On Sunday the Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles answered questions from Kirsty Young when he took part in Desert Island Discs. You can listen to it here.
Now he answers questions from Conservative Home readers:
If the desire to curb council tax rises arises from the desire to keep household bills down, will Mr Pickles ensure that councils be banned from recovering their 'lost' revenue by creating new and spurious 'offences' that incur fines?
We recently announced funding for yet another council tax freeze next year- a massive help for hardworking families, and especially those on fixed incomes like pensioners.
We've also scrapped Whitehall rules which forced up parking charges – instead, through the local retention of business rates, we're giving councils a financial stake in their high street, so they have a real stake in encourage enterprise and support shops.
Owen Paterson in DEFRA will also be introducing legislation to scrap Labour’s unfair bin fines – by introducing a new ‘harm to local amenity’ test in law. This will mean action can be taken against genuine fly-tippers, but not against a householder who puts a yoghurt pot in the wrong bin.
When will you make Localism a reality in Planning, by reforming the Planning Appeals Procedure to leave decision making where it belongs, with the Local Community?
The planning system is essentially a ‘plan-led’ process: a planning application is granted, unless a planning policy says otherwise. This gives certainty and clarity to both local residents and local business.
Through the Localism Act, we are abolishing Regional Spatial Strategies (see LINK to find out more). The National Planning Policy Framework has reduced 1,000 pages of national planning guidance to just 50, and makes Local Plans more important.
We are also encouraging local communities to draw up new neighbourhood plans. They will bring the community together to outline the development that's needed, and where that should best go, and then other proposals for development will be assessed against that plan.
Mr Pickles. You promised a bonfire of the quangos. There has only been a small reduction. What is holding you back? i imagine the Liberals are something to do with it.
What can you do to help reduce this massive public sector waste? Do we really want 77% of the public sector employed by Labour party members?
There are far, far to many outreach groups diversity training schemes etc, when will it stop?
I’ve shut down Standards Board.
I’ve shut down the Tenants Services Authority.
I’ve shut down the Government Offices for the Regions and scrapped a whole tier of regional government.
I’ve shut down Firebuy (an ineffective procurement quango)
I’ve shut down the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
Assorted Urban Development Corporations are being handed back to local councils.
The Audit Commission is closing (its inspections have ended, its contracts have been outsourced, a residual rump will be scrapped through a forthcoming Audit Bill)
We are practicing what we preach – my own department is cutting its running costs by 42 per cent.
To tackle gold-plating of equality rules, I've issued statutory guidance stating there is no requirement for councils to undertake intrusive lifestyle or diversity questionnaires of their residents or their suppliers. Councils like Islington were demanding that local residents reveal their sexuality in order to take out a library book.
If councils are continuing to waste money on such intrusion, there's no excuse – and I would hope the press and public actively challenge them to stop. Find out more at LINK
Can you do more to prevent councils funding union activities, and if not, what is holding you back?
At a time when all councils need to make sensible savings to protect front-line services and help tackle Labour’s deficit, councils should be reviewing the subsidies and funding being provided to trade unions at taxpayers’ expense.
Francis Maude in the Cabinet Office has recently completed a review of pilgrims in the Civil Service, and I want to encourage councils to do the same. I intend to issue some best practice guidance to give councillors the backing to take on the vested union interests in the town halls.
We will also be extending the local government transparency agenda to include such union subsidies, and councillors now need to declare any union payments or donations in kind.
I would like to ask Mr Pickles about the localism bill. If councils are allowed to make their own laws would there would be less need for Parliament?
Would the UK be like the States in America where every state have their own laws?
We have a very different system of Government than in the United States. The British nation is based on the Bill of Rights and the supremacy of Parliament, with a constitutional monarchy.
What the Localism Act has introduced is a general power of competence: it allows councils to do anything that an individual can do. For example, it’s being used every day by councils to hold prayers at their meetings, if they wish (overturning the High Court ruling which sought to ban town hall prayers).
Why is this Coalition not making Gov sites, which are currently not used, available for house building as brownfield sites and why, when this is not being done, are Gov Ministers like Nick Boles, openly agitating for the relaxation of planning laws in respect of the Green Belt?
Protecting the character of the countryside is part of what we stand for. The Green Belt plays a vital role in stopping urban sprawl and the coalition agreement enshrines our commitment to protecting it. Nick himself has defended the Green Belt in Parliament as Planning Minister (see LINK)
We are also promoting growth on high streets and in town centres, making brownfield public sector sites available for new development, and getting tough on those who intentionally ignore planning rules (such as a small minority of travellers).
We’ve actually identified enough surplus public sector land and empty buildings for more than 100, 000 homes; and we are working now to make sure that land gets sold more quickly – such as through a ‘build now, pay later’ scheme.
What is the purpose of maintaining the 5 yr Housing Land Supply target over which Planning Authorities have no control and upon which there is no agreed formula for calculating, when the HLS target is based on discredited Regional Spacial Strategy figures that in themselves do not conform with and undermine the objectives of Localism?
It for councils to determine where development should and shouldn’t happen. There is a demand for new homes and a big shortage relative to that demand. It’s not unreasonable for councils to have a plan for where they should go.
But the purpose of scrapping the Regional Spatial Strategies is that decisions are made locally. There are some tough choices that have to be made – and its for local elected councillors to make them when drawing up their Local Plan.
Dear Minister, can we have independent book-keeping of Local Authorities, no longer in-house, more strict rules on employment of Union staff, more great work on the transparency that you have commenced?
You are a man after my own heart. Yes, I think we've done a lot on these areas. There’s more to do on trade union pilgrims – as I’ve just mentioned. My department is currently consulting on a new Local Government Transparency Code which will open up more information than ever (See LINK). I’ve changed the law so that fewer council meeting happen in
secret behind closed doors.
Did you know you have a legal right to go in and inspect your council’s ledger and accounts. I’m keep to highlight these legal rights (see LINK).
Minister, the forthcoming economic development bill is seen by many as to herald a further weakening of planning controls essential in a densely populated country like England. Are these fears justified?
The Growth and Infrastructure Bill is a set of common sense reforms to support local jobs and local firms. They complement the changes we are already delivered through the Localism Act and our streamlined planning guidance. It removes confusing and overlapping red tape (such as duplicate ‘consent regimes’), whilst ensuring democratic checks and balances and environmental safeguards remain in place. (See LINK)
If localism means local decsions why is central govt including DCLG trying to impose excessive housebuilding in areas that cannot cope with them due to issues such as flooding, as here in Tewkesbury and contrary to the wishes of the electorate and local Council which happens to be Conservative. If localism means anything then the local plan should be decided by local referendum and not an inspector or civil servant who does not know the area.
Planning is a quasi-judicial process: there needs to be a fair hearing and due process followed, and councils should follow their locally-agreed Local Plan and consider the other ‘material
considerations’. The right of appeal is there for when that doesn’t happen.
Councils should be using their Local Plan to prevent development in flood-risk areas and/or ensure proper flood mitigation or flood prevention areas.
Why are Wirral Borough Council allowed to have a planning moratorium over half the borough?
I understand that this relates to a planning policy issued in 2005. The Council is currently drawing up a new Local Plan, which should be setting out where new development should (and shouldn’t) go and outline how they will meet housing demand in their local authority area.
Can we put Planning on a Proper "Rule of Law" framework. Whereby councils set out rules and then they implement them in a quasi judicial manner.
For example, in Cape Town, there are “zoning" laws. By looking on a city map residents know that they can cover a certain proportion of their land, subject to a certain height restriction, a certain limit on total volume and a certain minimum set-back from the boundary. They do have to apply for planning permission but the permission is granted automatically if the plans are within these restrictions.
Derogations from this zoning (i.e. violations of the above restrictions) are sometimes allowed, based on a similar system of subjective judgement that happens in the UK. For example, if the neighbour doesn’t mind an encroachment on his boundary then it would be allowed.
This approach would have the twin benefits of reducing perceptions (and any actuality) of corruption as well as making it easier for home owners to get clarity on what is and what isn’t allowed.
This may be a matter for individual councils rather than central government but do you know of any Tory councils who are looking to implement this approach?
The planning system needs to balance the property rights of those who want to build things, with the local amenity of those who live nearby, and the need to protect heritage and the local environment.
Councils can introduce ‘simplified planning zones’ - a local development order can grant planning permission for developments which meet specific, locally determined requirements. Then there's no need for individual applications for developments which meet those standards. This could help, for example, kickstart a regeneration zone.
You also bring up an interesting and important point about home improvements. I want to make it easier for families to improve their own homes through small-scale changes- not just for their benefit, but also to save time and resources in councils, and to generate business for small traders. So we're currently consulting on changes to what are known as 'permitted development rights'. It will mean, for example, that it's a lot easier for people to build a single-story conservatory.
What is the point of Parish Councils? They have little authority, the unitary or County council usually does what it intends to do anyway. There is no effective oversight of the running of small parish councils. The standards committee system does not work.
Parish councils aren’t for every community – but they can help deliver very local services and give local people a voice. But they are only as good as those who get involved.
A balance is required for very small parish councils – we don’t want to cover them with government red tape, but it’s important that they are transparent and open, especially if they are levying a charge on council tax bills.
Labour’s Standard Board regime just fuelled petty and malicious complaints – we have scrapped it (but kept a criminal offence for genuine corruption).
How would the Minsiter encourage more people from ordinary backgrounds into politics and do grammar schools have a part to play in that pathway?