven by two key factors. Yes, it is 40% driven by migration. It is also 60% driven, as I said earlier, by those aged over 65. That is the bulk of what is driving it. As a Government, we reversed the last Government’s approach to open migration and that will hopefully be able to deal with that side of the equation. Clearly, it is a wonder and a good thing to see that the population is living longer. We have got to address that side. That means we are not going to pluck a figure out of the air. Am I happy with 117,000? No, I am not. I want to see more than those, but I am not going to put a wet finger in the air and pluck a figure out. We have clear programmes about building more properties; what I am focused on is making sure they are happening.

Q231 Simon Danczuk: So you have dropped the target that the previous Housing Minister set, of 200,000plus.

Mr Prisk: It is a nice try, but what he was saying was what he would like to see is a figure between 200,000 and 300,000. So would we all.

Q232 Simon Danczuk: Are you happy with the number of affordable housing starts that have been achieved by the Homes and Communities Agency in 2011-12?

Mr Prisk: Yes, they are ahead of their target. We are at 55,000 in 2011-12.

Q233 Simon Danczuk: Is that completions?

Mr Prisk: That is the number of homes completed that people can then take on.

Q234 Simon Danczuk: Yes. But in terms of starts in 2011-12, it was 15,698, was it not?

Mr Prisk: Yes. There is a drop because, as you know, we shifted last year from the old national affordable housing programme, which peaked at the end of its last year, and moved into the first year of the new affordable housing programme. Just as the old NAHP in its first year struggled to get more than a certain number and then, once it got into the back half of its first year, its second year and its third year, it rose, we will see a similar picture. Nevertheless, overall we are very much on target to build 170,000 more affordable homes.

Q235 Simon Danczuk: What we can all agree, then, is that not enough houses are being built, including affordable homes. Rough sleeping is rising; it rose by 23% in 2011. The number of families in temporary accommodation is rising. The charity Homeless Link said the number of clients using homeless day centres has risen by nearly a third. While you guys are preparing for your festive cheer, there are more and more people ending up on the streets. Do you have a worry about the increasing rate of homelessness?

Mr Pickles: We certainly do. One of the things we are determined to do, unlike the last Labour Government, is not to ignore the homeless and pretend they are not there. One of the most scandalous aspects of the last Labour Government was the way in which they just simply did not admit that homeless people existed on the streets. It was almost like they were unpeople. We were determined that the first thing we would do was record those numbers. We always knew that somebody would mock us for doing that, but we are determined to ensure that nobody has a possibility of sleeping two nights on the street, and that we will deal with some of those real issues there, which have a lot to do with people’s addictions and mental illness. Frankly, I resent that tone of questioning. I am sorry, but I knew this would happen; it would have been so easy if we had accepted your old figures and just pretended they did not exist.

Q236 Chair: It seemed to me a reasonable question, about the rise of homelessness.

Mr Pickles: I thought I gave a reasonable reply.

Mr Prisk: Let’s come back. The point is that we took the brave decision to say, "Let’s count this properly", as the Secretary of State rightly says. "Let’s find out what the real issue is". I think it was a sham, frankly, in the past, where it was done simply by rough estimates. What that has meant-and I think it is a good thing-is that we have started to see more people coming on to the official figures, but, more importantly, we have put the money in to make sure we focus on preventing homelessness and rough sleeping and also tackling the underlying issues. The Secretary of State is absolutely right about this. When reporters come to me, they always come at this time of year; they do not seem to be interested in this at any other time of the year. I understand why; it is very cold. It is horrible out there, which is why I went out personally last week to talk to people living on the streets at the moment. The No Second Night Out policy is revolutionary. In New York, there are six times the levels of rough sleepers as there are in London. That is because the agencies and the councils, working with the Mayor and ourselves, have said, "Let’s tackle this at source. Let’s make sure that we actually prevent it". The No Second Night Out policy is a really important change. I hope we will not get into the "he said, she said" numbers, which is where your question seemed to be going.

Q237 Simon Danczuk: So you accept that homelessness is a real problem-a real issue-and you are determined to address it.

Mr Prisk: Absolutely.

Q238 Simon Danczuk: So you can assure the Committee that these figures are going to start to fall.

Mr Prisk: What I can assure the Committee is that we have strengthened the safety net, for example by making sure that it is now easier for councils, instead of having people stuck in the temporary accommodation you talked about, to get people in to proper, more settled accommodation-we have removed some of the red tape. We have made sure that the Mortgage Rescue Scheme is in place and strengthened and continued, because it is important. What I can guarantee to you is not whether the number is A or B, but that we are doing everything we can and we will continue to do that. In a way, homelessness comes back to a root issue: building more homes. When we look at the challenge around this, the fact that for the last 20 or 30 years there has been a very low level of housebuilding is the root issue. The fact that we lost, I think, 500,000 affordable homes under the last administration is something that is not acceptable. That is why we are focused on building more.

Q239 Simon Danczuk: I will finish on this, but with all due respect, I think the Secretary of State is more right in terms of homelessness. I have worked in the sector for some years. It is not just about building homes; it is not just about bricks and mortar. It is about mental health issues-

Heather Wheeler: That is exactly what he said.

Simon Danczuk: I am agreeing with him, if you let me finish, Heather. Let me make this point: it is about a wide variety of issues. It is not just about building houses-although housebuilding is not where it needs to be, by your own previous Minister’s admission-it is also about a whole range of other factors that the Government has responsibility for. The way of measuring whether you, as a Government, are successful in terms of tackling rough sleeping and homelessness is based on numbers. I am simply asking you to confirm that the numbers are going to start coming down-or are they not?

Mr Pickles: I got a little agitated by the cheap shot about festive cheer. I think we have actually moved a long way into dealing with the question of rough sleepers. You are going to be asking us questions, at some stage, about beds in sheds. It was an aspect of life in London that was completely ignored until Grant Shapps looked at the problem and started to do something about it and started involving authorities around London to do something about that. Of course, we do need to tackle social policy but people need to understand that we operate on this basis on the basis of goodwill. It is something that we feel is about a civilised society. Nobody in modernday Britain should sleep on the roads or under the arches, and nobody should find themselves exploited in someone’s back-garden potting shed.

Q240 Mark Pawsey: I want to move on to another important social issue that is the responsibility of the Department. It is one that Mr Lewis referred to earlier, and that is the use of Community Budgets to support troubled families. We believe there are 120,000 troubled families. The key question is: how are we going to assess when a family ceases to be a troubled family? How are we going to prevent people moving from the troubled families list off the list, and then coming back on again?

Mr Pickles: Kids in to school; people on the road to work; and a reduction in antisocial behaviour. I am delighted to have Louise Casey working with me. I was desperately certain that what we would do was apply the same criteria that exist to someone else. Government is rather good at putting up new fancy criteria, but if we recognise someone is on the road to work who is not in a troubled family, the same criteria should apply. If somebody’s child is absconding from school, we should use the same criteria. We should count the amount of social disturbances. I have to say that I have nothing but praise for local authorities on this. They have shown themselves to be immensely adaptable. Whether it has been about bearing down on antisocial behaviour or getting kids to get up to attend, I think it has been remarkable. We have managed to set up a programme for just slightly over 40,000 by Christmas and I am pretty convinced that we have a chance for the first time to do something about this, Mr Pawsey.

Q241 Mark Pawsey: Secretary of State, we understand the criteria, but how are we going to know whether or not the scheme has been successful? Who is measuring these things? We are not in an era of targets; we have a broad figure of the number of families that need to be affected. How are we going to know that we are going the right way?

Mr Pickles: Payment is on the basis of results. There is a degree of money brought up, but the local authorities and agencies they are using only get paid if they can demonstrate they have made a difference. On something like truancy, you are not really going to get a proper picture until you have seen a full set of terms. On the process of getting people on the road to work, it takes time; some of these folks have never worked. It is similar with reducing the amount of antisocial behaviour. I spend a fair bit of my time going around the country seeing the different ways that different authorities have tackled this, from Rochdale down to Torbay. You talk to the client groups and many of them have had their lives turned round, not because we are spending any less or any more money on them; it is just that they are getting a proper coordinated approach. It is the kinds of thing that, in truth, those of us who were councillors always knew we could do something about. I am hopeful that the next time I am gathered before you, as Christmas comes round next year-I hope I will see you one or two times before then-we will be able to determinedly see where we have made a difference.

Q242 Mark Pawsey: Will you be able to come to the Committee and say, "We estimated 120,000 when the project started and now, 12 months on, the number is fewer"?

Mr Pickles: Yes, I think we will. Do bear in mind that some of the things we are dealing with here are intergenerational processes. Forgive me if I repeat what I have said in the past. I can think of families in Bradford that were causing me problems and I remember sitting down with Ian Greenwood last year and talking about the same families. I remember him sending me a text to say, "Good news; I think we may have cracked this. X has got 10 years in prison". It is almost like you just see these kids throwing their lives away. From talking to some of the people who are doing it in Bradford-I met some of them across the road-I really think it is something we can do. Anything that local Members of Parliament can do to get involved in this-it is not often we get a chance to really make a difference in very troubled communities.

Q243 Mark Pawsey: Secretary of State, you spoke about seeing a different response and different way of dealing with it in different local authorities, which is a very welcome manifestation of localism, but we have had some evidence from Westminster City Council, for example, who argue that there is a bit of a "one size fits all" here. We are only using the three criteria that you referred to: unemployment, school attendance and levels of crime and antisocial behaviour. They argue that other local factors should be taken into account, such as the reductions in levels of domestic violence or mental health issues. Do you see other criteria coming in? Do you see a more local approach because of particular circumstances in different areas?

Mr Pickles: I have no problem in terms of what they want to measure. I give this advice freely to anybody: if you ever get yourself involved with something like that, you will always find a bunch of people who will say, "We would just like to measure this. Could we just do that?" I felt, right from the beginning, that you did not need to be fluent in social work; you needed to be able to understand exactly what we wanted folks to do; that it was very clear on the side of the tin that it was a complicated process but we would measure them very simply, because in truth, that is what you get. You talk about domestic violence. I saw a very innovative thing in Essex, where, for the first time, they did not just look at the domestic violence; they actually looked at the wider family. They were also looking at the knockon effect it was having on the kids; they were looking at the knockon effect it was having on housing and the like. I have to say that kind of approach was a better way of resolving some of the problems and getting people rehoused and keeping people safe than I have seen over the many long years I have seen various things.

Q244 Chair: Secretary of State, do you join with your Permanent Secretary in being what the Local Government Chronicle called a "doom denier"?

Mr Pickles: A "doom denier"? I am obviously reluctant, given that you are quoting from the Local Government Chronicle; that is almost like quoting from a Labour press release, without the Labour press department’s insistence on balance and political fairness. But yes, the last time I saw something like the "graph of doom", as it is described, was from Thomas Malthus. If Thomas Malthus was right, we would all be dead now. It assumes a solid state: an unchanging local government; a local government that, lemminglike, will renew itself by throwing itself off a cliff. Of course that is not going to happen. Authorities change; there are new ways of doing things. So no, as on all things, I am at one and at peace with Sir Bob.

Q245 Chair: Absolutely. I just wonder, because the objections has been pretty strong on this and there are some very sensible, reasonable people, cross-party, here saying that if the demand for social care carries on rising-and there is no one really saying it is not; it may be an argument about how fast-and if local authority revenues from central Government continue to fall-we have had a further cut announced for 2014, which you have confirmed this afternoon-at some point those lines do get closer together and other services get squeezed out. I just wondered, while you are at peace, Secretary of State, whether you just occasionally wake up in the middle of the night in a bit of a cold sweat, worrying that you might be the Secretary of State who is presiding over the beginning of the end of local services as we know them.

Mr Pickles: I just fall about over that. I think that is utterly ludicrous. The LGA have allowed themselves to be seduced by statistics and have got themselves into a Malthusian fantasy. I do not believe that the thoroughly modest changes that we have seen mean the end of civilisation as we know it. Local government will continue. We will find better and more efficient ways of doing things and they will tackle things like procurement and joint working. Local government will go on and it will continue. If they find it is difficult to do that, then I feel a little bit like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. New people will come; they will come.

Chair: I am not sure it is going to be quite as simple as that, Secretary of State, but perhaps there will be an article about you next week now instead of the Permanent Secretary.

Brandon Lewis: Chair, can I just add to that? To give an example for what the Secretary of State was just saying, I touched on these Community Budgets and some of the areas they are looking at earlier. This is one of the very areas that the pilots looked at. West Cheshire, for example, has worked on a scheme that has got some really interesting stuff in it, looking at how they can procure better and work better. That one scheme alone is looking at about £26 million of savings in five years. That does not solve the problem that is potentially there if we do not keep moving forward, but it does mean there are new ways of working. Authorities are already looking at those and starting to be able to deliver on them. The further we go with that, the better this gets and we move further and further away from the idea of doom. There are opportunities there. Authorities are already working to it and they should be credited for doing that.

Chair: I am sure we can. I am sure this is a subject we are going to come back to; I do not think it is going to leave our discussions in future. I note you are pressed for time, Secretary of State; I just wanted to save the issue closest to your heart for last.

Q246 Simon Danczuk: Secretary of State, why do you think it is a human right to have your bins emptied every week?

Mr Pickles: This started with my great hero, Disraeli, who started because of problems of public health. People underestimate the difference it made to Victorian Britain. Anybody who does not believe that we have problems in this country has only got to look at the recent increase in super rats. I believe that it is about decency. I also think it is a class issue. If you are in a nice detached house, it does not really matter, but if you are in a terraced house in Bury, Blackpool or Bradford and you have to put up with a stinking bin for a fortnight in July right next to your back door, I do not think that makes sense.

Q247 Chair: Secretary of State, of the schemes that have received funding, how many actually are moving back from an alternate weekly collection of general household refuse to a weekly collection?

Mr Pickles: That is not the point. The point is that I needed to stop the rot. I firmly believe that by the end of this Parliament, we would have seen the end of weekly bins. Thanks to what we have done, 6 million people will have a weekly collection. I do accept that a number of authorities are stuck in contracts; you cannot expect them to break contracts and to move, so you are stuck at the serendipity at the process. What I did use that money for-and I think I used it wisely-was to do a number of things: to see a number of incentive schemes to recycling; to see a number of schemes that would see the mechanical separation of waste; and to demonstrate the manifest destiny that had been operated by bin barons and by the industry that there was no alternative and you would just have to get used to a "better system". I am very satisfied. I have not finished with this. I have a brother by another mother now, in the Secretary of State at Defra, who also shares my passion for weekly collections.

Q248 Bill Esterson: Where is the localism in making local councils do that rather than giving the money for something else, like keeping libraries open?

Mr Pickles: We are giving them a choice; we are not forcing it upon them.

Q249 Bill Esterson: Why do you not give them the money for something that they choose to do, like keeping open libraries?

Mr Pickles: We do that all the time. I am like a cornucopia offering money to the local authorities to do all kinds of things.

Q250 Chair: Secretary of State, I asked a very simple question. I got a rather long answer, but I do not think it was actually an answer. I simply said, "How many of the authorities you are giving money to are moving back from an alternate weekly collection to a weekly collection for general household refuse?"

Mr Pickles: Because of the way in which the contracts are confined, the answer is that we have seen progress in five or six increasing weekly collections, and one that has made a complete switchover.

Q251 Chair: So there is one authority that has moved back from alternate collection to weekly collection of general household refuse.

Mr Pickles: But that is not even vaguely the point.

Chair: No, but it is the answer.

Mr Pickles: If, Mr Betts, you feel some triumph in that, this is just the beginning.

Chair: It might be two next year.

Mr Pickles: Mr Betts, you mock at the right of a people. This seems to me to go fundamentally to how out of touch the political classes have got with what people actually want. The political classes just want to lecture to people rather than deliver a basic service, and I, for one, am on the side of the people.

Chair: I was just trying to find out how many authorities had changed. We got there in the end.

Brandon Lewis: What that does not include is areas like mine, in Great Yarmouth, with thousands of houses in the main part of town-in those very terraced houses the Secretary of State was talking about-who are going back to a weekly collection. Those residents had wanted that and had been desperate for that to tidy up their streets and have a better weekly collection for a long time. Now they can do that.

Q252 Chair: So it is more than one. Could we have the names of authorities where households are moving back?

Brandon Lewis: There are several thousand in Great Yarmouth.

Mr Pickles: It is out there in the public. If you have got terraced housing, it can be very unpleasant. We are dealing with it.

Chair: Secretary of State, I simply asked how many schemes are moving back from alternate weekly to weekly collection. It was a simple question. If it is not possible to name the authorities now, certainly a note on it will be helpful.

Brandon Lewis: Chair, it was published on the Department website a couple of weeks ago.

Mr Pickles: It is published on the Department website.

Q253 Chair: Can we perhaps draw to a conclusion? I know you have got to go and entertain elsewhere, Secretary of State-or be entertained; I am not quite sure which.

Mr Pickles: I will be joining in with the carols and I will be saying a special prayer for everybody on the Select Committee. Can I wish you, Mr Betts, and everyone in the room, a very happy and very peaceful Christmas? I look forward to renewing the fight-we will probably do it next week on the settlement-but I wish you all well.

Chair: Yes. On behalf of the Committee, I wish all the Ministers and the Department a happy Christmas as well and I will say-although not in the political sense-a happy new year also. Thank you very much indeed.


[1] Correction by witness: We do not believe that is right; we do not think it is the way to run things.

[2] Ev

Prepared 14th October 2013