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PICKLES Eric smiling

The Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has offered MPs the following update on the work of his Department over the Christmas recess:

Helping councils with flood recovery

I would like to thank the Environment Agency, local authorities and voluntary groups like the British Red Cross which have worked successfully with the emergency services to deal with the damage caused by the recent flooding and their continued help to households and businesses dealing with the aftermath.

Many households and businesses have been disrupted by the severe tidal surge and resulting floods that have affected parts of the country. We want to ensure all possible action is taken to help affected households get the support they need.

On 29 December, my Department wrote to all local authorities in England to notify them that the Bellwin scheme was activated. The Bellwin scheme retrospectively reimburses councils for exceptional costs incurred from emergencies or unexpected events.

We also asked councils for assurance that they are prepared for any future flooding and that everything possible is being done to help those affected by the bad weather during what has been a difficult holiday period for many.

Tackling rogue landlords

The overwhelming majority of landlords are law-abiding citizens, who work hard to provide quality accommodation to their tenants. However, the Coalition Government is determined to help councils tackle the small minority of rogue landlords, whilst avoiding disproportionate red tape on the whole private rented sector.

On 30 December, my Department announced a £4 million boost for local authorities to tackle rogue landlords in their area. Twenty three councils will share the funding so they can take on landlords that force their tenants to live in squalid and dangerous properties, making their lives a misery. This is part of a package of measures that will ensure millions of hard-working tenants get a better deal when they rent a home.

In addition, new legislation which came into force in December will enable courts to take account of landlords’ assets, as well as their income, when levying fines for housing offences.

We also published an application criterion which means redress schemes for lettings and property management will now be able to come forward for approval. All agents will be required to join one of the approved schemes, so their tenants have somewhere to turn to if they do not get the service they deserve.
Ensuring fair play on housing waiting lists

As a result of lax immigration controls under the last Labour Government, 1 in 6 of all social housing tenants in London are now foreigners, and across England, 1 in 10 of all new tenants are foreign nationals.

This Coalition Government is determined that hard-working local people should be given priority for council homes. We want to restore fairness to a system that many people believe is often skewed against the local people it is designed to support.

We published new statutory guidance on 31 December which makes clear that only hard-working people with a well-established residency, relatives or a job in the local area can go on their council’s waiting list. This means they will be the first to benefit when homes become available.

The guidance ensures councils require people to have lived in the area for at least two years. Only those who pass this test will be accepted onto the waiting list in their local area – and then be considered for social housing.

To reassure local people that they are being treated fairly, councils are encouraged to publish information about who is applying for and getting social housing in their area.

The new guidance also confirms that members of the Armed Forces, who are often unable to settle in one area for a long time, are considered a priority for housing.

This move will end years of confusion and anger in local communities about the way council housing is allocated.

Helping those with small deposits get on and move up the housing ladder

The Help to Buy schemes help those with small deposits get on and move up the housing ladder. The Help to Buy equity loan scheme is overseen by my Department; the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is overseen by HM Treasury.

Latest figures show that from its launch in April 2013 to the end of November, there have been 20,652 reservations for new build homes under the Help to Buy equity loan scheme. There have been 9,459 completed sales over the same period, 90 per cent of which are to first time buyers and the average value of property purchased was £199,000. Over 90 per cent of the 1,200 house builders registered under the scheme are small to medium sized developers. In contrast to England, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme is not currently offered by the Labour-run Welsh Government.

These figures are complemented by the latest Help to Buy mortgage guarantee figures showing that over 6,000 people have put in offers on a home and applied for a Help to Buy guaranteed mortgage. Households are looking to buy houses worth about £160,000 on average (below the UK average price of £247,000) and 80 per cent are first time buyers. These mortgages, once approved, will represent nearly £1 billion of new lending to aspiring home owners who may have previously found the property market out-of-reach because of the size of deposit required. I am pleased to say that the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is available across the United Kingdom, as it is a reserved matter.

The two Help to Buy schemes are part of the Government’s long-term economic plan to build a stronger, more competitive economy, and support those who aspire to own their own home. Indeed, I would also note:

  • House building at its highest level since 2007. New orders in residential construction have risen to their highest level since 2007 (ONS, Output in the Construction Industry statistics, 13 December 2013)
  • The value of residential loans advanced to first time buyers is at its highest rate since 2007 (Bank of England, Mortgage Lenders and Administrators Statistics, 10 December 2013).
  • The number of new mortgage arrears cases is at its lowest quarterly number of new cases since the series began in 2007 (ibid.).

Helping social tenants get on the housing ladder

This Coalition Government is determined to help hard-working tenants aspire to buy their home. We have taken further steps to reinvigorate the Right to Buy scheme across England in 2014.

On 3 January, I announced that the maximum discount for a house will increase from 60 per cent to 70 per cent of its value, and the £75,000 cap will start increasing in line with the Consumer Price Index rate of inflation. A £100 million fund will improve access to mortgage finance, and new Right to Buy agents will guide people through the buying process. Revenue from additional sales will be ploughed back into delivering new affordable homes for rent, which will help drive up the rate of house building across England.

The Right to Buy gives something back to families who worked hard, paid their rent and played by the rules. It allows them to do up their home, change their front door, improve their garden – without getting permission from the council. It gives people a sense of pride and ownership not just in their home, but in their street and neighbourhood, helping to build strong families and stable mixed communities. So we are determined that this help is on hand for hard-working, aspiring homeowners.

The support for Right to Buy in England is in strong contrast to the policy of the Labour-run Welsh Government which has slashed back the Right to Buy.

Offering a fair deal to firefighters

We all hold our brave fire men and women in the highest regard and are grateful to them for their help during the recent flooding and bad weather. However, despite offering firefighters a fair deal and one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector, it is unfortunate the Fire Brigades Union took the decision to take industrial action during the holiday season, on 24, 31 December and 3 January.

Although Ministers met with the Fire Brigades Union on Christmas Eve to continue discussions their continued industrial action shows that they are not serious about resolving this dispute, and have simply further damaged firefighters’ standing with the public.

Our fair offer means a firefighter who earns £29,000, and retires after a full career aged 60, will get a £19,000 a year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension.

An equivalent private sector pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.

The firefighter pension age of 60 was introduced in 2006 and is in line with the police and armed forces. We have been clear with the Fire Brigades Union our pension reforms are not introducing a national fitness standard.

Supporting regular bin collections for family homes

My Department continues to urge councils to bring common sense back to weekly bin collections. Weekly rubbish collections are the most visible of all front-line services and we believe every household in England has a basic right to have their rubbish collected every week.

On 4 January, we published the first ever Government guidance on weekly collections (the ‘bin bible’) which promotes best practice lessons learnt from the Weekly Collection Support Scheme and highlights how all councils can keep weekly collections, increase recycling and still make common sense efficiency savings.

Fortnightly collections were actively promoted under the last Labour Government: bin collections halved, whilst council tax doubled. Indeed, fortnightly bin collections are the official policy of the Labour-run Government in Wales – which is now even encouraging monthly bin collections.

Our guidance builds on steps this Government has already taken in England including:

  • safeguarding weekly collections for 6 million households through the Weekly Collection Support Scheme;
  • removing Whitehall directives, targets and financial penalties demanding fortnightly bin collections;
  • supporting over 41 innovative reward schemes to back recycling;
  • abolishing plans for new bin taxes;
  • changing the law to scrap unfair bin fines;
  • amending building regulations to tackle ‘bin blight’;
  • removing powers of entry and snooping powers from bin inspectors and scrapped guidance telling people to rifle through families’ bins.

This Government is standing up for frontline services for hard-working people, whilst keeping their council tax bills down.

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