Communities and Local Government questions and topical debate. Monday 12th March 2012

The Department for Communities and Local Government parliamentary questions session came on the same day as two announcements were made; a rise to £75k in the maximum amount of discount that a tenant can claim when exercising the Right to Buy and a related announcement on the New Buy Scheme, which is a mortgage indemnity scheme involving house builders and the taxpayer.

Questions: The session was similar to the 31st January 2012 question time: a calm almost temperate atmosphere. This serenity is aided by the Shadow Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP keeping his powder dry until the topical question section.

A question on council tax set the tone for the session, allowing the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, to reference a CIPFA survey suggesting the average council tax rise in 2012-13 would be 0.3%. Any reference to council tax usually provokes the party political knockabout with local authorities either praised or attacked; in this case it was York City Council and Westminster City Council who were put into the Hansard record during the supplementary.

Leeds City Council were next to be referenced on a question about local suppliers and local government procurement, with a Lancashire based MP praising the Yorkshire local authorities practices. The Minister, in this case Bob Neill, promoted the on line contracts template available to smaller suppliers to take advantage of. An opposition front bench interjection from Roberta Blackman-Woods wanting more focus on local supply also allowed the Minister to promote work on the Code of Recommended Practice appropriate to Data Transfer and that the government had supported the Local Productivity Programme.

The pace of questions quickened when the Universal Credit, now incorporated into legislation in the Welfare Reform Act, came up. Members from both benches expressed their local councils concerns on the cost of ensuring tenants paid their rent once direct payments came in. Minister Stunell pointed to the pilots that would take place, which he called Demonstration Projects, which were intended to iron out any difficulties. In reply to an opposition contribution suggesting twenty thousand local government jobs related to Housing Benefit were at risk, the Minister focused on the £21bn cost of the present Housing Benefit system and said that there would be progressive integration of staff through to 2017.

A grouped set of questions on unauthorised development came next, with the issues of Gypsy and Travellers sites and “permanent squats” (the Parliament Square tents). The Secretary of State listed a series of developments since 2010 which he suggested would help in all the situations raised, these included:

  • The rules changed so you cannot appeal enforcement action whilst also applying for retrospective planning.
  • New planning guidance on Gypsy and Traveller sites, effective from April 6th 2012.
  • Strengthening of existing regulations to stop “beds in sheds”.
  • An announcement soon on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework after concessions in the House of Lords.

When asked when version 2 of the NPPF would be unveiled, Pickles said ‘very soon’.

The next paired questions referred to the private rented sector where the hint of party politics returned, as it always does when Minister Shapps is involved. Two opposition backbenchers and Jack Dromey, opposition spokesperson, all suggested the Minister was diluting standards, which was denied, and also presiding over rising rents in that sector. Minister Shapps used the English Housing Survey to suggest such claims had no basis.

The political edge continued over council tax localisation, Labour suggesting the vulnerable would suffer and the Coalition saying the vulnerable would be protected but also that spending needed to be cut. When it was suggested a Capita letter had shown the I.T systems might not be ready for implementation of the policy and thus a 12 month delay was required, Minister Neill felt the problems were exaggerated and a departmental working group was on the case.

A question on what were the barriers to young people getting on the housing ladder allowed Minister Shapps to trumpet the two announcements from earlier in the day. This was followed by a grouped set of questions on empty and vacant homes. A Cornish Lib-Dem MP suggested that the county had ten thousand empty homes; Minister Stunell put the long-term figure at three thousand eight hundred. The Minister also made reference to £70m already made available to local authorities to tackle empty homes and another £50m for empty home clusters. He also suggested the New Homes Bonus should incentivise local authorities. The change from six months to two years before properties can be purchased was raised again as was the suggestion that landlords were deliberately leaving homes empty rather than let to the non student market.

A question on economic development and high streets started a series of comments supporting various towns bids for assistance, this led to the Secretary of State telling a series of MP’s how their local town centre was “the apple of my eye”, a theme he decided to develop and entertain the House with for the rest of the session.

When asked how many homes would be built in 2012 Minister Stunell replied that his department never made forecasts on that. When asked if the New Homes Bonus figures from the department were flawed Minister Shapps replied not. These were just precursors to an ongoing row over whether there were or were not more homes getting built than in the latter years of the previous government. As always no real conclusive argument accrued and clearly this will run and run.

Another opportunity to promote the changes to Right to Buy came with question 17 on the order paper with Minister Shapps suggesting over one hundred and thirty thousand people would benefit from the change. A slightly technical question accrued on whether the “one out, one in” rule on social housing was “like for like” or not. Minister Stunell’s response was that the money went into the affordable rent building programme and as such should be welcomed.

The questions section sauntered to a conclusion with a question on local authorities having decent economic analysis to shape local decisions, another on whether Town and Parish councils were allowed to make bids for enterprise zones directly (no bids had to be via principal authorities) and Minister Shapps using a question on sub-letting of social housing to announce it was likely they would criminalise the act. The final question, which brought in Minister Clark (who had so far a quiet session), was about on-shore wind farms and the role of the planning inspectorate.

Topical Question: Today’s topical question was an invitation to the Secretary of State to comment on his departmental responsibilities, he chose three subjects:

  • Savings made from closing the Audit Commission.
  • The end of the “Ports tax”.
  • The number of street parties (over 3000) planned for the Diamond Jubilee.

The supplementary concerned religious symbols on local authority employees, but a much more politicised and surgical contribution was to follow. The Shadow Secretary of State asked why the list of meetings between CLG Ministers and developers/house builders had still not been updated since June 2011. Mr Benn’s line of attack was that the house building sector were major contributors to Conservative Party funds and he wanted to know when the transparency CLG Ministers demanded of local authorities was to apply to them. Minister Neill stood up to respond indicating it would be updated as soon as practicable. The Shadow Secretary of State was having none of that, berating the Secretary of State for not responding himself and pointing out that the Ministerial code required it was updated quarterly. This was a classic parliamentary outrage contribution that not only put the government front bench on the back-foot but was out of tone with what had gone before. Labour clearly feel they have an issue that embarrasses the departmental Ministers and by keeping to this one contribution Hilary Benn was making a clear statement of the importance the opposition puts on the matter.

From there on in the session fizzled out, there was one politicised mention of the London mayoral elections, a suggestion that the general power of competence allowed councils to by-pass any legal rulings on prayers (the Secretary of State agreed with that interpretation), a refusal by Minister Shapps to consider a compulsory register of landlords on the grounds it was unworkable, and an equally firm no to rent controls, and a discussion on the settlement for urban fire authorities in years three and four. The remaining contributions mirrored questions asked earlier.

This session never had the feel, before and mostly during, that it would have a dramatic or informative edge. Yet with the Ministerial meetings contribution it may have set a tone for a more political edge later in the parliamentary year. Hilary Benn is clearly, having done it three sessions on the trot, saving his contributions for the topical section so as to maximise impact and sound bite potential. He also is clearly trusting of his team during the questions section. The Government benches seem happy to absorb the variety of questions and concerns it deals with and to promote its own agenda.

The announcements on Right to Buy and the Mortgage Indemnity Scheme were where the Ministers wanted to focus attention and the announcement of additional funds for empty homes clusters shows the housing issue is high up on their agenda with a feeling that council tax isn’t quite the opportunity for political scoring point at this time of year it once was.

This blog is based on a LGiU member briefing by Michael Green. For more information on LGiU’s briefings service, please click here.