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Topical Questions

Volume 637: debated on Monday 12 March 2018

Yesterday, we marked Mother’s Day, a few days after International Women’s Day and the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. Hon. Members will want to join me in applauding the exceptional women who make this country great, including our Prime Minister, who last week launched bold and ambitious reforms of planning rules to help to build the homes this country needs. I am pleased to announce that since my last departmental oral questions the homelessness reduction taskforce has met for the first time and that the Government have confirmed their support for the national war memorial honouring Sikh servicemen.

Corby and East Northamptonshire have been at the forefront of the building of new homes, which is entirely in line with the agenda set out by the Prime Minister last week, but can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the appropriate infrastructure will accompany those homes at all times?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of infrastructure to the building of the homes that we need. That is why the housing infrastructure fund is so important. As a result of his hard work, Corby received £4 million in the first allocation, but I know that there is much more to be done, and I am listening carefully to what he says.

Nine months on from the Grenfell Tower fire, can the Secretary of State say—yes or no—whether every tower block with a social or private landlord which has Grenfell-type cladding has now been identified and tested?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. It is, of course, absolutely key that we ensure that we are helping local councils to identify those tower blocks. When it comes to social housing, we believe that all those tower blocks, whether owned by local councils or housing associations, have been identified. We continue to work with local councils, and that includes giving them additional financial support. Just last week we gave them £1 million to make sure that they had identified every single tower block in the private sector, and they will continue to receive whatever support they need.

I think that that was a long-winded “no”, and it was consistent with the recent building safety data release. How is it that, nine months after Grenfell, not all private tower blocks with suspect cladding have been tested? Why have only seven of 301 blocks with Grenfell-type cladding had it removed and replaced? Why has not one of the 41 councils that have asked for financial help with extra fire safety work even received an answer from the Department? The right hon. Gentleman is the Housing Secretary. What does he say to reasonable people faced with those facts who feel that he is failing the Prime Minister’s pledge in June, when she said:

“My Government will do whatever it takes to…keep…people safe”?

Reasonable people understand just how important this issue is, and they do not take kindly to the right hon. Gentleman’s playing party politics with it. If he actually cared about the issue, he would not raise it in such a way. He would not use numbers and twist the facts to try to scare the public. The truth is that we are working with local authorities up and down the country to locate every single building and take remedial measures, and also helping them with funds. Despite what he has said, not a single council has been turned away. We are talking to every single council that has approached us, and we have made it clear that they will all be given the financial flexibility, if they need it, that will enable them to get the job done.

T4. Thousands of houses have been granted planning permission in my constituency, but there are often long delays before they are actually built. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that, when planning permission is granted, homes are built, particularly affordable homes? (904317)

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance for which she has asked. First, we have commissioned independent work from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on speeding up building once planning permission has been granted. We shall hear more about that this week. Secondly, the consultation that was published earlier this week focuses on developer contributions in particular, and the need to ensure that developers stick to their word and can no longer game the system.

T2. On 1 March we saw the relaunch of the parliamentary campaign for council housing, bringing together MPs in all parties to call for the mass building of council housing. Can the Secretary of State, or a Minister, specify what the Department is doing to accelerate the expansion of the building of council housing? (904315)

I reiterate that we are raising the housing revenue account borrowing limit to £1 billion for local authorities where there is the highest need for new council housing to be built. Again, please may I ask the hon. Gentleman to encourage councils in his area to apply?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long history of being interested in this programme. He will be pleased to know that the evaluation reports published in December showed promising progress, particularly with regard to children in need. Further findings will be published in the annual report, and I look forward to discussing them at length with my hon. Friend then.

T3. The current definition of affordable housing, introduced by the coalition Government, is set at 80% of local market rate, but when house prices are spiralling out of control, as they are in my constituency, this definition of affordable housing is a cruel joke to those on low or median income. Will the Secretary of State commit to replacing this absurd definition so that housing can be genuinely affordable to my constituents? (904316)

I understand the issue the hon. Lady raises. I would just say that the numbers on social housing waiting lists are down by half a million since 2010, and the number of affordable homes in total, including social housing, is higher in the last seven years than in the last seven years of the last Labour Government. However, we are anxious to do even more. I am not sure that fiddling with the criteria for how these things are measured is the answer. We need to build more homes across the board and I welcome the hon. Lady’s support in that regard.

T7. My hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) has already raised the issue of fairer funding for Leicestershire County Council. The county council is broadly supportive of the Government’s consultation, but does the Minister agree that the overall funding formula needs to be looked at in detail, because if the baseline is not addressed Leicestershire will still be falling behind other county councils? (904320)

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend, and Leicestershire in particular has done much work on this, which will certainly feed into the consultation on fairer funding that is closing today. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing recently met with Leicestershire and I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this further.

T6. Given the importance of European Union regional development funding to communities in Scotland and across the UK, what discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Treasury about replacement funding after Brexit? (904319)

We are having wide discussions with all Departments across Government consulting on the UK’s shared prosperity fund, which, crucially, in a post-Brexit world, will deliver on Britain’s priorities when it comes to local growth funding.

T8. A recent report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England says that viability assessments favour large developers over small developers and cut the number of affordable homes by 50%. Will the Minister take the strongest possible action to make sure that small and medium-sized enterprises compete on a level playing field with large developers, and that developers provide homes for those most in need? (904321)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and through our planning reforms we are putting far more rigour into the system so that plans are clear about the obligations expected for infrastructure and affordable houses, and also so that developers can be properly held to account in meeting those aspirations and commitments.

T9. If the Government are serious about the northern powerhouse and improving connectivity between communities in the north, does the northern powerhouse Minister think TransPennine’s plans to lengthen journeys from Hull across the Pennines, and not turning up to a meeting with the city’s MPs and business leaders last week to discuss this, will help to deliver his plans for the northern powerhouse? (904322)

It is extremely disappointing if TransPennine did not turn up to a meeting with Members of Parliament from the city of Hull. I hope that the hon. Lady will be encouraged, however, that we are investing £13 billion—more money than any Government in history—in our northern transport infrastructure, and we have also set up Transport for the North, a subnational statutory transport body, which is currently consulting on a 30-year plan to improve transport across the north of England. That is how to deliver a northern powerhouse.

T10. With High Speed 2 set to displace a number of tenants living in social housing in my constituency, will my hon. Friend consider whether the Rent Act 1977, which obliges councils to rehouse council tenants whose homes are subject to compulsory purchase orders, will need amending to reflect the fact that the majority of social housing stock is now owned by housing associations rather than local authorities? (904323)

I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but I hope that I can give her some reassurance. I do not think that there is any need to amend the 1977 Act because local authorities are already obliged, through the Housing Act 1996, to consider those in need of social housing, so local authorities will make appropriate nominations to housing associations or offer tenancies in their own stock.

March is generally regarded as the start of the illegal Traveller encampment season. Given that the hon. Members for Reading West (Alok Sharma) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) are no longer in their posts in the Department, what has happened to the consultation and the timescale for action that the Government promised my frustrated constituents?

It is an important issue, and we are looking to see what more we can do with the challenges that it represents. We are planning to publish a consultation and will do so as soon as possible.

An article in The Sunday Times yesterday highlighted that some councils are still performing mass burials of babies. To be honest, I was appalled. Some research today has identified that, despite campaign efforts by colleagues across the House and charities such as CLIC Sargent, we have not yet been able to set up a children’s funeral fund. Will the Secretary of State meet me to progress the matter?

Nothing can be harder on a parent than losing a child, and we must always look to see what can be done to provide help. Local authorities do provide help in many ways, but my hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. I, too, was concerned by the article she mentioned, and I will be happy to meet with her.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Every day is a school day, particularly when it comes to parliamentary conventions.

Affordable housing and council housing are not the same. Instead of always mentioning affordable housing and council housing in the same breath, will the Minister consider amending the national planning policy framework to enable councils to specify in their strategic plans different housing types for each site allocation?

The hon. Lady makes an important point but, if she looks at the detail of the new revised national planning policy framework, she will see that there is scope for local authorities to make precisely the distinction that she mentions. I look forward to her support.

When are we likely to get a decision on the fantastic plans for expansion at the Mall at Cribbs Causeway in my constituency? With the greatest of respect, I do not know why the Secretary of State is taking so long, because I do not know what there is not to like about thousands of new permanent jobs, more housing and better transport infrastructure.

I should declare an interest, because I have been shopping at Cribbs Causeway many times and it is probably my mum’s favourite shopping complex. It is a live planning issue and we are considering it in detail. It is relatively complex, but we will try to reach a decision as quickly as possible.

It is very useful to learn about Ministers’ domestic habits, and we are grateful to the Secretary of State for providing further information on that score.

The Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council has recently gone bust. Was that due to a lack of Government funding or local incompetence?

The council has not gone bust. Owing to concerns around its finances, I appointed an independent investigation weeks ago—a best-value inspection—and the inspector, Mr Max Caller, will report back later this week.

I welcome the Government’s encouraging words about the need to improve funding for the upper tiers, but will the Secretary of State congratulate the Conservative-run Broxtowe Borough Council, which has frozen its council tax yet again while delivering excellent services, reducing rents by 1% and spending half a million pounds on parks and open spaces? Does he share my amazement that the council’s Labour and Lib Dem members voted against this otherwise excellent budget?

I am not amazed by the behaviour of Labour and the Lib Dems, because such behaviour is sadly happening throughout the country. I warmly congratulate Broxtowe Borough Council on keeping taxes low and service delivery high, which is a reminder—so close to the local elections—that Conservative councils cost less and deliver more.

May I raise Grenfell and cladding in a nice, non-political way? I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the facts of the matter are that the Government have rightly increased the standards and that the costs should surely be borne partly by the freeholder, partly by the leaseholder and partly by the Government. Why not get the three parties together to do something about that?

We have made it clear that, when it comes to the private sector and this type of remedial work, it should take a lead from the social sector. It is the moral duty of any freeholder to meet any necessary costs. There are a number of legal issues. There is an important legal case that is going through the courts right now, so I will not comment much more, but it is something that we are keeping under review.

Councils in rural areas have received a raw deal on local government funding for many, many years, even though the cost of delivering services in rural areas is often significantly higher. Will the Minister assure me that in the local government finance review the true cost of delivering services will be considered and that rural areas get a fair deal?

I know that my hon. Friend is a doughty champion of rural areas. I am delighted to tell him that his point will be exactly considered in the fair funding formula. I am sure that he will be heartened by the local government finance settlement, where we increase rural services delivery grant to its highest ever level.

We have three remaining questioners if each of the three agrees to ask a single-sentence question not exceeding 20 words. I call Mr Robert Courts.

I know that the Secretary of State is well aware of the requirement for infrastructure when new homes are built. What can he do to include broadband in that?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Following revelations in The Sunday Times about fraudulent Grenfell aid claims, what assurances can my right hon. Friend offer that financial support is going only to those directly affected by this tragedy?

I will not comment on the particular claims—I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand—but it is important that both the council and the police are working together on any such alleged behaviour.

Under its new garden town status, Taunton Deane is delivering well above the national average for houses, which the Secretary of State will welcome. Does he agree that the best way to provide the infrastructure that those houses need is to succeed with the recently submitted housing infrastructure forward funding bid, put in with West Somerset Council?

I suppose that two probably did not amount to more than 41 words. I think that we are done. Are we done? We are done.