House of Commons
Monday 24 April 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
One person sleeping on the streets is one too many, which is why we committed ourselves to spending more than £550 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in England. That includes supporting 84 projects through our £50 million homelessness prevention programme, an end-to-end approach to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping.
Since joining the House in 2010, I have seen with my own eyes the incredible increase in the number of people sleeping rough on our streets. I have seen it in my constituency and in places that I have visited around the country, and, indeed, I see it on the doorsteps of Westminster itself when we arrive and leave for votes. Can the Secretary of State tell me what changed in 2010?
The hon. Gentleman may know that the number of statutory homelessness acceptances is below its peak—less than half its peak in 2003—but of course there is much more to be done, especially, as he pointed out, when it comes to rough sleeping. I have seen it as well: I have seen it throughout the country, and I have seen it here at Westminster. As he may also know, I said a great deal about this issue at the Crisis 50th anniversary conference. I said, for instance:
“Ending rough sleeping is within our gift. It is something we can do. It is something we must do. And, working together, it is something we are going to do.”
Many people fear that the general election may result in a delay in the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Bill. Will the Secretary of State tell us what progress has been made so far? Given that the Bill has cross- party support, can the work not continue during the election period?
Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on all the work that he did to present that Bill and to get it through Parliament. It has still to complete one final parliamentary stage—about which we are very confident—but we have already started work with local authorities to ensure that it comes into force straight away.
In my home borough of Westminster—which includes Westminster station, where, as has been mentioned, we see rough sleepers—the level of rough sleeping has soared. The Westminster council area alone contains a third of all the rough sleepers in London. The council has just cut—indeed slashed—its rough sleeping budget. Does the Secretary of State believe that that will help or hinder efforts to reduce rough sleeping?
We are providing more funds for councils throughout the country, including Westminster council, to combat rough sleeping. For example, we have provided £100 million to deliver 2,000 independent living units, as well as a £20 million rough sleeping grant. However, as I said earlier, I want to do more, and the Government are determined to do more. A few weeks ago, I went to Finland to see what it has done for itself with the Housing First project. I think that we can learn lessons from others, and make sure that we do more at home.
Since 2015 I have led a range of homelessness roundtables in Bath, bringing together charities such as the Genesis Trust, Developing Health & Independence and Julian House, all of which have received Government funding. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the integration of services is critical to solving this problem, and that residents of Bath should back my plan in order to help to solve it?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I commend the work that he has done locally, which is very well known, in trying to bring those services together. I am pleased to be able to tell him that Swindon, Wiltshire, Bath and North Somerset councils will benefit from some £259,000 in rough sleeping grant to help promote integration.
The scale of rough sleeping and homelessness in Britain today shames us all. In a country as decent and well off as ours, it is not inevitable. However, the level has more than doubled since 2010 as a direct result of decisions made by Conservative Ministers.
There are very few simple rules in politics, but this is one: with a Labour Government homelessness falls, and under the Tories it goes up. On 8 June, people will ask themselves, “Do we really want more of the same?” Let me say to the Secretary of State that, with a new national mission, he need not go to Finland. Will he, before the election, commit his party to matching our Labour commitment and backing our Labour plans to end rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament?
I know the right hon. Gentleman, and I know that he cares deeply about this issue, as do Conservative Members. He should not play party politics with it, because it is a very serious issue that unites everyone in the House. We all want to see an end to rough sleeping, but he knows as well as I do that its causes are complex. They are not just economic; there are mental health problems, and addiction problems. We do have lessons to learn from abroad, but I am sure that if the right hon. Gentleman works with us—if we work together—we can all unite in ending rough sleeping for good.
This is precisely about politics: it is precisely about the political decisions made over the last seven years that have made the causes of homelessness so much worse. Rapidly rising homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg on seven years of failure on housing: rough sleeping doubled, home ownership down, house building falling, private renters ignored, housing benefits bills ballooning, and now the lowest level of new affordable homes to rent and buy for 24 years. No wonder Labour is ahead in the polls on housing. After seven years of failure, the Tories have no plan to fix the housing crisis. Is that not why people now desperately need a new deal on housing led by a new Labour Government?
I thought that if anyone was going to raise the opinion polls today, it would be a Conservative Member, but the right hon. Gentleman continues to surprise us all. I say to him again: let us work together on rough sleeping. It is very easy for Labour to make a commitment to end rough sleeping without having any plans, any initiative, or anything in hand to show what they would actually do about it. We have got the ideas, and we have new ideas, for example the Housing First concept which we are trialling already—right now—in Liverpool. The right hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to work with us if he really means it.
We have doubled the level of small business rate relief to 100% and made it permanent. This means that around 600,000 small businesses will pay no business rates at all. At Budget, we also announced a £300 million discretionary fund so that councils can provide additional support to businesses facing increased bills.
York’s economy is being damaged by sharp business rate increases due to the revaluations. While the exemption from paying the full business rates has risen from £12,000 to £15,000, business rate increases have rocketed far beyond that in York. This is totally unfair, and small businesses in the city, previously exempt, are now desperate. Some are facing a 600% increase in their rateable value, including The Slip Inn, and no one knows how the new relief funds will even be distributed—total chaos! Can the Secretary of State say why the business rate burden is falling harder on smaller businesses and if he will urgently review the exemption level?
The hon. Lady talks about York. Since 2010 York has had a 74% fall in unemployment. That is because York has a Conservative-led council working with a Conservative Government. If the Labour party gets its anti-business agenda and hikes up taxes on businesses throughout the country, we know what the result will be.
Is the Secretary of State aware that many Labour-controlled councils are still pursuing anti-car policies? Will he remind them of recommendation 9 of the Mary Portas retail review, which stated that free and available but controlled parking should be made available to high street shoppers?
As always, my right hon. Friend makes a very good point about anti-car policies coming from Labour councils. Where councils have worked with businesses and taken a pro-car policy, especially on parking, that has helped local businesses, and Labour can learn a lesson from that.
Given the great concern expressed by small businesses up and down the country about their ability to pay the business rate rises, I am going to give the Secretary of State another chance. What reassurance can he give small business owners who are concerned about the impact of rate rises that they will not be paying higher rates over the next few years than online and large retailers such as Sports Direct?
I can tell the hon. Lady two things. First, I point her to the package my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced at the Budget: £435 million of additional help for small businesses with rates, including the £300 million discretionary fund, for which there will be absolutely no delay because of the general election. It is going ahead exactly as planned. Indeed, the Government have already confirmed the final allocations for all local authorities, and local authorities are free to start using that scheme and helping local businesses.
Secondly, I point the hon. Lady to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in the Budget speech. He said that
“in the medium term…we have to find a better way of taxing the digital part of the economy—the part that does not use bricks and mortar”—[Official Report, 8 March 2017; Vol. 622, c. 812.],
and that we also need to look at the frequency of the revaluation process.
Many small businesses in Bury will see a fall in their business rates as a result of the revaluation, but because of phasing it will be some years before they receive the full benefit. Will my right hon. Friend look again at what can be done to speed up the introduction so that they can feel the full benefit sooner?
During the last Communities and Local Government questions, I asked the Secretary of State to engage with me and with councillors on Belfast City Council to determine how best we could grow business there through a city deal. He kindly agreed to do this, but sadly events have overtaken our arrangements. Given the commitment that he has made to spreading city deals throughout the devolved regions, will he assure us that he would like to see that theme continuing in the Department for Communities and Local Government?
In September 2016, we announced the extension of the local housing allowance exemption for supported housing until April 2019. We have recently consulted on a reformed funding model for supported housing. We are not doing this to save money; we want to get the right model to deliver improvements in quality and in value for money.
Telford has some excellent supported housing schemes, many of which I have visited, including Rose Manor in Ketley and Vicarage Grove in Dawley. However, supported housing costs can often be higher than the local housing allowance rate. How will the Government’s reforms address that concern?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Last September, we announced that we would devolve funding to local authorities so that providers could, when necessary, reflect the higher average costs of supported accommodation. This would give local authorities an enhanced role in commissioning supported housing in their area.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the Select Committee inquiry into funding proposals for supported housing. Will he give me an assurance that he will reflect carefully on the overwhelming evidence that we have received, which shows that the local housing allowance rates are not an appropriate basis on which to devise a funding scheme for supported housing?
I can tell the Chair of the Select Committee that the Government hugely value the role that supported housing plays in helping vulnerable people. I take seriously what the Committee has to say, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), has given evidence to its inquiry. I will look at this matter carefully, because I want to ensure that the final model incentivises providers to continue to provide this important type of housing.
I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to the supported housing project and the extra moneys that have been devolved to local authorities for that purpose. However, the local housing allowance cap significantly favours London over the regions. For example, 99% of tenancies in my region will require a top-up from the fund, whereas only 3% of tenancies in London will do so. Would the Secretary of State be prepared to look again at this matter, to ensure that we have a system of supported housing that works for everyone?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in these matters, including in his role as a member of the Select Committee. I have listened to him carefully, and others made a similar point during the consultation process. I can assure him that we will look at all the responses carefully and ensure that the final system works for everyone.
The Select Committee inquiry has received evidence that the Government’s approach to supported housing is causing many providers to put new schemes on hold and resulting in some pulling out of providing supported housing altogether. When will the Secretary of State accept that his policy is damaging the provision of housing for our most vulnerable residents, and when will he commit to providing the funding and certainty that the sector needs if it is to provide the supported homes that we need?
It is important that we take a careful look at this policy, precisely because we all want to see a sustainable model that will result in providers providing enough of this type of home. That is exactly what this policy is designed to do, and when we come out with the final policy, that is what it will achieve.
Assured Shorthold Tenancies
On 18 April, 20 leading members of the British Property Federation pledged to offer three-year tenancies in build-for-rent developments, and leading housing associations have made a similar pledge. We hope that will encourage a shift in the market towards more landlords offering longer tenancies.
Thousands of renters in Colchester and across the country will welcome that news, but does the Minister agree that landlords are only half the issue? In fact, getting mortgage lenders, 50% of which at the moment do not lend on more than a year’s assured shorthold tenancy, to change that policy will be the key to unlocking longer tenancies for the future.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of security for people in the private rented sector, and he is also right to identify the issue of lending. Since the Government introduced their model tenancy agreement, which has appropriate break clauses, there is no longer any impediment to landlord customers submitting longer tenancies. The majority now permit tenancies of up to two to three years.
If the Minister had visited Cambridge recently, he would have seen the manifestation of the housing crisis in the number of people sleeping on the streets, which so depresses residents and those people. When I recently visited Wintercomfort, one of the leading charities, it told me that landlords are increasingly unwilling to let to people on housing benefit because of insecure employment. Does he agree that cracking down on insecure employment would help us to tackle the housing crisis?
I had the opportunity to visit Cambridge very recently, and I share the hon. Gentleman’s diagnosis of the problem: we desperately need to build more homes in this country to give people more choice. He is also right about our employment market, but it is the policies of this Government that have driven record levels of employment, and it is the national living wage that is increasing people’s spending power.
Both landlords and tenants often mistakenly believe that a tenancy has to be six months or a year renewable, when of course there is no legal impediment to people having longer tenancies, and in some cases they do. One reason why longer tenancies do not happen is that landlords often find it difficult to recover possession if they need to occupy the house themselves or if the tenant fails to pay their rent. Will the Minister consider encouraging landlords to provide longer tenancies by making it easier for them to recover occupation?
My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that, when a tenant behaves antisocially or is in rent arrears, landlords can regain possession, but the fundamental pressure we face at the moment is in giving the increasing number of families in the private rented sector the security they need. Reforming our housing market, increasing supply and bringing in these new build-to-rent schemes that will offer longer tenancies is a key reform.
Labour councils like Newham, Redbridge, Greenwich and my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham are doing a fantastic job of cracking down on rogue landlords. If the Minister actually cares about private tenants, why is he blocking borough-wide private sector licensing schemes? Is his party still the slum landlord’s friend?
The suggestion that Conservative Members do not care about these issues is as ridiculous as it is insulting. The work of Labour councils to which the shadow Minister refers is often being funded by this Government. He is factually wrong to suggest that this Government are blocking borough-wide selective licensing, and I point out the many reforms that we are introducing—we are banning letting agent fees and insisting on client money protection—that were not in place when the shadow Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), was running this Department.
We are committed to protecting and boosting the supply of supported housing, and since 2011 we have delivered 23,000 new supported homes in England. My hon. Friend will know that we recently consulted on a reformed funding model, and we are now keen to press on with that reform as soon as possible.
I will probe a little further on emergency short-term accommodation, such as women’s refuges. Does the Secretary of State agree that a totally separate funding stream is essential to honouring our ambition that no victim be turned away from accessing critical support services by 2020?
My hon. Friend highlights an important point. We have been working with the sector to develop options to ensure that providers of short-term accommodation continue to receive the appropriate funding. That might be through a different funding mechanism from the one we have today, but it is vital that supported housing receives the protection it deserves, and it will.
The Secretary of State knows that he has let down elderly people in this country. It is not just supported housing or funding but the fact that, in constituencies such as mine, we have a magic wand whereby suddenly student accommodation rises like daisies in the spring. But when it comes to accommodation for elderly people who desperately need it, because we have an ageing population, he has got nowhere in what he has achieved.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman just missed what I said: since 2011, 23,000 units of specialised and general housing have been delivered for vulnerable people, and we have provided another £400 million for specialist homes throughout the country. That kind of action makes results, and he should welcome it.
In evidence to a joint Select Committee inquiry, David Orr of the National Housing Federation said that the local housing allowance was
“not a competent starting point”
for a funding model. Is the Secretary of State wedded to LHA as a starting point, or is he considering some other option?
We have just had a consultation on supported housing, which is now closed. We received a number of representations and we want to consider them carefully, but whatever the final model is, it will be designed to be sustainable for the long term and provide the supported housing we need.
I look forward to hearing the Government’s response on that, and it would be useful to get a date on that issue. On the different types of supported accommodation being consulted on, does the Secretary of State recognise that placing an arbitrary limit on the length of time somebody is in short-term accommodation could have a detrimental effect on their life chances thereafter if they are forced to leave that supported accommodation too soon? Will he allow flexibility in the system, so that organisations such as Emmaus and Blue Triangle in my constituency can keep people for as long as they need to be there?
Social Housing Rent Arrears
In 2015-16, about 685,000 socially renting households were either in arrears or had been in the previous 12 months, which represents 25% of households in that sector.
That seems a huge number: nearly a quarter of people in social housing in rent arrears. In one ward of my constituency, nearly half of our social housing tenants—46% of them—are in rent arrears. One single mum has seen her rent jump from £8 to £70 a week because of the benefit cap, and the bedroom tax is still wreaking devastation. Is this not a damning indictment of seven years of Tory assault on Britain’s struggling families?
In 2011-12, the first year in which the data were collected, the figure was 23.5%, so the current figure is similar to what we inherited from the Labour Government. On the benefit cap, Conservative Members believe very clearly that it is completely wrong for out-of-work households to receive support far in excess of that which their working neighbours earn when they go out to work. Discretionary housing payments are in order and the level is actually falling—in 2013-14, we were talking about 30% of households—so the figure is moving in the right direction, and the hon. Lady is wrong to oppose the fundamental welfare reforms we need to make sure that the system is fair.
Those tenants in the social housing sector who do not keep up with their rent payments are, of course, in danger of becoming homeless. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to councils such as Kettering Borough Council, of which I am a member, that make it an absolute priority to help people in those situations and stop them becoming homeless in the first place? In the first five months of this year, Kettering Borough Council has helped 78 households stay in their current accommodation.
I am happy to pay tribute to the work that Kettering Borough Council has done, and I reassure my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Justice’s protocol for social landlords stresses the value of preventive measures in respect of rent arrears and advises landlords to deploy alternatives to eviction wherever possible.
Has the Minister had discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about universal credit and the impact it is having on many of my constituents who are not being paid for weeks and sometimes months on end and are therefore going into arrears? That is in addition to being hit by the bedroom tax and other benefit changes. Has he had these discussions, or will he do so, because what is going on in my constituency is a disgrace?
We have had discussions with DWP colleagues, and I make two brief points to the hon. Gentleman. First, universal credit advances are available for new claims, and those should be taken up. Secondly, DWP research shows that after four months the proportion of universal credit claimants who were in arrears at the start of their claims had fallen by a third. So there is an initial problem, and the advance claims are there to cope with that, but over time the situation is improving.
One in three people in Northern Ireland, and a lesser number on the UK mainland, are just a pay cheque away from homelessness. What steps have been taken to help those who are on the cusp of homelessness due to the benefits system to hold on to their tenancies?
The Government have significantly increased the discretionary housing payments that are available to local authorities to assist those affected by welfare reform changes. The whole emphasis of the policy on which the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), is working is to try to shift the approach to emphasise prevention. That way, we will prevent people from becoming statutorily homeless in the first place, rather than just providing help at the point of crisis.
The Government are committed to reforming unfair parking practices. We have already taken steps to tackle rogue and unfair practices by private parking operators, including by banning wheel clamping and towing. The Department published a summary of the responses to its discussion paper on private parking in 2016, and I am considering the points that were raised.
I thank the Minister for his response. In Lewes in my constituency, the discrepancy between parking on public and private land is causing huge problems and hefty fines for drivers. I am thinking particularly of the area in the town centre behind Laura Ashley, where if someone stops for two minutes they will receive a £60 penalty. Will the Minister bring forward the recommendations from the consultation to end such unfair practice?
My hon. Friend is a strong campaigner for her constituents and raises an important point: people need clarity on where they can and cannot park. I recognise the anger felt by her constituents, and we will certainly look carefully at what she says, as we prepare our response to the consultation.
So far, 2,000 pubs have been listed as assets of community value. That listing provides communities with the time to bid for a pub if it comes on to the market. We are supporting the process further, with £3.6 million, through the “More than a pub” programme.
The Northumberland Arms in Marple Bridge is a much-loved local pub, and members of the local community hope to reopen it using the community right-to-bid scheme. Will my hon. Friend the Minister lend every possible support to their effort and consider joining us for a celebratory pint when it reopens? Indeed, we could make it a double celebration, should the good people of Marple Bridge see fit to return me to the House.
It is unthinkable that the people of Hazel Grove will not return my hon. Friend to the House, given his work on their behalf these past two and a bit years. I would be delighted to join him, with the whole ministerial team, to celebrate the community pub he mentions—so long as he is buying the pints, of course.
The Minister has failed to mention what my office has been told by the Department, which is that the Neighbourhood Planning Bill is set to fall, so the change to pub protection it contains will not be made. Will he assure the House that that is not the case? That wonderful decision was supported on both sides of the House, and we need to make sure that the change goes through.
My understanding is that we hope to complete the passage of that legislation before the Dissolution of Parliament. The change the hon. Gentleman refers to has been broadly welcomed by very many people, including, of course, the hon. Gentleman, who campaigned for it.
Since April 2010, we have delivered on average more than 50,800 affordable homes per years, 36,300 of which were affordable homes for rent. Under the previous Government, the annual average was only 42,900, of which only 28,700 were homes for rent.
I am expecting several Members of Parliament and Ministers to visit Delyn constituency in the next few weeks. Will the Minister come with me to Flint, where he will see a Labour council building council houses for rent? This social housing is supported by the Welsh Assembly, with more than 600 in one constituency alone. Why can he not match that in England?
As I just said and contrary to what the shadow Housing Minister said, higher levels of affordable housing are being delivered under this Government than were delivered under the previous Labour Government. Nevertheless, if the right hon. Gentleman’s local council is delivering new council homes, I am glad to hear it. We want more homes of every kind. In Croydon, it was a Conservative council that started to build council housing again, after a Labour council had failed to do so.
I warmly welcome what my hon. Friend has to say and his support for building the homes that we so desperately need in this country. Contrary to what we often hear from the shadow Front-Bench team, there is a widespread consensus across the country that we desperately need to build more homes of every kind to tackle the housing crisis that has been building in this country for the past 30 or 40 years.
The right-to-buy scheme has helped nearly 2 million hard-working people own their own home in this country. Since we reinvigorated the right-to-buy scheme in 2012, we have made it a condition that, for each home that is sold, we replace it with a new affordable home. That is the right policy as we help people who have the aspiration to buy their home, but we also make sure that the rented homes are replaced. That is what people will get from a Conservative Government.
Luton’s housing waiting list is now three times higher than it was in the 1970s, when I was vice-chair of the council’s housing committee. The housing stock has halved in that time from compulsory sales. Is it not the truth that only a Labour Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) will save Britain’s housing situation and make sure that people in Luton can have a decent home?
People can look back at the record of the last Labour Government—how many council homes were built between 1997 and 2010? What level of house building did we inherit from the Labour Government in 2010? The truth is that house building in this country has been increasing under this Government. Certainly, there is still further to go, but we are the party that is committed to building more homes for people to buy, more homes for people to rent privately and more affordable homes for people to rent. If we want a solution to the housing crisis, this is the party that is offering it.
My Department regularly meets housing associations to discuss how we can help keep rents affordable and increase the supply of new homes. Our housing White Paper has been welcomed by the sector and we look forward to many more productive discussions in the coming years.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Indeed, the housing White Paper has been welcomed by housing associations. Does he agree that the future rent policy should not only guarantee affordability, but offer long-term certainty for housing associations, so that they do deliver the homes that we need?
Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is an excellent point. Housing associations currently account for roughly a third of total housing supply, and we do want a situation in which they can borrow even more against that future income to build even more homes. That is something that it is in the housing White Paper, and we intend to build on it.
Adult Social Care Funding
Adult social care funding is distributed according to the relative need of the different areas using a well-established formula. Most of the £4.5 billion funding for social care announced at the 2015 spending review and in the spring Budget takes into account councils’ ability to raise money through the social care precept.
I thank the Minister for his response, but I am sorry to say that he is wrong. The formula is broken. South Tyneside Council is the third hardest hit council in the country with a low council tax base, demand for adult social care higher than average and hospital services under threat from this Government’s forced sustainability and transformation plans. Is it not true that this Government, who created the social care crisis, cannot solve it and our constituents are suffering as a result?
The hon. Lady’s assessment is completely wrong. Councils will have access to £9.25 billion of extra funding over the next three years. On the money that is coming directly from the Government, it absolutely takes into account a local area’s ability to raise council tax, so areas such as that of the hon. Lady will receive more in funding from the Government than some other areas. She does not have any reason to talk about council tax because it doubled during the Labour Government. Since 2010, it has gone down by 9%.
The Minister’s answer on the former point is absolutely right, but does he also accept that another variable, perhaps of greater practical concern, is the variation in the willingness of the health sector to work jointly with local authorities to maximise the integration of the funds? Local authorities are well used to joint working and democratic accountability, but I am afraid that there is not often the same history in clinical commissioning groups and other health institutions. What will he do about that in a future new Government?
I have great respect for my hon. Friend, who has considerable knowledge in this area. He is absolutely right: we need to ensure that health and social care works far more collegiately and that harder work is done to ensure that services are integrated. We are determined to do that at a national level with this Department working with the Department of Health, and it is what we expect to see delivered at a local level for local people.
The hon. Gentleman should look at the allocations for the £4.5 billion of social care funding coming to local authorities directly from the Government. That absolutely takes into account the fact that certain places can raise far more in council tax and from the social care precept than areas such as his own. That is reflected in the allocations, and I wish that he would recognise that.
Many care homes up and down the country are reliant on care workers from the EU; estimates suggest that there are about 100,000 workers. What meetings does the Secretary of State have with the care sector to reassure them that, when Britain leaves the EU, care homes will be adequately staffed with appropriately trained care workers?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point and I can reassure her that my hon. Friend the Minister who is responsible for these matters in the Department of Health has met care providers, as has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and as have I. This is an extremely important situation and we must ensure that we have enough care workers to support the most vulnerable in our society.
The northern powerhouse is central to our plans for an economy that works for all. During these past few months, we have published the northern powerhouse strategy, launched the second northern powerhouse investment portfolio, allocated more than £500 million of local growth investment, launched the £400 million northern powerhouse investment fund, committed tens of millions to cultural investment in the north and, of course, supported 17 enterprise zones across the north that are in turn providing employment for 9,000 people.
With regional growth fund money and local enterprise partnership funding helping local businesses in my Colne Valley constituency achieve record levels of employment, will the Minister ensure that the northern powerhouse investment fund builds on that success and that we power the powerhouse for many years to come?
Absolutely. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in promoting the local economy. In total, the Leeds city region, which includes his area, has received £694 million of Government funding for local growth funds and the new £400 million investment fund is there specifically to support small and medium-sized businesses across the north that want to grow and expand.
The north-east should be the powerhouse for our country’s manufacturing and exporting renaissance, with a workforce who take pride in making and building things. Why, then, do the so-called industrial strategy and the so-called northern powerhouse do so little to invest in the jobs and infrastructure that the north-east needs?
One of the reasons people in the north of England have lost their faith in the Labour party is that it never has anything positive to say about the north of England. All Labour does is talk down the north and talk down people. Look at what is actually happening in the north-east: £379 million of direct Government investment in the north-east and record employment levels. The hon. Lady might not want to talk up Newcastle, but I will, because it is leading this country’s economic recovery.
On that note, Lancashire County Council has continually blocked an enterprise zone and business park in Morecambe and Lunesdale. Since the M6 link road opened up, we have been crying out for that. The Secretary of State himself has come down to see it. Would the Minister like to come during the election campaign and listen to the businesses that want that enterprise zone or business park?
I would be delighted to take up that invitation. I plan to visit many constituencies across the north during the election period, and I will of course visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Secretary of State has already visited. Enterprise zones have made a real difference to the economy of the north and, as I said, 9,000 jobs have been provided in them, so I will certainly visit.
The Manchester Evening News reported at the weekend pressure from Conservative Back Benchers to scrap HS2 to fund the Brexit bill. Will the Minister confirm that HS2 to Manchester will go ahead, to time and to the budget that has been outlined?
There has been no change to the Government’s policy on HS2. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in addition, there is £13 billion of other investment. Over the next two years, particularly on the trans-Pennine line, there will be new rail, new carriages and new services—a whole new passenger experience. There will be over £2 billion of investment in that important transpennine route under the Government. The northern rail franchise will operate on an improvement basis, unlike the no-improvement basis when it was run by the Labour party.
Local Housing Provision
It is essential that local plans start with an honest assessment of housing need in the area. As we set out in our housing White Paper, we will introduce a standardised approach to assessing housing need to ensure that that is the case.
The methodology used by Leeds City Council has brought about an excessive 70,000 housing target, which has threatened swathes of green-belt and greenfield sites in my constituency. If the alternative method proves my community’s suspicion that the target is excessive, will that override the current target and help to save these important green lungs in my constituency?
The methodology will reveal the real level of housing need in Leeds. Local authorities across the country choose to build more homes than are needed because they have an ambition to grow. There is a legitimate debate to be had about that, but my hon. Friend’s constituents should have a clear understanding of what the relevant need is. I should add that the housing White Paper makes it clear that green-belt land should be released only in exceptional circumstances when all other options for meeting housing need have been explored.
Pendle has lots of brownfield sites, and many homes that have been granted planning permission have not yet been built because of the depressed property market, leading to low demand. How can we ensure that low demand in areas such as Pendle is better reflected in housing targets?
In the past year, we have received representations from park home residents as well as members of the all-party parliamentary group. Our call for evidence reviewing the legislation was published on 12 April, and addressed key concerns, including charges, site management and harassment.
Bullying and harassment are not acceptable in any form, which is why we introduced the Mobile Homes Act 2013, which gives local authorities greater power. We shall obviously listen to the response to the call for evidence to see whether further action is required to stop the kind of behaviour that my right hon. Friend described.
Our White Paper sets out measures to increase the use of modern methods of construction in house building. Those methods offer a huge opportunity, both to speed up the building of homes and to improve the quality of the build.
Cornwall council recently granted planning approval for a garden village at West Carclaze in St Austell. The vision for the development is to build the highest-quality sustainable homes with modern construction methods. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that the site developers are held to that vision, and what support can he give to ensure that that happens?
The Rushden Lakes development in my constituency is being built using modern construction methods and is creating hundreds of jobs. An extension to it, approved unanimously by East Northamptonshire Council, was submitted to the Secretary of State for approval on 4 April. The council is concerned that the general election might mean that there is not enough time to approve the extension. What is the position on that?
The Government are now in purdah, so further decisions cannot be taken. The new Government can obviously look at this issue straight away. It is to the credit of my hon. Friend and his council that their part of the country is determined to build the homes that we so desperately need.
We are supporting our high streets to thrive as consumer habits change. We have introduced the biggest ever cut in business rates, worth £6.6 billion, and launched the high street pledge and digital high street pilot in Gloucestershire. We are also celebrating our high streets through the hugely successful Great British High Street awards, which Members on both sides of the House supported.
Although Lincoln’s Sincil Street—a much treasured traditional shopping area just off our High Street—is full of first-class independent shops, they are all losing customers by the day due to large-scale regeneration works. I, and many others, believe that the valuation office should reduce business rates for the shops directly affected during this period, and that their landlord, the Lincolnshire Co-op, should discount their rent, especially as it has caused the shortfall. What does my right hon. Friend—sorry, my hon. Friend—think the valuation office should do?
I am sure it is just a matter of time.
Businesses are fully entitled to make a case for a temporary reduction in their rateable value. As a fellow Lincolnshire MP, I know Sincil Street very well. I advise my hon. Friend’s businesses to contact the local valuation office to discuss whether the rateable values can be amended at all.
As the Minister is well aware, there has been a significant increase in begging on Scunthorpe High Street over the past three years. The police, the local authorities and the courts between them do not seem to be able to roll up their sleeves and sort out the problem, despite trying hard in many different ways. What are the Government going to do to ensure that the right powers are in the right place to tackle the issue?
May I begin by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his marathon success yesterday? For such a young man, he did it in such an interesting time; he deserves full credit for it. He raises an issue that I am fully aware of in Scunthorpe, which is a town centre that is on its way back. I am happy to discuss with him further what we can do across Government to help to deal with the problem.
Traders in Cleethorpes High Street and elsewhere in the resort are concerned following a decision by North East Lincolnshire council, which is Labour controlled, to close a number of public toilets and refuse to repair others. That is having a very detrimental effect. I know that my hon. Friend, as the coastal communities Minister, would want to look favourably on future funding requests so that these amenities can be improved.
It is a delight to get a question from my other neighbour. Across northern Lincolnshire more generally, we have seen the council in north Lincolnshire actually open new public toilets. We recently allocated £20 million to northern powerhouse projects through the coastal communities fund. There will be a further round of bidding in October. If the local coastal community team wants to come forward with a proposal that includes that, we will, of course, look at it.
Domestic Violence Refuges
Refuges provide vital support for victims of domestic abuse. Since 2014, we have invested more than £33 million in services, including refuges, to support victims of domestic abuse. We expect local areas to assess their need and provide services and support to meet that need.
The Government take this issue extremely seriously. No person should be turned away from the support they need. We announced in February that 76 projects across the country will receive a share of £20 million to support victims of domestic abuse, creating 2,200 extra bed spaces and giving support to more than 19,000 victims. That includes additional funding to the hon. Lady’s area of Lewisham.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
Air Quality Strategy
The Government are committed to making sure that ours is the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. As part of that, I am deeply committed personally to the importance of ensuring that we have clean air. Since 2011, the Government have announced more than £2 billion to help bus operators to upgrade their fleets, to support the development and take-up of low-emission vehicles, to reduce pollution from vehicles such as refuse trucks and fire engines, and to promote the development of clean alternative fuels. In addition, in the autumn statement we announced a further £290 million to support electric vehicles, low-emission buses and taxis, and alternative fuels.
Our actions have enabled the UK to make significant progress on improving its air quality since 2010. We now have lower emissions of the five key pollutants: volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide, ammonia, particulates, and nitrogen oxides. However, because of the failure of Euro vehicle emission standards to deliver expected improvements in air quality, the UK is among 17 European countries, including France and Germany, that are not yet meeting EU emissions targets for nitrogen dioxide in parts of some towns and cities.
We are taking strong action to remedy that. Since last November, my Department has worked jointly with the Department for Transport to update the Government’s national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide. We have updated the analytical base for the plan to reflect new evidence following the Volkswagen scandal and the failure of the EU’s regulatory regime to deliver expected improvements on emissions. The plan adapts to these new circumstances by setting out a framework for action.
Following long-standing precedent, we have entered the period of sensitivity that precedes elections. In accordance with the guidance covering both local and general elections, the propriety and ethics team in the Cabinet Office has told us that it would not be appropriate to launch the consultation and publish the air quality plan during this time. The Government have therefore applied to the High Court for a short extension of the deadline for publishing the national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide, in order to comply with pre-election propriety rules. The Government seek to publish a draft plan by 30 June and a final plan by 15 September. The application will be considered by the Court.
Nearly 40 million people in Britain live in areas with illegal levels of air pollution. Two thousand schools and nurseries are close to roads with damaging levels of fumes, and NHS experts estimate that poor air quality contributes to 40,000 premature deaths every year. The situation has gone from bad to worse on this Government’s watch, and has escalated into what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee calls a “public health emergency”. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is indeed a public health emergency?
Given the gravity of the situation and the fact that the Secretary of State has known about today’s High Court deadline for months, why did she choose to request a further delay to the publication of her air quality plan at 7 o’clock on Friday night? Will she clarify whether she had in fact already applied for an extension before the election was called? It is unacceptable for her to hide behind the election to delay publishing her plans. Cabinet Office rules are clear that purdah is not an excuse to delay acting on vital public health matters. Will she confirm that the plans are ready for publication? If she agrees that this is a public health emergency, why the delay?
Are not the Government doing everything that they can to avoid scrutiny because they are missing their own commitments, have no strategy and yet again want to kick this issue into the long grass? How can we trust the right hon. Lady’s Government to maintain air quality standards after we leave the EU when they have done everything possible to avoid scrutiny on existing standards and had to be dragged through the courts?
If the Government fail to publish their plan today, within the first 30 days of a Labour Administration, we will. Only a Labour Government will legislate for a new clean air Act setting out how to tackle the air pollution that damages the lives of millions, but this Conservative Government continue shamefully to shirk their legal responsibilities and are putting the health of millions at risk.
I think that all Members right across this House agree that air quality is a significant concern. I have already set out some of the strong actions that this Government have taken, in spending £2 billion since 2011, to try to improve the situation.
The hon. Lady is exactly right: we have our draft air quality plan for NO2 ready. She asked why we have a late extension, and I can absolutely explain that to her: in the course of developing our draft plan, it became clear that local authorities would have to play a central role in delivering the final air quality plan, so the Government initially sought to defer publication of the plan and the launch of the consultation on it until after the purdah period for local authority elections. Since that application was lodged, the Prime Minister has called a general election, and a further period of purdah commenced on 21 April. As the hon. Lady will know, Governments normally seek to avoid launching consultation exercises during purdah periods. It is absolutely vital that we get this done, and our intention is to publish the plan on 30 June. She says that a Labour Administration would publish such a plan within 30 days, but that would actually be later than the date on which this Government intend to publish it.
I want to make it very clear that we have now entered a period during which we are strongly advised not to publish consultations. We are therefore trying to put in place a very short extension, which we do not believe will make a difference to the implementation of our plans, while at the same time safeguarding our democracy.
I urge the Secretary of State, along with all Ministers, to work on the air quality plan with the very greatest urgency after the general election, because we have waited a very long time for it. Many of the problems with diesel actually started under the previous Government, and we need to clean that up. A scrappage scheme—for not only our diesel cars, but buses, taxis and many other forms of public transport in our inner cities—is absolutely essential if we are to clean up air quality, especially in our inner cities.
My hon. Friend is, of course, exactly right. We have now been working on this specific plan for several years. We published a consultation for clean air zones in 2015. The fact that emissions from diesel vehicles have far exceeded what was expected has been extremely difficult. The EU regulatory regime did not show effectively what the real levels of emissions were, and this Government have pushed for improvements to the assessment. We have been planning the draft air quality plan for a consideration length of time, and we will publish it just as soon as we can.
I thank the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) for securing this urgent question on the Government’s air quality strategy. I agree with her concerns entirely.
This is not a political issue. All our constituents need to breathe, and they want an air quality plan based on good scientific evidence to ensure that people no longer have to breathe toxic air in their communities. The Government have had a five-month window to address illegal air quality in relation to the strategy. Does the Secretary of State agree that hiding behind a general election cannot be an excuse for failing to address what is, as she has just mentioned, a vital health issue? She has said that it is “vital” to get this through, so why the delay?
I can only repeat that I absolutely agree with Members that this is a vital issue. We have spent the past five months looking very carefully at the real world, as well as laboratory tests, to find out actual emissions so that we have the right consultation. We do not expect any delay due to propriety rules to lead to a delay in implementation. We are seeking a very short delay to preserve our democracy, in accordance with guidance from the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team.
Does the Secretary of State agree that there is growing concern about emissions that can damage health and lungs in particular? Will she make it a high priority to limit soot and smoke from public service vehicles, on which she has most influence?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right to raise this issue. The Government have invested a huge amount in retrofitting buses and taxis. Other measures include limiting medium combustion plants, which I was very proud to put in place when I was Energy Secretary, to try to reduce other emissions. My right hon. Friend is exactly right that we need to tackle a number of different emissions. This plan deals with nitrogen dioxide emissions and we will publish it as soon as we can.
Opposition Members will monitor carefully whether such pre-election sensitivity applies to the announcements or consultations that the Government welcome to the same extent as to ones that cause them embarrassment. Once the UK leaves the EU and the Commission is no longer able to levy fines on the UK Government for failing to act with due speed on the premature deaths of 40,000 people a year that are caused by toxic air, who does the Government expect will be levying fines and initiating cases against the Government for air quality breaches?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is a very significant and serious issue, but I find his suggestion that the threat of EU fines is the only reason why the Government might be motivated to deal with it rather distasteful. We absolutely intend to deal with the issue to ensure that the air is cleaner for the people of our country and that we are the generation who leaves our environment in a better state than we found it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just people but sensitive landscapes, such as the nationally designated area of outstanding natural beauty of the Chilterns, that should be protected? Such areas should also be positively recognised for their role in the battle against poor air quality, including by harnessing the potential of our trees and ancient woodland.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, who always speaks very strongly for the Chilterns. She is right to do so as it is a beautiful area. Air quality is of course vital not only for humans, but for our lovely landscapes. Preserving the contribution made by our trees, peat lands and so on is a very important priority.
Southampton is one of the 10 cities threatened with an infraction under the air quality regulations. It is also one of five cities, under the Government’s December plans, to introduce clean air zones, and Southampton’s local authority has been really assiduous in moving forward with its plans. While it has received grants, it has also put in a great deal of its own money. Is it the Secretary of State’s advice that the city council should now go easy on its plans because the Government cannot get their own together?
I was in full agreement with the hon. Gentleman until that last bit. Of course not. I was going to praise the work of Southampton City Council, which has received significant Government funding for its clean air programmes. It is doing a good job and should continue to do so. To be clear, as things stand, clean air zones can be implemented by any local authority. It should therefore be in the interests of all local authorities to do whatever they can to improve air quality for their local communities.
Should not the air quality plan be seen in the wider context of the environment and tax changes? Is it not the case that the Government are in a more difficult position than they would be otherwise because of the legacy of the wrong-headed tax changes made by Labour? As a result of the ridiculous tax changes made under Gordon Brown, we more than doubled the number of diesel cars and increased the number of diesel vans to 3 million.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is interesting that several of Gordon Brown’s and Tony Blair’s advisers have come out in recent months to say that they were wrong to encourage the uptake of diesel vehicles to the extent that they did. Even the shadow International Trade Secretary has admitted that
“there’s absolutely no question that the decision we took”—
“was the wrong decision.”
This Government, as ever, are trying to clean up the mess that was started by Labour.
Emissions from industry are a major contributory factor in poor air quality, but great strides could be made to improve air quality in areas such as Teesside if the Government backed carbon capture and storage. We have been promised a Tory policy on that since the Tories ditched the funding two years ago. When will we get it?
The Secretary of State has clearly set out the reasons for the delay, but in the intervening time, may I encourage her to strengthen our policies to encourage people to get out of their cars altogether? May I also urge her to read an article in this week’s edition of The BMJ that clearly sets out the growing evidence of the benefits of active commuting, particularly by bicycle? Will she encourage us to get Britain cycling?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. The Government are a huge supporter of sustainable transport projects. We have invested £224 million in cycling since 2013, and £600 million in the delivery of transport projects across 77 local authorities through the local sustainable transport fund. As my hon. Friend says, we must do everything that we can to protect the quality of the air in our cities, and that includes changing the way in which people travel.
Having already congratulated the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), I am now delighted to congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on his successful completion of the marathon yesterday. Despite that, he has sprung to his feet very impressively.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
The Secretary of State and other DEFRA Ministers will be well aware of the challenges facing Camelford, in my constituency, which was recently subjected to an air quality assessment, and which is in the very early stages of being granted a bypass. I hope that the Secretary of State will support me, and the local community, in our bid for a new bypass in Camelford.
If the present rate continues, there will be seven more dead people in Slough by the date on which the Secretary of State publishes the air quality plan. The whole point of purdah is that announcements should not be made unless they are significant in the context of urgent health issues. Is this not an urgent health issue? What will the Secretary of State say to the families of those seven people who will die before she even publishes?
As the right hon. Lady says, poor air quality is a public health issue. That is why we are taking urgent action, and we will ensure that a short delay in the timetable will not result in a delay in the implementation of the plan. By doing that, we will tackle this public health issue as quickly as possible without prejudicing our democratic process.
The need to safeguard public health is one example of a possible exceptional circumstance in which consultations could be published during purdah. However, that would generally apply only in the event of an unexpected public health emergency—such as, for example, contaminated food—which needed to be dealt with instantly, and this instance does not fall into that category.
Can the Government confirm that their approach to this issue remains technology-neutral, and that, in the context of hydrogen specifically, they will do what is necessary to ensure that we do not fall behind, for instance, Germany and California when it comes to cleaning up this terrible problem?