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Topical Questions

Volume 624: debated on Monday 24 April 2017

In the past few weeks, we have set out our plans to crack down on rogue landlords, we have launched 12 new enterprise zones, we have unveiled a £40 million cash boost for Britain’s coastal communities and we have listened to some of the concerns voiced about our business rates revaluation, responding with a £435 million package. However, contrary to previous promises, I can no longer expect to deliver 100% business rates retention by the end of this Parliament—simply because the end of this Parliament will now come round rather sooner than I had previously thought.

Isle of Wight Council welcomes the award of £9.5 million specifically for transport improvements. Another priority for the council is to develop a back-office hub to improve services and cut costs. What more can the Government do to assist with that aim?

First, may I tell my hon. Friend that I enjoyed my visit to his beautiful and sunny constituency last week? The idea of this back-office hub, which I heard about from the local Conservative group, is a very good one. It highlights the fact that Conservative councils cost you less but deliver you more, so if local people want to see that, they should vote Conservative in the local elections throughout the country on 4 May.

T2. The Minister will know that, since 2010, the Tories have stolen 40% of South Tyneside Council’s grant and 46% of Gateshead Council’s grant. The victims of this crime are obviously the hard-working people in the area. Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to apologise to them for this shabby Conservative crime? (909750)

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question, seeing as his party is still on the manifesto from the last election, where it said there would not be one more penny for local government. That said, as the hon. Gentleman has heard, we are providing additional access to £9.25 billion—for example, for adult social care—during the next three years, and his area will certainly benefit from that.

T3. Kettering is a wonderful place to live, but some rural parts of the borough are blighted by inappropriate and illegal development by Gypsies and Travellers. This is especially galling when many commuters in Kettering do far more travelling than so-called Travellers ever do. If there were a planning policy for black people or white people, there would rightly be outrage in this country. Why do we have special planning provisions for Gypsies and Travellers? (909751)

First, I agree with my hon. Friend that Kettering is, indeed, a wonderful place. I do understand that unauthorised encampments can cause real distress for local communities. He will know that, since 2010, the Government have made a number of changes that are designed to help with illegal and unauthorised encampments, but I do agree that more can be done, and I would be more than happy to sit down with him and to listen to what ideas he has.

T4. The Secretary of State will be aware of the Select Committee’s two reports into social care. Rightly, a lot of attention was given to funding, but also to the situation of the care workers who provide this important service. The Committee heard that nearly half of workers leave within a year of getting a job, half are on zero-hours contracts, many do not get paid for travelling time, in contradiction to the minimum wage legislation, and 27% do not get any training in dementia before they go out to deal with people with that condition. Is there not now a case for developing a well-paid and well-trained workforce, utilising Unison’s ethical care charter as a basis? (909752)

I welcome the Select Committee’s work in this important area, and I will listen carefully to the final research it comes up with. The hon. Gentleman will know, first, that more funding is helpful, and the local government Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), referred to that earlier. However, there also need to be longer term changes that make the whole sector more sustainable, and that includes skills.

T5. I am pleased that parishes and town councils in my constituency are getting on with their neighbourhood plans. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Cornwall Council must address these community-driven priorities to open up more options for local people who face difficulties in finding suitable housing? (909753)

I am delighted to hear of the work my hon. Friend has been doing to promote neighbourhood planning in her constituency. She is a powerful champion for South East Cornwall. She is absolutely right that Cornwall County Council needs to work with these neighbourhood plans to help local communities deliver the visions they have set out.

Order. As I call the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), perhaps I may congratulate the hon. Lady, as she is one of several Members who magnificently ran the marathon yesterday. She may be feeling a tad tired today, but not too tired to stand up and ask her question. We are grateful to the hon. Lady.

T9. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am eminently glad that my question is on the Order Paper today and I do not have to bob, because that might just be beyond me. The rise in hate crimes following the UK’s vote to leave the EU has shocked us all, and the rhetoric from this Tory Government on immigration will do nothing to assist integration and cohesion. What discussions have the UK Government had with Ministers from the Scottish Government regarding the Casey report? Will the Secretary of State commit now to making sure that the policies in his party’s manifesto will not seek to divide people along these lines? (909757)

First, Mr Speaker, I join you in congratulating the hon. Lady on what she achieved yesterday, as well as all the people who raised so much money for so many good causes.

The issue that the hon. Lady raises is an important one. We are taking the Casey review very seriously. It shows the need for a new integration strategy to make sure that we do everything we can, working together across this House, including with people in Scotland and other parts of the UK, to make sure that we bring this nation together and reduce the number of people who face isolation.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he intends to increase the weight given to made neighbourhood plans, and will he indicate that the same weight will be given to an emerging five-year land supply? (909754)

I am happy to confirm that the written ministerial statement that is enlarged on in the White Paper is exactly designed to ensure that neighbourhood plans are not overruled when the local authority does not demonstrate that it has a five-year land supply. In addition, the White Paper contains proposals to help councils to demonstrate that they have a five-year land supply in order to uphold the plans that they have worked hard to produce.

T10. Sheffield City Council is leading the way in building much-needed affordable housing through its innovative Sheffield Housing Company partnership, but across the country the number of affordable homes built last year fell to the lowest in 24 years. Sheffield is doing its bit; why are the Government failing so badly to address the country’s housing crisis? (909758)

We are investing record amounts in affordable housing. Since 2010, more than 310,000 units have been created throughout the country. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know what failure on affordable housing looks like, he need only look at the previous Labour Government, who saw a fall of 410,000 units in social housing for rent.

T7. The housing White Paper has greater expectations of local authorities. How is the Minister going to keep them building? (909755)

Local authorities have a number of key roles: first, to produce a local plan that is based on an honest assessment of the level of need; and secondly, then to deliver that plan—the new housing delivery test is key in that regard. Thirdly, looking back when we did build enough homes in this country, local authorities played a crucial role in building themselves. We want to support local authorities in doing that, either through the housing revenue account or through the local housing company model that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) referred to.

Surely the Secretary of State is aware of the damage being done to local communities by the cuts in local government spending. This has affected children’s centres, leading to their closure, and cut down on youth services. These services are at the very heart of our communities. What is the Minister going to do to put that right?

The hon. Gentleman will know that every council throughout the country has had to find efficiencies so that we can balance the books of our country and build a stronger economy. Some local authorities have done that well—mainly Conservative-led authorities—and Labour authorities have absolutely failed in it. So if people want to see more services being delivered for less, they should vote Conservative on 4 May.

T8. As the Secretary of State will know, thousands of new homes are being built across north Northamptonshire. What commitment can he give to local people in my constituency that, across the board, infrastructure and public services will keep up with those new homes being built? (909756)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about how having the right infrastructure can help local people to accept more housing. He will know that local councils can already put obligations on developers to deliver certain infrastructure, and he will know about the community infrastructure levy, which can also help. I would like to highlight the new £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund, which he can use locally in Corby. He should make an application to my Department to do that.

Despite a very strong objection from Historic England, which, like me, is concerned about the impact on the 12th-century St John the Baptist church in Adel, disgracefully, Labour councillors voted for a controversial plan for 100 homes to be built opposite the church. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the planning system does not allow local communities to have enough say against unwanted developments?

Our planning system is built on a high level of community involvement at every stage. Local councils should work with communities in developing their local plan—an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) in relation to Leeds City Council. Constituents also have the opportunity to make representations on planning applications and on appeals, but I am sorry that in this case it appears that the city council did not listen to their concerns.

In Derby we are looking at alternative methods of helping those people who are sleeping rough, including an app that will direct funds to agencies such as the Padley Centre. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that such initiatives can help tackle the issues of rough sleeping?

Yes, I wholeheartedly I agree with my hon. Friend. It is our ambition—I know that she shares it—to end rough sleeping in our country, and those kinds of new ideas can make a real difference.

Following last week’s successful and important meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform about unfair and unreasonable abuses of leasehold, what are the Government’s plans to do something about them?

First, may I commend my hon. Friend on his work to highlight abuses? I know that he shares my concern about where houses are sold on leasehold. That is an unacceptable practice and we will do something about it.

The leader of the Conservative group in Eastleigh has questioned the methodology behind the plan for an extra 10,000 homes, which could threaten 400-year-old ancient woodland. Without a local plan, and when ancient woodland is under threat, how can housing numbers be verified?

I hope that the housing White Paper will help my hon. Friend, who is passionate about protecting ancient woodland in her constituency, in two regards. First, the new standard methodology will give a much clearer indication of the real level of housing need in her area. Secondly, we propose to increase the protections of ancient woodland, which is a precious resource that we have inherited from previous generations and that cannot be easily replaced. It is right that we strengthen the protection.

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), for the fantastic news that North Devon is to receive two coastal communities grants totalling more than £2 million: £500,000 for the museum in Barnstaple and £1.5 million for the new water sports centre in Ilfracombe, which he will kindly visit soon. Will he join me in congratulating those in the community who have helped to make this happen, and does he agree that North Devon gets this sort of recognition only when it has a Conservative MP and a Conservative Government?

I am obviously going to agree with my hon. Friend’s latter point. I also pay tribute to him for the work he has done in advocating both of those projects. The latest allocation of coastal community grants funded a whole host of projects across the south-west, proving that if they want that investment to continue, residents of the south-west will have to vote Conservative in the forthcoming general election.

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State be Nottinghamshire’s Robin Hood to Labour’s King John and ensure that parts of Nottinghamshire, including my Bassetlaw constituents, are never forced against their will to join the Sheffield city mayoral region, and that the historical counties of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire will be safe under a Conservative Government?

It is of course a matter for the Sheffield city region to determine who it consults and what the proposals will be. We obviously have to apply the statutory test, so I am unable to say anything about that in detail, other than that it is really important that residents in Bassetlaw and Derbyshire make their views known as part of the consultation undertaken by the city region.

I thank the Secretary of State for his strong expression of concern regarding unfair leasehold titles, which affect my Congleton constituency; will he confirm that he is addressing this issue for those who have already bought, and, for the future buyer, will he look at imposing requirements on the right-to-buy conditions so that such properties can be bought only under freehold or fair leasehold terms?

My hon. Friend has done a great deal of work in this area. She will know that it is a particular problem in the north-west, and I can confirm that we are looking at all the issues very carefully.

Will the Secretary of State consider imposing a requirement on developers of large industrial sites to provide some units for smaller businesses, to meet the shortage that currently exists in my constituency?

I point my hon. Friend to some of the changes set out in our recent White Paper. They are designed to make sure that local plans take account of all needs, including the needs of businesses.