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Topical Questions

Volume 602: debated on Monday 9 November 2015

May I start by wishing a happy Diwali to everyone who will be celebrating the festival of lights later this week?

Since our last oral questions, we have agreed with the housing associations the extension of the right to buy to more than 1 million tenants; we have agreed devolution deals with Sheffield, the Tees Valley and the north-east; the Chancellor has announced that councils will keep 100% of business rates; and we have had Second Reading of the Housing and Planning Bill and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. We will continue to develop new devolution deals with local communities in order to devolve more powers throughout the country, at the same time creating more homes and homeowners.

North Devon District Council has just started a final period of public consultation on its local plan. That has been some years in the making, and its absence has caused some difficulties, as the Secretary of State will know, as he kindly attended a meeting with me and a delegation from the council a few weeks ago. Does he agree that it is important for the council to get a local plan, and therefore a five-year land supply, in place, and will the Department give it every assistance in doing so?

We will indeed. My hon. Friend will know that local places have until 2017 to come up with their plans. If they have not done so by then, we will work with local communities to ensure that they have a plan.

In his autumn statement two years ago the Chancellor said that

“we must confront this simple truth: if we want more people to own a home, we have to build more homes.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1108.]

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the number of new homes built in the best year of the previous Parliament’s five years was still lower than in the worst year out of 13 years of the last Labour Government?

The right hon. Gentleman is having a characteristic bout of amnesia, because the worst year for housing starts was when he was a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government. That was the worst year for housing starts in peacetime since the 1920s, and 88,000 new homes were started. He has form on this.

Never mind the bluster about starts—as the Chancellor said, new homes built are what count. Figures from the Secretary of State’s Department state that 124,980 homes were built in 2009 in the depths of the recession. Five years later in 2014—the Secretary of State’s best year—with a much-trumpeted growing economy, 117,720 houses were built. The answer to that failure was set out in his manifesto pledge, which mentioned 275,000 more affordable homes and 200,000 new starter homes in this Parliament. Will he guarantee that he will not double-count those numbers, and that new starter homes will be additional to affordable homes?

The right hon. Gentleman’s record has gone down in history—he presided over the lowest number of housing starts since the 1920s. This is not just about a collapse in the total number of houses being built, but about affordable housing. During his time in the previous Government, the stock of affordable homes fell by 420,000. I have been doing my research about the right hon. Gentleman because he has form on this issue, and it is a cheek for him to talk about affordable housing. As he might remember, when he was Financial Secretary he published a report that stated that the Government’s No. 1 objective was:

“Freeing up or avoiding social tenancies.”

No wonder there was a collapse in the stock of affordable housing—he wanted to avoid those tenancies.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether starter homes will be built only on exemption sites, or will new legislation allow them to be built more widely? (902039)

As my hon. Friend will know, the Housing and Planning Bill will oblige local authorities building on all significant sites to include a contribution to starter homes, recognising that there are young people across the country who want to get a foot on the housing ladder.

T2. The planning policies of Sutton borough and the Mayor of London prioritise development on brownfield sites over greenfield sites and metropolitan open land. Is the Minister as surprised as I am that in a debate on Wednesday, an Education Minister described a site on metropolitan open land as the “preferred” site for a new secondary school, despite a brownfield site having been identified and purchased by the local authority? Will the Minister talk to the Education Minister about the basics of planning, and explain to him why it was perfectly in order for a local authority to prioritise development on brownfield land? (902038)

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we prioritise brownfield planning permission. He will also know—I am sure I do not need to “educate” him, to use his phrase—that I cannot comment on a particular planning application due to the quasi-judicial role. I am happy to look at some of the details he has outlined.

T10. As the Minister will be aware, I am a great supporter of enterprise zones. Will he assure me that before further consideration is given to yet more enterprise zones in Lancashire, we will make every effort to ensure that the two existing zones—one of which is in my constituency —and a further one that may be announced in coming days, are successful? (902046)

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Enterprise zones can be drivers for growth, and the Government have invited bids for a new round of them. We look forward eagerly to seeing which areas will be successful, based on the strength of their economic case, and looking at the potential that areas have to drive that growth. We must ensure that we create new zones where they can bring real benefit, and that existing zones are successful. That is what we intend to do, and I am always happy to discuss any specific concerns with my hon. Friend.

T4. According to the Government’s figures, the homelessness prevention grant has helped councils keep 1 million people from becoming homeless since 2010. Last month, I wrote to the Minister to ask that his Department protect that grant from the forthcoming spending review. In his reply, he failed to give any assurance, so my question now is if the grant is removed, what effect will it have on homelessness in coming years? (902040)

As the hon. Lady has identified, the £400 million that the Government have put into the homelessness prevention grant over the last five years has been part of a significant package to keep 935,000 families from becoming homeless. As she knows, a spending review is coming up, and that is one of the areas that we are considering very carefully: she will learn more about it and other policies on homelessness after the 25th of this month.

In my Bury St Edmunds constituency, both the district council and the county council have an appetite for building houses. They would like to know what support the Minister will give them for looking at funding arrangements in order to facilitate that growth.

Having visited my hon. Friend’s constituency and local authorities over the summer, I know what appetite they and other district and county councils have to build more homes. That is good to see. I am fully aware that they want to move forward and, through the devolution deals—I know that Suffolk County Council and Norfolk County Council are engaged with them—we are looking at what we can do to support more economic development and housing growth to satisfy their ambitions.

T5. Over the three years to 2014, the Mayor of London fell short of his target for building affordable homes by 40%. He was not helped by councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham—then Tory-controlled—which actually managed to reduce the number of social and affordable rented properties by sale or demolition. Those policies are now enshrined in the Housing and Planning Bill: what are they but crude pieces of social engineering? (902041)

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the extended and reinvigorated right to buy since 2012, he will find that in London roughly two extra homes have been built for every home that has been sold. We have made it clear that we want to see the Housing and Planning Bill increase not only home ownership, but housing supply. I encourage local authorities, including his own, to make sure that they deliver more home development permissions than before.

The draft joint core strategy for Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury was submitted almost exactly a year ago to the Planning Inspectorate, since when no substantive reply has been received. Without agreement on the JCS, the Gloucester city local plan cannot be finalised. Will the Minister give vigorous encouragement to the relevant inspector to respond to the Gloucester JCS as soon as possible so that local government can then make real progress on both documents?

I know that the examination of the plan is ongoing. I also understand that in September the inspector was in touch with the local authority and agreed an extension of time to allow the authority to undertake some further work. I further understand that it has been agreed that a hearing will be scheduled for January 2016 so that consultation can take place on the additional work. I will look into the detail of the case because it is critical that inspectors approach examination from the perspective of working pragmatically with local authorities to achieve a sound local plan.

T6. The Minister wants to punish council tenants who do well by raising their rents. In a high-cost city such as Cambridge, £30,000 is now the Government’s cap on aspiration. He has been vague about what household income means: will he give us a proper definition today? (902042)

Obviously we will be taking this issue through in the Housing and Planning Bill over the next few weeks, and it will no doubt be discussed. We are clear, as has been welcomed by the housing associations and local authorities, that it is right that high earners pay their way.

Can the Secretary of State give any update on his discussions with local government about the resettlement of Syrian refugees?

I can indeed. The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) has had a close and co-operative dialogue with local authorities to settle, in particular, the refugees who will arrive on planes in the next few weeks. We are in a good place in being able to find good homes for them.

T7. The north-east is desperate for a meaningful devolution of powers. I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that they must include powers over transport, at least those London has. Despite the recent ruling of the Quality Contract Scheme board, can we have our buses back? (902043)

The hon. Lady takes a keen interest in devolution in the north-east. It is no small step that both the north-east and Tees Valley have recently entered into devolution deals with the Government. We want to continue to look at all areas of devolution that local leadership wants to put forward. We will continue to have discussions with them about that. The agreements signed only a few weeks ago are a significant and welcome step in that direction for our shared regions.

My local Kirklees Council has today begun a long-overdue consultation on its local plan. Does the Minister agree that the council must listen to local communities as well as developers, and must take into account the Government’s £1 billion brownfield first campaign?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Another area entering into consultation is welcome news. It is vital that local area plans represent and take into account the views of the local community. I encourage the local authority to listen very carefully to residents in his area.

T8. After the Energy and Climate Change Committee wrote to the Government deploring their lamentable failure to get anywhere near targets on low carbon heat reduction and saying specifically that they had to go beyond part L of the building regulations to get new homes back on track, is the Minister reconsidering his decision to abolish the code for sustainable homes? (902044)

Significant steps have been taken in recent years in strengthening building regulations to lower the carbon footprint of the homes we build. We have to ensure we work with industry and interested parties and we look at the implications of all decisions taken. We are, of course, always looking at the process by which that can be done and the options available to us. We have to see the effect that changes already made will have in reducing significantly the carbon footprint, and in setting us further on the path to the ultimate goal that I think many in this place share.

I welcome the Government’s recent policy announcement on new planning applications from Gypsies and Travellers in the countryside. Has the Planning Inspectorate been fully briefed on the Government’s programme, and will particular importance be attached to combating the overconcentration of sites in the countryside?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The short answer with regard to the Planning Inspectorate is yes. We are very keen to ensure that the planning system treats everybody equally and fairly, and that everybody abides by the same rules in a fair and proportionate way.

T9. Will the Government legislate to provide for a substantial programme of municipalisation of private sector housing, especially empty homes, to help to rebuild the local authority housing sector to provide more decent homes at affordable rents for thousands of families languishing on housing waiting lists? If they will not do that, will they explain why? (902045)

I am very proud of the fact that we have pretty much one of the lowest levels of empty homes on record thanks to the work done and the substantial investment made in the past few years, and to the fact that the new homes bonus applies to empty homes. I encourage local authorities to look at those kinds of properties and think about what they can do with them, and to deliver housing—whether affordable, private rented sector, or, for example through the new starter homes programme, homes for sale to people who want to be able to afford to buy their own home—for their local area.

I once again commend the excellent enterprise zone in Corby bid, which is supported by both Corby Borough Council and East Northamptonshire Council. Will the Minister provide us with an update and let us know when we are likely to hear the outcome?

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for Corby. I have had a number of discussions with him on a whole range of issues relating to his constituency. He is proving himself to be a most diligent Member of Parliament. A large number of enterprise zone bids have been received and are being considered. We will assess the economic case and look at a range of factors that inform those decisions, and an announcement will be made in due course.

What advice should I give to my constituent, who is currently in a homeless shelter? He came from Jamaica in the early ’60s with his family. He never went abroad, and so has never had to prove his immigration status. He cannot afford to apply for British citizenship right now, but says he cannot be rehoused because there is a requirement for him to prove his immigration status.

I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing that case to the House. If she writes to me with the details, I will certainly look into it.

I am sorry to cut off questions at this point, but demand has exceeded supply, as is ordinarily the case.