Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6 June 2016.

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Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 12:00, 6 June 2016

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Since our last questions, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 has received its Royal Assent. I would like to thank parliamentary and departmental colleagues for their incredibly hard work on a landmark piece of legislation. With two further Bills set for the new Session, there can be no doubting the centrality of housing and devolution to this Government’s agenda.

Since our last questions, a respected leader of local government, Darren Cooper, the leader of Sandwell Council and deputy chair of the proposed west midlands combined authority, died at a young age. He was a champion of devolution for the black country and the west midlands, and I would like to pay tribute to him and his work.

More happily, last month marked the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was my privilege to pay tribute to officials for their dedicated service. I do regret not inviting former Ministers in the Department to the celebrations. John Healey would have been greatly encouraged by the progress made by the Department over the last six years, especially after the calamities of its first four.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The number of civil service jobs has been cut in most parts of the country, but the proportion of such jobs in London has increased by 16% since 2010. Why condemn people to live in overcrowded London, with its grossly polluted air and sky-high house prices, when they could live in the broad green acres of Wales where the air is sweet and the house prices are genuinely affordable?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

That enticing invitation to come to live and work in Wales will have been heard across the country, and I think the same applies to our great cities, towns and counties right across the country. Part of our devolution agenda is to take away the powers and resources that have been locked up in this city and to make them available across the country so that they can be locally led and bring about the revival that the hon. Gentleman refers to.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Sabden, one of my beautiful villages, has a population of about 1,500. It has just had its bus service withdrawn by the operator. That service was part-subsidised by Lancashire County Council, but the council now refuses to subsidise even a skeleton service, which means that the elderly and the young have been set adrift: they cannot get into work or go to the doctor. Will the Secretary of State consider top-slicing the necessary money from the county council and giving it to the districts so that local people can get the service they deserve?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Clearly, that is a great disappointment for my hon. Friend’s many constituents who rely on those services. In the local government financial settlement, we have been able to make available a flat cash settlement over four years to councils across the country, giving them the certainty of four-year funding. That is intended to allow them to plan ahead for precisely the sort of services that he describes.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I welcome the Secretary of State’s tribute to Darren Cooper. For many of us, he was not just a good local Labour council leader but a good colleague and a friend.

May I take the Secretary of State back to the answer he gave the House in reply to Question 2, when he talked about the Government’s housebuilding programme? The latest official figures show that the number of new homes is down by 9% and that, six years on, it is still a third below the peak achieved under Labour. This is the housebuilding recovery that never was. Does he not agree that when housing policy fails so badly, it gives an opening to those who want to fuel resentment and division? Will he therefore today disown the comments of his Cabinet colleague the Leader of the House who blames the fall in home ownership on EU migration? Will he point out to the Leader of the House that it is possible to have a healthily growing population alongside higher home ownership, just as Britain did during the baby-boom years under Macmillan and Wilson?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I lay the blame for the shortage of housing on what happened during the tenure of the party opposite and the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, who was the relevant Minister at that time. Ignominiously, he will go down in history as the Housing Minister who built the fewest homes in the peacetime history of this country, with only 85,000 being built in 2009. He is the man under whom we saw a fall in home ownership of a quarter of a million. The most significant thing is that when he was commenting on that, he said:

“I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.”

Under this Government, the proportion of building is rising again; we have 250,000 planning permissions and more than 170,000 additions to the housing stock. We have doubled the rate of growth of housing compared with the rate that he presided over, so he might talk about lessons from the past, but we will be looking closely at his record to see what actions to avoid.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

May I suggest that the Secretary of State go back to the Department and call in his Government statisticians to put him right on these figures? The Labour record speaks for itself: 1 million more homeowners, 2 million new homes built, and the largest investment in social housing in a generation. That is a record that the present Housing Minister would give his right arm for; it might even get him a Cabinet promotion. May I, however, bring the Secretary of State back to the question of the European Union? Does he accept that the European Union is helpful to housebuilding in Britain? Does he agree that the European Investment Bank’s commitment of £1 billion to build almost 20,000 new affordable homes is now needed more than ever, not least because this Government’s housing investment over this Parliament will be only half what it was under Labour?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The right hon. Gentleman should go back and check his record—as a former Minister, I am sure he has access to the files. Under the previous Labour Government, including during his time as Housing Minister, 420,000 homes were lost from this country’s affordable housing stock.

An important source of investment in housing, including in social and affordable housing, comes from the European Investment Bank, which has invested £2 billion in our housing stock over the years. It is important that we continue to have access not only to that investment but to investment from private sector bodies, all of which benefit from the confidence and stability that we have had through our arrangement, including the wholehearted commitment of a Government determined to increase house building.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee, Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee

The Minister will be aware that the average council tax increase in England has been 3.1%, whereas it has been 3.6% in Wales. Does that not clearly demonstrate that Conservative policies are delivering better services at a better price than anything that Labour can achieve?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. One only needs to look at the parallel between the Labour Administration in Wales and when the Labour party was in Government: council tax doubled over 13 years. Since 2010, council tax has been reduced in real terms by 9%.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

When I bought my first home in Luton in 1969, house prices were three times average earnings. The same house in Luton would now cost at least 12 times average earnings. Unsurprisingly, home ownership as a tenure has been falling. Is it not utterly cynical of the Government to pretend that everyone can become homeowners when what millions of families need, and what many say they want, is a decent council house?

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman will therefore be pleased to know not only that in just five years we have built roughly double the number of council-run social homes that Labour built in 13 years, but that we are focused on ensuring that people can have the chance to own their own home. Home ownership fell from 2003 and right the way through the Labour Government’s time. We have stalled that decline and are determined to see home ownership increase, which is why we are delivering starter homes for 200,000 people. We want to see a million more first-time buyers over the course of this Parliament.

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant

South Hayling Island’s coastal community team was awarded a £10,000 grant last year to help the local economy by improving local signage. Will the Minister congratulate Rosemary Satchwell and the whole team on their hard work in promoting local businesses?

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

I am very happy to congratulate Rosemary Satchwell and the South Hayling Island coastal community team. Its economic plan highlighted the importance of signage in boosting business and tourism on South Hayling Island. I hope that Rosemary Satchwell will attend our “Great British Coast” conference in Brighton on 30 June to tell us more about it.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Will the Secretary of State inform the House of the latest position on the devolution deal in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the discussions in the north midlands are well advanced. While a top-down process, dictated from Whitehall, might be tidier than the current negotiated process, in which proposals are made from the bottom up, I think he would accept that that would be to miss the point.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Conservative, Salisbury

During a glorious bank holiday weekend in Salisbury, the city council hosted an international market as part of the Love Your Local Market campaign. Does he Minister agree that thriving high streets and local markets are good not only for the local economy but for a city’s sense of community?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that, and I am delighted to hear about the continental market in Salisbury and his support for Love Your Local Market fortnight, when more than 3,000 events took place across the country. This concept is now in its fifth year; it is the biggest celebration of markets and it is estimated that 1,500 businesses have started up during LYLM fortnight, with many still trading six months later.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Labour, Hove

City, regional and growth funds have the potential to transform areas across the country, from Edinburgh North and Leith all the way down to Hove. The Secretary of State had a meeting with Brighton’s council recently. Many areas in the south-east showed enthusiasm for these funds in the early days, but this has not translated into deals being struck. I know he had a constructive meeting in Brighton and Hove recently, so will he update the House on his thinking and on how he is going to get the balance right between urban areas and the hinterlands and the countryside, to make sure that cities do not lose the power they need?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

As I said to Mr Allen, it is very important that these proposals come from the bottom up, and that requires local agreement. Discussions are taking place locally in the south of England, as they are in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, as to what is the right geography of a proposed deal. It is very important that these things are determined locally, rather than by my getting a pen and drawing lines on a map. I hope Peter Kyle will use his good influence to bring people together, so that we can advance what should be a very important and attractive deal.

Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock

Empty homes are a blight on our local communities, with some becoming derelict and dangerous, meaning that not only are local people deprived of somewhere to live, but entire areas can appear run down or unkempt. What is the Minister’s assessment of the number of empty homes and what is his Department doing to improve the situation?

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and he has made the case to me before outside the Chamber about ensuring that we make the best use of the housing stock we have. I am pleased that under our Government we have seen a drop to the lowest level on record—a third down on the peak—and that in Thurrock the number of empty homes has dropped from 319 homes to 214. But we need to keep going, which is why our changes on the powers over council tax and the new homes bonus give a real incentive to local authorities to make sure we get these empty homes back into use. We should keep pushing.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Further to Question 6, will the Minister give a pledge now that if the Home Secretary reports that sharia courts and other institutions have been over-reaching themselves, he will fund the appropriate women’s organisations at a level that means that they can protect women who are vulnerable?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done, that a £40 million fund is being put towards women’s refuges across this Parliament. That is an unprecedented amount of funding, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be carefully considering bids from across the country, from organisations and charities representing all types of groups, such as the one he mentions.

Photo of Andrew Bingham Andrew Bingham Conservative, High Peak

Thanks to the Conservatives in government, community groups now have the right to protect facilities and other much loved buildings or land by listing them as assets of community value. How many of these assets have been listed in such a way and, more importantly, what support is available to local communities to take up this exciting opportunity?

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

More than 3,000 assets of community value have been listed to date, including 256 sports facilities. On the support we are offering, we fund the My Community website and network, which provides information, case studies and resources for people interested in taking up community rights and getting involved in their local neighbourhood. I congratulate my hon. Friend, as I understand he has organised another massive fundraising day, which this time is a golf day rather than a cricket day. I wish him every success, because over a number of years he has raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Does the Secretary of State agree that children’s services and child protection are a crucial part of local government, for which he is responsible? Has he talked to his colleagues in the Department for Education about this? Has he seen the evidence showing that as the departmental influence on education and schools continues, the ability to get children with special educational needs into good schools becomes more and more difficult?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Yes, I have regular conversations with the Secretary of State. As with other areas of local government responsibility, sometimes its responsibilities cross the lines of departmental boundaries. We make sure, very particularly, that we join that up and reflect in the responsibilities and the funding of local government the full range of its commitments and needs.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Office for National Statistics figures state that 3.3 million extra people will come to our country in the next 15 years. How on earth are we to make sure that there is enough land and that output will be increased enough to support the number of buildings required for that number of immigrants?

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

One of the biggest pressures on our housing stock is the fact that not enough has been built in the past three decades, primarily due to the failures under the last Labour Government. It is good news that we are all living longer and living in our own home longer, but ultimately it is local authorities’ key job to make sure that they assess the land needs in their local area to provide the housing their local residents need in their local plans.

Several hon. Members: