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Topical Questions

Volume 648: debated on Monday 5 November 2018

This week, I am meeting developers at a leasehold roundtable to press them to tackle onerous ground rents, and I will attend the Locality Convention in Bristol to acknowledge the hard work of our community organisations and set out our ambition for increased localism.

Wednesday’s celebration of Diwali will be a special moment to reflect and celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. As we mourn the tragic events in Pittsburgh, especially in the context of this week’s 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we are clear that racism and xenophobia in whatever form have no place in our society and will be confronted in the strongest terms.

It was great that the Secretary of State and the Minister for Local Government were able to attend last Wednesday’s launch of the county all-party parliamentary group’s report on social mobility in county areas. Will my right hon. Friend work with the APPG to implement the report’s 11 recommendations, which will do so much to ensure that young people across the country have the opportunity to realise their full potential?

That sense of social justice to which my hon. Friend alludes and which was in the report profoundly reflects the Government’s aspirations and intent to see a country that works for everyone. I look forward to continuing to work with him and the APPG in considering the fair funding review and other steps to ensure that we realise that aspiration.

Trading standards are the foot soldiers in keeping the public from falling victim to unsafe goods, yet cuts to local authorities mean that trading standards budgets have fallen by more than 50% between 2009 and 2019, with a 56% reduction in the number of offices. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute is warning that, as we approach Brexit, the role of those dedicated professionals will be even more crucial. How can they keep the public safe from dodgy and dangerous goods without sustainable funding?

We are providing a real terms increase in funding for local government this year and next year, recognising some of the pressures that exist. We continue to support local government and, in the context of Brexit, we are working with it to ensure effective preparations for protecting our communities.

T3. Like the Minister, I welcome the Budget’s announcements of £650 million extra for social care and £84 million for children’s social care programmes over five years. Will he confirm when local authorities, including Torbay Council, will be told what their share of this new money will be? (907458)

I can tell my hon. Friend that £240 million of the £650 million will distributed in the same way as the budget for the current year and he should have received those figures already. We will shortly write to local authorities and colleagues about the distribution of the second tranche of £410 million.

Order. I can scarcely hear the hon. Gentleman. I want to hear his question. I do not know what all this baa-ing is about—something may have been said that has escaped my attention—but that does not remotely concern me at this moment. What does concern me at this moment is that the hon. Gentleman must be heard and he will be heard, however long it takes.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, Southern Landlords Association filed for judicial review on selective licensing in Brighton. The Government’s response was to revoke the licence to regulate the private sector. This is not the first judicial review to derail selective licensing. Irrespective of the particular issue I am working on with the Minister, is it now not time to review the way selective licensing works and to stop judicial reviews, particularly vexatious ones like those from Southern Landlords Association, derailing the ability of councils to regulate the private sector and rogue landlords?

What a very good idea, Mr Speaker. I will not talk about the judicial review in detailed terms—obviously, it is ongoing—but I have been proud to sign off selective licensing in other parts of the country where the council has done a good job. I ask the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in Brighton to urge the local council to review its paperwork. If it comes back with detailed arrangements that I can sign off, I certainly will.

T6. The money announced in last week’s Budget to help to revitalise our high streets was warmly welcomed in my constituency of Southport. Will the Minister confirm when that money will be available? (907462)

Mr Speaker, if you ever take the opportunity to visit Southport, like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, you will find out that its famous high street, Lord Street, inspired the wide boulevards of Paris. The £675 million future high street fund, which that historic high street will hope to access, will be subject to a prospectus published by my Department by the end of the year.

T4. When I was a local authority executive member back in 2012, we were often warned about the “graph of doom”, which showed that by about 2018 local authorities would be running out of money for everything but statutory services. At the time, the Government accused the Local Government Association and the National Audit Office of scaremongering, but given what has happened in Northamptonshire and elsewhere, those warnings were accurate, were they not? (907459)

We recognise the pressures on social care, which is why this year an extra £240 million has been committed and £650 million is being committed through the Budget to deal with those pressures. We are looking to long-term sustainability and valuing our local government sector, which is what we do.

T7. I am delighted to say that Solihull has one of the highest proportions of home ownership in the country. However, there is still real pent-up demand, particularly among the young. Will the Minister tell me what progress the Department has made on the midlands voluntary right-to-buy pilot? (907463)

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents, including those who are tenants. He is right. We have had an enthusiastic response to the midlands right-to-buy pilot, with over 9,000 people applying for a code in the ballot. Over 6,000 of them have been given a code, and we hope that a significant number will come forward to seek the ownership they desire, funded by the £200 million being put towards the pilot.

T5. As Brexit approaches, what is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to ensure that, when buying food, vehicles, furniture or any other goods and services, local councils follow Government guidelines to take local value into account and back British business and British workers by buying British first? (907460)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s positive outlook as we leave the European Union. We will deliver a positive Brexit, looking outwards into the world and at how we have trade deals in the future. We continue to engage with local councils to ensure that we deliver a smooth and effective Brexit.

T8. Has my hon. Friend reviewed the better streets proposal from YIMBY and the Adam Smith Institute, which would allow residents of a single street to vote on giving themselves permitted development rights to build upwards to a maximum of six storeys and thereby address the housing crisis? (907464)

I have done better than that—I have met them. I did so just two weeks ago to discuss their fascinating ideas, not least on how we can make the principle of neighbourhood planning work in urban areas, an issue that I know is of great importance to my hon. Friend.

T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that the establishment of the new all-party group on the national holocaust memorial, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and me, is very much to be welcomed? Is it not fantastic that so many Members from both sides of the House came together, at a time when antisemitism is on the increase, to establish this group and that we want to commemorate here in Parliament history’s greatest crime and support the establishment of this memorial, right here in Westminster, at the centre of not just our political life but our national life? (907465)

I absolutely recognise and commend what the hon. Gentleman said on how collectively we challenge antisemitism and stand up for the values of this country. I pay tribute to him for the personal contribution that he has made on this issue, and equally, I reflect on the statue of Frank Foley, which the hon. Gentleman was instrumental in bringing into effect. It recognises Frank Foley’s contribution in saving the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing from persecution in Germany, and we must never forget the contribution that he and others have made.

Many of my constituents are suffering from severe stress following the purchase of their homes on unfair leasehold terms. Does the Minister agree that tackling leasehold abuse is a matter of urgency, and will she comment on a timetable for action?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The Government are very clear that unjust leasehold practices must come to an end. We have committed to banning new leasehold houses and restricting ground rents on future leases to a peppercorn. We launched our consultation on the details of these proposals on 15 October. I agree that this is an urgent matter, having read many of the stories of leaseholders facing high or doubling ground rents or struggling to sell their homes, especially in my hon. Friend’s part of the north-west. We will bring forward legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most effective ways to deal with rising housing costs and rising eviction rates is for councils to follow the lead of my council—Sutton Council—and build council homes, over 90 of which are about to come on-stream very soon?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I commend his council for doing that. My council is going to build 175 next year.

Will the Department work with the Department of Health and Social Care to use the local reorganisation of local government in Northamptonshire as an opportunity to receive local proposals to develop a pilot for a new integrated social care and health system in the county?

We are already taking such steps. On 18 October, we convened a meeting between leaders and chief executives of the Northamptonshire councils and representatives of the local health services to start discussions on how, in future, adult social care may be best provided and integrated with health.

The ill-fated regional fire control centre in Cambridgeshire continues to stand empty, costing £2 million a year. We keep being told that it has been let or that it is about to be sold. When is the Minister going to get a grip?

Fire control now resides within the responsibilities of the Home Office, but I will certainly look into the hon. Gentleman’s points in relation to ensuring good value for money.

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on the establishment of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and the inspired choice of Sir Roger Scruton as the chairman, but, first, does my right hon. Friend not agree that this will only have any teeth if we can get the volume house builders to buy into it? Secondly, I think that the commission should be extended to look at the quality and the variable advice often given by local planning officers and at a full accreditation scheme for those planning officers on an annual basis to refresh them.

I certainly want the new commission to drive quality in the built environment, which is at the heart of what my right hon. Friend said. If we do that, we can speed up this process and get greater support and consent from the public in building the homes that our country needs. I therefore think that the house builders should very much embrace this.

The Secretary of State says that local councils will see real-terms increases in their budgets. If so, why is Derbyshire County Council planning for £70 million of cuts, on top of the £260 million of cuts already made, and cutting the terms and conditions of its lowest-paid workers in school catering as well as services for the most vulnerable?

I recognise the challenges that local government has faced over the past few years and how councils have played their part in dealing with the public finance challenges brought about by the Labour party; let us not forget that when discussing the investment we are making to create that sustainable position for local government.

As the Minister will know, we are taking thousands of new homes in Corby and east Northamptonshire, and it is imperative that the infrastructure keep pace. Last week, the Chancellor very welcomely announced a new generation of enterprise zones. May I make an early pitch for Corby, because I would argue that we qualify given the housing growth we are taking?

I have just been told that it is my hon. Friend’s birthday today. I wish him a happy birthday and note his pitch for perhaps a birthday present. We will note it down.

A constituent of mine has been a faithful council tenant for 30 years. Over this time, she has invested much in her home. Her ex-partner served notice when he moved out, and now City of York Council is moving to evict her next week. This is having a serious impact on her mental health—among other things, it has led to her feeling suicidal—yet the council still plans to move her. Will the Minister urgently meet me to discuss this case and the mental health assessments of tenants that should take place?

Following the Office for National Statistics household projection figures being revised downwards by nearly a quarter, will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that regional housing targets reflect the easing of pressure to build on the green belt, with particular reference to the Greater Manchester spatial framework?

My hon. Friend may know that we have already issued a technical consultation on the latest household projection numbers and the impact on projected housing need in local authority areas. We really do not want local authorities to take their foot of the accelerator, however, not least because we believe that there is pent-up demand for housing in this country. We are working with authorities across the country to get the formula right in the longer term, while we seek a short-term fix to keep numbers up, but I would be more than happy to meet him and his colleagues to discuss the Manchester spatial framework further.

Tyne and Wear fire service is facing £3 million of cuts, which could mean the closure of my local fire station. Will the Secretary of State look at the special problems with funding fire services that are facing local government in the north-east?

I will certainly raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with colleagues who lead on fire within the Home Office.

The Labour cabinet in Nuneaton and Bedworth is imposing a £40 garden tax on green waste collection, despite pledging not to do so in May’s local election. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a fundamental change to how people’s waste is collected should not be made without full and proper consultation with the public and buy-in from local people?

My predecessor in this job well knows that such decisions are rightly for local areas to make themselves, but I would say that local authorities should look to tighten their own belts and curb any wasteful spending before increasing the bills of hard-working taxpayers.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) about Derbyshire County Council’s cuts, the cuts in question are worth more than £200 million, and they were made not by the Labour Government, as he stated, but by the Tory Government in alliance with the Liberal Democrats. To refresh his memory further, I should remind him that we also trebled the amount of money going into the hospital. Now a Tory county council at Matlock has decided to close 20 libraries in the county. That’s politics.

I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman about the steps the Government have had to take to put the public finances back on an even keel as a consequence of the Labour party’s actions, and he should well know our commitment to investing in the health service in a way the Labour party would not have done.