Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation — Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:47 pm on 25th March 2013.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:47 pm, 25th March 2013

That is a very good question that has already been asked. I am very happy to give way to the Secretary of State if he wishes to answer it. Does he wish to answer? No, he does not.

We need a lot of new affordable homes because of the decision taken by the Government nearly three years ago to slash the affordable housing budget, when £4 billion was taken away. We are then asked to be grateful to the Secretary of State when we hear in the Budget announcements that an additional £225 million will be made available, although it seems that only £125 million of it will be spent before 2015. That figure is dwarfed by the original £4 billion cut. We are told that this is a time for tough choices. A quarter of a billion pounds was identified by the Secretary of State to try to persuade councils to collect the bins in the way that he thinks is correct. It was such a failure that only one council took him up on his offer. A quarter of a billion pounds and one council: think how many affordable homes that money could have been used to build! If the Government want to be taken seriously on affordable housing, they have to will the means. That is why we called for the 4G auction proceeds and the bankers’ bonus tax repetition to be used to build 125,000 new affordable homes to get the economy moving.

The Secretary of State referred to councils. We know that he is presiding over cuts to the local authority sector that are bigger than in any other part of the public sector and that the cuts are being unfairly applied. Councils need as much money as they can find to help, in part, to build homes. When the Secretary of State was asked about these cuts earlier this year in front of the departmental Select Committee, he said that in his view the cuts were “modest”. In private, however, it seems that his views are rather different. When it was reported last month that the Chancellor was looking for further cuts from certain Departments, including CLG, The Times said that

“sources close to Mr Pickles”—

[Interruption.] It certainly was not me. The Times said that

“sources close to Mr Pickles made clear that he was not accepting the latest reductions, arguing that council services had already been cut to the bone.”

It seems, therefore, that the Secretary of State’s private views are rather different from his public views. We are used to hearing Liberal Democrats say one thing to one audience and another thing to another, but I am surprised that the Secretary of State is also doing so.

This is a familiar record. The Secretary of State, as the statistics show, is not very good at getting things done. It is not just me who thinks that; the Chancellor does, too. Apparently the Chancellor was in a fiery mood at the Cabinet meeting following the loss of the triple A credit rating and challenged Ministers about the poor rate of growth. The Daily Telegraph reported:

Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, was given a ‘dressing down’ for failings in the Government’s flagship enterprise zone programme, according to sources.

With less than a month until he unveils his Budget, the Chancellor criticised Mr Pickles over figures that show that one in three enterprise zones is failing to attract enough businesses. Mr Pickles is then said to have attempted to deflect the blame on to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, by accusing him of failing to convince foreign businesses to invest in the schemes.”

It is a very familiar story: Cabinet members are so busy fighting and blaming each other that it is no wonder that they cannot sort out the problems facing the country.

The reforms to the national planning policy framework were supposed to streamline the planning system, but it seems that they have left councils less able to decide applications quickly. The national rate of decisions taken on major applications within 13 weeks has fallen from 62% in 2011 to 57% in 2012, and the same is true of minor applications determined within eight weeks, which are down from 72% to 69%, and the transition period is about to finish.

The planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, said recently that he wants further relaxation of the planning laws. We would be very interested to hear what he has in mind.