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Topical Questions

Volume 635: debated on Monday 22 January 2018

The new year has meant a new name for my Department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—or MoHoCoLoGo for short—and a fantastic new ministerial team, who will build on the great strides achieved by my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Reading West (Alok Sharma). The name underlines the importance of our commitment to fix the broken housing market, and we will continue to help to build strong communities and to support local government. Something that resonates especially strongly this week is Holocaust Memorial Day, which is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to rooting out hatred and anti-Semitism wherever it exists.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that upbeat statement. Both Scotland and Wales are totally served by unitary local authorities. How many people in England are served by unitary authorities, and what does he expect the figure to be in five years’ time?

First, may I say that it is a privilege to receive a question from my right hon. Friend? This is the first time I have received one from him in Parliament, and it is an opportunity for me to thank him for all the work he has done in government, of which he can be incredibly proud. I can tell him that 60% of English people are served by unitary authorities, and I expect the number to be higher in five years’ time, given the views of many local people about unitary authorities and our commitment to consider unitarisation whenever requested.

The Secretary of State is clearly overflowing with excitement, and we are very pleased for him.

T3. Recent statistics published by the Department show that 54,000 households in London are living in temporary accommodation and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, 120,000 children are living in temporary accommodation this winter. Often, the standards are some of the worst, and the accommodation houses some of the most vulnerable. What steps will the Department now take to end the temporary accommodation crisis both in London and in the rest of the country? (903440)

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. First, it is a very serious matter, which is why we have put more money into local authorities so that they can look at the quality of the private rented accommodation in which temporary accommodation now takes place. Secondly, on the point about children, we have made it clear that bed and breakfast accommodation should be acceptable for only an incredibly short period where children are concerned, and local authorities know that.

T2. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will set up cross-departmental arrangements with the Department for Transport and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure delivery of the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor, as envisaged by the National Infrastructure Commission? (903439)

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming the champion for the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor? I know he is very determined to do an excellent job, and he will make a great difference. The cross-departmental co-operation he talked about is absolutely essential. It is exactly what we are arranging, and I know he will help with it.

T4. Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), promoted the borderlands growth deal and Moray apparently hopes to finalise a growth deal in the summer, so will someone in this Government tell me what blockers are preventing the UK Government from signing up to the original non-city deal, the Ayrshire growth deal? (903441)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, these growth deals are extremely complicated. That is why I have agreed to meet the backers of the Ayrshire growth deal to talk about how, for our part, the UK Government can take an exciting deal forward.

T9. Does my hon. Friend agree that the ability to buy a home at an affordable price is vital to developing and enhancing social mobility and to realising the Government’s goals on aspiration and opportunity? Does he also agree that we must massively increase house building and speed up the process right across the country? (903446)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We delivered 217,000 new homes last year, which is 50% more than the last year of the last Labour Government. We want to get that level up to 300,000. We have planning reform, release of public sector land and targeted funding to achieve that, which is crucial for key workers, the next generation and those on low and middle incomes.

T5. City of Lincoln Council is aiming to build 500 homes in the next five years to help to tackle its waiting list of more than 1,000 house- holds. If the Government will not consider raising the borrowing cap on local housing revenue accounts, how do they plan to tackle the shortage of truly affordable rented housing? (903442)

We have, of course, raised the cap by £1 billion. It needs to be done in a responsible way, because we have to consider the amount of debt that has been taken on, but we will keep it under review. That is one aspect of the huge drive towards building the extra homes we need. I have talked about some of those issues, including targeted funding and release of public sector land. We want to make sure that we get up to the annual target of 300,000 as soon as possible.

Regeneration in Cleethorpes will be greatly assisted if the Government can conclude discussions with the local authority about a town growth deal under proposals by the Greater Grimsby project board. When do Ministers expect to reach a conclusion?

I met members of the board of the Grimsby town growth deal on a recent visit to Cleethorpes and the town of Grimsby. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be as pleased as I am that the growth deal was specifically referenced in the industrial strategy, and I encourage him to contact the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to talk about how it can be taken forward.

T6. May I ask the new Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), whether she thinks that Government policy since 2010 has played any part in the sharp rise in rough sleeping? (903443)

This is a very complex matter. The interesting thing that I find now that I am getting to grips with it as a Minister is the different layers of problems that people have in their chaotic lives. It is very important that different councils have moved on with building new council housing, including my own Conservative South Derbyshire District Council—I declare an interest as my husband was the leader. Different levels are really attacking the issue and it is going to be a pleasure to get my teeth into it.

The Secretary of State attended the launch of the new all-party parliamentary group on new towns, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). My right hon. Friend will know that the new towns and Milton Keynes were created because they were able to acquire land at a reasonable valuation close to its current use. That is no longer possible, because of the Land Compensation Act 1973. Among his many admirable ambitions for housebuilding in this country, will he agree to look at the Act and the possibility of reforming the valuation of land that is acquired?

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience. He made a number of important planning reforms when he was a Minister. I will commit to looking at the issue he raises and point him to some of the work we have already done, including an amendment in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 which allows the Secretary of State to designate planning zones.

T7. The leader of Birmingham City Council wrote to the Secretary of State about financial support from Government to make safe Birmingham’s 213 tower blocks in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Will the Secretary of State provide an update on the proposal submitted and whether the finances will be made available? (903444)

We are working with Birmingham City Council on its request. As I said earlier, no request for financial flexibility will be turned down. We have received further information and we are working on it with Birmingham right now.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided money in the Budget for a national rental deposit scheme. What plans does the Department have to introduce that scheme, and how many families does it believe it will assist?

We are certainly looking at that as part of our wider strategy, which I have already described. I am very happy to write to my hon. Friend about its particular impact on his constituency.

T8. I find the level of rough sleeping in Chesterfield and across the country deeply humiliating as an MP, and it infuriates and disgusts my constituents. When Ministers walk past people living in sleeping bags, do they believe that it is the halving of councils’ Supporting People budget or the £5 billion cut to housing benefit that is most responsible for this national scar on our society? (903445)

We have made it an absolute priority in government to help to fight rough sleeping and homelessness. We have committed to halving it by the end of this Parliament and to eliminating it completely by 2027. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I hope that he agrees that this issue is not a party political football, and we should all work together across the House to deal with the issue.

I am delighted that the new Housing Minister has agreed to work with me to improve tenant safety in respect of carbon monoxide poisoning. Does he agree with the National Landlords Association and Headway, a brain injury charity, that more needs to be done to protect the public at large from death or injury through carbon monoxide poisoning?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tenacious way he has built the campaign. We will certainly listen to all voices on this issue. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about his private Member’s Bill. We share the aim to make progress on carbon monoxide in both the key areas of his Bill. I look forward to working with him in future.

T10. Gateshead Council, of which I am a member, has seen its Government funding cut by 52% since 2010. Fifty per cent. of its budget is spent on vulnerable children and adult social care and demand is rising. With over 90% of our properties in council tax bands A to C, the social care precept does not go near addressing the shortfall. Will the Secretary of State urgently address the shortfall in funding for children and adult social care in Gateshead and elsewhere now, and will he produce a truly fair— (903447)

Order. It is very well meaning but topical questions are supposed to be shorter than substantives. That was just as long.

Gateshead will receive a 1.5% real-terms increase in core spending power this year and, thanks to the steps taken in the spring Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, an additional £40 million to fund adult social care in the forthcoming financial year.

Will the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government work with the libraries taskforce at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to see how Northamptonshire’s public libraries can all be kept open?

The Secretary of State will have seen the leader of Wakefield Council’s announcement this morning that he now supports a wider Yorkshire deal. That means that 18 of the 20 local authorities across wider Yorkshire support it. Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to finalising the detail of any Sheffield city region deal, an important conversation now needs to be had with the 18 leaders about a wider Yorkshire deal?

The crucial decision about any wider Yorkshire deal, if there ever is one, is in the hands of the local authorities concerned. We will be going ahead with the South Yorkshire deal, but earlier this week, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, we put forward a proposal to allow others, such as Barnsley and Doncaster, to take a different route, if they choose to do so.

For the coming year, the Secretary of State has enabled councils to increase tax by 3%, compared with just 2% last year, but the cash limit has been retained at £5 when parity would be £7.50. That affects 88 small district councils. Will the Secretary of State consider a change?

A number of people have made that representation. I have listened carefully and we will keep the issue under review. As my hon. Friend knows, the draft settlement is just that at the moment, and we are looking at it carefully.

May I welcome and congratulate the new members of the team? Ending a private rented sector tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness. Will the Secretary of State extend the mandatory licensing scheme for landlords in the private sector?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are looking closely to see where certain councils have introduced this. At the moment, it is something we are keeping under review.

Waltham Forest Council, which covers some of the poorest wards in London, has had to put through more than £100 million in cuts. To what extent is that situation sustainable?

The Government recognise the pressure on local councils and are determined to get them the resources they need, which is why there will be a real- terms funding increase for local authorities across the country this year, together with the flexibility to deliver more money for adult social care, in the hon. Gentleman’s council and elsewhere.

Will the Government please commit to reviewing the situation whereby street homeless people are crossing local authority boundaries, going from one where there is little support to others such as Bristol, where there is a great deal?

The hon. Lady asks a very interesting question. The taskforce will be looking at cross-county and rural-to-city issues. Perhaps we could meet to discuss this further after our first meeting on 1 February.

If the Treasury Committee can recognise the social and fiscal benefits of removing the council house building borrowing cap completely, why cannot the Government?

Of course, the borrowing cap has been raised by £1 billion, but it has to be done sustainably. We remain open-minded, however, and are keeping it under review.

With Holocaust Memorial Day this week, does my right hon. Friend agree that on both sides of the House we really need to face up to anti-Semitism wherever we see it and whatever form it takes?

Holocaust Memorial Day is a reminder to us all of the horrors of what mankind can do—of what we can do to each other—if no one speaks up. It is incumbent on all parties in this House to face up to anti-Semitism. I noted just a few days ago the Jewish Labour Movement was appealing to the Labour party leadership to throw out people who allegedly practise anti-Semitism. The Labour party talks about combating hate crime, but it has to show people that it really means it.

Too many people moving into brand-new homes on brand-new housing estates struggle with poor or no wi-fi. Will Ministers work with developers to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place when these houses are being built?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have worked with local authorities and developers, but also with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in relation to that.