The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 24 May 2011.
In August 2010, I announced plans to disband the Audit Commission and refocus audit on helping local people hold their council to account. Since then we have been examining the most cost-effective option for disbanding the Audit Commission, transferring audit into the private sector and allowing local authorities to appoint their own auditors.
On 2 June 2011, we provided an update on plans to secure a value-for-money transfer of the Audit Commission in-house practice into the private sector. In a letter from the Department’s permanent
secretary to councils, we set out our initial view that outsourcing all the audits currently undertaken by the in-house practice to the private sector provides the best value-for-money option. We have asked the Audit Commission to begin substantive preparatory work for outsourcing the 2012-13 audits and to design a procurement process that allows a range of firms to bid, including allowing for the possibility of an employee-owned mutual. These measures set in train our goal to radically scale back centrally driven bureaucratic targets and costly inspection, saving the taxpayers money.
The Department is continuing its commitment to deliver transparent and open Government, using transparency to help reduce unnecessary spending and help get more for less. On 1 June, we published historic details of the Department’s Government procurement card from 2008 to date, including all spending on the corporate charge cards—not just over £500. A copy of the dataset is in the Library of the House.
This Government want to create a new generation of enterprise zones across England that will encourage new business and stimulate growth. Following the announcement of the first 11 vanguard enterprise zones, on 27 May, I opened up the competition for the second wave of applications. Criteria and application forms have been issued to the 29 existing or prospective local enterprise partnerships that have expressed interest in establishing one of the next 10 enterprise zones. Applications will be assessed against their ability to deliver growth, the value for money they deliver and the robustness of implementation plans to ensure that the best possible sites are selected.
House building is a top priority for this Government and we believe that bureaucratic regional strategies slowed down the planning system and acted as an unnecessary impediment to growth. On 27 May, CALA Homes lost its second challenge against the Government’s intention to revoke regional strategies, first announced in July 2010. The Court of Appeal confirmed that planning authorities and inspectors can take our intention to abolish regional strategies into consideration in deciding planning applications and appeals.
The public sector owns 16,000 hectares of previously developed land. In the Chancellor’s “Plan for Growth” published alongside Budget 2011, we committed to accelerate the release of this land to encourage development. Work undertaken since March shows that by pushing harder we can unlock land to deliver up to 100,000 homes—and as many as 25,000 jobs by 2015. We are publishing the Homes and Communities Agency’s land disposal strategy, and this will deliver over 11,000 housing starts over the spending review period—an increase of nearly 40% over what was previously planned.
The Minister for Housing and Local Government has set out how we can get this asset working harder for us—supporting local growth and the construction industry and building more badly needed homes. And this autumn, Government Departments will publish plans to release thousands of acres of land to house builders, so they can get on and build the homes the country needs and raise revenue for the Exchequer.
Power to communities
My Department believes that communities should have the power to shape their neighbourhoods.
On 1 June, my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation and planning, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) announced a further 40 communities to join the 50 already taking part in trialling the neighbourhood planning rights being introduced in the Localism Bill. Each of the 40 neighbourhood planning front-runners will receive £20,000 towards developing their plans and will be led by local authorities, working with community groups and parish councils to prepare draft plans and neighbourhood development orders.
On 2 June, my colleague, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, launched new guidelines on the community right to build. The guidelines offer information to communities considering taking forward a community-led scheme using the new power being introduced in the Localism Bill and encourage people to think about the development they would like to see in their area.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation fund
Auschwitz-Birkenau is an important place of remembrance; it is our collective responsibility to ensure that it stands as a perpetual reminder of the pain and destructive force of hate. On 26 May, together with the Foreign Secretary, we announced a £2.1 million Government contribution to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation fund to help ensure the lessons of Auschwitz live on for generations to come. The money will be used to ensure the long-term preservation and restoration of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and its important place in educating people of the horrors of the Holocaust.