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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 24th March 2014.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 5:18 pm, 24th March 2014

I am very strongly in favour of affordable housing—I was not aware that we had any county councils in west London, but I think that the hon. Lady was referring to something else. We need more private housing, more housing for rent and more social housing at a price that people can afford.

We also need new towns and garden cities, so what about what I would refer to as the great mystery of the highly reclusive new towns and garden cities prospectus? Just to remind the House, two years ago, the Prime Minister announced that he would be publishing a consultation by the end of the year on garden cities—does everyone remember that?—but 2012 came to an end and it did not appear, and 2013 happened and it still did not materialise. We then read reports in the newspapers that the Prime Minister was suppressing a document and had gone cold on the whole idea. Then, in January, the Housing Minister said that he was not aware of a report that was supposed to have been published, but the Deputy Prime Minister said that there was a prospectus and that the Government should be honest about their intentions. Then the Secretary of State contradicted his Housing Minister and said that he had been told by his Department that there was a report, but not a report from the Department for Communities and Local Government—I do hope the House is keeping up.

Then, last week, the Chancellor announced that there would be a new garden city at Ebbsfleet with 15,000 homes. The only trouble is that that is 5,000 fewer homes than the 20,000-home development announced for Ebbsfleet in December 2012. Only this Chancellor could proclaim a smaller development as a triumph—backwards not forwards. We look forward to the publication of that prospectus, hopefully before Easter, and if the Secretary of State has not already seen a copy, I trust he will ask for it. After such a lengthy gestation, I hope that it does not disappoint him or the rest of us.

That episode shows that there has clearly been fighting within the Government—within the Cabinet—about what should be in it. We now know, thanks to the Yorkshire Post and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Stephen Williams, that the same thing is happening inside the Department for Communities and Local Government.

I feel very sorry for the Under-Secretary, whom I notice is not in his place today, because he does not always look entirely happy and that may be why he decided to unburden himself at the Lib Dem conference recently. He said that being compared to the Secretary of State—I think it was a joke—was

“the most grievous possible insult” that anyone could deliver. I think that is unfair and unkind to his boss. He was complimentary about the Planning Minister but said that he was

“hated by many Tory MPs”.

That is possibly true, but I think it is also unfair, and since then, the hon. Gentleman seems to have been given all the pretty unpleasant jobs in the Department, defending the indefensible. I hope the fact that he is not here today does not mean that he is being held hostage in the Department by the Secretary of State and I hope that he retains his independent streak.

The most damning comments from the Under-Secretary were about a flagship policy of his own Department:

“The new homes bonus… I’m not a fan of. I don’t think it’s an incentive, necessarily, for local authorities to give planning permission. I don’t think it’s actually driving decision-making on the ground.”

He is in good company, because the National Audit Office agrees. As we are already aware, the Housing Minister does not seem to know what it is meant for either, because he has told the House:

“I am afraid the new homes bonus is not about encouraging people to build homes.”—[Hansard, 25 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 11.]

We have now had it from two Ministers—it is not effective.

The new homes bonus is also profoundly unfair. It is given to councils according to the number of homes that happen to be built in their area and it is top-sliced from formula grant, which is distributed according to need. Therefore—surprise, surprise—the areas that are getting most of the money are those where the homes will probably be built anyway, which tend to be better off, while the areas that are losing funding are those where there is less demand for housing, which tend to be worse off. It is yet another example of this Government, in tough times, taking most from those who have least, and in so doing they fail that basic test of fairness.

The Government just do not get it. At a time when real wages are falling, as was confirmed by Office for Budget Responsibility document published last week, they think that the most important thing to do is give millionaires a tax cut. They think that councils in the most deprived areas with the greatest need should face the biggest reductions, while some of the wealthiest councils get an increase in the money they have to spend.

There are 10 Members of Parliament lucky enough to have councils in their constituencies that will be better off in terms of spending power per household—the Secretary of State’s preferred measure—by 2015-16 than they were in 2010-11. Four of them are in the Cabinet. Two of them are Government Whips. Under this Secretary of State, the 25 most deprived local authorities in England will lose 10 times the amount in spending power per household compared with the 25 least deprived.

Not only are we seeing the biggest reductions in spending power in the areas with the highest need while there are increases in spending power in the wealthiest areas, but before long, the funding difference between those areas, having eroded, will in some cases be reversed. Within four years, under this Government, local spending power per household will be higher in Wokingham—I am sorry that Mr Redwood is no longer in his place—than it will be in Leeds, Sheffield or Newcastle, even though those cities face far greater pressures.

Most people would say that that is extraordinary. Most people would regard it as unfair and impossible to justify. So why does the Secretary of State think that areas in greater need should actually receive less? We know what he thinks already, because in tough times for councils some services are becoming unviable, with entitlement to social care disappearing in some cases, and libraries, the arts, Sure Start centres and women’s refuges going. What does he say to councils? He says, “What’s your problem? These cuts are really quite modest. What are you complaining about?”

It is not just communities that are being hit; it is the people in the greatest need in those communities. What has the Secretary of State done? He has forced up council tax bills for people in work on the lowest incomes: carers, the disabled, injured veterans and war widows. Summonses have been issued and bailiffs are knocking on doors, because people are poor. That is why they are being affected.

The Government are forcing people to pay the hated and immoral bedroom tax, undermining community, neighbourliness and a sense of place. Once again, that hits people on the lowest incomes, most of whom are disabled. Let us consider for a moment a family receiving housing benefit, a mother and father with two children living in a three-bedroom council house. If one of the children leaves home to get a job, the Government are telling that family, “Move.” Two years later, the second child leaves home and gets a job elsewhere. What do the Government say to that family? They say, “Just move again”, leaving mum and dad in a one-bedroom property. Then, three years later, the father’s mother becomes ill and needs to come and live with them so that they can care for her. What do the Government say? “Oh, just move again.” I cannot think of a policy more calculated to undermine family life, and you know what? That family will not even have a spare bedroom so that their grandchildren can come and stay. That is why people are so angry about the bedroom tax and why, if we win in 2015, we will abolish it.