Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 630: debated on Monday 30 October 2017

Since my last departmental oral questions, I have announced plans to require all private landlords to join a redress scheme and for all letting agents to be regulated; a clampdown on rogue managing agents; and plans to improve the process of buying and selling homes. Anyone who works hard should be able to afford a place they can call their own, and we will continue to do everything possible to make this vision a reality.

Does the Secretary of State not understand that people outside this place simply cannot grasp his reluctance to accept that sprinklers in tower blocks are necessary fire safety works? Coroners for both the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fires recommended them, yet his Department is turning down requests from councils and housing associations to pay for them. We do not need another review; we need common sense.

The hon. Gentleman says coroners recommended them for Lakanal House. It is worth reminding him that when the then housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who is sitting opposite me now, was asked about the Government paying for sprinklers, he responded in Parliament:

“The resources local authorities receive for management and maintenance and major repairs should enable them to implement necessary fire safety measures”.—[Official Report, 16 September 2009; Vol. 496, c. 2209W.]

So there was no new money. What this Government have said is that we will help every local authority with any essential fire safety measures.

T7. I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. The acute funding pressures on Northamptonshire County Council could be helpfully and substantially addressed by imaginative reform of local government structures in the county, including, perhaps, the establishment of a combined social care and health commissioner. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is open-minded to such suggestions? (901458)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this. Some councils have already come together and put forward restructuring proposals. We are considering each of them very carefully, and if Northamptonshire comes forward with one, I will look at it very carefully, too.

Some 3.5 million families with a variable rate mortgage face higher costs if the Bank of England puts up interest rates this week, so why are the Government, at this of all times, scrapping support for mortgage interest payments?

This Government have made it clear that it is our ambition to have more people own their own homes. There are a number of areas of intervention; one of the most prominent is the Help to Buy scheme, which is helping hundreds of thousands of people, who otherwise might not have been able to buy a home, to get on the housing ladder for the first time. Ultimately, if the right hon. Gentleman, like me, wants to help more people own their own home, he should support this Government with our housing White Paper and the other measures we take.

The Secretary of State is flannelling. Home ownership is at a 30-year low, and he does not seem to appreciate that 126,000 households, including 60,000 pensioner households, get help from the current scheme. From April, they and anyone else struggling with their mortgage costs will be offered a loan, but a loan is no good for those already struggling with the cost of the loans they have. Under Labour, with our mortgage rescue scheme, help was there when it was needed for families facing repossession. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is laughing; I ask this of the Secretary of State, who takes the subject more seriously: will he use the Budget to scrap the Government’s current changes and back instead a new home ownership guarantee scheme, as Labour proposed at the election?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about what happened on housing under Labour, so let me remind him: when he was the housing Minister, house building fell to almost its lowest level for almost 100 years, and the number of social units available for rent declined by 410,000. So we will not be taking any lectures from the right hon. Gentleman.

T8. Will the Secretary of State look at what can be done to lift restrictive planning conditions that are holding back long-term economic growth? (901459)

Planning conditions should, of course, only be imposed where they are necessary and meet the other requirements of national policy. What I can say more widely is that we are making changes in the planning system: planning fees are being increased, which will ensure there is more money in the planning authorities; and we are also looking at requiring an increase in build-out rates.

T2. In Bristol, university expansion means that a significant increase in student numbers is putting pressure on stretched local services right now, yet student accommodation providers contribute almost nothing to the costs. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss bringing student accommodation within the scope of business rates, like other businesses, to help to ease this strain on Bristol and other councils? (901453)

Young people in Sutton and across London are depending on local action to help them to secure affordable housing. What lessons can the Government learn from the Mayor of London’s poor record on housing?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It has now become apparent that, despite all the talk from this Labour Mayor of London, not a single home for social rent was started during his first year in office. According to the National House Building Council, housing starts are down by a third in the last quarter. That is his track record. He needs to live up to his words and build more homes for Londoners.

T3. In 2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government provided a transition grant to some local authorities. The calculations and assumptions for this were not published, and 80% of it went to Conservative councils. Will Ministers pledge today to make previous and future calculations available, and will they confirm from the Dispatch Box that future funding will be based on need rather than on anything else? (901454)

This was part of an historic four-year settlement, to which 97% of local authorities signed up. Yes, there were some challenges relating to the transition that certain places would have to make as a result of the formula at that time, and it has been widely recognised that that was dealt with in the right way. Labour authorities such as Lancashire benefited from it at the time.

Last year, the Federation of Small Businesses reported on the untapped potential of women in enterprise. However, Analysis Legal in Bramhall in my constituency was set up by a group of female lawyers and is going from strength to strength. Does the Minister agree that encouraging more women into business and supporting female entrepreneurs is key to the success of the northern powerhouse?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I am in active conversation with groups such as Northern Power Women, which have sought to find ways to champion visible and diverse role models of leadership in the northern powerhouse. After all, we should not ignore 51% of the talent pool.

T4. In an earlier question, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) stated that the introduction of family hubs should be accelerated, and that was implicitly welcomed by the Minister, who stated that it was down to councils use their budgets as they saw fit. Does the Minister agree, however, that the 60% real-terms cut to the children’s centres budget in Warwickshire and the planned reduction of 39 children centres to 12 family hubs should be stopped, and that the council’s significant reserves should be used for the maintenance of— (901455)

Order. To be fair, new Members are often not aware of the fact that topical questions are supposed to be shorter than substantives. It is as simple as that, and Ministers are supposed to respond in kind. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I think he should look back over the records of Warwickshire County Council, which clearly show a motion being put which was seconded by the then Labour group leader, who advocated the reduction in funding that the county council is now making in that area.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that his Department is liaising with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that ports such as Lowestoft have the necessary infrastructure and supply chain to take advantage of the opportunities arising from the forthcoming Fisheries Bill?

I can absolutely confirm that to my hon. Friend. We are working very closely with DEFRA and the Department for Transport to ensure just that.

T6. With the First Minister of Wales meeting the Prime Minister earlier today amid the continuing lack of clarity over Brexit, can the Secretary of State reassure me that the Government will respect the devolved nations and regions of the UK and not use Brexit as an opportunity for a power grab? (901457)

Of course we will respect the powers and responsibilities of the devolved nations, and we will make a resounding success of Brexit.

The proposed revised housing formula will add a further 8,000 homes to the current target of 30,000, which is unsustainable and undeliverable without large investment in infrastructure. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and Medway colleagues to consider the disproportionate burden on the Medway towns?

I will of course meet my hon. Friend. I should just point out that Medway does not have an up-to-date plan at the moment, and I would encourage responses to the consultation proposals that we have set out.

T9. In the light of the recent announcement that the Welsh Government will continue with their council tax reduction scheme, which has reduced council tax for almost 300,000 low-income and vulnerable families and has excluded 220,000 completely, will the Minister consider seriously the Welsh Labour Government’s excellent approach and the situation in England, where households pay around £190 more? (901460)

As I explained to the House earlier, the local council tax support scheme gives help to over 4 million people who are on low incomes and may otherwise struggle to pay their council.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the concerns expressed by the leader of Leicestershire County Council about the letter he received about money going back to the NHS, rather than sticking with the social care authority, and about delayed transfers of care. Will he comment on that and on discussions he has had with his colleague the Secretary of State for Health?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise that. Delayed transfers of care are a shared endeavour between councils and the NHS. There has been good progress in Leicestershire, especially from using the better care fund, and this is a good opportunity to commend Leicestershire on its improving DTOC position.

I call Clive Lewis. [Interruption.] I am sure that what is on your iPhone is of very great importance, but your question is potentially of greater importance—get in there, man.

T10. Will the Government commit to fast-tracking their private rented sector consultation so that landlords are required to use their own funds to bring properties up to energy performance certificate band E by April next year? (901461)

That would have been done sooner if the previous Labour Government had taken the private rented sector more seriously, which they refused to do. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes our consultation.

Given the understandable short postponement of the business rates retention scheme, will the Secretary of State meet me to consider the particular funding pressures that changing demographics are placing on outer-London boroughs?

Scotland secured €941 million in the 2014 to 2020 funding period, split across the European regional development fund and the European social fund. What plans do this Government have to ensure that those funds are replaced post-Brexit and that the Scottish Government will be involved in discussions?

We have set out that there will be a UK shared prosperity fund that will eventually replace EU structural funds and ERDF funds, and we will work together with the devolved nations in developing it.

One thing that would help to drive further economic growth in Corby is a new enterprise zone, so will my right hon. Friend make a case to the Chancellor in advance of the Budget for another round of bidding opportunities?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of enterprise zones, which have often been announced in previous Budgets. I am sure that he is making an excellent case, but if I can help him, I will happily do that.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the increasing number of people who are illegally sub-letting in social housing? Does he agree that it is dangerous if we do not know who actually lives in a house?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that. It is of course going on, which is why from April this year we have given landlords more powers to deal with it and more funding to consider such issues. In the forthcoming review and consultation that we have set out, we will be seeing what further action we can take.

Last week, developers pulled out of a plan to build 10,000 homes in Enfield and Haringey due to interference from the Mayor of London. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to consider that plan? We desperately need new homes in London, and the plan would seem to provide them.

We have already heard about the Mayor of London’s failure to provide a single property for social rent in the past year, so my hon. Friend is right to raise that. We will certainly be taking a much closer look.