The Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has offered Parliament this update:

I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose for Conference Recess on 13 September.

Supporting shoppers and local shops

We are determined make the country the best place to start and grow a business. The Coalition Government is setting business free from red
tape to the tune of over £212 million a year so local traders can generate the kind of enterprise that is vital to our economic growth.

Reducing government interference is improving Britain’s international reputation as a low-regulation, pro-business nation.

We have already stripped back bureaucratic Whitehall planning rules and tackled unpopular parking practices that reduced parking spaces and increased parking charges that hold back the high street. However, there is more to do in order to support local shops and shoppers from disproportionate parking enforcement which forces shoppers to out-of-town superstores or just to shop online.

On 27 September, together with the Secretary of State for Transport, I announced plans to publish details of further reforms, including stopping CCTV being used for on-street parking enforcement and new open data on parking to allow the public to ‘go compare’. In due course, we will be publishing proposals for consultation on:

  • updating parking enforcement guidance to support local shops;
  • tackling wrongly-issued fines;
  • stopping unacceptable parking fine collection practices;
  • reviewing unnecessary yellow lines and the scope for residents’ reviews;
  • reviewing the grace period for parking offences;
  • clamping down on anti-social driving and encouraging social responsibility;
  • spreading best practice on supporting town centres and tackling illegal parking; and
  • analysing the impact of different transport policies on town centre vitality.

On 1 October, my Department outlined changes which will cut red tape which makes it harder for local firms and traders to set up business improvement districts where high streets stretch across council boundaries. Business improvement districts are a tried and tested approach, used in towns and cities across the world, to fund improvements in local trading areas.

The potential for business improvement districts to successfully support town centres growth was outlined by Mary Portas in her review of High Streets. There are currently over 150 business improvement districts across the UK working on issues such as town centre safety, improvement of public realm, support for local traders and parking initiatives.

Extending family-friendly tenancies

The private rented market is a vital asset to this country, and plays an important role in providing flexible accommodation for those who do not want to buy, or are saving up for a deposit. Families deserve stability for their children, and all tenants deserve a good and transparent service from their landlords and lettings agents.

On 1 October, I announced a package of measures for longer fixed-term, family-friendly tenancies that will provide tenants with more information to help them request longer tenancies where they want greater stability for their families, avoid hidden fees when renting a home and demand a fair deal from their landlords and letting agents.

A model tenancy agreement, developed with the sector, will clearly set out the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords, and provide the rental market with an industry benchmark for written tenancy agreements.

In addition, a new tenants’ charter will ensure all tenants know what to expect from their tenancy and, if something goes wrong, where to go for help. This will include greater transparency about lettings agents’ fees, helping to stop unreasonable practices and unfair charges.

The charter will work alongside the new compulsory redress schemes for lettings agents, which will be able to investigate agents that have not been clear about fees and, where a complaint is upheld, require compensation is paid to the tenant.

Stopping rip-off repair charges

On 7 October, I announced plans to crack down on councils that sting private leaseholders with huge bills for their share of the ‘repairs’ to the building and communal areas. It is reasonable for those purchasing under Right to Buy or on the open market to pay their fair share towards maintenance, but they should not be used as a cash cow.

Under the current rules there is no universal mandatory limit to the amount that councils can charge leaseholders for improvement works. While the vast majority of councils have behaved reasonably, Ministers believe a number have abused their position, leaving leaseholders with huge bills which they are unable to pay and feel powerless to resist.

A new consultation paper proposes that councils which get government funding to help maintain their tenants’ homes should in future only charge leaseholders a maximum of £10,000 over a 5 year period for repairs, or £15,000 for those in London.

Backing self-builders

We want to give more people the opportunity to build their own homes and ensure that self-build is not the preserve of the few. The Coalition Government has already taken steps to dismantle barriers that hold back self-build projects: limited land availability and reluctance by lenders to provide finance and red tape.

On 17 September, we announced a series of measures to ensure the self-build market is opened up to those on lower incomes. For the first time community self-build and community-led affordable housing projects will be able to apply for a share of £65 million from the Affordable Homes Guarantees Programme to build the affordable homes they want in their area.

In addition to this new planning practice guidance has been introduced to ensure councils meet the demand for self-build in their area. This will include compiling a local register of people who want to build their own homes so they can be given first priority when new brownfield sites become available.

New council tax discounts will also be introduced for family annexes, removing an unfair council tax penalty surcharge. Genuine self-builders will be exempted from paying inappropriate Section 106 tariffs and the community infrastructure levy, which will cut the cost of self-build by thousands of pounds.

Boosting enterprise and regeneration

Last week, the Prime Minister reinforced his commitment to supporting businesses and ensuring that Britain can continue to attract investment and remain competitive on a world stage. The Enterprise Zones are part a key of this agenda, and they are already showing progress with over 180 businesses, close to half a billion pounds of private sector investment and nearly 4,000 jobs, and many more in the pipeline.

On 7 October, we announced £100 million of extra funding for Enterprise Zones to complete infrastructure projects and compete for new businesses. The money will fund projects such as road building and land clearance that will unlock areas previously idle, turning them into prime economic sites that will bring home new businesses and help the local economies grow.

Getting Britain building

The Coalition Government’s planning reforms and housing investment is supporting the construction industry to get Britain building the homes the next generation needs, while conserving our countryside.

Figures published on 27 September showed a significant increase in the number of major residential developments being decided upon by councils. In the year ending June 2013, district level planning authorities in England decided 2% more residential decisions and 14% more major residential decisions. This is helping construction firms gain approvals and restart previously stalled developments that have planning permission.

The latest statistics are also backed by figures released in the Home Builders Federation’s latest Housing Pipeline report that reveal a 49% year-on-year increase in the number of planning approvals for new homes in England in the second quarter of 2013.

Helping communities to shape their future

The Localism Act has given communities unprecedented powers over their lives, neighborhoods, towns and cities. One year on from their launch, new community rights are being used successfully by communities all across the country; getting involved and taking on local planning issues, providing their own services and protecting treasured local assets.

There is now a genuine neighbourhood planning movement occurring with more than 500 communities already using these powers and many hundreds more taking steps to make use of this important new right.

To ensure continued momentum, on 26 September we announced a £7.5 million funding boost enabling councils around the country to claim up to £100,000 a year to help their communities start a neighbourhood plan, with an additional £25,000 for plans that pass a successful examination.

On 19 September, my Department together with the Arts Council England granted five towns across England a share of £400,000 for projects to
increase community participation in the arts. These could include getting theatre touring companies to take in those towns, organising for artist residencies locally, making it easier for people to attend or submit works to local arts festivals and making more use of public display spaces.

Improving local government services

Councils have a vital role to play in tackling the deficit left by the last Administration and this Government is clear that councils demonstrating the best in innovation that successfully redesign services will be supported.

The tide of change that began with sharing management teams is now going further to include shared service delivery across council boundaries and many local authorities are charging ahead and leading by example.

A part of the Coalition Government’s commitment to high quality public services my Department confirmed that Bournemouth and Surrey and 16 other winners, to be announced shortly, will share the £9.2 million Transformation Challenge Award. The funding will help them to remain at the cutting edge of service transformation while delivering efficiency savings.

Further support for transformation in the public sector will follow in 2015 with an £100 million award so even more councils can adopt more efficient practices and innovative service deliveries.

On 3 October, my Department announced that ten leading ‘enterprising libraries’ will receive a share of £450,000 to help local people get started in business. As part of wider action to support local economic growth, Enterprising Libraries will turn library spaces into incubators for business ideas by provide coaching, advice, meeting spaces, and IT support to people interested in developing a proposal and taking it to the market.

The projects are focused on fostering entrepreneurship by supporting budding business minds in the local community who are interested in becoming self-employed. The funding announced will help more people access the same kind of services across the country.

Offering a fair deal to fire fighters

We all hold our brave fire men and women in the highest regard. Despite offering fire fighter a fair deal and one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector, on 24 September the Fire Brigades Union held a four hour strike. All our fire and rescue authorities in England had contingency plans in place and that they proved robust. Should the Fire Brigades Union carry out more industrial action ensuring public safety will continue to be our first priority.

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 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 that our pension reforms are not introducing a national fitness standard.

Increasing town hall transparency

My Department continues in its drive for more openness and transparency across Government. On 20 September, we updated our plain English guide to openness and transparency on interests to make it clear that personal interests will necessarily include membership of any Trade Union and so should be registered by councillors.

This clarity will give local people the confidence that their councillors are putting residents’ interests before their own and is an important tool in helping to prevent conflicts of interests when councils are considering issues directly affecting trade unions, such as reviews of taxpayer-funded subsidies given to trade unions.

Flying the flag

England’s historic counties continue to form an important part of our cultural and local identity in this country and many people remain deeply attached to their home county. This sense of pride and shared identity is one of the things that bind communities together.

In the past, it has been known for many parts of Whitehall and municipal officialdom to shun historic counties, many of which date back over a thousand years of English history. My Department is changing that and has been clear that communities should be free to proudly fly their flags without barriers and we are encouraging more local communities to create their own local flags.

Over the recess period we have proudly hoisted the flags of Cumberland and Westmorland above our headquarters. We have also raised a Purple Flag in recognition of the contribution and excellence of our town centres in establishing and managing thriving, vibrant and safe early evening atmosphere.

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