By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday afternoon saw Communities and Local Government questions in the House. Eric Pickles is often a target for sharp Labour questions – because of his combative approach, and the fact that his department is making cuts in one of Labour's bureaucratic strongholds, local government.
This belligerent attitude from the Labour – front and back – benches was on show yesterday.
In the news yesterday was the story that council tax discounts on second homes will be removed. This came up during questions:
"John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): What the monetary value was of (a) council tax relief for second homeowners and (b) discounts on council tax for empty properties in England in the latest period for which figures are available.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): The Department keeps no figures for Scotland, but for 2011-12 the estimated monetary value of council tax relief for second home owners in England is £45 million
John Robertson: I thank the Minister for his response. What would he say to those who think his new policy, as in his statement, is a penalty surcharge? Does he agree that they are wrong and misguided?
Mr Pickles: I should point out to the Labour Whips that the hon. Gentleman’s question was not a planted question to coincide with today’s announcement. The Labour Government reduced the second homes discount to 10%. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed what we are doing rather than condemn it. Perhaps he is of a mind that because the Tories are doing it, it must be wrong."
DCLG's Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, was asked a question by Labour MP Karen Buck, who has previously accused the government of wanting to clear central London of black and ethnic minority women:
"Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): If the Government are so keen on restricting social housing to those on low incomes, how does the Minister explain the affordable rent regime? Is it not the case that in local authorities such as my own, even at 65% of market rents, the income required—without benefit—to pay for an affordable family-sized house is £77,000 a year?
Grant Shapps: We are keen to protect people on low incomes, not on high ones, as the hon. Lady suggested. The point about the housing benefit changes is that many of her constituents, along with mine and everyone else’s, will be asking how it can be fair for people in receipt of housing benefit to live in homes and streets that people on ordinary salaries cannot possibly afford to live in. That is the system that we are going to fix; when the Opposition were in government, they used to support that policy."
Labour MPs often ask critical questions about the Coalition's policy of scrapping the Regional Development Agencies. This week's questions were no different, with new DCLG Shadow Minister Helen Jones asking as the Secretary of State says, a "feisty" question:
"Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): How can the Secretary of State claim to be promoting local enterprise when the Government have kicked away its support? They abolished RDAs, against the advice of local business; he has paralysed the planning system; and his proposals for business rates mean that local authorities would be better off building big retail parks than supporting manufacturing and small business. As we now know that for every two jobs lost in the public sector fewer than one is being created in the private sector, why does he not admit that this out-of-date, ideologically driven policy is not working?
Mr Pickles: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position. I hope all her questions are as feisty as that one. The Labour party simply has to stop clinging to the comfort blanket of the idea that it somehow left a golden economic legacy. It did not. It is impossible for Labour to defend local government and at the same time say that all it would do is put up sheds for Spudulike and Carphone Warehouse."
Joining Helen Jones MP in a new shadow position was Jack Dromey. He condemned the government's economic plans – and therefore housing conditions – in strong terms. Minister Grant Shapps was equal to the attack:
"Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Because the Government have mismanaged the economy, consumer confidence, house prices and house building are falling, and we have a mortgage market in which people cannot get mortgages. Were it not for the 60,000 homes that were commissioned and paid for by a Labour Government but built in the past 12 months—Labour’s legacy—the house building industry would have been on its knees.
Grant Shapps: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. He will be the eighth housing spokesman or deputy on the Labour side whom I have faced either in government or in opposition. I hope that he stays there longer than the previous incumbents. I think the main questions are about the new homes bonus, the HomeSwap Direct scheme, the opposition to £100,000-salaried tenants in council homes and whether the gap in policy and the constant switching of Ministers are going to come to an end, because without that the Opposition have nothing to say about housing policy at all."
The full session is available in Hansard here.
There were plenty of amusing moments, as is often the case with Eric Pickles and his ministerial team. Perhaps the pick of the lot came about when veteran Conservative-baiter, Dennis Skinner rose:
"Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State aware that when the working neighbourhoods fund was created, local authorities in Bolsover and Chesterfield provided lots of apprenticeships in north Derbyshire. Unless that working neighbourhoods fund is continued through 2012, those apprenticeships, which are like the song and dance of one of his ministerial colleagues, will be gone. What will he do about that?
Mr Pickles: Before the hon. Gentleman gets into his version of the two step, let me tell him that the former Labour Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), announced the ending of the working neighbourhoods fund, which ended in March. We found some transitional relief, so if the hon. Gentleman is interested in dancing, I suggest he do a tango with his right hon. Friend."