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Topical Questions

Volume 616: debated on Monday 24 October 2016

The recess was far from a quiet period in my Department. Earlier this month we announced the £5 billion of funding for new homes, we have continued to drive forward devolution deals, and we are in the process of offering councils extra certainty through four-year funding settlements, but there is plenty more to come, including the White Paper—and, if I am even daring to dream, the press pack outside No. 10 might stop confusing me with Sadiq Khan.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am sure he shares my concern about the very high number of excess winter deaths in our country each year. He will understand the importance of Government, national and local, working together to address this, so will he say what specific plans his Department has to co-ordinate activity and minimise the number of cold weather deaths this winter?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue and rightly highlights the need for co-ordinated Government action. Public Health England has already published a cold weather plan, which gives recommendations for the NHS and public health and social care and community organisations to work together and help the people who are most vulnerable this winter.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his plans to encourage innovation in the construction industry? (906749)

We have huge plans in this area. One of the key objectives of the home building fund and the accelerated construction projects the Secretary of State announced at party conference is to encourage more use of offsite construction.

The Secretary of State’s Department is supposed to be England’s voice in government, yet standing up for the English and the services they depend on seems low on Ministers’ list of priorities. The independent Care Quality Commission pointed out recently that the Government’s huge funding cuts have left services for England’s elderly and vulnerable at tipping point. With the social care crisis across England getting worse week by week, when might we expect the Secretary of State to act?

I recognise that there is growing demand for social care across the UK, especially in England, which is why in the last spending review we pledged an additional £3.5 billion by 2020, including allowing councils to have a social care precept, so there is money that is ring-fenced, and also the better care fund.

T6. North Devon Council and the coastal communities team have just heard that their bid for funding for Ilfracombe’s excellent new water sports centre has made it through to the next round. Will the Minister congratulate them and agree that this is an excellent example of this Government reinventing our coastal communities? (906752)

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend’s compliments to the Government on this and wish Ilfracombe all the best. It has made it through to the final 40, and we will be making an announcement on the final fund early next year, so congratulations again.

T2. The northern powerhouse project has brought much needed investment, attention and cohesion to northern cities like mine of Manchester. So why is it that many of the key players involved in the northern powerhouse project, including former Ministers, now feel that the programme has been all but cancelled? (906748)

I am sorry, but that is complete and utter nonsense, and I have to say that if Opposition Members are really interested in the northern powerhouse, they should stop talking it down at every single opportunity and trashing it. We have delivered through the northern powerhouse a record number of enterprise zones and billions of pounds of investment in public transport projects across the north, and I know from my 10 years as a local government councillor in the north that that is a lot more than the Labour Government managed to do for the north during their time in power.

Order. The hon. Member for Pendle has perambulated from one part of the Chamber to the other, but we are nevertheless happy to hear from him.

T7. Local business rates retention will be a great boost for many local councils. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with local authorities about 100% retention? (906753)

This is a reform for which local government has long campaigned and in which my hon. Friend has shown great interest. To deliver the commitment, we held an open consultation that invited councils and businesses to have their say and have established a joint steering group with the Local Government Association to consider the mechanisms needed to set up and run the new system.

T4. The revaluation of property for business rates is creating uncertainty for businesses and local authorities. Stockton faces two different problems: small leisure businesses have been priced out of our town centre; and telecommunications companies are fighting their valuations, potentially knocking huge holes in the council’s budget. How will small businesses be protected? Will the Minister assure me that the 2017-18 finance settlement will take future valuations and changes into account so that Stockton Council will be no worse off? (906750)

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two issues. On business, there is a record package of £6.7 billion of business rates relief. On local government funding, I assure him that the revaluation process is a revenue- neutral exercise after which no local authority will be disadvantaged.

T9. The rapid growth in our elderly population is a key driver of housing demand, so what are the Government doing to ensure that we are building not only enough homes, but enough of the right homes for an ageing society? (906755)

The national planning policy framework requires councils to plan for a mix of housing, but my hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important not only to get the right housing for our elderly population, but to release crucial family housing and to boost the second-hand market, allowing developers to build more homes.

T5. How is the Government’s proposal for 100% business rates retention compatible with the statement in their consultation document that there will be“a level of redistribution between authorities similar to the current system of 9 tariffs and top-ups”? (906751)

I say to the hon. Gentleman that 100% of business rates will be retained in local government to be spent on local government services. There will need to be a form of redistribution so that local authorities that do not collect as much in business rates are not left in a difficult situation. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know we consulted extensively in the sector and received more than 450 responses.

We are doing a number of things. At the party conference, we announced the home building fund, which will provide home builders with the finance that they often cannot secure commercially. We are also looking into planning policy to ensure that we release the vital small sites that small builders can take on.

T8. I welcome the Prime Minister’s determination to keep the Union together. With devolution to councils and cities and to areas such as the northern powerhouse, can we have regular meetings with the devolved Governments and their oppositions to ensure that we are all pulling together? (906754)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will. I am pleased that he has expressed his views about the importance of Unionism. It is key that we continue to work together—that is when we are at our strongest. I support the Union, and Unionism is absolutely central to that. That is my view and that is the Prime Minister’s view.

General aviation airfields, not least White Waltham in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, make a valuable contribution to pilot training, business aviation and sporting aviation. Is the Minister aware that they are now seriously under threat? It is proposed that Redhill aerodrome will become an estate of 4,500 homes, and he will know about Wellesbourne airfield near his constituency. Please can we have a policy that protects general aviation airfields across the country, because otherwise they will all be covered with concrete?

My hon. Friend’s passion for the aviation industry is well known. I am happy to meet him to discuss that vital sector and what we can do in planning policy on protection.

Chesterfield Borough Council stands ready to help end the housing crisis by building more homes, but the Government have reneged on the deal they did with Chesterfield in 2012. Changes to rents and the money coming into councils have made it much more difficult to deliver the houses that we need. Will the Minister meet a delegation from Chesterfield to understand the changes so that we can build the houses that Chesterfield needs?

I am happy to meet a delegation to discuss this issue, but of course the reduction in rates helps vulnerable tenants in reducing the bills they face. The hon. Gentleman is, however, right to say that we must make sure we find a way to ensure that councils, along with housing associations and private builders, can build the homes we desperately need.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is fully engaged in evaluating the regional growth fund bid from Swindon and Wiltshire? Will he ensure that the emphasis on long-term skills development at Wiltshire College will be looked upon favourably in due course?

I met my hon. Friend recently to discuss issues across south Wiltshire. We are assessing the local growth fund bids at the moment—this will be a massive investment in regeneration across the country—and we will have an announcement on that particular proposal shortly.

On the Secretary of State’s regeneration of coastal communities, he will know that North Antrim has off its shore the only regional island that is inhabited by people—with the exception of Great Britain—Rathlin Island. He will also be aware of Ballycastle, Bushmills and Ballintoy. May I invite him to these areas to see regional communities’ regeneration—

I would call the hon and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire if she were standing, but she is not and so I cannot. She is now, so I call Lucy Frazer.

I would like to refer to the question raised by my friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who mentioned the link between mental health and homelessness. Does the Secretary of State understand that the reports say there is a link, with 60% of people from the homeless community also having mental health issues? What is he doing to liaise with the Department of Health and with local authorities to change that link?

As my hon. and learned Friend highlights once again, homelessness is more than just a housing issue. She can be assured that we are working across government—my Department, the Department of Health and the Treasury—in making sure that we are doing everything we can, as our recent announcement on homelessness helps to demonstrate.

One of the main ways that developers in London manage down the levels of affordable housing is by a financial viability assessment. Does the Minister agree that all local authorities should make those assessments public at the start of the planning process, so that communities can transparently scrutinise them?

What we need to do is take as much of the conflict as possible out of our planning system, be it in respect of agreeing the level of need, the local plan determination or viability assessments. There is nowhere in this country where the gap between what we are building and what we need to build is greater than in London.

Forgive me, Mr Speaker, as I raise the issue of Christmas shopping. As internet retailers prepare for black Friday and as online shopping breaks records, rural high streets struggle. Will the Secretary of State support Wealden high streets in Hailsham and Crowborough and increase footfall by visiting Uckfield high street for his Christmas shopping?

I will of course be spreading my Christmas shopping across large parts of my constituency, but I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. She raises an important point, which is that as we get towards Christmas people should try their best to shop local.