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Topical Questions

Volume 627: debated on Monday 17 July 2017

The ongoing response to the Grenfell tragedy has understandably dominated my Department’s work for the past few weeks, and it will remain a priority in the months and years ahead, but we have not let up on our wider work. We have launched our £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund, we have introduced the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill, and later this week we will set out further details on our plan to get more homes built in the right places.

I see that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has beetled away from his seat and looks as though he is about to exit the Chamber. I would have called him at topical questions if he were standing, but I will not if he is not. Anyway, he has got the public information announcement, for which I am sure he is duly grateful.

As you know, Mr Speaker, in Lincolnshire we have some wonderful coastal resorts. They trip off the tongue as a litany of sun and fun: Cleethorpes, Mablethorpe, Skegness. Indeed, Mr Speaker, when you go on your holidays on Thursday, do not go to Italy and France—come to bracing Skegness. Can my right hon. Friend promise to use the coastal communities fund to promote all-round tourism and, after Brexit, match the £143 million we receive from the European regional development fund for these resorts?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the importance of all our coastal communities, including, of course, those in Lincolnshire, many of which I had the pleasure of visiting during the recent general election campaign. I can assure him that we continue to use the coastal communities fund, and whatever other resources we have available, to help promote those areas.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Conservative leader of Warwickshire County Council, who also leads on community welfare for the Local Government Association, that fining councils and withholding money for delayed discharges will exacerbate the social care crisis, and has he spoken to the Health Secretary about these plans?

Of course I have spoken to the Health Secretary, and indeed I spoke to the leader of Warwickshire County Council only last week. I think there is a very broad understanding that with regard to combating and reducing delayed transfers of care, there is a role to play for local authorities and for the NHS.

T3. Plymouth is leading the way on innovation in social care. The work between the local authority and care provider has broken new ground. What more can the Government do to support local authorities that are working so hard to meet social care needs in places such as Plymouth? (900528)

I am pleased to hear about the good work in Plymouth. My Department works closely with the Department of Health to promote joined-up working across health and social care, including capturing good examples of innovation across the country, through the better care fund.

T2. More than 50% of fires in people’s homes have an electrical source of ignition, and the Department set up a working group last August to look at electrical safety in the private rented sector. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and others, including London Fire Brigade, Electrical Safety First and Shelter, that it is time for a more preventive approach to electrical fires, and that mandatory five-year electrical safety tests should be introduced as a matter of urgency in the private rented sector? (900527)

As the hon. Lady may be aware, a working group within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at precisely those matters. In the light of the Grenfell fire, the Prime Minister has made it clear that it should bring forward its work and recommendations.

T4. The Guinness Partnership is reviewing fire safety measures in its three high-rise buildings in Havant. If it concludes that new sprinklers are required, will the Minister join me in calling on private landlords to take responsibility and meet the cost of installing those sprinklers? (900529)

Obviously, the Guinness Partnership will need to determine, with the local fire service, what is needed to keep those properties safe. As the Secretary of State has made absolutely clear, where work is necessary to ensure the fire safety of social housing, a lack of resources should not prevent it from going ahead.

T9. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Nottingham Community Housing Association, which has been recognised by the Almshouse Association for its refurbishment of the William Woodsend memorial homes in my constituency? Will he also listen to NCHA and give it the certainty to enable future investment by dropping his plans to cut housing benefit for supported and sheltered tenants? (900534)

I join the hon. Lady in commending Nottingham Community Housing Association and so many other housing associations across the country on their work. I think that the housing association sector welcomes our provision of record funding and of new flexibility so that it can do more of what it does.

T5. What steps has the Department taken to provide safe and legal spaces in which Travellers can reside, instead of them having to go on really nice green spaces in Oakwood in Derbyshire, which they leave in a terrible mess? (900530)

I know from my own constituency that unauthorised encampments can cause distress for local communities. The Government are absolutely committed to reducing the number of unauthorised sites by providing affordable, good-quality accommodation for Travellers.

Will the inquiry into electoral conduct take full cognisance of the superb all-party report written by the previous Deputy Speaker, Natascha Engel, which has, sadly, been rebuffed by successive leaders of parties on both sides of the House?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the inquiry, which was announced by the Prime Minister and will be led by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, should take account of all information. We heard during last week’s debate how many hon. Members and candidates suffered racism and other forms of abuse during the general election. I also suffered that. I am sure that everyone in this House agrees that racism has no place in our society.

T6. What is the current status of the Devon and Somerset devolution bid? Do they still need to have a directly elected mayor to get the full devolution package, and will the Minister please meet the leaders of Devon and Somerset councils and me this autumn to discuss the way forward? (900531)

Our manifesto makes it clear that there will be no requirement for mayors in rural counties. Devon and Somerset have not to date submitted any combined authority proposals, but I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and his council leader in due course.

A growing number of Grenfell survivors are being placed in budget hotels in my constituency as the central London hotels fill up for the tourist season. Despite their being unsuitable for long stays, especially for young families, they are being booked by the month. That gives the lie to the argument that the Government have suitable accommodation ready—not temporary or unsuitable, but permanent accommodation. Will the Secretary of State ask Kensington and Chelsea to use some of the £274 million in its reserves to buy a couple of hundred homes and make sure that those people have decent houses?

The hon. Gentleman will know that money is not the issue. We have already made it absolutely clear that we will do whatever it takes to find the victims of Grenfell Tower permanent homes. That is exactly what we are doing, but we will be led by the victims themselves, at their pace, on what they need.

T7. Overton, Oakley and Whitchurch in my constituency have produced really ambitious neighbourhood plans with generous housing targets, but those communities are now concerned about the infrastructure investment required to make the housing developments happen. What can the Minister do to help? (900532)

I commend my hon. Friend’s constituents for putting together neighbourhood plans—a great innovation that this Government introduced. In terms of infrastructure, I encourage him to get his local planning authorities to bid for the £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced earlier this month.

When I was growing up, I had the security of the roof of a council flat over my head. I wonder what the Secretary of State would say to the 11-year-old boy in my constituency who pulled me aside after a classroom visit just last week because he, his mother and his two siblings are living in one room in a hostel, as they have been for more than a year. What message does the Secretary of State have for such children in my constituency who no longer have the security of a decent place to live?

My message is that successive Governments have not built enough homes of all types, and, if we are going to do that, we should all unite around the housing White Paper.

T8. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending excellent Cheltenham homeless charities Cheltenham Open Door and P3 for their compassionate and, above all, early intervention, which is turning lives around in my constituency? (900533)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the excellent work that is being done by the charities that he mentions in Cheltenham. Early intervention is absolutely critical. That is why doing things earlier to prevent people from becoming homeless is the bedrock of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. Already, through the homelessness prevention trailblazers that were the forerunners of that Act, the culture among the local authorities involved is definitely changing towards prevention.

I have regularly raised my concerns about the safety of the rapid conversion of family homes in my constituency into houses in multiple occupation. In view of the Grenfell disaster, do the Government have any plans to issue new guidance to local planning authorities, particularly about the safety of such conversions?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. There are many lessons to learn from the Grenfell tragedy, some of which will come from the public inquiry. The expert panel on fire safety has already made recommendations, and if they recommend anything urgent, we will implement it. I am also looking to see what more we can do regarding building regulations and enforcement.

T10. What changes to the national planning policy framework are planned to implement the Conservative manifesto commitment to strengthen protection for ancient woodlands? (900535)

We will be bringing forward proposals very shortly to implement what is in the housing White Paper, under which ancient woodland will receive the same protection as green belt.

I thank the Minister for the northern powerhouse, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for visiting New Ferry in my constituency, where the House will remember there was recently a terrible explosion. As a result of that meeting, the leader of the council in Wirral, Phil Davies, has written to the Minister. May I ask him to expedite a reply to that letter?

No one could visit the scene of the disaster in New Ferry and talk to the residents without realising the seriousness of the explosion that took place some months ago. Following my meeting, I received a letter from Phil Davies. A response will be going out later today, dealing with the queries he raised.

Can the Secretary of State tell me what he will do to ensure that Bradford Council builds on the brownfield sites that it has identified before it starts concreting over and building on greenfield sites in the green belt in my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As we made clear in the housing White Paper, we expect brownfield sites always to be the priority to meet our housing need. That is certainly what I would expect to see from Bradford.

It was not entirely wise for the Minister for the northern powerhouse last Monday to come across the Pennines from his Lancashire constituency and tell the people of Yorkshire that, in his words, they could not have “full Yorkshire devolution”. Are not those decisions best made in God’s own county, not in Whitehall and certainly not in Lancashire, with its very different geography and the dominance of Manchester and Liverpool?

As a proud Lancastrian, it is not for me, nor is it for Government, to tell Yorkshire what devolution deal it should have. However, I gently point out that in 2015, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield asked for powers from the Government and we gave them to them; they asked for new money from the Government and we gave it to them; and they asked to have an election next May and we gave it to them. When will the people of south Yorkshire learn to take yes for an answer?

Kettering Borough Council, of which I am a member, provides specialist housing advice to those in financial difficulties to prevent homelessness in the first place. It is working closely with local housing associations to bring forward a record number of new homes for social rent. Is that not exactly the right approach?

I commend the work that Kettering Borough Council is doing. In my experience, where a local authority is preventing homelessness, it is doing very much those types of things, particularly helping people to deal with financial challenges through things such as budgeting. It is certainly good to hear that Kettering is bringing forward a significant number of affordable homes that residents in Kettering will benefit from.

We heard earlier from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) about coastal communities, but Dawdon, Easington Colliery, Blackhall and Horden in my constituency are also former coalfield communities that have suffered terrible levels of under-investment since the pits were closed under a previous Tory Government. Will the Minister meet me and the Coalfields Regeneration Trust to see what can be done to address those problems?

It is not just for the Government to support our coastal communities. I encourage all Members across the House to visit the fantastic Great British coastline. I will, of course, happily meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of his constituency to work out what more the coastal communities fund can do for him.

In my Cheadle constituency, Woodford neighbourhood forum is drawing up its local plan. However, there are concerns that the Greater Manchester spatial framework will override it. What assurances can my hon. Friend give neighbourhood forums that their plans will be given appropriate consideration?

As the Secretary of State reiterated, we made a commitment in the housing White Paper to protect the green belt. I cannot comment specifically on the plans my hon. Friend talks about, but I emphasise that plan makers need to consult their communities, especially in neighbourhood forums. Once a neighbourhood plan has been brought into force, it is part of the strategic development plan of an area.

I will come to the points of order because there are a number today relating to one matter that seems to me to contain a degree of urgency, so I will treat of it very soon. Just before I do, I have a short statement to make myself.