Comunities Secretary Eric Pickles) has tabled the following written statement in Parliament "to update Honourable Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 5 April 2011."
The Department continues to reinforce the importance of local transparency, audit openness and accountability. On 13 April, I announced new transparency rules which will require councils to publicise to the press and public, on their website, the little-known rights to inspect their detailed financial accounts, ledgers and records.
In a deregulatory move, changes will also reduce the financial bureaucracy and burdens imposed on the smallest local authorities. Increasing the budget threshold to £6.5 million, means that up to 100 smaller local bodies (assorted parish councils, drainage boards and joint committees) will immediately benefit from less burdensome audit requirements, reducing costs on reporting duties imposed by Whitehall and making it easier for authorities to be accountable to their community.
On 13 April, I published new figures showing who pays what for local government services. The new analysis makes it possible to compare how much residents contribute in council tax and conversely how much their area receives in formula grant. It marks another step towards demystifying the local government finance system for taxpayers.
With Easter, St George’s Day and the impending Royal Wedding, there are great opportunities for communities across the nation to come together and celebrate. Alongside my Cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minster, we urged councils to adopt a common sense approach to street parties and to help local residents from all backgrounds to come together, and reinforce our shared identity and sense of Britishness. This included publishing an updated version of the deregulatory guidance on organising street parties, shooting down myths and misconceptions around them.
In addition to this, the Department flew the flag of St George above its headquarters and I encouraged public bodies to fly the English flag as a unifying symbol for the English nation, to be followed by flying the Union flag come the Royal Wedding.
Homes and tenants
Millions of social housing tenants take real pride in their homes and my Department believes they should have the power and incentive to take control of the maintenance of their own homes. On 7 April the Minister for Housing and Local Government launched Tenant Cashback. Tenant Cashback will allow residents to take more control of their repairs budget for their homes, taking on their own repairs and keeping any cash savings they have made.
Tenants will also be able to pool their resources to create a ‘community cashback’ account, which could be used to fund improvements to the local area for the benefit of all their residents. The plan will give tenants more power over their homes and neighbourhoods; allow poorer households to build up savings, strengthen bonds between neighbours; and provide work for small traders.
Ending the culture of top-down Whitehall management and putting the focus on local accountability and local communities is a key priority for the Department.
On 12 April, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, set out how local decision making and restoring focus on local communities will be central to Fire and Rescue Service policy, as the Department published its response to the Fire Futures Reports.
The voluntary and community sector are relied upon by communities across the nation and we believe they should be given the freedom from excessive burdens and red tape that can impede their work. On 13 April, I announced a new Fair Deal for the Voluntary and Community Sector which calls on councils to give greater support to local community and voluntary groups. The social responsibility deal will seek to avoid disproportionate reductions in funding and encourage a more collaborative approach involving councils working with organisations to shape the future of their service. We are also giving councils the freedoms to serve the local community and work more flexibly with the sector by scrapping the 56 pages of statutory guidance on local priorities which spelled out exactly how councils should engage with the people in their area.
Increasing housing supply
We believe that a key barrier to increasing the much needed housing supply is the lack of land and buildings available for residential development or conversion. Many towns and cities have office blocks, warehouse and business parks needlessly lying empty. By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump start housing supply and help get the economy back on track
On 8 April, my Department published a consultation proposing to abolish the planning approval requirement for changing use from a commercial property to a residential property; deregulating the planning system to increase housing supply. This is part of a wider review of Use Classes Orders and its interaction with permitted development rights, which will further unlock unnecessary planning restrictions and help stimulate sustainable development.
We believe that local people should have greater power and support to shape planning and development in their local area. On 13 April, the Minister for Decentralisation announced that four organisations with expertise in planning will share a £3.2 million fund to provide assistance to local groups developing neighbourhood plans.
Communities can choose to take up free advice and guidance depending on their needs through The Prince's Foundation, Locality, The Royal Town Planning Institute, and the National Association of Local Councils in partnership with the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Each organisation will use its expertise, skills and track record advising on development to empower communities to reach the full potential of their neighborhood plan from start to finish.
Planning and travellers
On 13 April, I announced proposals for a more localist and fair way of providing traveller sites. New proposed planning policy will give the Green Belt and countryside more robust protection, give local councils more discretion and local planning authorities a stronger hand in supporting appropriate development. The proposals will also remove the central guidance to councils on compulsory purchasing of land for traveller sites. In consultation with local communities, councils will have the freedom and responsibility to determine the right level of traveller site provision in their area, while ensuring fairness in the planning system.
The proposed planning policy is capable of being regarded as a material consideration in planning decisions. I would encourage local councils, elected representatives and community groups to respond to the consultation.