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Topical Questions

Volume 619: debated on Monday 16 January 2017

At DCLG, we are starting 2017 as we mean to go on. The housing White Paper is nearing completion. The Local Government Finance Bill was published last week and, as we have heard, it creates the framework for business rate retention. It also features what my briefing refers to as discretionary relief on public toilets, which is, I am sorry to say, not quite what the name suggests.

I will try not to follow the Secretary of State’s joke.

I thank the Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse for his helpful comments in support of the Sheffield city region in the last few days. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Government want the city region deal to go ahead as agreed and that they do not support this vague concept of a mayor for Yorkshire, which will not deliver better local services or improve economic growth and which is, arguably, outwith the legal framework for mayoral combined authorities contained in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016?

It is very good of the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, to thank the Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse. We remain strongly committed to the devolution deal for the Sheffield city region. We will continue to work with local leaders, who have proposed a mayoral election for May 2018. We will also continue to discuss with local partners proposals for a devolution deal elsewhere in Yorkshire, including Leeds.

T4. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to creating a housing market that works for everyone. In my own local authority area of North West Leicestershire, new housing starts are now 273% higher than they were in the year ending September 2010. May I give the Secretary of State a challenge as he sets out his new housing White Paper: can we do even better? (908183)

I hope we can rise to the challenge. If every local authority was building at the rate that my hon. Friend’s local authority is building, we would be building 370,000 homes a year. That is a sign that it is possible to build the homes that this country needs; it just requires the political will to do it.

My question is for the Secretary of State: where is his housing White Paper? We were promised it in the autumn. We were then promised it alongside the autumn statement, then before the end of the year, and then first thing in the new year. We were told that it was in the Government’s grid for publication today. It has been delayed more times than a trip on Southern rail. I say to the Secretary of State: what is the problem?

The right hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long for the housing White Paper. When he sees it, he will see that it does a lot more than happened under the previous Labour Government. When he was the Housing Minister, I understand house building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s.

The right hon. Gentleman has shown us exactly what the problem is: the huge gap between the Government’s rhetoric on housing and their record. Under Labour, we saw 2 million new homes, 1 million more homeowners and the largest investment programme in social housing for a generation. For seven years under Tory Ministers, we have seen failure on all fronts—higher homelessness, fewer homeowners and less affordable housing. Even the Housing Minister has said that affordable housing is “unacceptably low” and “feeble”. Does the Secretary of State agree, and what is he going to do in his White Paper to deal with this crisis?

Under Labour, we saw housing affordability, measured by median income compared with the average house price, double—going up from three and a half times to seven times. We saw the number of first-time buyers fall by 55%, and the number of units available for social rent decline by 421,000. That is Labour’s record on housing.

Order. Short questions and answers, please, because there is a lot of interest. A single sentence will do.

T5. Chiltern and South Bucks District Councils are preparing a new local plan, and have consulted on the options for meeting development need using the green belt. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that green-belt land is vital to preserving the character of places such as Chesham and Amersham and the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, and should not be developed other than in truly exceptional circumstances? (908184)

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The purposes of the green belt are very clear. It should preserve the setting and the special character of historic towns—for example, those in her constituency. Where councils look at the green belt, they should always make sure that the national planning policy framework rules are met: the circumstances must be exceptional, and brownfield land should always be prioritised.

T2. The recent publication of the voluntary right-to-buy pilot schemes for housing association tenants shows that very few completions were achieved in return for the enormous time and effort expended. New affordable housing is a key element in Cambridgeshire’s devolution deal. Will the Minister promise no distraction from the opportunity this gives us to build the supply of homes needed in our area? (908181)

Voluntary right to buy provides replacement affordable housing. The hon. Gentleman should be supporting it, because it helps people who could not otherwise own their home to do so and provides new affordable housing.

T8. Earlier this year, the Secretary of State announced an extra £7 billion fund to expand the Government’s affordable housing programme. I welcome this, and it will help my constituents. However, there is also a concern that the need for new homes will outweigh the need to protect our greenfield land, so will the Minister assure my constituents that he remains committed to it? (908187)

I absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I congratulate her on championing brownfield land. The new brownfield registers that we are introducing will help to ensure that development is, rightly, focused on brownfield first.

T3. Does the Minister agree that available housing provision is the key to reducing homelessness and that his Government should look to the Welsh Labour Government’s legislative pledges of £5.6 million in 2015 and £3 million in following years to fund affordable homes to rent as well as to buy? (908182)

The hon. Lady will have heard, in the autumn statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer adding £1.4 billion to the affordable housing budget. We are doubling the housing capital budget over this Parliament. That is not rhetoric, but proof of our commitment to delivering the housing that is needed.

T9. Together with the starter home land fund, the new locally led Welborne garden village in Fareham will deliver new homes and support first-time buyers. Will my hon. Friend explain how the Government are working with local authorities to deliver the new garden villages, and will he agree to visit Fareham to see how the local community will benefit from this new scheme? (908188)

It was a pleasure to announce support for 14 new garden villages, which will between them provide 48,000 new homes, and it would be a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and see the progress being made.

T6. Stoke-on-Trent City Council is proposing to cut children’s centres. Does the Secretary of State think that is acceptable? (908185)

Every council needs to provide certain statutory services, including children’s services. We want to make sure that every council is properly funded. Stoke-on-Trent council, like many others, has accepted the four-year settlement, and that is good news.

T10. Labour city councillors in Lincoln are determined to build homes on the Swanpool floodplain in the heart of our city, even though a private developer decided that the site was unsuitable. What message will my right hon. Friend want to give Labour councillors such as ours who act in such a reckless manner? (908189)

I hope my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on a specific planning case, but we have strict, clear rules that say that councils must consider strict tests under the national planning policy framework that protect people and property from flooding. Where those tests are not met, that development should not go ahead.

T7. A year ago, local authorities were hit with a £200 million in-year cut in public health support. The Select Committee on Health described it as a “false economy” that will add to future health costs. What impact does the Minister believe those cuts will have on health inequalities, and will he meet me and representatives from Hounslow so that they can raise their concerns about the impact on children and others in the community? (908186)

As 25% of Government expenditure takes place through local government, there will always be situations where funding has to be reduced. As the hon. Lady knows, the health budget is being increased by £10 billion across this Parliament. In terms of public health, I think the cuts she mentioned equate to about 1% to 2%, which was not ideal. I am sure that local government is more than able to meet the challenge.

While it may be true that Ministers have been in touch with councils directly hosting proposed new garden villages, they have not necessarily been in touch with neighbouring councils, which may be more affected by the proposals than those hosting the development. May I suggest that Ministers spread their nets a little wider when deciding which schemes to promote and, in my case, contact Basildon and Thurrock Councils as a matter of urgency?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me outside the Chamber, and I will make sure that both he and the council have the information. The scheme has not yet gone through the planning systems; there will be every opportunity to address concerns.

In 2009-10, there were 40,000 building starts for social rented homes. Last year that was down to 1,000. Why is that?

The number of socially rented homes declined by 421,000 during Labour’s time in office. Since the change of Government in 2010, we have invested billions in socially rented homes, including the additional £1.4 billion that was announced in the autumn statement.

Last week, Bath received £259,000 of funding as part of the rough sleeping grant. Will the Minister join me in endorsing the great work of the council and charities such as Julian House, the Genesis Trust and Developing Health and Independence, as they put together those plans to ensure that no one else ends up with a winter on the streets?

I certainly endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. That was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the funding that we provided: local authorities working with charitable and third sector organisations to deliver the support that we need and all want for people who are rough sleeping and homeless.

Today is Martin Luther King Day, which we have just celebrated in your state rooms, Mr Speaker, by launching Freedom City 2017, the year-long festival that commemorates the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s visit to Newcastle to receive an honorary doctorate from the university. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), the shadow Minister for diversity, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), the sadly outgoing US ambassador Matthew Barzun and you, Mr Speaker, all spoke to King’s great work and the challenges he highlighted of race, poverty and war. Mr Speaker, you emphasised the need to champion those values exemplified by King in our House and also our communities. Does the Minister agree that Freedom City 2017 provides an excellent opportunity to do just that?

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. She is quite right to point out the importance of Martin Luther King on this day, which is a celebration of his life and work. We would all do well to remember what he taught us, and one thing that he said is that we must live together as brothers or we all perish as fools. We can all learn from that, no matter who we are, whether in the US or the UK.

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that this Government want to see everybody get involved in building more homes, so if he is referring to local councils and their role, then absolutely: the more people who can get involved in building the homes we need, the better.

Councils across the country are highlighting the enormous gap between what the social care precept raises and the increased costs of social care as a consequence of the increase in the minimum wage and increasing needs among the population, as well as the cuts that they—the councils—are already having to make. Does the Secretary of State accept that his approach to social care funding is simply not credible, and will he commit to taking a different approach to ensure that people across the country get the care that they need?

We have taken the pressures on our social care very seriously. The hon. Lady will know from the announcement of just a few weeks ago about an additional £900 million for the next two years, which will make a difference. We also accept that there is more to do.

Last summer, the nine Dorset councils submitted a proposal to my right hon. Friend to establish a combined authority. Will he ensure that the order establishing that authority is brought forward in sufficient time to enable the authorities to be set up on 1 April this year?

[Official Report, 19 January 2017, Vol. 619, c. 6MC.]We have only just received the proposal to which my hon. Friend refers. We want to make sure that we take the right amount of time to consider it carefully. Whatever the result, we will make sure that enough time is allowed for this House to do its business.

I welcome the fact that Bristol has been named as one of the trailblazers for homelessness prevention and is getting additional money for it. Does the Minister share my concern, however, that in some cases it is far more attractive for landlords and developers to move into providing houses in multiple occupation or emergency accommodation rather than providing decent, proper family homes?

Yes, I certainly understand the hon. Lady’s point when it comes to the practice of flipping temporary accommodation for the uses that she mentions. We hope that the devolution of the temporary accommodation management fee will make it far more attractive for people to be able to maintain temporary accommodation in the way we want it to be provided.

The new garden village at Deenethorpe will bring thousands more new homes to East Northamptonshire. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that new infrastructure to support those new homes will be at the forefront of his mind as this project progresses?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance, given that it is part of the concept of garden villages. More generally, if we want communities to accept more housing, we have to make sure that we get the infrastructure in place at the same time. That is why the Chancellor’s announcement of a £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund was so welcome.

I am sorry that we have run out of time. I shall, however, take one more question. I call Imran Hussain.

Last month, I asked the Health Secretary how many local authority leaders he had met to discuss social care. The answer was not very positive, so I ask this Secretary of State how many cash-strapped local authority leaders he is willing to meet to discuss the real crisis in social care.

I have met a number of local authority leaders in the last few weeks, as a result of local government finance settlement consultations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done the same, and we will continue to meet local authority leaders and chief executives to understand the challenges that they face.